19 January 2012

Oliver’s Story


That’s a love story, some would remember.  Sequel to Erich Segal’s tear-jerker, ‘Love Story’, that was made into a film.  I am not sure if ‘Oliver’s Story’ was made into a film. A third (unrelated to these two), ‘Man, Woman and Child’ was turned into a film, I remember.  This is then AN Oliver’s Story.  It has a love element of course but is not set in Boston, Massachusetts. 

On May 10, 1969, in Kumarigama (a settler village under the Gal Oya Irrigation Scheme) one M.D. Babynona gave birth to a lovely little boy.  He was her fifth child and fourth son.  The baby was named Nimal Karunatillake.  Werawellalage Gedara Nimal Karunatillake.  He didn’t have any hair at birth.  The boy’s father, W.G. Nandasena, nicknamed him ‘Oliver’, after former Governor General Oliver Gunatilleka, who was also bald.  The happy father played with the little one, stroking the hairless head with love, crooning, ‘mage chooti oliverrrr gunathilaka’ (My little Oliver Gunatilleka). 

I didn’t know that his real name was Nimal. He was just 17 when I first met him.  He was introduced to me by his brother, a batchmate from Peradeniya, as ‘Oliver’, with a strong stress on the ‘r’.  I was told that his real name was ‘Oliver’ only last week when I visited Kumarigama.  I was visiting the village after 9 years, i.e. after attending the funeral of their father, Nandasena.  I reminisced. Wrote.  I told my friend’s mother that I had written about all of them, including Oliver.  She laughed and informed me that Oliver was not his real name. She told me how he got that nickname.

I remember meeting Oliver on August 31, 2001 at his father’s funeral.  At the time he was in the Police.  He was young. Smart. Distraught.  Proud. All this I remember.  

Last week, when I wrote about my visit, Oliver was not at home.  He was out in the fields, harvesting, along with his brother Kumara.  Their nephew, Isuru, too me there.  I wasn’t sure if I would recognize him.  They were taking a break.  Sipping water.  I didn’t recognize Oliver. I saw instead his father, Nandasena. No, it wasn’t a ghost.  At 41, Oliver looked exactly like his father (at the age of 55 or so). Balding.  Greying. The same smile. Betal-stained teeth.  Weather-beaten face full of wrinkles.  The same with his older brother Kumara.  It was all very pleasant to talk about old times and catch up.  Then it was back to work.

Oliver started the machine, a ‘Combine’, i.e. it cut the paddy and separated the grain from stem immediately.  Kumara and I followed. Kumara collecting that which had escaped the machine; cutting clean with sickle and tossing it in the way of the returning ‘Combine’. 

We spoke about the weather, about the harvest, the prices and prospects.  They were cheerful as has always been their way.  ‘We are finished,’ Oliver said softly.  The issue was the price of paddy.  ‘It is down to 16-17 rupees per kilo,’ he said.  The previous year, under the guaranteed price and purchasing scheme, they had managed to sell at around 28 rupees per kilo.  This time around the Government is not purchasing, I was told, because there was no place to store the paddy.  Three good harvests in a row (in two Maha seasons and one Yala season) and the cultivation of lands previously left alone due to the conflict has caused this, I was told. 

Under the aforementioned scheme, the Government purchased between 1000-5000 kg of paddy from the farmers. On average a 2.5 acre plot of land would yield about 5500 kilograms.  The farmers don’t have the facilities to hold on to such quantities in anticipation of better prices and indeed cannot afford to since they often have loans to pay off.

Let’s get some perspective here.  We buy a kilo of rice at around 70 rupees.  A kilo of rice is obtained from 1.5 kilos of paddy, roughly.  Someone is making big bucks between paddy field and your plate.  There is no mechanism in place to protect the farmer.  It has been always a system that favoured the trader.  The consumer came next.  The farmer last of all. 

Ampara (where Kumarigama is located) is reporting the lowest paddy prices today. The price of long grain white varieties of rice (Nadu) hover around Rs. 15-16, the long-grain red rice around 20-23 rupees and the Samba varieties around 22-23 rupees per kilogram.  I was told that the prices are even lower in Thirukkovil.

I was told that earlier there was a scheme to encourage farmers and traders to enter into forward trade contracts, which helped give farmers a better deal and acted as a form of insurance.  This is yet to take off and part of the problem is post-harvest storage facilities or lack thereof.

The Paddy Marketing Board was resurrected some time ago, but it is still to get on its feet.  Its virtual dismantling probably played a part in the sad situation that farmers in Ampara and probably in other places have to suffer.  I remember the early 1990s when farmers committed suicide because they couldn’t secure a fair price for their produce. 

Oliver didn’t indulge in suicide-speak.  He said ‘at this time last year there were 2 or 3 lorries going past our house, asking if we had paddy to sell; this year I am yet to see a lorry.’ 

‘The Government has to do something.  They win because of people like us.  Sixteen rupees is nothing.’  That was Babynona, Oliver’s mother, speaking. 

This is serious. More serious than possible impact on an election that would take place years from now.  I am thinking of an advertisement by a mobile phone service provider, where a bunch of national cricketers say in proud tones, ‘I am Sri Lanka’.  Oliver didn’t make any claims, but if anyone is ‘Sri Lanka’, he is.  Someone, something, some process which I cannot put my finger on, but which I am sure can be figured out by experts in the relevant fields, has a knife at Oliver’s throat.  It is ‘Sri Lanka’ that’s being threatened.    


[first published in the Daily News, August 2010]
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18 comments:

beautiful sunshine said...
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Malinda Seneviratne said...

if i feel it helps and i feel they are unlikely to see it, yes, i make a special effort. in any case, i email what i write to most people who can make a difference. still, the thrust is to put it out in the public domain.

beautiful sunshine said...
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Dulan said...

For me, the most telling bit is this

"Let’s get some perspective here. We buy a kilo of rice at around 70 rupees. A kilo of rice is obtained from 1.5 kilos of paddy, roughly. Someone is making big bucks between paddy field and your plate. There is no mechanism in place to protect the farmer. It has been always a system that favoured the trader. The consumer came next. The farmer last of all"

I mean that just isn't the way it should happen. Is there a way to create a national awareness about this? Perhaps we can do a cost analysis & determine how much really the middle men( I think there are 2 - Paddy buyer, Rice mill owner) earns compared to the farmer.

Anonymous said...

The way it is supposed to work is that if the paddy buyer and mill owner are making large profits more people will enter those industries and the increased competition will drive the price up for the grower. However this only works when the state strictly enforces anti competition laws. In stead of that we hear that all the rice mills in Rajarata now belong to one person - a politician. Potential competitors face various threats and harrasments. I wonder if this is the case in Ampara too.

nuwala seifferth said...

This comment is not relevant to this article, but your answer to sunshine person made me want to comment. You are talking nonsense, referring to the article on 24th December 2011, The most beautiful child lives in Roxywatte. This child and her father obviously need help, and I have sent you couple of emails asking you to send me their bank details so that I can support them financially, up to date no respond from you what so ever. So cut the crap.

fayaz said...

we ought to get our act together to help agriculture and stabilise prices..

no free market ups and downs please as we need food security very very badly.

India is so much ahead of us in this field and we need to learn from them..

Malinda Seneviratne said...

Pradeep is the father's name:
Number: 0112362410, nuwala. the tone of your complaint made me wonder...why on earth should i bother. maybe it's better not to write about such people.

sandika said...

as a reader i like to suggest that you should always write about such people and about such issues i personally believe that those articles generally leads to good discussions and that will help the country to have better thinking and to do things correctly ... this is not the whole country who have respondent to your article ...... i have relatives who cultivate vegetables and paddy they say that the situation compared to past it is better... but 'atharamediya' always benefit from such things .. you have provided us an accurate picture ...

nuwala seifferth said...

Malinda, creating awareness is one thing, taking action is another. it is wonderful that you write about people like that so that we are aware that there are less fortunate than us. But being aware alone doesn't help anyone, unless we do something to help. I have offerred to help and i have contacted you for the information that i need inorder to help them, which upto date you have failed to provide me with. i asked you to get me the details because i thought you were in contact with them, and as you know i don't live in sl to visit them at their home. you wrote about that little girl and her father with so much passion, i thought the idea behind the article was to raise funds to help these people, who in my eyes obviously needed help. i am not going to apologize for the tone of my comment, i am very dissappointed.

beautiful sunshine said...
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Malinda Seneviratne said...

no, nuwala is not hat kind of person. she asked me a couple of times and maybe that kind of tone was what could have got me to stop other stuff and find the number for her. she's a freind.

beautiful sunshine said...
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beautiful sunshine said...
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Malinda Seneviratne said...

just call or email. :)

beautiful sunshine said...
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beautiful sunshine said...
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Anonymous said...

Yes it is a matter of national interest, for the government to initiate and support a well-planned, elaborate and efficient system to cater for the future, targeting breaking of a poverty cycle as well. Universities and think tanks could chip in with planning, but it is easy to imagine JVPers running such system methodically in any government. Certainly not the past and present cheap politicians who cite lack of post-harvest storage facilities and whatnots.