03 February 2014

Some apa venuven api for the dairy industry?

For years the milk powder industry operated in a context where officials and consumers were blissfully ignorant about the possibility of contamination.  Archaic labeling laws didn’t help either.  There was a flutter of interest in the eighties when a newspaper took Nestle to task over contamination following the Chernobyl disaster, but complacency returned not too long thereafter.  The play of multinationals in crippling the local dairy industry is well documented but citizens’ outrage did not materialize.  Aggressive, unethical advertising obviously helped. 

The general public as well as relevant officials did spring into action about a year ago when The Nation brought up the DCD contamination issue.    The milk powder industry responded first by pooh-poohing the allegations.  Then they demonstrated excellent skills in the art of contortion.  Certification from friendly approvers was waved before a public largely non-conversant with the technicalities.  Diversionary tactics were used.  Confusion was actively manufactured.  As of now, the inadequacies of relevant laws, regulations and institutional arrangements, remain uncorrected. 
The DCD issue as well as other related elements remained in the public eye long enough, however, for the consumer to exercise more caution than before.  The detection of massive quantities of milk powder being hoarded even as the industry clamored for a hike in prices, further eroded brand-image. 

For some time milk powder did not move in supermarkets.  Locally produced brands did very well.  Then came the issue of ‘scarcity’.  There was manufacturing there too.  Milk has long been marketed as an ‘essential’.   This ‘precaution’ helped boost the scarcity claim.  The consumer, for whatever reason, didn’t buy it.  Then the issue of infant formula was brought up.  It was claimed that some young mothers needed special milk formula products. Infants too.  What was not said was that the milk powder industry, in collusion with medical practitioners including pediatricians and self-styled professional bodies (both categories amply rewarded directly or by way of sponsorship), has for years aggressively marketed ‘off-the-breast’ doctrines in countries such as Sri Lanka.  What was also not said are the unethical labor practices of the industry in less affluent countries all over the world. 

For all this, we didn’t see any ‘milk riots’ in Sri Lanka.  The milk powder industry, as though woken from deep slumber, began talking about ‘developing the fresh milk industry in Sri Lanka’.  The dependency issues embedded in proposals such as this when they are authored by multinationals will no doubt be taken up by consumer rights advocates as well as nationalists who are not unaware of the machinations of the milk powder industry and its ardent cheering squads in business and professional circles. For now, however, the key issue has been profit and therefore price. 

The milk powder industry has been lobbying for a price hike. Otherwise, they warn, there will be shortages.   That’s correct.  If it is not profitable, they don’t need to sell the stuff.  Best would be to find other, gullible, markets.  Business is not about love, after all, never mind the no-one-believes rhetoric about corporate social responsibility.  As for scarcity its true dimensions (and not the inflated figures trotted out by parties that heavily depend on assumed ‘need’ or demand) need to be obtained first. So they demanded.  They won their demands.

For some, the ‘solution,’ ought to come in the form of a tax-concession to make up the numbers not obtained by non-increase.  That’s a roundabout way of burdening the consumer.  Revenue loss is comes in the negative column and that is a take-back from the public. 

But why should the government offer incentives to multinationals when it does nothing for local producers?  India, if comparisons count, developed its dairy industry by the effective use of the cooperative model.  The Asian Tigers developed by supporting selected local industries.  In Sri Lanka, even though the milk powder industry has a sordid history, the good work of certain state institutions in ensuring the consumer is not cheated, these moves amount to nothing else but rewarding the nefarious. 

This is not just incentive to the ethically compromised, but a clear disincentive to the local dairy products industry.  

It is time that the relevant authorities realize that there is no milk powder crisis. The only people suffering crisis are those who have been marketing an ‘option’ as a ‘necessity’.  Their profit margins are declining.  That’s their problem.  If the government, as it often claims, wants to develop the local dairy industry there is no time as good as right now to tell these multinationals where to get off. 

There’s a guidebook that the government used extensively in the struggle to rid the country of the terrorism menace.  It is called ‘Apa venuven api’ (We, for ourselves).   It can work in other endeavors, other sectors as well.  The local dairy industry for example.  

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com


Ananda Ariyarathne said...

We are a nation that has all the patience that can be imagined to be with all the people at any level except for few goons who would take law into their hands if things do not go the way want.
The whole problem is in planning where the same 'traditional approach is applicable. Our development is based on the principle of spending the money allocated and one would notice this syndrome if one visits any government office involved in some kind of public expenditure becoming desperate towards the end. We must not return any funds not utilised.So, they spend, in order to prevent funds going back to the treasury. So, all the leftovers would be spent. Doesn't this show a scary truth ? Unrealistic planning and half hearted implementation. This goes same with the milk industry.Like the monkeys who worry about the necessity to have some shelters only when the downpours start, we talk about making this country self sufficient in milk.Can it happen just like that.Milk is not tapped in the wild from trees like they used to do in collecting latex in Brazil. We have to have dairy cows first and they do not fall from the sky. It has to be on the scale of a National Campaign and on a with a highly technical approach. That time with cows grazing in the lush green meadows is gone.There is a question of land and all those wise guys who talk very patriotically about developing Dairy Industry do not realise that aspect.Answer is the Community Dairy Centres and the feed is from the Rice Growers.So, it is not the end of the world. It is something that can be done. There is no point in talking about promoting fresh milk without making it affordable either by making it less costly or by increasing the 'purchasing power' of the people. Then, the need for 'Powdered Milk' cannot be replaced by fresh liquid milk. All those wise and enlightened experts do not understand why people want powdered milk. It is because it is the most and almost the only possible way to have at least that small luxury - to have a cup of 'milk-tea'. Fresh milk is not the alternative as it will turn sour within few hours due to airborne bacterial effect. But a spoonful of powdered milk solves it and a poor family will be assured of some milk tea for the family. That is why, milk powder has become so important. If we summarise the whole issue, the answer is to 'empower rural economy'. An expanded dairy Industry shall not only solve 'milk supply' but also the problem of not having adequate fertilisers in agriculture. That will provide the opportunity to go organic and stop this talk about Organic Cultivation methods. It is only a fashion now to talk about promoting Organic Fertilising. Without having Organic material to replace 'Chemical Fertilisers' we talk Organic. So, let us escape from these terminal economic ailments.