The Indian wonder spice, turmeric, is regularly being packed into gunny bags and smuggled into the island nation of Sri Lanka ever since the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government tightened restrictions of its import in the wake of the pandemic. After Rajapaksa assumed power late last year, he has been passing legislations aimed at fortifying the economy.
His ban on the import of many spices, including turmeric, has been a step in that direction. The idea was to encourage domestic production and help farmers out of the debt crisis. Sri Lanka produces 2,000 tonnes of turmeric a year, but the nationwide demand for the spice is close to 7,000 tonnes. Thousands of kilograms of the rhizome have been illegally routed through the sea from the Indian shores of Velankanni and Vedaranyam to Sethubavachatram and Dhanushkodi to meet the widening demand-supply gap.
The new spice route extends from the large turmeric producing districts of Erode and Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu to Jaffna and Mannar, and is being managed by cartels. Despite alerts by the Coastal Security Group, there has been no respite.
While the Sri Lankan government has announced that the maximum retail price of turmeric powder would be LKR 750 (about Rs 295) a kg, it is being sold for more than five times the price, and in some areas, it has even shot up to LKR 4,000 to 5,000 a kg in the black market. According to a media report, the price of a kg of turmeric before the import ban was LKR 325 (around Rs 136) with an import tax of LKR 102 (Rs 40). Despite these abnormal prices, the President has been adamant about not rescinding his decision on restricting imports, saying the difficulties would only be for a short period of time.
The biggest loser in this has been the Indian turmeric farmer. The middlemen have allegedly been involved in a nexus with their Sri Lankan counterparts, leaving the farmer with no choice in the pricing of the commodity that is now being bartered with gold in Sri Lanka! It is time the two governments discuss the
possibility of reviving a formal and legal route for turmeric to heal the heartburn of farmers and buyers.