The recent announcement from Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne to ban the use of wheat products shows how little he knows about the lives of people in his country, say critics. In his speech he vowed to “make bread unaffordable”, in a bid to rid the country of "unhealthy" imported wheat. Yet without wheat Sri, Lankan specialities like rotis and parathas will disappear from the menu too.
The announcement has already led to hundreds of bakers losing their jobs, according to the BBC. But Mrs Rana, a producer of frozen wheat products like pizzas and stuffed breads, is not worried about the future of her business
“Honestly, I don’t see how Sri Lanka can go without wheat flour. What will the hotels do that have international guests? What will they serve them?”
All walks of life
But it’s not only Sri Lanka’s international guests who will have to miss their croissants. Mrs Rana has been catering for a long time to many Sri Lankans. Her factory has been around for 25 years and serves a lot of people from all walks of life, she says - not just expats and young Sri Lankans who have been introduced to different dishes while living abroad.
“At home I eat toast for breakfast, like many Sri Lankans do, with a little butter or jam. Eating rice three times a day gets boring you know,” says Mrs Rana.
She is still not convinced by her PM's comments. She simply can’t imagine a life without these products, but a while back she did try to go without wheat and replace it with rice flour.
“Rice flour doesn’t have the same qualities. I’ve tried making my products using it, but if you deep freeze it, rice flour products won’t last as long as the wheat flour ones do. How will people be able to keep my pizzas?”
In his speech D.M. Jayaratne labels foreign fruit and wheat producers as the enemy, but his government also needs foreign interests.
On the one hand, the South Asian island has become more reluctant to allow foreign products to be imported. But on the other hand, the government has been eagerly accepting foreign investments. In the years after the war the government has used large foreign sums for the construction of hotels and government projects like the Hambantota port.
Fred Carver from the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice calls this “bi-polar politics”:
“Sri Lanka is already engaging in these very protectionist attitudes. But it has a very Bi-polar investment strategy. They are attracting foreign investments and protecting internal markets at the same time.”
In other words, the government is trying to have its cake and eat it too.
Without wheat, the government claims, Sri Lankans will have a healthier eating pattern. Wheat flour products are considered ‘junk food’ and have already been banned from school canteens and government institutions.
Though Mrs Rana and many other bakers disagree, the government has suggested that rice flour makes a good replacement. Switching to this home-grown product will also benefit the countries rice farmers, they argue.
“Jayaratne's Sri Lanka Freedom Party has never been strong in the cities. It has always been strong in the rural farming communities. So this is pandering to their rural farming base but without thinking through the consequences whatsoever,” says Fred Carver.
He believes that the already rising food prices and the increasingly limited choice of food could lead to protests in the cities.
"The MP will still be able to afford his expensive imported croissant, but it's the ordinary Sri Lankans who will see their favourite products disappear."