South Indian smugglers go for turmeric instead of ganja


South Indian runners have taken to smuggling turmeric instead of Kerala ganja to Sri Lanka after learning that the scarce commodity brought them more money than narcotics.

On Wednesday, the Mandapam police near Rameswaran in Tamil Nadu arrested two men with around 600kg of edible turmeric in 15 bundles. They were bound for Sri Lanka by illegal sea journey. There is a dire shortage of turmeric in Sri Lanka since the Government banned its import earlier this year to save foreign exchange and encourage local production.

But turmeric takes nine months to be harvest-ready. Sri Lanka was not producing sufficient quantities, to begin with. Planting takes place between the end of March and May. It will be one year before the next domestic crop is available.

A Sri Lankan family of five consumes around 2.5 kg of turmeric a year, the Export Agriculture Department (EAD) estimates. The total national requirement, therefore, is around 6,800 metric tonnes (MT) of dehydrated turmeric. Annually, local farms yield just 10,000MT of fresh turmeric and it shrinks to 2,000 metric tons after processing. The additional quantity was shipped from India.

There are also attempts to smuggle turmeric into Sri Lanka in containers. It is stashed secretly among potatoes, onions and other goods. So far, the Customs Department has found 35 such containers.  The turmeric hidden therein which was of poor standard will be destroyed, said Customs Director General Vijitha Ravipriya said. The rest will be re-exported at Government cost to the suppliers.

Meanwhile, more than 30 containers of turmeric are yet to be cleared, said a spokesman for the Pettah Traders Importers Association.  Some consignments had been cleared before the ban but the second lot was abandoned and must now be sent back to the Indian exporters as requested by them, he pointed out.

The import ban has caused an overwhelming local demand, the spokesman continued. Turmeric is now selling in Pettah at around Rs 4,000 a kilogram. “Even at that price, there is little no turmeric to be found,” he said. On the retail market, turmeric goes for around Rs 300 for 100g but the price is expected to rise.

“We have asked the Government to allow some temporary imports at higher taxes so that local farmers continue to be encouraged to produce turmeric,” he said. “We need to tide over this period till the harvest is ready.”

In Jaffna, turmeric is selling for Rs 2,500 to 3,000 a kilogram, according to Jaffna Traders’ Association Prsident R Jayasekaram. Last week, the association wrote to the authorities requesting them to allow imports to overcome shortages and meet the demand.

“It isn’t just turmeric that’s affected,” he pointed out. “We also need black gram (ulundu) and semolina. Both are used in preparation of food and sweets in these areas and now, with the Nallur Kovil festival coming up, there will be high demand.”

(Source: The Sunday Times – By Chris Kamalendran)