Sri Lankan turmeric import ban takes spice out of life

Colombo, Feb 14 (AFP):
An import ban in cash-strapped Sri Lanka is leaving a bad taste in the mouths of its curry lovers, depriving them of vital turmeric supplies and encouraging budding smugglers to take their chances with the spice. With no foreign cash coming in as Covid-19 cripples the tourism industry, the government in March imposed a ban on many imports to stop money leaving the country, so that it can pay $4.5 billion this year to service its international debt.
Cars, floor tiles and machinery parts are among the items prohibited but it is a ban on turmeric that has the Indian Ocean island simmering with anger. The aromatic root is a vital ingredient in curries and other local cuisine and also increasingly sought after as a health supplement.
But only a fifth of the 7,500 tonnes Sri Lanka consumes every year is produced locally. Since the pandemic, demand has increased so much that prices have shot up 20-fold to an eye-watering 9,000 rupees ($48) a kilogramme — a week’s wages for many Sri Lankan workers. “Our home-cooked curries are not the same since the pandemic,” said health worker Prarthana Weerasinghe, who claimed that many market varieties were now “adulterated”.
“We never thought turmeric would be such a big issue. We had taken it for granted. Now, we can’t afford to use it in our daily cooking.” Customs agents recently found 25 tonnes of the spice smuggled into the country from India in containers marked “onions”, while navy patrols have seized several tonnes from Indian fishermen.
Those seeking turmeric have watched on helplessly as officials burn seized turmeric at crematoriums, claiming they do not want to flood the market and depress prices. The government says it wants to promote local production over cheap imports as hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs and the economy recorded its worst-ever contraction of 3.9 percent last year.

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