Emergency Powers to Tackle Overpricing of Food | Daily News

Emergency Powers to Tackle Overpricing of Food

The Emergency Regulations passed in Parliament.
The Emergency Regulations passed in Parliament.

The annals of the country show that Sri Lanka has been governed under the State of Emergency for about 35 years cumulatively, almost half the country’s 73-year post-Independence history since 1948.   

This is, of course, no fact to rejoice in, as it indicates that nearly half the country’s post-colonial period has not been ‘normal’, but infused with ‘exceptional times’ that have required extraordinary powers to deal with the situations, whatever those might be. As a result, the successive Governments and citizens have equally got used to the Emergency rule which strengthens the hands of the Executive, especially in making laws and their enforcement when faced with a state of public emergency. The Emergency Laws supersede all other laws in the country, except the Constitution itself.

This Column has separately chronicled the past records of the State of Emergency in the country. Accordingly, it could be seen that the Emergency powers have mostly been used to control violence, terrorist acts or civil riots. However, it also shows that this is not the first instance where the Emergency Regulations have been used for the maintenance of supplies and essential services, but the present context is different from those situations and therefore unique.    

The decision to proclaim a State of Emergency is at the sole discretion of the President under the Public Security Ordinance, but requires Parliament’s nod within two weeks of such proclamation. It is effective for a month unless lifted earlier or extended by a fresh Gazette. The President’s decision to declare Emergency cannot be challenged in the Courts.

Firm steps



President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

The Emergency Regulations for the provision of essential food items comfortably sailed through Parliament on Monday. The Proclamation received 132 votes in favour and 51 against at a division called at the end of a day’s debate, while 41 MPs from all sides were absent.   

As announced previously, the main Opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) voted against the Emergency Laws together with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led National People’s Power (NPP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), while United National Party (UNP) Leader MP Ranil Wickremesinghe, the only UNP representative in the Legislature, did not turn up for the Vote.

The closest reason for the latest declaration of State of Emergency could be identified as the soaring prices of essential items, such as rice, sugar and milk powder and their widespread shortages, which, the Government stressed, was artificially created by some unscrupulous hoarders and traders. The prevailing foreign exchange scarcity and other economic hardships exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic have made matters worse.     

The Government is to tackle hoarding, interruption of the distribution, and the charging of high prices of essential food items under the set of Emergency Regulations promulgated by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last week. The same Regulations have allowed State intervention to buy the bulk of essential food items based on the guaranteed price or the imported prices at the Customs and supply to the public at a reasonable price. The newly appointed Commissioner-General of Essential Services Major General M.D.S.P. Niwunhella has been given wide powers to implement and coordinate all activities relating to the maintenance of Essential Services.

This process has now begun, and Maximum Retail Prices (MRPs) were gazetted for sugar and rice last week, while the authorized officers scan the warehouses around the country to seize stockpiled food items. At the same time, the Government has proposed an Amendment to the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) Act of 2003 to significantly raise the penalties for those who fail or refuse to comply with the provisions of the said Act. The relevant Bill was presented to Parliament for the First Reading on Monday. If this legislation sees the light of day, the Courts can impose penalties ranging between Rs. 100,000 and Rs. 10 million on errant individual businesses and companies depending on the nature of their offence(s).      

Different opinions

The Opposition parties, however, strongly disapprove of the use of Emergency powers to control food prices. During the Parliamentary debate, the Opposition Members raised fears that the Government could exploit the Emergency Laws to repress the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people. They alleged that this move could be a ploy to suppress trade union actions and protests and mute dissenting views.

They also called into question the appointment of a military person as the Commissioner-General of Essential Services. They contended that the Government could make use of the already existing provisions of the Essential Public Services Act, Consumer Affairs Authority Act and the Sri Lanka Disaster Management Act to deal with the present situation. They also alleged that the Government has deliberately let a few of its cronies to profit off sugar and rice.   

The Government Members, on the other hand, took pains to explain that the State of Emergency was intended for the well-being of the people and that it would not be misused to stifle the people’s voices. They reassured that the Emergency powers would only be exercised to defeat the food mafias operating in the market.  

Over the past few days, the country’s political pot was boiling with debates whether the prevailing circumstances warrant a declaration of Emergency or not, but from a legal perspective, there is hardly any ambiguity of the President’s act, as he has exercised the powers vested upon him adhering to the due procedures.  

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Declarations of State of Emergency in post-Independence Sri Lanka   

* August 12, 1953 to September 11, 1953 (29 days) – ‘Hartal’ or civil disturbances in the country due to the increase in the price of a measure of subsidized rice from 25 cents to 70 cents.

* May 27, 1958 to March 26, 1959 (10 months) – Communal riots. 

* September 25, 1959 to December 2, 1959 (two months and seven days) – Assassination of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.

* April 17, 1961 to April 30, 1963 (two years and 13 days) – ‘Satyagraha’ by the Federal Party.

* March 5, 1964 to April 4, 1964 (29 days) – Strike of Engineers of the Electrical Department and Medical Officers.

* January 8, 1966 to December 6, 1966 (10 months and 28 days) – Acts of violence within Colombo. The Regulations framed under the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act were taken up for debate in Parliament during this period.   

* December 18, 1966 to January 11, 1969 (two years and 23 days) – The announcement of a free measure of rice in lieu of the hitherto issued two measures of subsidized rice per week to each ration (‘Salaka’) book.

* October 26, 1970 to December 24, 1970 (two months and 28 days) – Demonetization of Rs. 50 and Rs. 100 currency notes. The Rs. 100 note was the biggest note at the time.

* March 16, 1971 to February 16, 1977 (five years and 11 months) – JVP-led Insurrection in the South.

* November 29, 1978 to February 29, 1979 (three months) – Cyclone that battered the East.

* July 11, 1979 to December 27, 1979 (five months and 16 days) – Terrorist incidents in Jaffna.

* July 16, 1980 to August 15, 1980 (one month) – General strike of Government servants.

* June 2, 1981 to July 2, 1981 (one month) – Violence in Jaffna including the arson of the Jaffna Library.

* August 17, 1981 to January 16, 1982 (five months) – Communal violence.

* July 30, 1982 to August 29, 1982 (one month) – Sinhala–Muslim racial strife in Galle.

* October 20, 1982 to January 19, 1983 (three months) – Post Presidential Election violence.

* May 18, 1983 to January 11, 1989 (five years, seven months and 23 days) – Post by-election violence and July 1983 ethnic riots.

* June 20, 1989 to July 13, 1994 (five years and 24 days) – The preservation of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community.

* August 16, 1994 to September 4, 1994 (16 days) – To enable the Government to clamp down a curfew to prevent post-election violence.

* September 4, 1994 – A State of Emergency was declared in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and some Divisional Secretariat Divisions of Puttalam, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, for the interests of public security, preservation of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community.

* October 24, 1994 (10 days) – Extension the State of Emergency throughout the country due to the assassination of Gamini Dissanayake, MP (Leader of the Opposition and Presidential Candidate of UNP) and 53 others in a suicide bomb attack.

* November 4, 1994 – A State of Emergency was declared in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, some Divisional Secretariat Divisions of Puttalam, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, Municipal Limits of Colombo, Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, and some Divisional Secretariat Divisions of the Colombo and Gampaha Districts.

* September 4, 1995 – A State of Emergency was extended to the Divisional Secretariat Divisions of Nugegoda and Kolonnawa of the Colombo District, and all the Divisional Secretariat Divisions of the Gampaha District. 

* April 4, 1996 (one year and three months) – The State of Emergency was extended to the whole country in the interests of public security, preservation of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community.

* July 4, 1997 – The State of Emergency was declared in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, some Divisional Secretariat Divisions of Puttalam, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, Municipal Limits of Colombo and Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, some Divisional Secretariat Divisions of the Colombo and Gampaha Districts and some Divisional Secretariat Divisions in the Hambantota and Moneragala Districts. 

* August 4, 1998 to July 4, 2001 (two years and 11 months) – The State of Emergency came into operation throughout Sri Lanka for the interests of public security, preservation of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community.  

* January 4, 2005 – The State of Emergency came into operation for certain administrative districts.  

* February 3, 2005 – The State of Emergency was declared in 14 administrative districts.

* August 13, 2005 to September 8, 2011 (six years and 25 days) – The State of Emergency came into operation throughout Sri Lanka due to the assassination of Foreign Affairs Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and it was continued due to the war against the LTTE. 

* March 6, 2018 to March 18, 2018 (12 days) – To contain the violence targeting the Muslim community in the Kandy District.

* April 23, 2019 to August 23, 2019 (four months) – For security reasons after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks

* August 30, 2021– To ensure public security and well-being and maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community in view of the prevailing emergency situation in Sri Lanka in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.


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