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Starvation in Sri Lanka: Is it A Product of Policy Makers and Professionals? – Part 1

The Sri Lanka National Agriculture Policy- 2020 accepts that the productivity of the agriculture sector in Sri Lanka still needs to improve.

16 mins read
A farming land in Ella, Sri Lanka [ Photo Credit: Etienne Boulanger/ Unsplash]

Self-sufficiency in food was the focus of the agriculture sector policy in Sri Lanka, even before the independence. But the quality and the display of the local food items offered to consumers in the market are yet to be improved substantially. The prices are exceptionally high compared to many citizens’ purchasing power and the country’s per capita income. According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey -2019, Sri Lankans’ average monthly household expenditure on food is 35.1%, leaving a low share for non-food expenses, which is an indicator of the poor quality of life. The situation could be much worse among the middle and low-income groups, and the malnutrition level is increasing. Sri Lanka’s agriculture, especially the food crop subsector, is yet to be modernised with new technology and commercialised. Despite those constraints, the country had reached near self-sufficiency in essential food items by 2022.

The aftermath of Covid-19 and the government’s policy mismatches suddenly brought the country into a catastrophe in 2022 without sufficient local or imported food. According to the Colombo Consumer Finance Index, food inflation in September 2022 has risen to 94.9 %, which means citizens’ food affordability has been reduced by almost 50%. According to the FAO, 78% of the population suffered from food insecurity in the latter part of 2022. Most people attribute the whole responsibility for the food crisis of 2022 to banning agrochemicals. Though it was the immediate and foremost reason, several other structural issues have aggravated the situation. The situation could be returned to the pre-2022 position in a few seasons after lifting the ban.  Still, the shortcomings inherited over a long period in local food production may continue unless those are adequately addressed. Food prices are yet to come down to match the income levels of the majority through improved productivity and quality. Therefore, this article aims to understand the present food crisis in relation to the policies and strategies followed by the different governments over eight decades and their pros and cons. The focus is to discuss some remedial actions based on historical evidence and my brief experience in the sector.

The Sri Lanka National Agriculture Policy paper, prepared by the government in 2020, says, “The agriculture sector will continue to play an important role in the application of strategies targeted towards planned socioeconomic development of the country. Rapid growth for the agricultural sector, particularly the domestic food production, floriculture, and export crop sectors, is essential to achieve self-reliance at the national level, ensure food security and bring about equity in the distribution of income and wealth for alleviating poverty.” It shows that policy-wise, the government has firmly committed to developing the agriculture sector as a strategy for macroeconomic development. According to the population figures in 2021, eighty-one per cent of Sri Lanka’s population lives in rural areas. As per the labour force statistics, in 2021, 27.3 % of the total labour -force was employed in agriculture. Still, their contribution to the GDP was only 6.9%, which shows that the farming population is relatively poor. As a cultural practice, almost all rural people in Sri Lanka engage in agricultural activities in one way or another. If not for their main employment, they do agriculture as a source of supplementary or secondary income or at least to produce their food. As such, the Sri Lankan labour force engaged in agriculture is much higher than the figures shown in labour force statistics. Despite many drawbacks, local food production had increased considerably by 2023, but at a very high cost to the public coffer for over eight decades.

Evolution

Under the colonial administration, plantation crops were the priority sub-sector of agriculture. Domestic agriculture, especially food production, was not a priority. In 1931, under the Dhonurmore Constitution, the decision-making power for local matters was substantially transferred to the State Council of Ceylon, represented by elected local representatives. Since then, the translation of nationalism and patriotism into action was commenced in many aspects of society. D. S. Senanayake’s vision as the Minister of Agriculture and Landin the State Council of Ceylon was that colonising the thinly populated dry zone is the only solution to land hunger poor peasants in the densely populous wet zone, self-sufficiency in rice and food security.D.S. Senanayake’s imagination in the colonisation programme seems to create a group of contented middle-class farmers like the rural elites in the traditional villages. Accordingly, 5-10 acres of irrigated and high lands were alienated to colonists. It was also expected to reduce the increasing pressure on land to produce food and housing in the hill country and the wet zone and generate full-employment opportunities for the peasant community. Accordingly, he prioritised domestic agriculture and the Dry Zone Colonization programme. After becoming the first prime minister of Ceylon in 1947, his son Dudley Senanayake was appointed as the minister in charge of the subject to continue the programme with the same priority. Also, the second World War outbreak validated the need for food self-sufficiency. The food scarcity in the war environment encouraged the peasantry to food production and the colonisation programme. During wartime, in 1942, a scheme to purchase paddy under a guaranteed price well above the market price was also established. Since then, the guaranteed price for paddy, above the market price, has become a permanent feature.

The colonisation scheme was a massive and ambitious program involving the supply of irrigation and drinking water, social and physical infrastructure, housing, land clearance for farms, settlement of people in a complex, unfamiliar environment, establishing the public administration and public service delivery system, etc. All settlers were allocated an equal extent of land, which could not operate with the family labour. Different from the wet zone, there was no agricultural proletariat or social arrangements to work on medium size farmlands, especially during the cultivating and harvesting periods. Unlike in the wet zone, sharecropping arrangements (Ande Cultivation) or hiring casual labour was impossible, as all settlers were landowners. Farm mechanisation was also rare in the early stages, but many colonists became unemployed during off-seasons. Unlike in the wet zone, there were no modern large plantations to find wage employment during off-seasons. The colonisation programme reinforced the same peasantry agriculture in local food production, creating a dichotomy between plantation agriculture and local food production. Though there were many economic and social issues at the beginning, with continuous and substantial government supports, these colonisation schemes became sustainable. In addition to the above programmes, in line with the then policy, government-owned farms were also established in different parts of the country under the department of agriculture. These were considered model farms to introduce new farming technics, increase food production, create wage employment, seed production, etc.

The colonisation program helped to reduce the population pressure in the wet zone and increase rice production to a certain extent. However, it was an extension of the area under cultivation with the traditional smallholder farming system, more than increasing productivity under modern farming practices using technology.  Also, most of the second and third generations of settlers became unemployed. Many of the settlers were socio-economically backward and needed to gain experience even in agriculture at the beginning. Under this socio-economic environment, only a few entrepreneurs ventured into non-agricultural activities to generate employment for the second and third generations.

Green Revolution

Though there were some shortcomings in the D.S Senanayake’s Agriculture policy and strategies (expansion of the area under cultivation through land alienation, irrigation facilities, colonisation, model farms, and guaranteed paddy prices Etc.), its positive factors were attractive. The policy continued without many changes during the Bandaranaike governments from 1956 to 1965. In 1965, Dudley Senanayake’s government also prioritised the agricultural sector and continued along the same path. Moreover, the international program of the Green Revolution influenced the agriculture policy and the program in this period. The agriculture sector benefitted from the productivity improvement agenda of the green revolution, such as farm mechanisation, chemical fertiliser, highbred seed, pesticides, weedicides, etc. Consequently, productivity and local food production have significantly increased.

In addition to the smallholder sector, the Dudley Senanayake government gave prominence to large-scale farming, enabling the transfer of new technology and thereby reducing the cost of production, improving quality, and providing wage employment for the rural poor. To this end, his government leased relatively large plots of land in the dry zone to the corporate sector and entrepreneurs. The government facilitated lessees to import machinery, equipment, vehicles, etc. This is a deviation from the previous policy of the dry zone colonisation program at a high cost to the national budget and reinforcing the smallholder system. However, large-scale farms and large landholdings were not compatible with the Land Reform Policy of Mrs Bandaranaike’s government, which came into power in 1970 with a coalition of left-wing parties. Under the land reform policy, land ownership was limited to 50 acres per person. Most of these farms were acquired by the government or abandoned by the owners due to the fear of acquisition and lack of government policy support. If this programme had been continued, it could have become much cheaper than colonisation schemes to create employment, increase production and productivity through technology, and transfer the technology to local farmers.

The newly established Mahaweli Programme had much potential for large-scale commercial farming. The open economic policy had been introduced by this time, and trade was liberalised. But the government followed the same concept of smallholder farming. Several large land blocks of marginal lands without water and infrastructure have been leased out to entrepreneurs. Due to the threats of wild animals, lack of water, agriculture proletariat and other infrastructure, the tenants abandoned most of such blocks. They passed them on to several hands with little development. All settlers in Mahaweli were equally poor, and most could not purchase agricultural equipment. Unlike their original villages, in the beginning, there were no entrepreneurs who could afford to hire equipment for small-scale farmers. If extensive holdings had been allocated to entrepreneurs randomly on arable lands, they could have been instrumental in diversifying and changing the economic structure. It could have been a facility for the poor settlers to obtain inputs and other services required for farming and daily needs. Also, they could have generated employment in off seasons and for the second generation. Sri Lanka missed both opportunities (Mahaweli and Dudley’s leasing scheme of more extensive holdings) to establish large-scale private-sector farming for rice and other food crops. If Sri Lanka had utilised the above opportunities, the food crops subsector would have been commercialised and modernised, leading to high quality and low cost with value addition, like in many other countries.

Import Ban/Restriction of Food Items

During the 1970/77 period, the policy of self-sufficiency in food and the promotional strategies for local food production has been further strengthened through import controls. Regulations were introduced to reduce rice consumption and encourage the consumption of locally gowned pulses, yams, grains, etc. A massive Food Production Drive named ‘’WagaSangramaya” was launched in 1973, and a vast enthusiasm was created among the citizen to cultivate and economise the food. All government-owned farms were fully utilised, increased seed production and introduced new crop varieties. Import bans resulting in high prices encouraged the cultivation of marginal land and uneconomical crops to the country’s agroecological condition. This overenthusiasm led to the mal-allocation of land and other resources and high-cost and low-quality products. The ban on importing all food items was not a result of the 5-Year Development Plan of the then government. Still, it was necessitated due to the foreign exchange crisis, like the situation in 2022. Before the 1970/77 period, local food production was mainly a subsistent activity of poor peasants. Due to the import restrictions, a dichotomous situation has been created in domestic agriculture. While poor peasants were doing subsistent farming, some people commenced commercial agriculture aimed at the broader local market but at low quality and high prices. However, during this period, many import substitutes, such as lentils, chillies, yams, milk, sugar etc., emerged from subsistent farming to commercial farming. Suppose the government had continued tariff protection and advisory services, with corrective measures for a few more years. In that case, some products with comparative advantages could have been established as viable economic activities.

Sluggishness

The free trade policy introduced in 1977 allowed the import of almost everything without restrictions. The market was flooded with imported cheap food and consumer items creating a new demand for foreign exchange. The newly open trade sub-sector did not increase the foreign exchange earnings to match the increased need for food imports. Due to the sudden and unplanned trade liberalisation, commercial farmers could not face the competition from imported foods and were compelled to abandon farming. It resulted in rural unemployment, especially among the agricultural proletariat. The poor peasants, who could not integrate with the new economic order, remained subsistence farmers. The Banking system also prioritised the trade sector, which is less risky and profitable than agriculture lending. Domestic agriculture lost the policy support and backup services such as research, seed production, extension services and bank lending. Meanwhile, Mahaweli Authority established its own system to provide advisory and input services for Mahaweli farmers undermining the regular agriculture department’s authority.

The Department of Agriculture is one of the oldest departments in the country, manned by highly qualified professionals. Sri Lanka had a well-organised extension service for the food crop sector under its department of agriculture, integrated with research, demonstrations, model farms, demonstrations, in-service training for officers and a comprehensive field network comprising district-level officers (assistant directors), subject matter specialists, zonal officers (agriculture instructors) and village-level officers (KrushiVyapthiSevaka). The extension division and the research arm at the centre supported the field network. From time to time, different systems of extension service have been experimented with and implemented nationwide with uniformity. As such, extension service has been developed over the years through an evolutionary process till the late 1980s.

After establishing the provincial council system in 1987, agriculture extension was devolved to provincial councils. Since then, the sub-national level network of the extension service has lost connectivity with research and other divisions of the Agriculture Department and the Ministry. Also, the village-level extension staff (KVSs) were absorbed into the cadre of Grama Niladari, creating a vacuum at the field level. Later, in 1999 a new cadre of field officers named “Agriculture Research and Production Assistants” was appointed, but they did not have professional qualifications or experience in research or extension works. They coordinate agriculture inputs delivery and enforce agriculture-related Acts of Parliaments such as the Agrarian Development Act, The Paddy Land Act etc.Agriculture extension, especially the food crops sub-sector, has been severely affected after the devolution of power to nine independent provincial councils. Occasionally extension programmes are being implemented by provincial and national agencies without proper coordination between the two levels. Sometimes, those are incompatible with each other. Since the government has an aloof attitude toward the extension service, unprofessional business-minded agrochemical vendors are filling the vacuum with non-scientific advice. Therefore, a comprehensive national policy and strategies with a coordination mechanism at the national and sub-national levels are paramount.   The extension service needs more recognition from the government at both national and provincial levels. When the government attempted for organic farming-only policy, vacuums of the extension service were visible. There was no field network of extension staff to educate farmers on organic farming, and neither the farmers nor the fertiliser vendors had scientific and practical knowledge of organic farming. 

Contented at a Low Level of Achievements

For several decades, with some degree of ups and downs, a unique smallholder farming system has been developed in the country with a combination of government subsidies, some degree of tariff protections, some elements of subsistence farming and the modern agriculture techniques introduced under the green revolution (highbred seeds, chemical fertiliser, other agrochemicals, modern machinery, and equipment etc.). Under this equilibrium, the labour component of the farm inputs has decreased, and the land and labour productivity increased considerably. The country became nearly self-sufficient in rice, vegetable, fruit, and coarse grains such as maise production. Inputs supplies, prices, farming practices, farmer behaviours, consumer preferences and logistic aspects had stabilised to match this equilibrium (sufficient quantities at a relatively high price and low quality, but all stakeholders are substantially satisfied). So, to a considerable extent, the security of essential food items was ensured through local productions.

Moreover, those developments have brought the country many social and environmental benefits. Childlabour, which was abundantly used under the traditional farming system, was released from farmlands enabling them to continue with education. The customary use of women’s labour in farming was also considerably reduced, allowing them time for childcare, family welfare and other non-agricultural activities. In addition to the family food needs, most farmers could produce a marketable surplus that improved the physical quality of life. The Chena-farming (slash and burn) system, which increases the demand for land and harms the environment, has been reduced dramatically. Instead of moving from one land to another, farmers started cultivating the same land regularly with the blessing of the improved farming system. Consequently, many new settlements have developed with urban facilities, which changed the lifestyle, bringing many social and economic benefits.

Interruption

However, during the Government of good governance (Yahapalana Government), from 2015 to 2019, except for chemical fertilisers, other necessary agrochemicals, especially weedicides,were suddenly banned. Sri Lanka depended for many decades on agrochemicals for weed and pest control.By this time, farmers had lost the traditional knowledge of insects and weed control.The Chena Farming system, which doesn’t require agrochemicals also not in practice. Characteristics of improved/highbred seeds were incompatible with conventional weed and pest control practices. Farm labour was not readily available, and the cost of manual wedding had become high. It is yet to develop planting and weeding tools/machinery and planting practices appropriate to our agroecological conditions, soil conditions, and terrain and acceptable to smallholder farmers. This new situation mainly affected tea plantations and Paddy cultivation. Seed broadcasting, the paddy cultivation practice commonly used by farmers, is inappropriate for mechanical weeding. So, farmers could not positively respond to the new challenge. Consequent to the new challenge, farmers faced increasing production costs, while productivity fell below the previous years. Some farmers abandoned the cultivation. After banning the agrochemicals, the Paddy production in the 2016 Yala season dropped to 1,517,392 metric tons from 1,942,408 metric tons in Yala, 2015. Further, the production of the 2016/17 Maha season has fallen to 1,473,832 from 2,902 693 metric tons in the 2015/16 Maha season. This downfall is not purely attributable to the agrochemical ban; climatic and other factors may have contributed to it.

For many years, the use of herbicides had been promoted as a cost-cutting technic in the tea plantation. When labour became more expensive, weedicides became a blessing in disguise for the tea plantations to reduce the cost of production.  Like the paddy sector, the country had not developed planting methods and appropriate tools/ machinery for weed control in tea plantations. Consequently, the cost of production increased, and productivity dropped. In 2016, tea production fell to 292,000 metric tons from 328,960 tons in 2015.

The Sri Lanka National Agriculture Policy- 2020 accepts that the productivity of the agriculture sector in Sri Lanka still needs to improve. It further says, “The agriculture sector was also not geared to absorb the rural unemployed compared to the other sectors of the economy. It is necessary to reverse this trend and improve the agricultural sector to meet the aspirations of the people, particularly that of the farming community.” Further, the policy highlights the need for promoting the production and utilisation of organic and bio-fertilisers and gradually reducing the use of chemical fertiliser through the Integrated Plant Nutrition System, ensuring timely availability of chemical fertilisers in sufficient quantities, and providing soil and plant testing facilities for their rational use and minimising the use of synthetic pesticides through promoting bio-pesticides and integrated pest management.  This policy and strategy about agrochemicals seem sensible and timely. However, any attempt to absorb the ever-increasing unemployed into agriculture would be an attempt to share poverty with the second and third generations.

Going Backword

While farmers were attempting to adapt to the situation created by banning agrochemicals by the the Mithripala government, banning the import and use of chemical fertilisers without prior notice, preparedness, and alternatives by the Gotabaya government in April 2021, affected the entire society and the economy facing famine by much of the population. It is contradictory to the documented policy and strategies of the agriculture sector.  The move is suspected of an attempt to save US$ 300 to 400 million in foreign exchange, which the country spends annually to import fertiliser. Before the public, the President justified this move as the remedy to prevent increasing kidney disease and materialise the Sri Lankans’ rights to non-toxic food. He further promised to compensate for the income loss due to organic fertiliser application and import organic fertiliser to fill the gap due to the sudden decision. He also expected Sri Lanka to be the first to adopt the 100 per cent eco-friendly organic farming policy.

The farmers’ attempt to produce organic fertiliser in homesteads failed due to a lack of sufficient biomass and the long gestation period. Fertilisers produced by some entrepreneurs were of inferior quality, not acceptable to farmers and many malpractices were evident. An attempt to import organic fertiliser from China failed due to the debate on quality and procedural issues. The desperate government attempted to import organic liquid nitrogen from India. But that also ended up with quality issues and corrupt practices. The production loss was enormous, and the government did not have sufficient funds to compensate for the income loss of farmers. Eventually, the government ended up with a nightmare of wasting more foreign exchange, which was in short supply, to import fertiliser and essential food items. The outcome is creating a black-market price for agricultural inputs and food items. Towards the end of 2022, 78% of the population became food insecure.Most of the farmers abandoned the cultivation of seasonal crops. The productivity and quality of plantation and perennial crops have dropped drastically. Paddy production in the 2021/22 Maha season dropped to 1,931,230 metric tons from 3,061,394 metric tons in the previous Maha season. The average production per hectare also dropped from 4,307 Kg. to 2,853 kg.

After creating a big socio-political and economic nightmare, the government wriggled out of the concept of organic farming. Restriction for importing and using agrochemicals, including chemical fertiliser, was removed in early 2022, leaving long-lasting adverse effects. Though the ban was lifted, the agrochemical market was distorted by unscrupulous importers and traders, making the price unaffordable to farmers. This distortion may remain for a few more cultivation seasons. Perhaps some farmers who have left farming may not recommence. This nonsensical policy decision of 100% organic farming destroyed the entire agriculture sector built through subsidies and some degree of scientific inputs for more than 80 years. The government should have realised that the country doesn’t have sufficient biomass to produce the organic fertiliser required for 100% organic farming. Most of the land used for seasonal crops in Sri Lanka cultivate for 2 or 3 crops a year without a fallow season, leaving little room for the natural process of soil enrichment. Therefore, using a high dose of fertilisers is a must.

The Mithripal-Ranil government and the Gotabaya Rajapakse government justified the ban based on the assumption that the cause of chronic kidney disease of unknown origin is the continuous use of agrochemicals in agriculture. However, it is yet to be proven scientifically. Though we exaggerate the ancient glory, the high price, periodical and seasonal scarcity of food and starvation was common problem till the recent past, which highly affected the poor. Though agriculture has not developed as it should, consequent to the green revolution and the Mahaweli scheme, the food supply situation improved, and the price became affordable for most of the population. Whatever the economic and political issues we face from time to time, farmers cultivated without room for famine. The immediate impact of the organic food policy was that food inflation in September 2022 had increased to 94.9%, per the Colombo Consumer Price Index. According to a survey conducted by WFP in September 2022, more than 1/3 of the population is in food insecurity, which rapidly increases child malnutrition.  Though organic farming is a good move to provide healthy food, if the country continues with that policy, most people will not be able to afford the high price of organic food. They may face starvation and periodic and seasonal food scarcity again. Then, the better-off, who can afford the expensive organic food, would live longer, while the life expectancy of the majority is decreasing.

Layman consumers believe that the frequent insecticide/fungicide sprays on vegetables and fruits are more dangerous than weedicides and chemical fertilisers. The fundamental problem in Sri Lankan agriculture is not the use of agrochemicals but the overdose for various reasons. The farmers’ knowledge of fertiliser and other agrochemical applications in what quantity, time, soil types, type of pest etc., are limited. They learn by trial-and-error method, not by understanding the chemical composition. If one chemical is not answering, they use another. Vendors prescribe those, and vendors also learn from the trial-and-error experience of farmers. In most farmlands, broadcasted urea is exposed to sun and rain, allowing a considerable amount to evaporate, or wash off.

To be Continued

Sirisena Amarasekara

Sirisena Amarasekara is a Sri Lankan public servant and diplomat. He is the former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana, and Eswatin. He had functioned as the secretary to the Prime Minister on two occasions, and as the secretary to the Cabinet of Sri Lanka. Having completed more than 50 years of public service, Amarasekara is one of the most senior Sri Lankan public servants.

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