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Starvation in Sri Lanka: The way out – Part 2

Sri Lanka has yet to consider absorbing the increasing labour force into the secondary and tertiary sectors.

13 mins read
Jebamalar, age 12, Eldest of the family. Her family survives on the father’s weekly income of about 8.5 US$ a week. With soaring food prices due to the economic crisis, they are worried about how they will put food on the table. [ Photo Credit: UNICEF Sri Lanka]

Click here to read Part One of this series.

Limited land Resource

As Sri Lanka is a county with highly diversified agroecological zones and two main cultivation seasons, most crops cultivated in other parts of the world can be grown. However, the arable land area is limited and can’t be increased further without damaging the environment. The reality is that the total arable land area is decreasing due to the expansion of settlements and secondary and tertiary sector activities, and environmental and wildlife concerns. Under these circumstances, when incentives are offered to promote selected crops, it will be at the cost of other crops. For instance, once maise cultivation is encouraged, the area under other pulses and grains will decrease. Under these circumstances, while rationalising the usage of limited arable land area, importing food items that don’t require much foreign exchange may be cheaper than producing locally. For instance, the land used for potato cultivation in Nuwara-Eliya would be utilised for floriculture, tourism, or other high-value economic activities to earn more foreign exchange while importing potatoes at a low price. That enables the saving of limited arable lands for more productive uses to make or save more foreign exchange and maximise the sustainable use of the limited land resources.

Human- Wild Animal Conflict

Apart from the agrochemical fiasco, the threat of wild animals(wild elephants, peacocks, monkeys, wild bows, hedgehogs etc.)is emerging as a new challenge, contributing immensely to crop damage, low productivity, abandoning the arable land and loss of properties and lives of farm families. The government and many NGOs are there to promote and advocate for animal rights. But the same priority is not accorded to the living right of human beings in those areas. The wildlife department is also concerned only about the wild animal, not the grave injustice faced by the farmers. Sometimes, tiny patches of forest surrounded by human settlements are declared as wildlife reserves without any rational basis, inviting harmful wild animals to stay in the middle of human settlements.  The harmful animal population is also rapidly increasing, becoming a persistent problem aggravating the human-wild animal conflict without a solution. The relevant authorities may only recognise the issue once it becomes a catastrophe. Today no one takes responsibility for the wild animal menace, and the solutions are left to the affected people. The country is yet to develop a strategy to separate wild animals from human settlements and farmlands. Electric fencing against elephants is an unsuccessful attempt to encircle villages and farmlands, limiting human activities while allowing elephants to roam freely. Under these circumstances, farmers gradually abandon the cultivation of most arable lands and try to change/adjust their way of life to co-exist with wild animals in the same settlement.

Agriculture Research

Agriculture research and extension in Sri Lanka is highly fragmented and handled by many ministries, departments, and institutions, and the government funds all. Therefore, ‘Sri Lanka Council for Agricultural Research Policy’ was established in 1987 as an umbrella organisation for all stakeholders and to adopt a national agriculture research system. Though it has been in operation for 35 years, a practical research policy and a research system are yet to be developed. All research institutions and research arms of ministries and departments operate in isolation, without complementarity, and even with duplications. The council supports producing research papers for scholars, but those findings and recommendations have rarely been used to improve the agriculture sector policies and strategies. Those research papers may have enhanced the knowledge of agriculture professionals and postgraduate students, but not the farmers or farming systems. Though there are many research institutions for different crops, their innovations and adaptations are far behind compared to other countries in the region. We have high-cost physical facilities and institutional infrastructure, including professionals to do research. But the machinery is not moving. Even valuable solutions are found, very rarely are those released/sold to the private sector for commercial production.

Except for seed paddy, other food crop seeds, tools, equipment, and machinery are imported today. Those do not match precisely with our agroecology, landholding size, terrain, soil conditions, farming practices, etc., leading to inefficiency and misuse of technology.  As there are no locally produced seeds, unscrupulous businesspeople are taking advantage of it and selling imported seeds at exorbitant prices or fake products. From time-to-time government comes up with promotional programs for home garden cultivation. But home garden seed packs available in the market are of inferior quality; they are not germinating or, if germinated, not bearing fruits.

The Seasonal Glut and scarcity.

Even in this twenty-first century, seasonal variation in food quality, quantity and supply prices is considerably high in Sri Lanka. However, this problem has been eased to a certain extent after completing the Mahaweli project, as farmers could cultivate in the dry season through irrigation water. However, the harvest is still wasted during the glut while importing essentials during lean periods. Many countries use modern technology, such as the cold chain system and canning, drying, exporting etc., to avoid this issue. But we are yet to harness those potentials economically. Most of our market is supplied from scattered smallholdings, where collecting the required quantity to transport by vehicles is cumbersome. Also, a considerable amount is damaged when it reaches central locations to be transported to Colombo and other main cities. Packing for transportation is done in a very primitive manner, cramping /beating in open trucks. According to our tradition, fruits and vegetables are presented for retail sale in the open air without cooling facilities. Vegetables that come from cold rooms will perish immediately in the open air. Under these circumstances, the cold-chain system doesn’t give a satisfactory answer for the broader market except for the niche market.

Diversity of Agroecology

But Sri Lanka is blessed with four seasons (two dry and two wet seasons), three agroecological zones (dry, wet and intermediate), and another variation as low country and up the country. These natural factors may be harnessed to distribute the cultivation of seasonal crops throughout the year to minimise the seasonal effects instead of depending on a cold chain system. For instance, big onion cultivation in Dambulla is done in late Yala, whereas the harvesting is done in September /October. The same may be cultivated in some parts of Hambantota and Monaragala districts in early Yala to be harvested in May/June. Another example is that the mango season in most parts of the country is in May/July, but it is in November/January in some parts of the Monaragala district. Similarly, many seasonal crops could be identified to be cultivated in different seasons/months in different agroecological zones to distribute the availability throughout the year. Under a rational fiscal and foreign trade policy, not only the local climatic and agroecological factors but also such global factors can be harnessed to our advantage. Sri Lanka imports most seasonal foods from the countries above the equator that have the same glut and off seasons. But glut and lean seasons differ from Sri Lanka in counties below the equator, like South American and South African countries. Suppose there is a possibility of exchanging seasonal food products with those countries. In that case, Sri Lanka will be able to export surplus products at reasonable prices during the glut and import during off-seasons.

Today, many talks about a golden era of Sri Lankans had rice for all three meals and the need to reach the same status again, and this is a mythical assumption and backward thinking. Rice was scarce throughout history, and people always economised the expensive rice by supplementing it with cheaper and more nutritious food supplements such as yams, nuts, pulses, grains etc. It achieved multiple objectives, such as economising the expensive rice, maximising the advantage of natural factors by cultivating different crops, and a balanced diet at a low cost. Most of those crops are drought resistant and don’t need much water. Unlike the olden days, today, high-yielding supplementary food crops can be cultivated and processed to the consumer’s taste using modern technology.

Fertiliser Subsidy

The average paddy yield per hectare in 2005 was 3965 kg before introducing free fertiliser (nominal price) for paddy. After implementing the scheme for ten years, the average yield increased to 4429 in 2015. Whether this increase is due to the free fertiliser is still being determined. Other reasons, such as rainfall, increasing the area under irrigation, etc., may have contributed to the higher yield. However, the benefit of the fertiliser subsidy has not trickled down to the consumers as the rice price has increased by three or 4-fold during this period. Yet the increase in farmers’ real income is also not evident. Farmers often receive subsidised/free fertiliser towards the end of the cultivation season or after harvesting.  Farmers will have to follow cumbersome bureaucratic procedures and waste time for many days in queues to receive the free/subsidised fertiliser. Land-holding size and crop-wise discriminatory subsidies have induced much corruption. Instead of free or nominal price, farmers prefer to purchase fertiliser and other inputs at a reasonable price at their convenience, without wasting time and following bureaucratic procedures. Under this scenario, though the government is spending significantly on fertiliser subsidies, it is doubtful whether the farmers and the country are gaining much of it.

Water Management Issues

Today, the entire process of paddy farming, from land preparation to harvesting, is done with irrigation water in major irrigation schemes, which consumes a large volume of irrigation water per crop/acre. Irrigation water is released end or towards the end of the rainy season, especially in the Maha season, for the convenience of bureaucrats and farmers. Consequently, the next rainy season starts before Maha’s harvesting, resulting in crop damage. Suppose the land preparation is commenced with the rainwater. In that case, irrigation water requires only a few weeks at the tail end of the Maha season (main season), leaving adequate water for the Yala(second season). Also, harvesting is possible before commencing the Yala rainy season. Moreover, water is excessively used by privileged farmers close to the water source or the canal due to the locational advantage, while others need more water. All farmers will receive sufficient water for both seasons if reservoir water is appropriately managed.

The Way Forward to Fill Gaps in the Existing System

The rational use of agrochemicals is essential to overcome large-scale food scarcity and hunger and to feed the increasing population. Organic farming has become unacceptable to all Sri Lankans due to the agrochemical fiasco of the Mithri and Gotabaya governments. However, without allowing for fading away of the concept, it must encourage as a product for the niche market of high-end consumers initially and gradually be expanded for the broader market based on that experience. As explained in the Sri Lanka National Agriculture Policy document, it should be done step by step with a scientific approach. Further, it should be supported by an appropriate fiscal policy.

The central ministry and the department of agriculture should not wash off their hands, saying extension is a devolved subject to provincial councils. A unified agriculture extension system with strong linkages with the central department of agriculture, research arms, subnational-level agriculture institutions and manned by qualified staff may be re-established. Agriculture extension should cover all aspects from land preparation until products leave the farm gate. The Ministry and the department should regularly monitor the performance, like the education and health sector. The previously implemented extension system, the ‘Training and Visit System’, could be re-introduced with necessary modifications based on previous experiences. The Sri Lanka National Agriculture Policy 2020 must implement on the ground without limiting it to a document, and provincial councils shall adapt it with necessary changes to suit their provinces.

Research must go beyond knowledge enhancement and concentrate on the farmers’ practical issues. Research must be focused on much-needed tools, equipment, machinery, seed production, cultivation practices etc., to improve the land and labour productivity, post-harvest technology, encompassing packing, packeting, transporting, preserving, and value addition, enabling quality products to consumers. We must identify appropriate technology from other countries and modify them according to our needs. The research grants scheme of the Council for Agriculture Research Policy should focus on technical innovations acceptable to farmers instead of producing desk-work-based research papers. Large-scale farm entrepreneurs and engineering firms must be supported to do technological innovation for the whole gamut of agriculture, from farming to value addition. The agriculture department needs a system to monitor the entire seed production process, from planting to retail selling to farmers. The research infrastructure shall be utilised to realise the maximum benefit through; allocating essential recurrent expenses, recognising researchers and their contribution properly, understanding among policymakers and researchers about the practical research needs of farmers, disseminating findings, and recognising the need for technology transfer, farm mechanisation and modernisation. Government research institution shall sell their research findings to the private sector for commercial production, ensuring the sustainable application of research findings. Also, they must undertake research needed by the private sector on a fee-levying basis.

Abandoned and underutilised government farms must be leased out to local and foreign private sectors to develop and manage as seed farms, livestock breeding farms, model farms, nuclear farms, out-grower systems etc., to create enabling environment for smallholders to undertake modern advanced agriculture. Government researchers must do their research works on those farms instead of entirely depending on research funding from the government. By doing so, the government can save and earn an income while achieving multiple objectives, such as disseminating research findings and commercialising innovations for sustainability. Under any circumstances, government-owned arable lands/farms should not distribute for housing and non-economic activities. Whether in urban or rural areas, housing solutions shall be high-rise or clusters, enabling the physical infrastructure and transport to be convenient and less expensive while saving arable land for productive purposes.

Soil testing is essential for every agro-ecological zone and recommends appropriate fertiliser mixtures and quantities according to crop varieties to minimise their use and maximise the benefits. An advisory service must recommend the correct chemicals and dosage to prevent the trial-and-error method of using pesticides and fungicides. Instead of shouldering its burden on the government, a regulation may be introduced for compulsory employment of a qualified and trained person by each agrochemical vendor to prescribe such products to farmers. Appropriate weeding instruments must be designed and popularised to prevent the over-application of weedicides. Appropriate planting methods shall be introduced, enabling mechanical weeding and fertiliser application. Also, non-mechanical and non-chemical weed control techniques such as polythene cover and mulching with bio-degradable stuff may be introduced.

In this modern era, agriculture should not be a subsistence activity of uneducated, unskilled peasants, but it should be turned into a profession of educated, skilled youths and entrepreneurs. That can be done only with the introduction of modern technology into agriculture. Instead of depending purely on weather conditions, controlled agriculture, such as micro-irrigation and protected cultivation, shall be popularised among educated youths. The government shall undertake an image-building program to enhance the social recognition of emerging young farmers, and such appreciation may bring more benefits than subsidies. The agriculture sector strategies should focus on reducing the number engaged in farmland to release the excess/underemployed workforce to the secondary and tertiary sectors while increasing land and labour productivity. Meanwhile, the secondary and tertiary sectors shall adopt appropriate strategies to absorb the workforce released from the farmlands.

The government intervention in price control and subsidies for agricultural inputs is a must for a few years until the sector recovers from the agrochemicals fiasco of the Gotabaya/Mithripala Governments. Therefore, an arrangement shall be made to sell fertiliser and other inputs at an affordable fixed price in the open market without discriminating against crops and holding size. The government shall subsidise the difference between the fixed price and the actual cost.AFertiliser Price Stabilisation Fund may be established with the contribution from the consolidated fund and fertilisers. The cess may be charged from all agricultural bulk products exported without substantial local value addition. The Cess from paddy may be collected from rice millers according to the volume processed. However, the fertiliser cess should not be exploitative or punitive to discourage the farmers.

As discussed above, agroecological diversity, which is a gift from nature, shall harness to the maximum to:

  1. spread the harvesting period for a more extended period of the year, thereby reducing the effect of glut and off seasons,
  2. diversify food production to ensure food security,
  3. minimise malnutrition,
  4. reduce the dependency on high-cost irrigation solutions.
  5. Reap the maximum benefit from the rainfall and reservoir water.

Also, instead of signing bilateral trade agreements blindly, possibilities should be examined to exchange agricultural products during the gluts and lean periods among other countries where harvesting and lean periods differ from Sri Lanka.

Considering the socio-economic and agroecological factors, a limited number of crops/products with comparative advantages and essential for food security, saving or earning foreign exchange identified and developed as Sri Lanka brands (made in Ceylon), like Ceylon Tea, for the local and export market. The government shall support the entire process, from planting to marketing those crops/ products, for a considerable period until those become self-sustainable. The prime objective of the agriculture sector policy should be the rational use of the limited extent of arable lands to achieve the above objectives.

The department of agriculture shall take full responsibility for producing quality seeds on its own or with the assistance of the private sector. The department shall monitor the entire process, whether the seeds are produced locally or imported. Necessary legal provisions shall be introduced to make the department fully responsible for all aspects of seeds.

 Instead of encircling human being while wild animals are freely roaming around the country, the process shall be reversed to ring wild animals in the forest, allowing the people to move freely in the rest of the country. The resources wasted presently on ad-hoc manner re-direct for a well-prepared plan.

Conclusion

 Though some level of development has been achieved, agriculture in Sri Lanka is yet to be developed in pr with the other countries in the region. This has yet to happen due to the shortcomings in the policies and strategies since independence. Still, a significant share of the food crop sub-sector is in the hands of subsistence peasants, who cannot develop it according to the present day’s needs. Still, the policy is to alienate small plots of arable lands and tie the increasing rural labour force to subsistence farming. Sri Lanka has yet to consider absorbing the increasing labour force into the secondary and tertiary sectors. We are still struggling with problems of small land plots inappropriate for modern machinery, low productivity, and high production costs, making food prices unaffordable for the majority. Still, our strategy is sharing the small resource base among many and maintaining everybody equally poor for social justice. (Sharing the small piece of cake among many and starving, instead of making the cake bigger to feed everybody).

Though we have been influenced by external factors such as the Corvid pandemic and Russia-Ukraine War, to a certain extent, our domestic policies and strategies are mainly responsible for the sudden food crisis and collapse of the agriculture sector in 2022. The heavy agricultural investment for about eight decades became futile due to the abrupt end of agrochemical uses. It significantly contributed to the unprecedented civil commotion in 2022, the Galle Face Aragalaya (protest).  Ultimately the prime minister and the president were compelled to resign. Learning from this catastrophe, all political parties, professionals, and administrators must agree on a coherent agriculture sector policy and set of strategies with a long-term vision instead of slogans and handouts for cheap popularity. It should focus on ensuring food security and safety at an affordable price for everybody and optimal use of the limited area of arable land and natural endowments.

Concluded

References:

  1. Republic of Sri Lanka Agricultural Policy and Program Review February 19, 1975, General Agriculture Division South Asia Projects Department Not for Public Use
  2. DS Senanayakes Endeavours in peasant Agriculture  By KM De Silva
  3. Sri Lanka National Agriculture Policy paper, prepared by the government in 2020

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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