ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 23, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 43

Rice bowl flooded

Farmers try to salvage harvest

By Rohan Abeywardena

Desperate farmers drying paddy on the road. Pic by Athula Devapriya

While Agriculture Minister Maithripala Sirisena claimed early this week that only about 10 to 15 per cent of the paddy harvest was lost due to unprecedented freak rainy weather experienced during the current harvesting season, yet, when we visited some of the affected areas especially in Mahaweli System C in Dehiattakandiya on Thursday, during a brief lull in the rain, most farmers were reporting losses of as much as half or even more of their harvest.

We were fortunate to have as our guide Ranjith Mulleriyawa, a patient veteran gentleman farmer with a wealth of knowledge. An expert with a Masters Degree in Agriculture and years spent at the International Rice Research Institute in Philippines, Ranjith with the support of his family, physically ran a farm in Mahiyangana from 1969 to1978, not far from the locations we visited on Friday. In Ranjith’s own words his farm was killed off by the open economy as his produce could not compete with cheap imports. More than that he has had a continuous link with the region stretching from 1967, when he first worked there in an agricultural settlement scheme launched by CTC. He has also worked on various projects for Mahaweli and international NGOs in the region till 1998.

On our way there via the Kandy- Randenigala route known as Raja Mawatha, the greater part of the journey was palatable, but some of the other stretches especially from Girandurukotte to Dehiattakandiya Mahaweli System C the road was treacherous to say the least. This particular stretch couldn’t have been more than 25 kilometres, but it took us more than one and a half hours to cover the distance not because of so much traffic, but for the virtual moon craters dotting the road. And the return journey was even more gruelling as we were forced to take an alternative route (Raja Mawatha was closed after 6 p.m. for the security of Randenigala and Rantembe reservoirs) notorious for its 18 hairpin bends from Mahiyangana to Kandy via Hunnasgiriya. We were prepared to stomach the hairpin bends, but not the absolute atrocious state of the road that it was in. Our politicians must not be aware of the travails that road users go through, for they must be either flying to their destinations or are not bothering to visit these godforsaken places.


Rice price won’t rise, assures minister

By Damith Wickramasekara

In the face of major destruction to paddy cultivation, due to freak weather patterns, Agriculture Minister Maithripala Sirisena has vowed to keep the price of rice below Rs. 100 while the JVP charges that the prices will soon soar.Mr. Sirisena said that in the event of a shortfall of rice, the government would even import rice to control the price.

He said they were still awaiting an assessment on the damage to paddy crops before deciding whether to import rice or not. Mr. Sirisena said the government is not buying paddy affected by the rain as there were storage problems, but the private sector was buying this paddy as it had facilities to immediately convert the paddy into rice.

Earlier this week JVP parliamentarian for Polonnaruwa S.K. Subasinghe claimed that the price of rice would soar above Rs. 100 not only because of the weather but because of the manner the government was handling paddy purchases.

On the approaches to the Mahaweli zones, we found the situation of farmers was no better. At Mapakada, where farmers had been settled as far back as during D.S. Senanayake’s time under the old Minipe Dambarawa scheme, we met two brothers who were trying desperately to salvage what was left of their harvest. H.G. Navaratne and H.G. Nandasena told us that they had been experiencing 20 days of non-stop rain during this harvesting season, which was unprecedented since they first settled here in 1956. The rains had ceased only on Thursday. But even on Friday they were unable to properly use even their threshing floor as water was spouting from the ground from several locations.

While most farmers in these parts were hiring a mechanical thresher known as tsunami, at Rs.2000 an hour to thresh their paddy after they physically harvest them, these two farmers possibly because of their poverty and the meagre harvest they had reaped were doing the threshing on their own on a dry section of their threshing floor by thrashing the paddy stalks on a large granite stone. Nandasena said they had borrowed Rs. 20,000 from the bank just to prepare the field and sow.

From here onwards what we saw were scenes of entire farmer families, including small children desperately trying to dry their paddy on road sides. On Thursday in some places these desperate farmers had even prevented vehicles from plying certain by-roads as they were using them to dry their paddy. Even on Friday we encountered one inner road at Dehiattakandiya Town through which we could not take our vehicle on as the entire road was covered with paddy. We could not blame the people as even much of the paddy they had harvested had already begun to germinate. So they were constantly turning the paddy more to dry out the germinating tiny sprouts.

At Mapakada there is a far more pressing problem of congestion and shortage of land. Originally it had been a settlement of some 380 families but after the natural increase in population after four generations and settlement of illegal settlers, the total population there had grown by several thousand families. While H.G. Navaratne and H.G. Nandasena were fortunate to get bank credit at some reasonable interest rate, all the other farmers we met at our next stop in the village of Thuwaragala in the System C were at the mercy of two Mudalalis for all their needs and the interests charged were unconscionable being as much as 20 percent per month (240 per cent per year). On top of all that when weather gods hit them below the belt one can imagine their plight.

At Thuwaragala, we found a persevering woman in Wasantha Pathirana. This recently widowed woman may not be educated in academic terms, but the minute one steps into her homestead, it is quite obvious to anyone that this was one woman who will not be kept down. Surrounding her modest home is her freshly harvested paddy field, where she too reported at least the loss of half her harvest. And between her home and the paddy field is a small stretch of home garden where she has systematically planted a grove containing virtually all essential plants for a home from herbs to green vegetables to coconut, mango, and arecanut.

Virtually all these people, barring one, had not surrendered to the freak weather. Instead, they had worked day and night to salvage what they could from their harvest and now Wasantha admits that many of them are also paying a price by way of ill health. Ironically Wasantha and other farmers here point out that this was expected to be a bumper harvest as those who sowed much earlier had reaped as much as 7000 kilos of paddy from their paddy lands each amounting to two and a half acres, whereas in previous planting seasons they had only reaped about 5000 kilos per plot of paddy.

Like the Sinhala proverb about the man who fell from a tree being gored by a bull, they are now at the mercy of private paddy purchasers in the absence of any state sector buyer. Wasantha said buyers were only offering Rs.17 per kilo of Nadu and good Samba which fetched Rs31.50 at the beginning of the month was now being offered Rs 27 to Rs 28. Those whose paddy had already begun to germinate on the threshing floor are desperately hoping that their stocks would at least be bought for animal feed.

These people will face an even greater problem down the line as more rains would result in them not being able to find adequate seed paddy for the next season.
Even Ranjith who himself had experienced vagaries of weather many times over admits this harvesting season is unusual. And the farmers who were yet bringing in their harvests were working like people possessed trying to finish their task before the skies came down on them once again.

We also met the owner of one of three tsunami machines working in this village of some 500 hectares of paddy land. A.K. Bandara, a farmer turned businessman said his machine was working non stop 24 hours a day to save the farmers crop. The three machines working round the clock since the rains ceased had so far threshed paddy from about 200 hectares and they had yet to cover the balance 300 hectares.

It takes only about two hours to thresh paddy from a plot of two and a half acres, but Bandara says that there is much wastage since the stalks are not properly dried and paddy get thrown out from the machine along with the wet straw. The charge for the machine may be Rs 4000 for the two hours that it takes to thresh paddy from each plot. During that two hours the farmer has to provide at least six labourers to carry the bundles of harvested paddy stalks to the machine. And here with everyone in need of available labour they don’t come cheap either. They have to be paid Rs. 500 a day with meals and tea.

Ironically wherever we went we found that it was the sole enterprise of the farmers coupled with unscrupulous private middlemen that was solving the problems of farmers. There appears to be a total absence of government officials in finding solutions to their problems. At Dehiattakandiya we were made to wonder whether the Mahaweli officials had even taken leave of absence, for at some places let alone attending to the needs of farmers, they were not attending to their own needs. We found some vital Mahaweli installations covered by tall manna grass up to their door steps, even inviting the LTTE to plant claymore mines in these secluded locations.

One farmer here R. D. Siripala, who lost his entire harvest due to the inaccessibility of his plot told us that he cut his paddy on February 26, but had no place in his plot to dry it and as a result the entire harvest germinated. With a debt of Rs. 50,000 to settle, in desperation he had sold his tractor for Rs. 40,000 the previous day.

The irony is that many in this community turns to Siripala during sowing time as he is considered to have green fingers and anything that he plants bears fruit.
Siripala’s neighbour N.A Thilakasiri Banda is facing a similar fate. When we visited his homestead we found it was covered with paddy spread all over his garden and home with hardly any space to even walk. Though he had managed to bring home his harvest, without sun light and a proper place to dry, not even a nearby tarred road, the entire harvest is germinating right before their eyes. So all that Thilakasiri Banda and his family of eight dependants do is continuously turn the paddy hoping for it to dry and wring their hands in desperation.

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