Business Times

Proposal for Govt. research scientists to resort to ‘private consultancies/practice’ like state doctors

By Quintus Perera

India has been able to capture a part of Sri Lanka’s agriculture export market as a result of low productivity and competitiveness due to the inability to properly introduce advanced technology into agriculture development, it was revealed at a seminar in Colombo this week.

The seminar on Advanced Agricultural Technology and Quarantine Regulations was organised by the National Chamber of Commerce of Sri Lanka (NCCSL). At the outset, A M Wijetilleke, Secretary General/CEO - NCCSL explaining about the seminar, said that on the previous week at a seminar, the Maldivian Deputy High Commissioner has said that while earlier all the agricultural products to Maldives were imported from Sri Lanka, now India has taken over the supply of these products to Maldives because of their quality and competitive prices.

The seminar also gave some indication that the government has failed to properly introduce modern technology into the country’s agricultural sector, and was now seeking the support of the private sector increasingly to involve in the introduction of advanced technology. Sarath De Silva, Chairman, Agricultural Committee, NCCSL said that there is now a suggestion to allow the state research scientists to do private practice like in the case of government doctors which would help the research findings to be channelled to farmers through private sector.

Though the government is now very interested in getting the private sector increasingly involved, members of the audience pointed out that there were other constraints as to why farmers fail to absorb technology. Sharm de Alwis, Director, Onesh Agri (Pvt) Ltd - agents for foreign high tech apparatus in irrigation (Drip Irrigation) Green Houses and Seeds, pointed out that these advanced machinery and equipment needed power to operate but as the electricity rates are prohibitive in Sri Lanka the farmer community is unable to deploy these machinery.

He said that the reason as to why the farm products from India is price competitive is because the Indian farmers are at an advantage to obtain electricity almost free as they are offered a 90% subsidy on electricity. Mr de Alwis said that on the contrary the Sri Lankan Government charges 25% VAT on these imported agricultural implements.

Dr W.M.W. Weerakoon, Deputy Director, Research, Field Crops Research and Development Institute, Mahailluppallama -who was also one of the presenters -, said that solar energy could be used for this purpose.

But another member of the audience pointed out that solar energy units that are available are small units and could only be used for around half an acre and also the cost is very much higher, and to reach break-even point it would take around 35 years. Dr Weerakoon, making his presentation on ‘Available Advanced Technology in Agriculture in Sri Lanka and how they could be utilized by the Private Sector’, said the private sector has a big role to play in introducing advanced technology to the farmers.
He said the farmers have to be trained on these technologies and make them more productive and competitive and should reduce cost of production to meet the pressure from other countries in exporting Sri Lankan agricultural products.

He said that they have been well equipped in research but with the partnership with the private sector being weak, getting these research findings to be disseminated among the farmers is a problem.
He said that the government sector cannot do it alone and as such has to join hands with the private sector. He said that the agriculture sector is faced with huge cost of production problems compared to other countries and India.

He pointed out that there is a big problem in seed industry, even though the private sector helps in this field. He said that agriculture needs lots of inputs, such as water, fertilizer and labour and on top of this, there is a need to think of the environment and soil conservation. Dr Weerakoon said that another big problem is seed and said that Sri Lanka should produce adequate quantities of seeds to meet the requirements.

He said that it has been found that India does not provide good seeds which are sometimes inferior. Further some farmers use inferior low cost seeds smuggled from India. He said that the challenges in the agricultural sector are to increase productivity and production, and reduce cost, labour scarcity, being self-sufficient in seed production, increase input, and be efficient in the use of water, among others.

W.S.Y. de Silva, former Deputy Director, National Plant Quarantine Services said that agriculture was based on a few world civilizations and Sri Lanka was one among these eight civilizations. He said that all activities of plant quarantine are designed to prevent the introduction and/or spread of quarantine pests or to ensure their official control among other activities.

Responding to a question on how public sector officials could work side by side with the private sector, Mr de Silva said that there was an instance when a private company wanted a government quarantine officer to be stationed in a foreign country to monitor certain activities on agriculture and quarantine. The Minister in charge however turned down the request saying that public officers should not be involved with the private sector, he said.

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