100 years of excellence in agriculture
I was so pleased to learn that the Department of Agriculture celebrated “Excellence of 100 years in Agriculture” with a “National Agriculture Exhibition and Farmers’ week 2012″ at Gannoruwa recently. I started my public sector career in the mid 1960s as a junior officer in the Department. While the Department celebrates 100 years, agriculture of our country has existed over 2500 years. Agriculture survived and prospered much before the Department was established. During the post-independent era, share of agriculture drastically declined from over 40 per cent to 9 per cent of GDP. Agriculture is no longer attractive to the youth.
It is not modernized, mechanized or commercialized. It is not developed to face challenges paused by weather pattern, market trends and global fluctuations. With every harvest, farmers complain of low prices and low earnings. The profit from an acre of paddy in the highest producing area, Ampara does not exceed Rs.50,000 a year. Availability, affordability and awareness of the technology, improved seeds and planting materials, modern cultivation, marketing and management practices, post-harvest operations and other inputs are beyond the farmer’s reach. We are among countries with the lowest productivity/yield/production in agriculture. With the new paddy harvest ahead, many farmers fear that returns will be too little while consumers are suffering from shortages and high import prices for food. Whoever is responsible for the present state of agriculture, can the Department be content? Can we simply celebrate the existence (or is it the survival) of the Department for 100 years?
Agriculture serves as the main employment generator (1/3rd of the country’s population is employed) and makes the highest contribution to the national production while being the main export earner for centuries. The potential for agriculture to enhance foreign exchange earnings and save foreign exchange (in food imports) is considerable. Food security has received the highest priority in all countries. The importance of agriculture in the national economy has increased more than ever. The strengthening and improvement of domestic agriculture is important.
The Department is fully equipped with the right vision, institutional network and facilities. But, is the Department ready with a well-targeted action programme? The Department should have a forecast of demand both domestically and abroad for various crops that could be grown in the country. Areas suitable and the extent of land required should be identified for each crop. The technology, cultivation and management practices to suit the current trends and need, farm plans, quality standards should be introduced with farmer guidance by the Department. The programme should be backed by the Department’s vision and be a product of a participatory consultative process.
Apparently, there is no such long term agriculture development programme drawn up by the Department to address these issues and concerns systematically and to ensure the sustainable growth of agriculture. Anyone who visited the Gannoruwa centennial celebrations would notice and have had no doubts about the availability of knowledge, technology, facilities, services, inputs and planting materials with Department. Unfortunately, these stay with the Department and do not flow down to the farmer and his field. The responsibility for extension is a devolved subject of Provincial Councils. The research component remains with the Department. Its officers do not want to touch the extension, as it is a devolved subject. I am not sure when the service is available at the doorstep of the farmer, or whether we, public officials, should refer to the Constitution rather than exploring ways and means of delivering it. What we have to ensure is not our right to serve the public or not but, to ensure the right of the public to receive our service. According to its own website, the objectives of the Department are focused on maintaining and increasing productivity and production of the food crop sector.
Among the requirements in achieving this objective, identification and availability of land and planting material is basic and important. The Department is responsible for ensuring timely availability of adequate quality seed and planting material. The Department appears to have either forgotten or ignored this. There is a Seed Certification and Plant Protection Centre, a Seed and Planting Material Development Centre, a Seed Certification Service and several donor funded programmes and projects on seed multiplication to discharge this responsibility. The current production of seed paddy by the Department, however, does not exceed 10 per cent of the total requirement. The remainder (90 per cent) is expected from the private sector and the farmers themselves. It is correct that the Department gets funds, resources and facilities adequate to produce that 10 per cent. It does not mean that the Department responsibility ceases when it reached that limit. Is it not the Department responsibility to facilitate and monitor to ensure the availability of the requirement of seed paddy in its entirety?
Many farmers are not aware of the facilities and services available. The most they know is the presence of Agriculture Instructor, Extension workers and recently recruited Agriculture Research and Production Assistants. Whether the farmer gets a full service and facilities from them is still a question. The farmer does not have access to the services and facilities provided by Department. The only link between farmer and the Department is the Extension worker which is not viable. Further, extension is a devolved subject and linked to Provincial Administration making it weaker. There is no regular flow of research finding in the field. At the end of every harvest, farmers complain of not finding a market for his produce. It is common to all food crops. Look at the paddy scenario. At the time the paddy harvest comes to the market, everybody gets excited and is trying to make “some” arrangements to appease the farmer. The farmer expects a break-even price. Private millers do not offer it. The farmer agitates.
The Treasury releases billions of rupees to Government Agents, Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) and Cooperatives, They are not equipped to purchase, store and finally dispose the paddy. In addition to the farmer and consumer the government loses billions of rupees in the process. This is no longer a short term or an occasional or temporary issue. It has come to stay. The same scenario is repeated at every harvest season making it a permanent issue in agriculture. The Department maintains silence because as far as the institution is concerned its role in agriculture ceases with the harvest. Post harvest operations and marketing is not its baby. Sri Lankan agriculture is basically organized (or is it disorganized) as an aggregation of activities of hundreds and thousands of individual independent farmers (peasants and smallholders) scattered all over. Total production, quality, type and availability of the produce move within a wide range. No collective action could be taken. Land plots are too small and scattered inhibiting introduction of best management and cultivation practices and mechanization and modernization into agriculture. One solution proposed is land consolidation. Yet, it is a political decision and hardly practical. The Department could come out with alternatives like farmer consolidation. Land ownership will remain as at present but the Department can make arrangements for farmers to act collectively.
Sri Lanka need not reinvent the wheel. There are many success stories around us. We can learn lessons from countries such as Israel which is a desert but boasts of a flourishing agriculture sector. It has revolutionized the irrigation system with drip irrigation system. Vietnam which was ravaged by a decades’ long war has become an exemplary agriculture producer. China is transforming its agriculture at an unprecedented speed. The Department should be the change agent and the prime mover. Agriculture would not end with a bounty production. How could the best price and the highest income be achieved? Post-harvest measures that could be introduced are key issues that should be addressed by the Department. Processing, storage, packing, packaging, presentation and finally marketing can no way be separated from agriculture. They cannot be left for another agency to address and march towards achieving the vision of the Department. Achieving excellence in agriculture will not be limited to production alone. It runs through the entire process starting from tilling the land to disposal of the produce. Let us draw our attention to the recent drought. The entire farmer community in the dry zone was desperate, lost hopes and helpless. What was the response of the Department? Rather than be a strength to the farmer, it became more helpless and pathetically miserable.
In such a state of affairs, one might wonder whether state resources (financial, physical, human) should be invested on a massive scale to celebrate 100 years of existence. What would be the gain to the Department, agriculture and finally to the national economy? Perhaps resources meant for development were diverted for the celebrations. The Department has a well-spread, island- wide network with all modern research facilities and equipped with a well qualified staff. It is no way second to any other Department or a research centre. The Department has come a long way and fulfilled national aspirations. Yet, there is much more to do and a longer way to go.
We join, salute and congratulate the Department on its centennial celebrations on “Excellence of 100 years in Agriculture” and offer all best wishes to celebrate ’200 years in Agriculture” with a well focused programme for increasing and sustaining productivity and production of the food crop sector in Sri Lanka to regain its glory as the Granary of the East.
(The writer has served as Secretary to three Cabinet Ministries).
comments powered by Disqus