North-East farmers: Give them tools to reap results
A couple of days before leaving for another round of talks, this time in Cherry Blossom land - the LTTE's chief negotiator fired several broad sides - not from any weapon recently smuggled in we are assured - at some of the NGOs operating in Tiger-held areas.

"They only dole out mugs, plates and mats to our people," cried Anton Balasingham in an uncharacteristic condemnation of those do-gooders who vector in on developing countries with the canny instinct of vultures to carrion.

This is not to say that all NGOs, be they foreign or local, only provide carrion comfort.
"What have they done for our people in this area," Balasingham questioned in a mixture of anger and frustration. His anger must also have been directed at some of his own people who loved to welcome foreign NGOs specially with obsequiousness without realising that altruism was not always the guiding motive.

If Balasingham's criticism was directed at the non-government sector (pity he did not say whether they were local or foreign), the LTTE's political leader Thamilselvan has been directing his verbal fire at the government for lack of tangible progress in the field of economic development in the north and east.

One year has passed since the ceasefire was signed and still there were no visible signs of economic development. He said the other day that the Tamils in the north and east were getting restless as a result. How much of this is a tactical ploy by the LTTE leadership to divert attention from the numerous occasions the LTTE was caught with its pants down, particularly with regard to arms smuggling, and how much real frustration, is hard to say.

One of the problems is that the highly publicised visits of foreign dignitaries and diplomats to the north and east for talks with the LTTE leadership and promises of aid for rehabilitation and reconstruction of that part of the country, have been seen by the people of the north and east as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Much depends on when such tentative promises of financial assistance are made. Supposing country A makes a commitment at the end of its financial year, it has necessarily to wait and try to include such monies in the next budget which then has to be introduced, debated and eventually passed by Parliament.

All this takes time. It could well happen that the government that originally made the offer is defeated and its successor has other aid priorities. An aid project has then to be identified and its feasibility studied and accepted. With the Cold War over, western donors are too shrewd today to let their monies flow down the drain. They want to see tangible benefits from their investment. The Sri Lanka government has then to find counterpart funds for local expenditure.

These things can take two to three years and even more. In the meantime are we to let those whose support is necessary to make whatever political solution work - the people of the north and east - sit there waiting for another Godot, like the South has been waiting for the cost of living to drop?

It is the prime duty of the government and the LTTE to find alternative means of improving the economy of the north and east until reconstruction with foreign assistance will help integrate this region more closely to the national economy. But it is not merely the task of the government and the LTTE. Everybody including the media have a major role to play in identifying ways in which short and medium term gains could be made.

Unfortunately much of today's media is one dimensional. They see our conflict in monochromatic terms, black or white. The problem is largely because, like everything else in this country, journalism too has become over politicised. It is a symbiotic relationship that is sometimes incestuous because progress and steps up the journalistic ladder sometimes do not depend on ability and capability but on the theory of relativity. Whose who you are and what family connections you have to some ministerial spouse or her second cousin, sometimes are the determining factors.

This over-politicisation has led journalists, by and large, to seek solace in political relationships and concentrate on political writing to the detriment of other fields where the attention of the media, the glare of publicity and the exposure of official and other wrong doing are equally, if not more important.

Sri Lanka is an agricultural country. But how many of our media today devote time to the plight of our farmers, to their costs of cultivation, the problems of marketing and other issues that are vital to them. I have travelled the length and breadth of Sri Lanka particularly in the second half of the 1960s and in 1970s writing on agricultural issues, the condition of our farmers and exposing administrative shortcomings where they were found.

Those were the days when such eminent and honest politicians as Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake and Agriculture Minister M.D. Banda and later Hector Kobbekaduwa took an interest in trying to solve the problems of farmers and make this country self sufficient.

The farmers of the north and east, as did the farmers from the rest of the country, responded to the call for greater productivity. Today we only pay lip service to the farmers of this land. Examining their plight, bringing their difficulties to public and official attention, is far too passe for today's media. I was reminded of this when I read an article written by Charitha Ratwatte, Secretary to the Finance Ministry, headlined "Regaining Sri Lanka - The four Initiatives" in which he proudly boasts: "Already as a result of the Peace Process up to 125,000 acres in the North and 250,000 acres in the East have been put back into productive use".

We would like to know, for instance, the current price of fertilizer used in the rice fields, the price two years ago and the prices of other necessities such as labour, tractor or buffalo hire and weedicides. Returning paddy lands to their rightful owners must be applauded. Just as man does not live by bread alone, rice does not grow on its own. It needs several inputs not the least of which is fertilizer because over the years farmers have been cajoled into planting high-yielding varieties of seed.
If the cost of production proves prohibitive, these lands that Charitha Ratwatte says have been restored might be cultivated for a season or two and abandoned again, not because of war but because of financial loss.

If we are keen to see that the people of the north and east are gainfully employed and occupied while giving the economy a boost until long term plans reach fruition, give them the tools with which to make sustainable agriculture possible. They, like industrious farmers elsewhere in the country, do not want official sympathy. They want the wherewithal to practice what they know best. Farmers in the north and east have proved their mettle before. Let them do so again. Meanwhile set up mechanisms to market the produce without letting them rot in the fields.

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