Agriculture Minister Dissanayake like his predecessors
Betrayal of Sri Lankan paddy farmers
By Quintus Perera
Who says paddy farmers have benefited from the policies of the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the farmer-friendly JVP or for that matter any government in power?

Sri Lanka's rice bowl boils with the tears of the farmers who have toiled to obtain a bumper harvest and are now forced to sell their produce 'for a song'. One woman, H. T. Ukkumenike of Mahindagama, Welikande was forced to sell her 40 kg of paddy at an incredible five rupees per kg - when the promised government-purchasing price is Rs 15.50-16.50 - and is now unable to pay even the transport charges.

The crisis is so bad that R. M. Ballammenike, a farmer from Welikande, says that coconut - much less than rice - now fetches Rs. 25 per nut while a kilogramme of paddy has been reduced to Rs. 10 or less.

One desperate farmer committed suicide while another attempted to do so and survived. Last week the Sunday Times FT visited the rice growing areas of Polonnaruwa, Hingurakgoda, Minneriya, Dambulla, Welikande, Kaduruwela and Kaudulla to assess the real situation of the rice farmer as the picture painted by the authorities in the metropolis has been that the farmers are well looked after.

The situation is bleak and volatile.
While Agriculture Minister Anura Kumara Dissanayake has announced that an unprecedented Rs 1 billion has been allocated to purchase paddy this season, farmers in these areas challenged the minister to prove his claim with statistics of paddy so far purchased by utilizing state funds.

Hundreds of rice farmers, we met, said they were very optimistic of a fair deal based on promises made when Dissanayake became the minister. Now farmers say the minister is no better than his predecessors, in deceiving the farmers.

Last season about six months back, farmers sold paddy at over Rs. 20 a kilogramme and were optimistic of fetching the same price this time since rice was selling in the open market at around Rs. 40 to 45.

Despite promises to buy at the guaranteed price, state purchasing points were either open two months after the harvesting season or had poor facilities to make purchases.

Thus the trader who supplies inputs to the farmer was at their doorstep, equipped with lorries and weighing scales to remove the 'pound of flesh'. These traders have so far purchased paddy at prices ranging from Rs. 8 to 12. Though the farmers believed Minister Dissanayake's assurances, they were also aware of the machinations of powerful trade personalities with strong government backing including a deputy minister.

The state buying points have virtually collapsed. For example the Welikanda Mahaweli storage facility can store 300,000 kg but the target to purchase by the government there is only 62,500 kg due to a cash crisis.

Large number of farmers hoping to sell their crop before the New Year desperately began drying the paddy on open roadsides after rain affected the current season's crop. Traders are cashing in on the desperation of farmers to sell their wet crop before the New Year and demanding low prices for the paddy.

Farmers are unable to cope with the crisis. Last week, 81-year old W. Haramanis from a Polonnaruwa village committed suicide by swallowing insecticide due to accumulated debts of Rs 67,000 to the bank. Another farmer A. R. M. Wijeratne, 37 and a father of two children, attempted suicide but thankfully for his family, he survived.

In tears, his wife Kamala explained that her husband resorted to this move as he was frustrated having pawned their jewellery for Rs 75,000, owed another Rs 75,000 to a trader and also had problems with workers he had employed.

Wijeratne was rushed to hospital after swallowing pesticides but recovered seven days after doctors battled to save his life. Kamala helps in the household income by working in a garment factory. Wijeratne is still sick due to the near-lethal dose of pesticides and is unable to work as a labourer.

K. M. Amithasiri Silva, SLFP Branch Secretary and a farmer, said that around 25 farmer representatives met JVP stalwarts in the area who explained the arrangements made to purchase paddy at Aranaganwila and the allocation of funds.

Only a few purchases have been made under this arrangement. When they complained to Mahaweli Minister Maitripala Sirisena about the crisis, he promised to look into it but also said agriculture and marketing of paddy was in the hands of the JVP.

Already 85 percent of the 150,000 acres of paddy in the Polonnaruwa District has been harvested. Farmers traditionally sell around 50 percent of their harvest before the New Year and are at the mercy of the trader to whom they owe money for inputs received.

In the case of farmer D.M. Premasiri Dissanayake who was forced to sell his paddy at Rs 11, he ended up with a total sale of Rs 62,016 for his crop while costs were Rs 57,002, leaving him Rs 5,014 for six months of hard work. V. Rajaratne who harvested around 7,500 kg of paddy cannot sell his crop because traders complain about the quality and offer very low prices. "My family faces the bleakest Sinhala New Year ever."

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