Indian expert vows to revive war-ravaged north with green revolution

By Satarupa Bhattacharjya

A spring of flowers, fruits and vegetables will follow the shower of shells, bullets and blood. This is the imagery of Sri Lanka's new north drawn up by Indian agricultural scientist and Parliamentarian M. S. Swaminathan.

Vadakku vasantham which in Tamil means northern spring is the political codename for the government's plan to revive economies of the war-ravaged districts of Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi, Mannar and Vavuniya. The 85-year-old legend of India's green revolution, with experiences of post-war reconstruction in Vietnam and Cambodia, visited Colombo last week. At Temple Trees, Swaminathan told President Mahinda Rajapaksa, "renewal of agriculture will be necessary to protect long-term livelihoods of people in the north." More than 80 percent of the population in northern Sri Lanka lived off agriculture, farming and fishery in the LTTE era. According to the President's office, Rajapaksa has sought Swaminathan's advice on the matter.


Primitive agriculture and irrigation facilities were available in the northern districts during the rule of the Tamil militants but war has razed the ground. Paddy, red onions, chillies and various legumes were being grown in several parts of the north. Gazing at the sun-washed Indian Ocean from his hotel room window, Swaminathan later told a small group of journalists, "armies move on bellies". The rebels used the scorch earth policy and burnt all crops before they retreated from towns and villages towards the Bay of Bengal.

The north, however, is still laden with landmines among other remains of the war. The government's de-mining exercise which is presently underway will first have to be completed for any new agricultural project to take off.

Swaminathan believes that along with the revival of agriculture and fisheries in the north, the Rajapaksa administration should attempt to begin the political process of empowering the Tamils nationwide. "Tamils should live in honour and peace," Swaminathan said.

In his meetings with key members of the government, Swaminathan has proposed the setting up of an applied research centre for agriculture in Vavuniya, fisheries institutes in Mannar and Mullaitivu, capacity building in Jaffna University's agriculture department and an Indo-Lankan consortium of scientists and academics to often meet and exchange information and views on the subject.

While Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has committed $110 million for the rehabilitation and resettlement of close to 300,000 people displaced by the war, bureaucrats in New Delhi have told Swaminathan that money would not be a limiting factor in his agronomic efforts in northern Sri Lanka. Livelihood rehabilitation of the displaced will require not just new technology but also training of people.

Thousands of women have been widowed and thousands of children orphaned by the conflict. Training them to sustain themselves through agrarian activities will be a challenge for the Rajapaksa regime. Besides, high-yield seeds and manure alone will not suffice the extraordinary demands of the war-ruined north. Rural roads and irrigation facilities will have to be put in place as well.

While addressing a conference on water-food security and climate change last week in Colombo, Swaminathan said, "In northern Sri Lanka, the management of hard rock aquifers is particularly important."

The average annual rainfall in the country varies from less than 1,000 millimeters in the dry regions of north-west and south-east to more than 5,000 millimeters in other districts. Apart from the two main south-west and north-east monsoons, a lot of water accumulates during the non-monsoon periods thereby creating scope for rainwater harvesting and conservation. Rice is cultivated across 820,000 hectares of land of the total 2.3 million hectares in Sri Lanka while coconut, tea and rubber come next.
Swaminathan argued in his lecture that in order to enhance food reserves the island should look at hybrid rice. "Sri Lanka is particularly advantageous in the case of hybrid rice, since the seed rate can be brought down to three kilograms per acre, as against the normal 20 kilograms per acre."

The land released from rice can be used for other high value but low water requiring crops like pulses, oilseeds and fruit trees, he continued. With the war having ended, the rest of Sri Lanka will slowly rediscover the north. Swaminathan will await more information from the districts for his roadmap to revive the battered agriculture, fisheries and allied sectors in the north.

Diplomats in Colombo however think it will take a long time for such plans to materialize because New Delhi's immediate concerns include the political settlement of the Tamils and the process of reconciliation of the displaced people.

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