The price of fertilizer may not interest most except that it will affect rice, fruit and vegetable production and therefore hit their stomachs at some stage. Vegetable farmers in Bandarawela, Welimada, Keppetipola in the central highlands and Hambantota in the south, worst hit by a shortage and paddy cultivators in the North Central and North Western [...]


Fertilizer subsidy; IMF and new agri-culture


The price of fertilizer may not interest most except that it will affect rice, fruit and vegetable production and therefore hit their stomachs at some stage. Vegetable farmers in Bandarawela, Welimada, Keppetipola in the central highlands and Hambantota in the south, worst hit by a shortage and paddy cultivators in the North Central and North Western provinces were out on the streets protesting the Government’s new measures aimed at cutting the fertilizer subsidy without wanting to be seen doing so.

The Government argues that it has since rescinded an earlier decision and will now grant a cash offer in lieu of the subsidy arguing the subsidy provides farmers with low quality fertilizer harmful to them and the soil and that they should be weaned away towards purchasing organic fertilizer suitable for their fields. But the farmers – the end users – do not seem to buy that line, calling it a mere façade to deprive them of a useful privilege they had.

Once a concession is given, it is near impossible to take it away without a fight. Whatever good intentions the Government may have had, they certainly were not marketed with the stakeholders. This has now become a trend with this Government, examples being the Kathikawatha Bill and also, the ETCA (Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement) proposal.

For years this country was a textbook welfare state; from free education to free health to two measures of free rice. Post-Independence leaders genuinely felt the long oppressed people deserved this, but the stark economic realities were something else. Somebody had to pay the bills at the end of the day.

It was President J.R. Jayewardene who had the courage to stop the ignominy of people queuing up for free rice, but he ensured there was a safety net to cushion the poorest of the poor in the form of food stamps. This later developed into Samurdhi benefits, unfortunately a scheme that has been rife with false claims, corruption and abuse from the very top to the bottom over the years.

What the incumbent Government has done however, is paradoxical. On the one hand they are trying to liberalise the economy by relaxing all the laws and regulations relating to foreign remittances to the extent of initiating a ‘no questions asked’ policy to attract capital. On the other, they are being utterly bureaucratic asking hardworking farmers who feed the nation to trudge towards far away bank branches, fill endless forms, provide their photograph and wait their turn to get a cash voucher for them to obtain fertilizer at a subsidised price.

It is clear as clear can be that the Government has no focused policy on how to handle this dichotomy. A subsidy the farmers now enjoy is to be taken away from them and what they call a sop is to be given to them instead after some laborious form filling which they feel is more tedious work than the back breaking toil in the midday sun in their fields. And yet, the Government is so cash-strapped that a fertilizer subsidy has to be pruned. From where these orders are coming, is an open secret.

This week, the Cabinet of Ministers was at pains to find a via-medium. Financial experts and industry sources say a billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was at stake. The IMF has a familiar formula for giving loans to economically developing countries; put your house in order is the bottom line. To heck with the political fall-out. It is called officially, Structural Adjustment Policies. For Governments that must fall in line with this fiat; you are damned if you do, you are damned if you don’t.

A fortnight back, our UN correspondent in his reminiscences in this newspaper recalled a joke oft told by a former Secretary General of UNCTAD, our own Dr. Gamani Corea, a one-time Deputy Governor of the Central Bank. He (who disliked the IMF) said all economically developing countries have one thing in common. Their de-facto Finance Minister is the IMF. He then went on to say how a newly appointed Finance Minister from one of these loan seeking countries upon being congratulated on his appointment replied; “I’m only half a Finance Minister. The other half is in Washington”.

And so it is as Sri Lanka now has no option but go for a billion dollar loan from the IMF as its Balance of Payments reaches crisis proportions. At present there is a glut in paddy, the result of which is a fall in the prices farmers get for their bountiful harvest. The Guaranteed Price Scheme (GPS) has been thrown to the winds as their produce fetches half of what the Government has assured them, by law.

The major roads in the countryside are being used by farmers to dry their paddy, and a further harvest is due shortly from different areas. The country’s main goal in the 1960s with the ‘Food Drive’ of the Dudley Senanayake Government was to see that Sri Lanka was self-sufficient in rice. That once maligned initiative has now borne positive results and there is a surfeit available. A decade ago there was a campaign for the people to stop eating bread and eat rice even thrice a day.

The need now however, is multi-fold. One, to get away from the toxic fertilizer application that has parched Mother Earth in the process of achieving high yields. The produce has resulted in dangerous food, including certain categories of rice, fruit and vegetable that people consume causing long term health hazards. The spreading kidney disease among the farming community has been directly attributed to certain chemicals in the fertilizer used. Next week, the Government has launched a timely campaign on food security and sustainable agriculture for a ‘Toxin-free nation”. Scientists, farmers, agriculturalists, politicians and traders are joining forces to make this venture a success.

Second, there needs to be a Master Plan to develop better strains of more nutritious varieties of rice and other foods grown locally with a view to exporting the excess produce. Bringing back old forms of cultivation sans the imported chemicals and the carbide needs to be made fashionable – and safe. Some of these concepts are already on the drawing boards but the implementation is always slow. There clearly is a mismatch between the farmer-producer, marketer, the consumer — and the exporter. Agro-industries are still way behind.

Today, excess paddy is being sold as poultry feed or for making alcohol while consumers are still left paying more than Rs. 60 a kilo of rice in the marketplace. The deficiency in efficient marketing and packaging has not been remedied despite the success achieved in production.

There is so much waste as a result. There is, therefore, a crying need for a total review of the country’s ‘agri-culture’; a new culture in agriculture; a cultural revolution of sorts. There is no better time than now for the Government to put plans into action.

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