It was no joke though it was turned into one by some of our urban glitterati and social media twitterati who probably cannot distinguish a paddy plant from a weed. When the posts of individual state ministers were gazetted and announced sometimes in minute detail, those who spend their time with a highball in hand [...]


Trying to feed a multitude


It was no joke though it was turned into one by some of our urban glitterati and social media twitterati who probably cannot distinguish a paddy plant from a weed.

When the posts of individual state ministers were gazetted and announced sometimes in minute detail, those who spend their time with a highball in hand and money earned somehow in their pockets, broke into the usual Sri Lankan habit of boos and hoots–now mainly via cyber space–though catcalls might have been more appropriate to their way of common greeting had they been within hoo-kiyana distance.

Technology has opened the doors for those who have never stepped into a chena or paddy field except perhaps into a tea plantation once owned by the colonial Sahabs whose unemployable sons were dispatched overseas to a comfortable life with kanganees and appus to do their every bidding and serve tiffin in the lawn for the lords and ladies of the Manor.

While one newspaper quoting the President’s Office said the portfolios were crafted to suit the national programme in mind, the media found many were bemused by the portfolios of some State ministers.

A particular job description that seemed subject to jibes was said to be that attached to the State Ministry of Shasheendra Rajapaksa, son of Chamal Rajapaksa, cabinet minister and state minister.

One might have understood sniggers on Facebook at another Rajapaksa claiming–or being granted–a post. Those who could not win a single seat at the parliamentary election and insulted the country’s oldest party founded by the Sri Lanka’s early Thomian leaders and now destroyed by Royalists, are hardly in a position to make jokes when politicians are asked to help cultivate our basic foods.

To sneer at the allocation of state duties calling on this Rajapaksa to take responsibility for producing onions, chilies and potatoes might be a laughing matter for those more accustomed to dealing with suspicious bonds and haunt the clubs, bars and restaurants in Colombo 3, 5 and 7.

But lo unto the government that could not put a regular supply of potatoes and onions on the table or banned their imports leaving it to the Palk Strait suppliers to add to other more lucrative items that cross the narrow waters and expand Indo-Lanka trade.

These sneering Facebook types that would not bend an inch to plant a couple of onions but are ready to sling mud at those who make an effort need to be put on the field at least once a week even to learn how to dig up space for a home garden.

It used to be done in the days of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike when a meal of rice was prohibited once a week and the transport of more than a limited quantity of rice across provincial borders was banned.

I remember when with the active support of Daily News Editor Ernest Corea, our one time ambassador to Washington who later joined the World Bank, I started a weekly page on agriculture writing a regular column on growing crops to encourage housewives and others with time on their hands to grow crops in pots and home gardens to supplement their own purchases.

This was in the mid-1960s when Dudley Senanayake as prime minister toured every part of the country encouraging villagers and others to take to growing edible crops and urging officials to provide the necessary wherewithal to the peasantry. I used to accompany the prime minister and party on these visits learning more with each visit and exposing weaknesses in state machinery.

On one of his regular visits, Dudley Senanayake, Agriculture Minister MD Banda and a host of officials from the relevant departments stopped at Boralanda, some miles from Welimada and close to my former college at Gurutalawa.

While our college had for many years a huge farm of several acres with livestock, food crops and orchards, small farmers in Boralanda were experimenting with new crops such as potatoes and what was then called “Bombay onions”.

I was a good friend of Lionel Samarakkody, President of the Potato Growers Association, for I was staying with one of the Samarakkody family–a lovely lively clan of around 25–when attending college at Mt Lavinia–and we met often.

It was in later years when the Daily News started the weekly agriculture page and a monthly 4-paged supplement also devoted to agriculture and related issues that Samarakoddy who convinced me that potatoes and big onions which the country always imported could be successfully cultivated in Sri Lanka not only in areas of high elevation but even in the more arid flat land in the north.

He said his own experience and those of the farmers in the area proved it was possible. What was needed was to convince the government.

When we stopped for tea at Boralanda, I tentatively approached the Prime Minister on why we do not try our hand at growing potatoes and onions as small farmers under Samarakkody’s encouragement were already doing on a limited scale and we could see small potato farms around us.

Dudley, if I might call him that as we did in the old days–out of his hearing naturally though he wouldn’t have minded–was very hesitant. I understood why. He was worried that if we relied entirely on local produce and there was crop failure and no potatoes in the market he would be chewed up in parliament.

So I used my column to press the argument. I also worked on Agriculture Minister MD Banda who I used to meet at least twice a week at his ministry or parliament. After pestering him for at least four months with the potato/onion ‘saga’, I had an argument to counter Minister Banda’s main objection which partially relied on the prime minister’s fears.

How can we ban the import of potatoes and onions when we don’t grow any? We were ready for that. Let the government give notice of the ban one year from a specific date. Import seed potato from Holland and other producing nations giving enough time for farmers to prepare their fields and plant the seed. Watch how the crops grow. If cultivation is possible and successful then announce the forthcoming ban.

Although I was criticised in some quarters especially by importers, I was happy that I had a hand in the ban that followed and the spread of potato cultivation even in the dry zone and proliferation of onion and chilie fields in the north.

The point is that this called for a policy decision. As I see it this will be left today to ministers. The State ministers would carry out the duties stated in their job description. They are so specific that they cannot ignore them or dodge them.

Now the responsibility falls on two. The minister in charge and the state minister who has more specific duties to perform. The days when ministers and their minions travelled around in convoys as though they were petty local potentates should end.

No longer could state ministers and lower rankers that might follow avoid their responsibilities by claiming this is not his or her job. By accepting the post with a specific job description they can no longer avoid the responsibilities. If they wish to they can always resign.

And those who snigger at politicians who have been assigned the task of seeing crops like chilies, onions and potatoes grown for the local people should stop eating them if they do not like those mandated to encourage their cultivation. Do not laugh at agricultural production unless they wish to choke on their own chilies.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor, Diplomatic Editor and Political Columnist of the Hong Kong Standard before moving to London where he worked for Gemini News Service. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)


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