Protests by angry farmers across the country; Agriculture Minister Aluthgamage’s effigy burned and beaten; ruling party MPs feeling heat from their constituencies President admits he and his Govt have fallen short of expectations; vows to take the country forward with new vigour once the pandemic is brought under control, asks for active role from PM [...]


Govt. deep in infertile political ground, as fertiliser crisis grows


  • Protests by angry farmers across the country; Agriculture Minister Aluthgamage’s effigy burned and beaten; ruling party MPs feeling heat from their constituencies
  • President admits he and his Govt have fallen short of expectations; vows to take the country forward with new vigour once the pandemic is brought under control, asks for active role from PM
  • As PM’s talks with unions falter, public anger grows against teachers’ strike; Govt. ministers warn of tough action if teachers defying unions are threatened
When the Sunday Times news team covering the 2019 presidential elections campaigns travelled through the North Central Province comprising the rice growing districts of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, they found that farmers in the region were overwhelmingly supportive of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Many were fed up of the Yahapalana Government, which they said had not brought any development to speak of for the region (though then President Maithripala Sirisena hailed from the Polonnaruwa District). They spoke about the dysfunctional cohabitation government of the time, and nationalism and public security were again high on their list of priorities — so was the pledge of receiving subsidised fertiliser for their crops.

In fact, one thing they were happy about was that both the main presidential candidates, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa, were promising them fertiliser ‘for jam’. Whoever won the presidential contest, the farmers were going to be the winners too. In the end, Rajapaksa carried both districts handsomely, winning 58.97 percent of the total valid votes cast in the Anuradhapura district and 53.01 percent in the Polonnaruwa district.

Fast forward to October 2021 and many of these same farmers are venting their fury against the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government over a crisis it self-inflicted resulting in a severe fertiliser shortage as farmers prepare to cultivate their fields for the ‘Maha’ Season. President Rajapaksa first announced moves to ban the import of chemical fertiliser in April, citing health concerns the product was causing. Opposition voices said it had nothing to do with health concerns; it was a cash-strapped Government unable to find the foreign currency to import the fertiliser.

At the time, the Government offered no clear alternative to farmers, leaving many confused. It then offered cash incentives to farmers to produce their own ‘organic fertiliser’. Many farmers, however, had no idea how to produce organic fertiliser on a large scale that was also good enough to offer a substantial yield for their crops.

Premier Rajapaksa, known for his public relations skills, in a friendly conversation with teacher union leader Joseph Stalin after their talks at Temple Trees on Tuesday Right: Protesting farmers burning the effigy of Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage

Having used chemical fertiliser for decades, they had no knowledge of how to transition to organic farming almost overnight and the Government was not helping them to adapt either. Many were worried that without access to chemical fertiliser, their produce would be far lower next season, leading to dire consequences for farmers and the prospect of a catastrophic food shortage throughout the country next year. Street protests continued until they were stopped by the lockdown and travel restrictions imposed in August due to the pandemic.

Farmers have been out in force again after the lifting of the lockdown and travel restrictions and if anything, are angrier than ever, with protesters blocking main roads for hours in some areas. Much of their wrath is directed towards Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, who has steadfastly defended the ban on chemical fertiliser and insisted in Parliament on numerous occasions that, contrary to claims, there is no fertiliser shortage. It seems no farmer protest these days is complete without an effigy of the minister being severely beaten or set alight, or both.

Other Government members are also starting to become targets. During protests in Polonnaruwa on Thursday, protesters also burned an effigy of State Minister and Polonnaruwa District MP Roshan Ranasinghe. Farmers who attended the protest blasted Ranasinghe for being more concerned about building a jogging track along the bund of the Parakrama Samudraya than securing fertiliser for Polonnaruwa’s farmers, many of whom went canvassing for him during the last election.

In the face of widespread farmer protests, the Government has been rushing to purchase organic fertiliser in time for the Maha season, but these plans too have been hit by roadblocks. It had to suspend plans to import a stock of organic fertiliser from a Chinese company after tests conducted by the National Plant Quarantine Services (NPQS) on samples found the presence of harmful bacteria including Erwinia, which is a plant pathogen. The Chinese Embassy in Colombo disputed the NPQS’s findings last week, calling the conclusions “hasty” and lacking “scientific basis.”

Hopes that at least some fertiliser would reach the farmers rose this week, with 30,000 metric tonnes of what was described as organic fertiliser reaching the country from Lituania. A fresh controversy arose even as the fertiliser was being unloaded at the Colombo Port. In his official Facebook page, Minister Aluthgamage described the fertiliser as the first stock of ‘organic potassium chloride fertiliser’. Chemical scientists, including professors of chemistry, publicly disputed this, saying there is no such thing as ‘organic potassium chloride’ and what the Government has actually imported was a type of chemical fertiliser. Minister Aluthgamage’s Facebook post was subsequently edited to simply say that a stock of 30,000 metric tonnes of ‘organic fertiliser’ had arrived, but his ministry then sent out a statement stating that the Director General of Agriculture assures that the potassium chloride fertiliser is an ‘organic fertiliser of mineral origin’. The debate, if not the confusion, continues to rage.

What the Government had actually imported was chemical fertiliser known as MOP {Muriate of Potash; muriate is an archaic term for chloride} claimed Namal Karunaratne, National Organiser of the All Ceylon Farmers’ Federation. He said there was nothing wrong in the Government admitting it had erred in banning chemical fertiliser overnight and accepting that it had been forced to import chemical fertiliser to avert a food crisis. “Instead, the Government is continuing to perpetuate the lie by bringing down something else while claiming it is organic fertiliser.”

He also said the MOP that he claimed the Government had imported was fertiliser that should be used later on, when the rice sprouts start growing. “They need to apply fertiliser known as TSP (Triple Super Phosphate) and urea before that. By telling farmers to apply these newly imported stocks now, the Government is severely endangering the cultivations and leaving farmers vulnerable to crop failure,” he warned.

Political fallout

In the face of the unfolding crisis, there was a political fallout for the Government. Ruling coalition MPs and ministers have disregarded all pretense of keeping up a united front, attacking the fertiliser policy and the Agriculture Minister in particular. Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa told the media that even a good thing should be properly planned before being implemented. “There should have been a far more extensive dialogue before this policy was implemented. If such a dialogue had occurred within the Government, perhaps things would have turned out differently,” he said. He also said some cabinet papers that were submitted were approved the same day without giving time to discuss them. “This is not a good method. I have spoken out against this at Cabinet meetings and publicly as well.”

State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara, meanwhile, said the aim to transition into organic farming almost immediately was never going to work. “There is no country in the world that is currently engaged in 100 percent organic farming.” He said even countries in the region such as Nepal, which had earlier tried to transition to organic farming by 2020, had pushed it back to 2035 because it was not viable.

He said rather than keep giving chemical fertiliser subsidies, which only results in low quality and harmful chemical fertilisers being imported, the Government should look into importing good quality 2nd and 3rd generation fertilisers which would be enough to cover a wider area with a lower amount. “Farmers will still buy even if there is no subsidy because the fertiliser is good.”

Meanwhile, a letter signed by 40 SLPP backbenchers clearly feeling the heat from farmers in their constituencies has been forwarded to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the fertiliser issue. Badulla District SLPP MP Tissa Kuttiarachchi was careful not to show open revolt. He said MPs were not calling on the President to reverse the decision to ban chemical fertiliser. “Our concern is regarding the delay in distributing the fertiliser to farmers. Even if it’s organic fertiliser, a mechanism should be in place to ensure that it speedily reaches the farmers who are about to cultivate their fields for the Maha Season. The fertiliser must reach the farmers within the next two to three weeks, but we can see delays and that is causing frustration among the farmers.”

The President’s Office, however, has conveyed to the backbenchers to raise their concerns at the Government Parliamentary Group meeting scheduled to be held in Parliament next Thursday, which is a sitting day. “Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage will also be in attendance at this meeting and we plan to question him regarding the delay in getting the fertiliser to the farmers,” Kuttiarachchi said.

Rising cost of living

The fertiliser crisis is not the only issue that has made the Government increasingly unpopular in the eyes of the public. The cost of living is soaring due to the prices of many essential goods going up. The past two weeks has seen many such items going up consequent to the Government’s decision to remove price controls on rice, powdered milk, wheat flour, cement and LP gas. This has seen the prices of many other items rising as a result, including the price of a packet of rice, milk tea, kottu and bread. On Friday, the price of locally manufactured powdered milk, which the Government had been promoting as an alternative to imported powdered milk, also went up.

Despite the price increase, shortages still continue in some cases, most notably powdered milk. The only queue that’s longer than the one to buy powdered milk is the queue formed by those outside the office of the Department of Immigration & Emigration in Battaramulla, where hundreds line up each day hoping to finalise documents to go abroad, underlying how bad the situation has become for most people, especially young people.

There was further speculation this week that fuel prices would also go up. On Wednesday, Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila said that while no final decision had been taken, a price increase was inevitable unless they received a fuel subsidy from the Finance Ministry. When queried about the matter during a media briefing on Thursday, Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal said a fuel price hike was “the right way to go” to address the vulnerability caused by the rapid fuel price increases in the world market. He said the CB would support such a decision. “The fuel tax is already reduced to a great extent. I personally think if there is going to be any further adjustment, then that should be reflected in the price adjustment and not anything else,” he added, indicating that the CB was not in favour of further reducing taxes on fuel to prevent a price hike.

Opposition parties, including the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), are also conducting street protests over the current state of affairs. Addressing a protest in Kesbewa on Friday, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa said that after obtaining such a convincing people’s mandate, those in the Government were now living in luxury while the people suffer. “Essentially, the Government has turned the country into a torture chamber,” he said. Mr Premadasa has also been visiting farmers affected by the fertiliser crisis during the past few weeks.

During his address at the Sri Lanka Army’s 72nd  Anniversary celebrations at Gajaba Regimental Headquarters in Saliyapura last Sunday, President Rajapaksa publicly acknowledged that the people were unhappy because he and his Government had fallen short of expectations.

“I acknowledge that there is displeasure among the people towards myself and the Government because things have not gone the way they expected it to,” he told the gathering.

Addressing the ceremony held at the regimental headquarters of his old regiment, Rajapaksa, with his military medals pinned to his suit, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had severely damaged the country’s economy due to lockdowns and various other measures taken to control the pandemic. “I won’t offer excuses to the people but we were still able to do much despite the pandemic,” he said, before acknowledging that the public disapproved of his and his Government’s performance. It was a rare admission by a Head of Government during his term when others before him never conceded such failure, however bad the situation was. He, however, pledged to take the country forward with new vigour once the country fully opened.

The President appealed to everyone to support these efforts. He pledged to introduce a new Constitution – which was offered as a panacea for all ills in the past as well — and a new electoral system within the next year.

President Rajapaksa’s public remarks followed what he told the Cabinet behind closed doors last week. He told ministers he was prepared to engage in self-criticism over the current situation and that while he may have extensive experience as a Government administrator, he was still new to politics. As such, he said he expected his elder brother and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, with 60 years of political experience behind him, and other senior cabinet ministers, to play an even more active role in political affairs.

Referring to the President’s comments that were reported in the media, United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe issued a video statement welcoming them, saying the comments amounted to an admission that the 20th Amendment had failed. “The amendment ended rule by Cabinet. It created a Government within the Government regarding decisions related to the economy and COVID-19 while it also created a Government outside the Government when it came to the maximum retail price of rice. The end result was that the household economy collapsed.”

Mr Wickremesinghe said the best solution was to abolish the 20th Amendment and to run the country by a cabinet responsible to Parliament according to the 19th Amendment.

Power Minister Gamini Lokuge, a former UNPer, however, dismissed Wickremesinghe’s statement. “The President was simply stating that while he was an experienced administrator, he was still inexperienced in politics and needed assistance from those such as the PM who have extensive political experience. There is nothing more to that.”

Education sector protests

In what could be seen as a consequence of the President’s remarks, Premier Rajapaksa chaired a meeting on Tuesday between Government officials and unions representing teachers and principals to discuss their long-standing salary anomaly issue. The meeting was seen as a decisive attempt to resolve the issue, which has now seen teachers staying away from conducting online classes to students for more than three months. The Government is also hoping to reopen schools with less than 200 students next week (October 21) followed by all schools next month.

During the meeting, the Government proposed to increase the salaries of teachers and principals in three instalments under two stages. According to the new proposal, the first instalment of the increment will be paid in January next year under the 2022 Budget while the next two instalments will be paid at once in 2023 under that year’s Budget. A ministerial sub-committee which was appointed earlier to study the issue had also submitted its recommendations regarding several other demands made by unions, including converting the teacher and principals’ service into a closed service. It was proposed to complete these recommendations within six months.

Perhaps it was Premier Rajapaksa’s unpararelled public relations skills that convinced those in the Government that the meeting would decisively end the trade union action. Soon after it ended, a media release in English trumpeting the headline “Prime Minister resolves salary anomalies ending teacher-principal trade union actions” appeared in “,” the Government’s official news portal. The same release was posted in the Prime Minister’s official Facebook page along with photographs of the meeting, including one where the PM is seen casually talking to Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU) General Secretary Joseph Stalin with his hand on Stalin’s shoulder. Unions engaged in the TU action, however, made it clear to journalists outside Temple Trees that they have neither accepted nor rejected the Government’s proposal and would convey their decision the next day after meeting to discuss it.

On Wednesday, unions announced that they had rejected the Government’s proposal and would continue their strike action, leaving plenty of egg on the faces on those who had prematurely sent out media releases claiming that the TU action had ended.

Unions contend that there is no purpose in them accepting the Government’s latest proposal as under that, salary increases received by various grades in the service will be so meagre that it would make their struggles over the past three months meaningless.

For example, those in the lowest category of Class 3 – Grade II, who are due to receive a total salary increase of Rs. 3,750 will only receive Rs. 1,250 in January 2022 under the Government proposal. Even those in the far higher category of Class 2 – Grade II, which is comprised of graduate teachers holding a Diploma in Education, will only receive Rs. 2,178 in January 2022 out of a total salary increase of Rs. 6,535. Those in the highest teacher category of Class 1 are due for a total salary increase of Rs. 11, 820, but will only receive Rs. 3,940 in January next year. The same issue applies to those in the principals’ service, with those in the highest category of Class 1, entitled to a Rs. 12,020 salary increase, receiving only Rs. 4,005 next year under the Government

Mr Stalin told the Sunday Times that unions had been more than flexible when it came to negotiations. “We are simply asking the Government to implement the recommendations made by its own committee appointed to resolve the salary anomaly issue. What’s the use of appointing committees and spending funds for them if the Government then decides not to implement their recommendations?”

He, however, cautioned that unions had still not taken a decision on whether to go back to the classrooms when selected school reopened on October 21, hinting that there was still hope for a last minute solution. “However, as far as we are concerned, that solution will have to mean the Government agrees to pay these salary increases at once.”

Mr Stalin also dismissed accusations that their trade union action had deprived children of their education. “The education sector collapsed due to the pandemic. The Government’s attempt to introduce online education also failed as only about 40 percent of students had access to it. The Government made no attempt to find a solution to this disparity,” he said, deflecting some real criticism that the teachers unions were unconcerned about the education of their charges in schools.

As the trade union action enters its fourth month, there has been increasingly strong rhetoric from some ministers and MPs on the Government side. Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara, who has been at loggerheads with the teacher unions for several months now, again warned that anyone found to be intimidating teachers who report to work on October 21 would be arrested. Lands Minister S.M. Chandrasena asked for police to be stationed outside schools while former Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake, desperate to re-enter the Cabinet, said such protests had to be “suppressed” and he knew how to do so.

Unions would not be intimidated by Government threats, Stalin said. “Our right to protest and engage in trade union action is guaranteed by the Constitution. This is not the first time that we have been subjected to intimidation. Remember that 44 of our teachers were arrested by police without any basis and kept overnight in police stations and harassed before being produced in court, where they were given bail. They then had the CID launch an inquiry into our protests and even claimed we were spreading covid in the country, so this is not new.”

While parents and the public at large were initially supportive of the teachers’ struggle, some of this support has eroded as the online strike and protests dragged on. In rural areas, some teachers were charging Rs. 1,000 from each of their 30 plus classroom for private tuition for a month while also collecting their monthly pay packet. For those in the higher grades, and in and around the big cities, these rates are much higher. Parents have to cough these tuition fees in addition to the mounting bills for their food items.

Mr Stalin, however, believes the majority of the public and parents are still with them. “The Government is trying to turn them against us by spreading misinformation, but we believe the public and parents understand our struggle to be just and necessary.”

With the country opening up, the economy is beginning to limp back to a semblance of normalcy but so too are the protests going to come out in the open. It is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for the Government.

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