It is becoming increasingly clear that the promised vistas of prosperity and splendour are rapidly moving further distant with the government habitually reversing gazettes that proclaim major policy decisions at the drop of a hat. This ridiculous trend has led to loss of governmental credibility beyond measure whilst these vacillations, these turnarounds faster than the [...]


The Reversal of Revolution

Farmers fall from organic pan to chemical fire

It is becoming increasingly clear that the promised vistas of prosperity and splendour are rapidly moving further distant with the government habitually reversing gazettes that proclaim major policy decisions at the drop of a hat.

This ridiculous trend has led to loss of governmental credibility beyond measure whilst these vacillations, these turnarounds faster than the spins of a weathercock in gusty winds, have set back the nation leagues from its intended destination and turned awry the currents of great enterprise.

Not only are the goal posts shifted but the rules and game itself are changed mid play according to passing whim and fancy of what is now called a ‘people sensitive’ government. With each heralded step forward the furtive two taken back thereafter bode no good for a nation’s onward march; and characterizes the Government as one weak and indecisive. No wonder it has zapped the morale of the public service who have to implement policy, and eroded the faith, trust and confidence of the people in whose sovereign name, and for whose supposed benefit, the ongoing circus is purportedly conducted.

AGRICULTURE MINISTER MAHINDANANDA: ‘No change in Government policy’

The latest one to join the pile of dumped gazettes in this year’s pulp-fiction bin will be the one issued on May 6th where the then Finance Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa proclaims the ban on import of chemical fertilisers including insecticides and herbicides forthwith. This gave legal effect to a Presidential decision announced a week earlier.

This sudden paradigm shift in the state’s agricultural policy gave rise to grave alarm. True, the SLPP Presidential manifesto had declared its commendable intention to promote organic fertiliser while phasing out the use of chemical fertiliser over a period of 10 years and to give both free.

This is what the manifesto, in its section ‘A Revolution in the Use of Fertiliser’ says:

‘Building up a community of citizens who are healthy and productive, we need to develop the habit of consuming food with no contamination with harmful chemicals. In order to guarantee the people’s right to such safe food, the entire Sri Lankan agriculture will be promoted to use organic fertilisers during the next ten years. For this, production of organic fertiliser will be accelerated.’

‘In the new system, the inorganic and organic fertiliser both will be provided free of charge to farmers. They will be promoted to shift gradually into a complete system using entirely carbonic fertilisers.’

Truly exemplary, no doubt. It envisages to persuade farmers to shift gradually to organic fertiliser weaning them away from chemical or inorganic fertiliser; and to demonstrate its bona fides holds neither threat of force nor monetary incentive but promises free fertiliser to all during this 10 year period, be it chemical or carbonic.

Furthermore the noble concept was promoted out of concern for public health, especially as a means of reducing kidney diseases, the alarming prevalence of which was attributed by the Government to the widespread use of chemical fertilisers.

In the manifesto that earned 6.9 million hits at the polls, it is the quiet revolution in agricultural methods that is alluringly painted, the smooth seamless evolution in farming practice that is admirably advocated. Not the pell-mell rush of overnight change that leads to pandemonium. That was grievous folly, indeed.

Take the Bhutan experience. This small Himalayan kingdom was the first to announce in 2013 its ambitious plan to become the world’s first organic farming country. But the Bhutan Government did not intend to realise this target overnight in haste, of course, but set its sights on the year 2020 to achieve 100 per cent ‘green’ status. But even this planned 8 year period hasn’t sufficed to turn ambition’s vision into reality.

THE LOIN PROTEST OF NATION’S RICE WINNERS: The farmer force made a token appearance in last week’s SJB-led protest to bring the grassroots’ grim message to the gates of Temple Trees

Last year as the 2020 deadline passed, Bhutan had only achieved about 10 percent of organic agriculture production, along with just about 545 hectares of crop land (less than 1 percent of its total arable land) being certified organic. But the Government has now shifted its 2020 target to the year 2035, giving the nation another 15 years to gradually wean out chemical fertiliser from its agricultural process.

Bhutan’s failed project to go green within 8 years, did not deter the Government from proceeding full steam ahead with its own plan to dare the impossible overnight. Experts warned that, though the gradual transformation to organic fertiliser was indeed welcome, accelerating the process would be to court disaster to the crops and to woo famine to the people.

The Sri Lanka Agricultural Economics Association pointed out that their findings on the subject of paddy revealed that the average yields from paddy can drop by 25 percent if chemical fertilisers are fully replaced by organic fertiliser. On tea, the flavour that put the country on the world map, they noted that a complete ban on chemical fertiliser would result in a productivity drop in Vegetative Propagated Tea by 35 percent. They predicted an export volume would suffer a shortfall of 98 million kilos, from 279 to 181 million kg, leading to a revenue loss of Rs. 84 billion.

Others made reference to a paper titled ‘“Why organic farming is not the way forward” written in 2019 by Prof. Holger Kirchmann of the Swedish University in Uppsala whose findings had revealed that yields of organically cropped legumes were 20 per cent lower than those of conventionally grown crops.

Former Governor of the Western Province and a former Deputy Minister of Agriculture with a doctorate in organic agriculture, Dr. Hemantha Nanayakkara warned: ‘’In the 1960s, Dr. Norman Borlaug, who initiated the Green Revolution, started breeding new varieties and hybrids which have a very high responsiveness to agrochemicals, chemical fertilisers, and micro irrigation. The varieties we have at present, be it pumpkin, chilli, capsicum, tomato, or potato, are new, improved varieties, and therefore, they cannot be grown under organic agricultural conditions.’’

But yet the Government remained adamant and, throwing expert warning to the winds, stormed ahead at full speed to reap the inevitable whirlwind. Not even the cries of farmers – the literal rice winners of the land – who braved the sun and the rain to express their shock, horror and ire at being denied the chemical cocktail of nutrients the seed and soil so need to sprout and bloom – could stop it from its slide on the slippery slope to foretold disaster.

And the havoc it caused these last six months is so well known that it needs no retelling, save to say that the ill-conceived plan, implemented in haste, has led to consequences unforeseen, in fields undreamt of on matters unbargained for.

The mad scramble to import carbonic fertiliser at the eleventh hour ran into unexpected storms, with the Lankan watchdog the National Plant Quarantine Service rejecting a Chinese fertiliser shipment, not once but thrice, after finding it riddled with harmful Erwinia, and refusing, quite correctly, to accept the verdict of any third party, claiming its position as the nation’s Final Authourity as per the law.

The ensuing legal wrangles has seen the Chinese Government blacklisting worldwide one of Lanka’s premier State banks, the People’s Bank for refusing to honour the issued Letter of Credit and paying up on demand even though it was restrained from doing so by a Lankan court order. And it hasn’t stopped there. The Chinese company, stating that their reputation had been maligned, has sent a letter of demand to the National Plant Quarantine Additional Director who signed the certificate, claiming 8 million dollars as damages.

With the dispute deadlocked, with the Chinese cargo ship, anchored off the southern coast, refusing to leave Lankan waters for the last 70 days until payment was made for the rejected goods, with a bank blacklisted, with Chinese officials at the other end of the rope in a hard fought tug of war over national pride, with tempers frayed on either side, the discovery of Erwinia in a sample of Chinese waste, had all the ingredients necessary to blow up into a major diplomatic incident.

The sudden ban on chemical fertiliser six months ago has, as a byproduct, led to such far reaching consequences that it now risked imperiling the goodwill of the Chinese Government, which Lanka cannot afford to see disappearing at any cost. What more unimaginable consequences will flow from the jinxed ban in the treacherous times ahead, may have occupied the minds of the plan’s progenitors and forced a hundred and eighty degree change in course direction.

When cabinet met on Wednesday, second thoughts reigned supreme when it was decided that the chemical fertiliser ban will be shelved. But it was said, there was no change in government policy as regards its stance on exclusive organic farming. Only that chemical fertiliser can be imported by private companies and can be used as before without restriction.

Minister of Agriculture, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, the man whose effigy farmers love to burn most, announced the cabinet decision at a press conference. For a man who had but yesterday, stoutly defended the government’s highly unpopular chemical ban, he appeared to have sloughed off his six month epidermis when, with brave face, he admitted his surrender to public opinion, whilst still insisting, of course, there has been no change in government policy.

He said: ‘’The Government has decided to partially lift the ban on chemical fertiliser and permit the private sector to import it to allow the country’s farmers to purchase it from the open market. There is no change in the Government’s stand towards sustainable and organic agriculture. Henceforth Government support by way of subsidy, maximum guaranteed price where applicable, will be limited to only those who use organic farming. Our Government is not stubborn.”

First, the good news. The farmers, who had watched their fields turn fallow for want of chemical fertiliser to make it green with yield, will now be free to fruit the earth’s bounty in abundant measure with the availability of soil enriching nutrients.

But the bad news was that, with the October-November seeding season for the Maha crop fast coming to an end this month, there will be no fertiliser – neither carbon nor chemical – to be found anywhere. Even if import orders were placed now, by the time the ships reached port, the seeding season would be long past. There would be no Maha harvest this time in February and March, which accounts for 70 percent of rice produced annually, but only tears to shed instead.

And there will be no end to the bad news for next year’s Yala and Maha seasons as well. Though the Government had promised in its Presidential manifesto ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour,’ that ‘in the new system, the inorganic and organic fertiliser both will be provided free of charge to farmers,’ the government has now decided to renege on its election promise to give chemical fertiliser free.

If that was bad enough, the Government had also decided to abolish the price subsidy for inorganic fertiliser, first introduced in 1962 and which had been given by successive governments as a customary subsidy for the last 59 years, save a four year gap between 1990 and 1994 after which it was resumed in 1995.

And to make inorganic farmers’ sack of woes replete, it had also decided to deny a guaranteed price for rice as before and, henceforth, to leave the price of chemically produced rice to the caprice of market forces.

Any wonder then that the farmers must feel let down and left forlorn? That they have been led down the garden path and left forsaken to find their own way out of a tangled maze created by a government they had, with so much faith and hope in beholding vistas of splendorous prosperity, elected so eagerly to power two years ago?

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