Saturday, May 30, 2009

Playing politics with Agriculture-an integral part of democracy in Sri Lanka

Agriculture is an emotive issue in Sri Lanka, as most of the population live in the rural areas and have some kind of bond with the land. In terms of the old-fashioned caste system, the Govigama forms the largest block of any grouping in Sri Lanka. The reality however is that within this sector less than 5% of families depend only on agriculture for their livelihood, having a surplus, from personal use, for sale. In addition over half the urban population have roots in the villages they or their parents came from, and so have a bond. Using anecdotal evidence, when one greets a stranger in SL one asks where one is from, and one expects the name of a village to be mentioned, even if one has never been there. I am frequently asked this, and ironically, the people who live in Raja Ela, are descendants of colonists, but still lay claim to the village where their ancestor came from!

The subsidy given to paddy farming, not to vegetable or fruit crops, is a ploy to garner votes. The productivity of this is questionable. It only applies to farmers with up to 5 acres (2hectares) of land under paddy cultivation. I agree that at present this small farmer supplies the bulk of our rice requirement, and are so subsidized as otherwise they may not get the yields needed to feed the population. This high cost farming is not sustainable. In future with less labor, only larger cultivations will be viable, as the need for equipment becomes paramount and their costs can only be recoverable in larger cultivations.

We must face the reality of the future with no agricultural labor to speak of and therefore encourage and give incentives to productive farmers to take on more efficient agricultural methods, in order that we can reduce our costs of production per kg, which can then be passed on to the consumer, while also giving the remaining farmers a larger return. It is absolutely pointless to support this vote bank of farmers who can barely produce enough rice to feed their families, and whose primary source of income is in some other field. Those in the armed forces, police, government servants including teachers and the retail, construction and transport industry account for the bulk of these so called “farmers”

The state subsidizes by giving low cost fertilizer, free land and free water, which encourage inefficient planting methods. These people are merely kitchen gardeners, an essential part of the food chain, who should not be given public funds. Agriculture is for the seasoned professional with dedication, and resources as well as skill from education.

I am aware that I am addressing a very controversial, and emotive topic, but if we are to win the war on food production, we must take a leaf out of the books of the farmers who are most efficient and emulate their methods. This is not possible for the majority of the people, as they are not looking at this vocation for their bread and butter. Our land policy must change to permit those “Govi Rajas” of Sri Lanka with a greater vision, to progress without silly bureaucratic restrictions aimed at preventing risk taking.

We need a sea change in attitudes to farming in Sri Lanka if we are to come close to countries like India in terms of costs of production. I am not trying to leap into the Western sphere of agriculture, but one where only those serious about farming should be given the tools (knowledge, land, seeds, water, fertilizer and equipment) to succeed.

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