Import Ban on Synthetic Fertilizers –
by Buddhi Marambe,
Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya
The ban on importation of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides was imposed on May 6, 2021 through the Extraordinary Gazette Notification No 2226/48. This was one of the 20 activities approved by the Cabinet of Ministers under the theme “Creating a Green Socio-economy with Sustainable Solutions for Climate Change”. The theme carries a long term noble objective. However, the approach suggested for achieving the objective in the agriculture sector is not at all practical, even to maintain the current levels of crop production and productivity in the country thus, threatening food security.
Use of organic matter as a soil conditioner, and a supplementary nutrient source to a certain extent, have always been encouraged by many and practiced by farmers at different levels with various objectives. Organic farming is a specialty practice with product and process certification. It has a good but niche export market and also a promising foreign exchange earner. It is heartening to see that organic fertilizer production and compost production are taking place at a mass scale in the country, in response to this policy decision. However, even with the novel technologies, organic fertilizer and/or compost alone would not suffice in providing the required nutrition to plants at the correct time and quantities. A high crop productivity could be achieved when appropriate strategies are used to match the patterns of supply of nutrients from fertilizer (organic or mineral) and absorption of nutrients by plants/crops. This aspect has been much deliberated and hence, I will not elaborate on the same further.
We have now learned that the decision to ban import of agrochemicals was made due to speculation that the farmers in many parts of the country suffer from many Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) including kidney disease and also that the serious damages done to the environment with the use of mineral fertilizers. Furthermore, we were also informed that the government spends huge amounts of foreign exchange annually on mineral fertilizer imports, inferring that there is a foreign currency issue that has also set the base for this decision. The author of this article strongly believe that the decision to ban agrochemicals has been taken on misinformation provided to His Excellency the President. Hence, the correct facts regarding the mineral fertilizer and their utilization in Sri Lanka are presented in this article to debunk the unscientific justifications made by some individuals and groups that would probably have led to the policy directive.
Fertilizer Imports and use in Sri Lanka
The Kethata Aruna fertilizer material subsidy programme was introduced in 2005 and dismantled in 2016-2017 replaced by a cash subsidy. The fertilizer material subsidy was re-introduced thereafter since 2018 in different forms. The import of mineral fertilizers is governed by the Regulation of Fertilizer Act No. 68 of 1988. This is under the purview of the National Fertilizer Secretariat (NFS). It must be noted that all quantities of fertilizer imported are decided by the NFS based on the advice and recommendations of the respective state agencies, i.e. Department of Agriculture, Research Institutes responsible for tea, rubber, coconut, sugarcane, etc. The quantities to be imported are decided annually considering the existing extent (for perennial crops) and anticipated extent (e.g. annual food crops) of cultivation, considering the fertilizer recommendations given by state agencies based on crop-nutrient requirements.
For example, according to the NFS, the anticipated paddy cultivation in Sri Lanka in 2021 (both Yala and Maha seasons together) is 1.3 million ha and the required quantity of fertilizer to be imported is 247,000 mt of Urea, 61,000 mt of Triple Super Phosphate (TSP) and 74,000 mt of Muriate of Potash (MOP). As per government regulations, all paddy fertilizer (subsidized fertilizer) can only be imported and distributed through the government-controlled mechanism. Excluding paddy, the anticipated fertilizer import in 2021 to provide required nutrients to other food crops and perennial/plantation crops for an estimated extent of 1.47 million ha amounts to 298,983 mt of Urea, 102,928 mt of TSP and 243,743 mt of MOP. There are other types of fertilizer also imported under the licenses issued by NFS. Further, excluding the subsidized fertilizer for paddy, the NFS issues permits to the private sector to import fertilizer for other crops on an agreed quota system.
It is important to note that no individual or agency in Sri Lanka (government-owned or private sector) can import fertilizer without an import permit issued by the NFS. The import permits are issued based on the actual crop requirements and anticipated cultivated extents. Therefore, it is clear that the quantity of fertilizer imported to Sri Lanka is not done on an ad hoc basis, but on a clear scientific methodology. Farmers should receive fertilizer at quantities decided by the NFS as recommended by the state institutions, and up to what is required by the country – not in excess. When this is done following an accepted procedure, there is no point in arguing that Sri Lanka is importing more “chemical”/synthetic fertilizers than what is required in a given year. However, many policy makers and professionals still blame farmers for overusing fertilizer, which theoretically cannot be true as the fertilizer quantities are imported based on the actual crop requirements as estimated by the state agencies.
If the correct quantities of fertilizer are imported and their distribution is regulated (assuming no illegal entry of fertilizer to the country), the claims for overuse of fertilizer should not have arisen. Further, there should be false alarms ringing to politicians and decision makers that undue quantities of fertilizer has been imported with a huge pressure on foreign exchange drain, and causing severe impacts on the environment. Such false alarms would also have provided a window of opportunity for some to create the “fertilizer demon”.
Once the fertilizer or any other agricultural input is heavily subsidized, their misuse is the most highly likely (mal)practice. In this context, if the state agencies and the NFS have done a fairly accurate estimate for the fertilizer requirement and imports, the best option available would be to remove the fertilizer subsidy (at once or in a phased-out manner) and make “chemical” and organic fertilizers readily available in the market allowing the farmers to take a judicious decision on the fertilizer use on their own. Farmers also need proper training on the judicious use of “chemical” fertilizers with organic matter, i.e. integrated plant nutrient systems (IPNS), and obviously pesticides. Without such well-targeted capacity building, it is not wise to put the blame on the farming community for misusing or overusing agrochemicals and thereby polluting the environment.
Furthermore, some scientists and professionals claim that Sri Lanka uses the highest quantity of fertilizer among those in Asia (or South Asia). The latest FAO statistics available for all countries clearly indicate the low rate of fertilizer use in Sri Lanka (Figure 1), except for few years. Regarding pesticide use, too, Sri Lanka stands at very low rates of application. Hence, the popular notion of heavy use of fertilizers leading to health hazards and environmental pollution is an erroneous conclusion drawn without considering the scientific facts.
Eco-friendly fertilizer use
Organic amendments in agriculture is not an alien practice to our farmers. The IPNS in crop production; i.e. the use of organic matter with “chemical” fertilizers, has been recommended since time immemorial to improve the fertilizer and nutrient use efficiency and to minimize environmental pollution caused by leaching. The Department of Agriculture (DOA) has formally promoted the adoption of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) to minimize any misuse of agrochemicals, since 2015.The GAP programme has started gaining momentum in 2020. Prior to the current policy directive, the Ministry of Agriculture even had plans to distribute organic fertilizers produced by different private companies to selected paddy growers during 2021 Yala season, together with “chemical” fertilizer. The proportionate allocation of fertilizer for this IPNS was 30% organic fertilizer, and 70% urea, 50% TSP and 70% MOP as per recommendation of the DOA. Similar proportions were also used in the case of bio-fertilizers. This was an excellent initiative. However, the current policy directive will derail this good practice and would create disastrous impacts on crop production.
Fertilizer use (kg per ha of cropland) in developed and developing countries. Data labels are for the year 2018 (Source: FAOSTAT)
Low quality fertilizer imports
The Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI) has set up standards for the “chemical” and organic fertilizers to be used in Sri Lanka. The NFS relies on such standards, which are adopted for any fertilizer used in Sri Lanka (imported or locally produced). The sparkling revelation made by the Hon. Minister of Agriculture, which also appeared in the Government Audit Report of 2020 which says that 55 fertilizer analysis reports have been tampered to allow inferior quality fertilizers to be released in Sri Lanka. Release of 12,000 mt of imported TSP in 2020 having heavy metals such as lead (Pb) contents higher than the limit set by SLSI (maximum Pb content allowed in TSP is 30 ppm) was reported in electronic and social media, and also raised at the Parliament causing serious concerns over the mishandling of state affairs by certain officials. Hats off to the Hon. Minister of Agriculture who took stern punitive action against some officials for tampering the analytical reports of the fertilizer samples.
Recently, we also heard that organic fertilizer has been imported without proper approvals. Any plant-based organic fertilizer requires the approval and a permit of the DG of the DOA under the Plant Protection Act No 35 of 1999. We also heard that such imports have been done in the past, which should not have been allowed due to multi-folded negative impacts than what is even speculated against agrochemicals. The efforts made by officers of the DOA and the Sri Lanka Customs, and no signs of political interference in releasing the imported consignment is noteworthy and require special commendations.
All such incidents indicate that the well-articulated fertilizer regulatory process has been breached by some people with vested interests. These are daylight robberies of government (people’s) money and efforts to rape the environment (similar to misuse of any other agricultural inputs). The penalties have been imposed in some cases but it is high time that openings for mal-practices be sealed-off so that even in the future, import of any type of fertilizers is stringently governed.
The case of non-communicable diseases
Agrochemicals are generally considered as the causal factors for many of the non-communicable diseases (NCDs), especially the chronic kidney disease of uncertain etiology (CKDu). Such unproven ideology has been forced into minds of people who are suffering from the disease. Some even dubbed CKDu as ‘Agricultural kidney disease’. This propaganda campaign has brainwashed not only the unfortunate patients, but also the general public and policy makers and thus, creating fear against an important agricultural input.
In those claims, nutrients are probably not targeted as the causal factor for NCDs. For example, both mineral and organic fertilizers provide the essential plant nutrient “Nitrogen” in the form Nitrate (NO3–) or Ammonium (NH4+) ions to be taken up by plants. Further, amino acid supplements providing 13-19% nitrogen can also be taken up by plants directly. The loss of Nitrates in the ecosystems, especially polluting ground water, can be minimized by split application of fertilizer (which is the recommended practice) and with the application of organic matter (manure, fertilizer or composts) as soil amendments. The organic amendments have limited plant nutrient supply (e.g. 1-3.5% N, or rarely up to 6% depending on the source). Lack of soil organic matter (e.g. sandy soils) will create a negative scenario as observed in isolated incidents such as Kalpitiya area. Hence, the popular argument on the impact of fertilizer on human health and environment issues could mainly be focused on the potential contaminants in fertilizers, such as heavy metals.
Nitrogen being the most difficult element to tackle in nature, let me take an example for urea. The maximum limits allowed by the SLS standards for Arsenic (As), Cadmium (Cd) and Lead (Pb) for urea fertilizer used in Sri Lanka is 0.1, 0.1 and 0.1 ppm, respectively. As for solid organic fertilizers the corresponding values are 3, 1.5 and 30 ppm, respectively (SLS 1704:2021). This indicates the danger that could arise from application of solid organic fertilizer with the objective of providing nitrogen to the crops. Extremely low and stringent heavy metal limits have been adopted for urea as there is hardly any chance for such contamination, but the maximum allowable limits for such elements in solid organic fertilizers are higher owing to higher potential for contamination. If the municipal solid waste is used as the source to produce composts for agricultural land, then the maximum allowable limits for As, Cd and Pb are 5, 3 and 150 ppm (SLS 1634:2019), respectively. This needs no further explanation to prove the fact that organic fertilizer targeting Nitrogen could pollute the environment at a higher level than urea.
The popular talk on “Agrochemicals as a causal factor for rising incidence of cancer in Sri Lanka” has surfaced again. I am not a medical professional to provide details on such. However, as per Figure 1, the amount of fertilizer added per ha of cropland in 2018 in Australia was 86 kg, Bangladesh 318 kg and Sri Lanka 138 kg. But, the statistics presented by GLOBOCAN 2020 revealed that five-year prevalence in cancer as a proportion for 100,000 population in Australia is 3,172, Bangladesh 164, and Sri Lanka 354. I will leave it with the learned readers to draw conclusions.
The “demon” created in people’s mind with respect to use of fertilizer and its impact on NCDs such as CKDu was comprehensively refuted recently by the Chairman of the National Research Council (NRC) of Sri Lanka, appearing in a popular TV discussion. The Chairman/NRC clearly stated that the most recent research completed under the funding from NRC has concluded that not drinking adequate volumes of water and the high fluoride content in ground water as the two major causal factors for the CKDu in Anuradhapura area. He further stated that the disease is not due to heavy metals and that this information has been provided to the Ministry of Health.
Need for evidence-based policy making
National policies need to be set based on evidence. Policies driven by advice from those who want their whims and fancies to be realized at the expense of national budget will result in detrimental and irreversible impact on the national economy. Further, the spread of unproven and non-scientific ideologies across the society have already made complete change in focus of the efforts made to find solutions to major issues in the Sri Lankan society, including finding causal factors for human health related problems such as CKDu. Many intellectuals have alarmed that the import ban on “chemical” fertilizers would lead to food shortages and high food prices. In this context, Sri Lanka is likely to import a major portion of basic food needs such as rice, as experienced by Bhutan in their failed attempt to become the first organic country by 2020, adding a huge burden to the government treasury.
The fear generated on agrochemicals thus, seems to be due to chemophobia (irrational fear of chemicals) of some people, who have unduly fed the same into the authorities. His Excellency and the Cabinet of Ministers should not fall prey to ideologies spread by some people that could have unprecedented negative effects, in making decisions in relation to the country’s economy. It is still not late to revisit the decision to ban the import of agrochemicals. Being misinformed is more dangerous than being not informed.
Govt. needs to deal with impunity
By Jehan Perera
The drama over Prisons Minister Lohan Ratwatte could not have come at a worse time for the government. But it can also be the turning point. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is due to address the UN General Assembly in New York this week. The attention of the international human rights community has been focused on Sri Lanka during the past week due to the recently concluded sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Sri Lanka was a country of interest due to its checkered human rights track record, especially in relation to the war, and subject to a special address by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. Next week will see an EU delegation visiting Sri Lanka to assess the human rights situation in relation to the GSP Plus tariff privilege that the country obtained again in 2017 having lost it for seven years in 2010.
The immediate challenge to the government’s plans for economic recovery hinge on its ability to keep the GSP Plus and not lose it. This privilege, which permits the country’s exports entry to the EU market without the payment of import duties, has helped to sustain Sri Lankan business enterprises during the Covid-induced economic downturn. With the exception of the tourism-related business sector, several export-oriented business sectors have been showing healthy profits due in large measure to the GSP Plus facility.
The GSP is given on condition that human rights are being protected in the country concerned, which has become a question mark for Sri Lanka. The questions have grown since the change of government. The attempt to withdraw from the commitments with regard to human rights given by the previous government when it co-sponsored UNHRC Resolution 30/1 in 2015 has not been well received by the international human rights community.
The alleged offences committed by Minister Ratwatte, and the delayed response by the government undermines its presentation of facts and arguments that Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris made during his presentation in Geneva last week intended to show that the Rule of Law, independence of state institutions and human rights are to be found in the country. Minister Ratwatte is alleged to have entered two prison compounds, visited the gallows in one, along with his personal friends and threatened Tamil prisoners in another with his gun and made them kneel before him. However, he has denied doing anything improper and his version has, according to media reports, been corroborated by prisons authorities who have claimed that no untoward incidents have occurred. This has been amidst claims and counter claims about the availability of CCTV cameras in the high security prisons.
The alleged act of unprovoked disregard for the human dignity of the two prisoners held as LTTE suspects under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which itself violates international standards of human rights, has become a rallying call for unity amongst the Tamil community. This justifies or adds credence to the view that the minorities have security issues in the country and their rights are inadequately protected. Rival Tamil political parties have been issuing statements of condemnation. They have also got onto common platforms in opposition to the Minister’s conduct. On the positive side, the protests have not only come from the Tamil community.
The mainstream media and opposition political parties have also joined in the condemnation and demanded that the government takes immediate action. In addition, the ruling party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has said that “This type of action cannot be permitted in any civilised society and appropriate action should be taken after investigations.”
There is a need for governmental action that goes beyond the mere resignation of the accused Minister from his portfolio of prisons while retaining his other ministries. There is an urgent need for this. In June of this year the European Parliament passed a resolution that the GSP Plus should be withdrawn if Sri Lanka did not show signs of progress in its protection of human rights. The resolution expressed “deep concerns over Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards recurrence of grave human rights violations as described by the most recent UN report on the country, which lists among the early warning signals the accelerating militarisation of civilian governmental functions, reversal of important constitutional safeguards, political obstruction of accountability, exclusionary rhetoric, intimidation of civil society, and the use of anti-terrorism laws.”
The government’s position in Geneva was that there is no need for international involvement in either monitoring or investigating human rights violations in Sri Lanka as the country has its own internal mechanisms to do so. Foreign Minister Prof GL Peiris speaking in Geneva said, “We reject the proposal for any external initiatives purportedly established by Resolution 46/1 while domestic processes are vigorously addressing the relevant matters. This will polarise our society, as we experienced with Resolution 30/1. The Council must adhere to its founding principles. External initiatives embarked upon without the cooperation of the country concerned cannot achieve their stated goals, and will be subject to politicization.”
The problem of impunity for state actors is long standing and precedes the present government. Successive governments have whitewashed the crimes of their members as taking punitive action is politically costly to them. Usually the culprits have political assets that outweigh their crimes in the eyes of the political parties and voters alike. It is this tolerance of conduct with impunity and without accountability by those in government, who set themselves above the law, that has taken the country to the dock of international human rights opinion in Geneva. Unfortunately this type of conduct gained political acceptability during the period of the three decades long war and long periods of emergency rule. However, the war is now over more than 12 years and the last election was fought on promises of a restoration of law and order and the practice of discipline as being national values.
The key area of governance failure highlighted by the UN High Commissioner has been the area of impunity and lack of follow up in emblematic cases where human rights violations are alleged to have occurred. It was on account of this failure of previous governments to ensure accountability, which continues, that the UNHRC Resolution 46/1 of March 2021 mandated the establishment of a special investigation unit at the UN level to monitor the human rights situation in the country and collect information.
According to the UN Human Rights Commissioner this “Office’s work to implement the accountability-related aspects of Resolution 46/1 has begun, pending recruitment of a start-up team. We have developed an information and evidence repository with nearly 120,000 individual items already held by the UN, and we will initiate as much information-gathering as possible this year.”
As Minister Ratwatte is a member of Parliament it would be appropriate that an independent inquiry be conducted with the investigators being appointed in a bipartisan manner by the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to instill public and international confidence as this is absent at this time.
n the meantime the Minister should be persuaded to resign from all ministerial appointments pending investigation or be removed from such positions as this is an issue that goes to the heart of the issue of impunity. The failure of the Sri Lankan system of justice to act with transparency and integrity in the case regarding Minister Ratwatte will only serve to further justify the stance of the international community regarding the need for external intervention. It will undermine the efforts of the government to argue otherwise. A credible investigation and judicial action is necessary if external intervention is to be kept at bay and the GSP Plus is to be retained. This can be the turning point.
Seeing the market through the spectre
By Panduka Karunanayake
Leftist ideologues like to create an image of ‘the market’ as a terrible place, like how grown-ups frighten children with their ghost stories. The market is portrayed as a ruthless, heartless machine that thrives on unfairness and corruption, crushing the poor and fattening the rich. It must have become easier to create this image after the Soviet bloc fell in the 1990s and China emerged out of communism soon afterwards, because after that people quickly forgot that socialist and communist economies too have markets – even markets every bit as ruthless, heartless, unfair and corrupt as any capitalist market. Today, these ideologues can write as if the market and capitalism are synonyms. Everything ‘un-socialist’ can be easily ‘explained away’ by saying that it ‘promotes marketisation’.
No amount of argument or explanation would change these ideologues’ minds – after all, an ideologue is a person who pursues an ideology in an inflexible manner. But let me set out some related matters, for the benefit of the rest of us.
Emergence and evolution of the market
Markets have probably existed throughout human existence, because human beings are social animals that thrive on social interaction. There is an illuminating passage in Charles Darwin’s book The Voyage of the Beagle, where he described an encounter with the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego in South America, who were ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherers and nomads with no previous encounter with civilisation:
“Some of the Feugians plainly showed that they had a fair notion of barter. I gave one man a large nail (a most valuable present) without making any signs for a return; but he immediately picked out two fish, and handed them up on the point of his spear. If any present was designed for one canoe, and it fell near another, it was invariably given to the right owner.”
This passage shows that they were well-versed in the moral principles – such as free choice, trust, fairness and reciprocity – associated with exchange of goods and services that form the basis of the functioning market.
The market became prominent after the emergence of agriculture about 10,000 year ago. Agriculture enabled farmers to produce a food surplus, which then enabled the rest of the villagers to work on other crafts – promoting division of labour and specialisation. This created an overall increase in the quality of the villagers’ lives, because they now had a wider variety of produce to consume. Villagers now depended on each other more, for the produce they wished to consume. As the village increased in size and complexity, a place where producers and consumers could meet, to exchange goods and services, became a necessity. In the physical realm this was the marketplace, and in the conceptual realm it was the market. Initially, exchange occurred through the barter system without a medium of exchange, but the invention of money made it easier.
But until industrialisation, this market was small and sluggish. It produced very little, compared to today. Most of what a village produced was consumed within it, and only a tiny proportion of it left the village, to be consumed by outsiders – the market was still not much more than the marketplace.
Reason for smallness
The reason for this smallness was not entirely because there were no industrial factories. The villagers could have produced more if they wanted to, but they didn’t, because they saw that any extra produce created problems. There were difficulties with storing it, protecting it, preserving it or transporting it elswhere, and in any event the lords could easily expropriate it under the feudalistic modes of production. Items that were considered luxury items were an exception; they were carried to distant destinations by camel, caravan or boat.
But starting in the eighteenth century, industrialisation changed all that. Factories produced large quantities of produce (or ‘commodities’) cheaply, and the market expanded to distribute a much larger variety and quantity of goods much more widely. Specialisation became the norm and a necessity. The crucial factor that made all this possible was probably the improvement in transport. Look at your lunch plate today, and try to figure out from where and how far each of the food items on it – not to mention the plate itself or the energy for the fire that cooked your lunch – have come from.
Today, production and consumption are almost totally separated from each other (with a few exceptions, like farmers who sell their produce by the roadside in front of their homes, and ‘factory outlets’). It is the market that enables this to happen. The market, which is no longer simply the marketplace, gives us access to a bewildering variety of goods and services, thereby enabling us – even the poorest amongst us – to enjoy a greater choice and higher quality of life, compared to pre-industrial times. The healthcare and education that even the poorest amongst us enjoy would not reach them if not for the market.
As an example, let us take soap. Until industrialisation this was a luxury item that only the elite enjoyed. In Roman times, even the elite cleaned themselves mostly by simply immersing themselves in their baths and rubbing off dirt; indeed, using soap would have made the bath too disgusting to get into. Soap was available only to those in the very highest echelons of society. The masses were ‘dirty’ and their skin was infested with scabies, pediculosis and lice, and they commonly suffered diseases like impetigo and erysipelas – they lacked even the water necessary to wash themselves (especially hot water in cold climates). But today, soap is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted – it was industrialisation that enabled its cheap mass production and the market that enabled its wide distribution.
Value of simple things
The real value of something as simple as soap was driven home powerfully to me in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, when people had lost everything and were accommodated in make-shift camps. What did they ask for, from the donors and volunteers who went to help them? First, they asked for food, water and certain medicines. A few days later, they began asking for soap, a change of clothing and sanitary pads: after three or four days, they were itching and suffering with fungal skin infections. That was an unfortunate re-enactment and reminder of the pre-industrial life of the masses. I remembered how a textbook of public health that I had read a few decades earlier had cleverly classified infectious diseases according to whether they were prevented by soap and water, clean drinking water, safe food, and so on. The post-tsunami experience showed me the sagacity of that – and the value of the ubiquitous soap, industrialisation and the market.
In his book The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler compared a modern-day market to an efficient telephone exchange or switchboard. A switchboard connects thousands of senders and recipients accurately and enables messages to be sent across to their intended destinations – like producers, consumers, and goods and services in the market. Like telephone messages, goods and services are produced, sent across and consumed according to need and availability: demand and supply.
Such a market cannot exist on its own. It needs inputs from important sectors in society, such as law and order (which upholds the right to private property, prevents or punishes theft, and arbitrates when there are contractual disagreements), education (which creates an educated and trained workforce, not only for manufacture but also for distribution), communication, energy, transport, ports, etc. Such external supports have existed not only in capitalist markets but also in pre-capitalist and socialist markets. These supports are provided because everybody realises that markets are useful to everyone, especially when the population expands and the demand for commodities increases.
So, to say that something should be abhorred because it promotes ‘marketisation’ is disingenuous.
Organising the market
Markets can be organised in various ways. It helps to think of these as lying on a spectrum ranging from capitalism to communism, which are the extreme forms at the two ends. In-between, there are lots of compromises, combinations or ‘middle ways’. For instance, the current Chineses model is sometimes called state capitalism – a good example of a middle way.
But the natural form of the market that emerged spontaneously was the free market: a market where no authority-imposed restrictions or controls, nor introduced any encouragements or inducements. The activities in the free market merely recognised the concepts of private property and voluntary exchange, and operated on demand and supply. That was all.
Throughout this time, the free market has had many opponents who have tried to impose limits or controls to it. Division of labour and specialisation were resisted – by the cultural elite who tried to maintain the status quo in society, such as the caste system in ancient society and feudal-peasant relations in medieval times. During industrialisation when factories came up, that was resisted too – by guildsmen who felt that their business was threatened, and those like the Luddites who felt threatened by the new manufacturing technology. Karl Marx proposed that private property, including ‘the means of production’, should be taken over by the state and brought under its control.
Some of the concepts that they used against the growth of the free market were traditional values such as loyalty and caste-based duties (especially upheld by the cultural elite), simplicity in life and charity as well as opposition to ‘ursury’ and banks (especially the clergy), and equality. It is only now, after centuries of change, that words like ‘industry’ (which initially meant industriousness), ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘individualism’ have emerged as ‘good words’, to create an environment conducive to a free market. Charles Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit nicely captured the mood of the era when industrialisation was struggling to emerge through the feudal society, by portraying the struggle of a typical ‘upstart’ who had to go to America to make a fresh start.
According to Stephen Fry, even today, the typical British comedy mostly parodies the upstart’s ineptness (“celebrate failure”), whereas the typical American comedy glorifies the industrious entrepreneur or smart-aleck (“life is improvable”). When we read comments about the market, we must take care to ‘read’ this subtext too.
Ironically, inequality had previously been tolerated and even celebrated, as long as the only inequality was between the elite and the masses – the masses were ‘equal’ in their poverty and the elite were rich by birthright. But after industrialisation, the moment the masses gradually became enriched and a middle class emerged, inequality became a big social issue. When a part of the masses remained poor and another part became better-off, socialism was born. Different segments of the masses quickly became each other’s enemies – thanks to socialism. It was an example of applying the brakes even before the vehicle had started to move in earnest. They were ennobled by socialism’s new words, like ‘fraternity’ and ‘equality’ – which basically meant, ‘Those who are not poor like you are not one of you, and have no right to be rich if you too cannot be rich’.
But while the leaders of socialism may have harboured such beliefs, their proletariat comrades had simpler minds. In his book The Road to Wigan Pier written after World War One, George Orwell, himself a socialist, reflecting on the tensions and contradictions in English society as it grappled with this new-found inequality and ‘class struggle’, wrote:
“To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about….[No] genuine working man grasps the deeper implications of Socialism. Often, in my opinion, he is a truer Socialist than the orthodox Marxist, because he does remember what the other so often forgets, that Socialism means justice and common decency….His vision of the Socialist future is a vision of present society with the worst abuses left out, and with interest centring round the same things as at present – family life, the pub, football, and local politics.”
Orwell’s main message was that any effort to ‘improve’ society, by whatever name, that had lost touch with the common man was bound to deteriorate into a fascism. The remainder of the twentieth century proved him right.
Today, Orwell’s England has come through quite nicely in spite of the disintegration of the British Empire soon afterwards, and shows none of the class struggle and poverty Orwell’s and Dickens’ books have recorded. So, should we champion an equality of the poor, or should we patiently work towards a gradually enriching society with a tolerable level of inequality?
At the same time, it is also advisable to control some forms of exchange in the market. For instance, if a country considers that it is necessary to ensure food security through its own, local cultivation of important crops, it is wise to put in place some safeguards to protect local agriculture from the adverse effects of competition from imported foods, at least for important foods. Even advanced capitalist countries like USA and Japan do this (for wheat and rice, respectively).
Similarly, it would be prudent to protect certain crucial markets, such as the energy sector and ports. It is also important to ensure distribution of crucial goods & services (such as healthcare, basic education, basic housing, basic clothing, basic transport) for all members of society, with a view to protecting the poor who have limited purchasing power. This requires the institution of safety nets and price control. In this age of climate change, resource depletion and environmental degradation, nobody would argue against environmental protection, which naturally requires the imposition of certain restrictions on the free market. Finally, nobody would argue that sectors such as national defence and law & order should be floated in the free market. So markets do need judicious controls and regulation.
More than ‘free’
On the flip side, in some markets there are mechanisms created specifically to encourage a bigger flow of goods & services than what the natural, ‘free’ market would sustain. These include patent laws, laws restricting monopolies, bankruptcy laws, the financial and share market, and so on; some of them may be good, while others are not.
The market is then not merely a place of exchange; it is also a place to make massive profits, where the falling crumbs accumulate to produce huge volumes of ‘wealth’. There are those who would profit exactly from this, while such ‘wealth generation’ or ‘productivity’ brings no intrinsic value to society while needlessly destroying our environment and culture – this can then become the new status quo that these new elite wish to protect.
A free market would promote exchange of goods & services and increase the volume of exchange, and this in turn would increase employment, productivity, taxation and funds for welfare expenditure. Both restricting it and encouraging it, while sometimes necessary, must be done only cautiously. Naturally, therefore, both extremes – and their supportive ideologies – are not good. What we need to have is a ‘middle-way’ market that enables enough economic activity and protects the poor, while protecting the environment for future generations.
So, there is no need to fear the market. What we need to do is understand it, be able to predict its behaviour, and try to modify it so that it creates the benefits we need and avoids harm. The child must grow up, overcome the fear of ghosts and learn to deal with darkness. Disingenuous, sleight-of-hand arguments that promote the darkness are of no use, and their supportive ideologies can only lead to fascism – as the twentieth century amply taught us.
The writer teaches medicine in the University of Colombo (email:
firstname.lastname@example.org). He acknowledges helpful comments from Professor Sirimal Abeyratne (Professor of Economics, University of Colombo) and Dr G. Usvatte-aratchi.
PLANES OF EXISTENCE
(from THE BUDDHA AND HIS TEACHINGS by Venerable Narada Mahathera)
“Not to be reached by going is world’s end.” ANGUTTARA NIKAYA
According to Buddhism the earth, an almost insignificant speck in the universe, is not the only habitable world, and humans are not the only living beings. Indefinite are world systems and so are living beings. Nor is “the impregnated ovum the only route to rebirth.” By traversing one cannot reach the end of the world, says the Buddha.
Births may take place in different spheres of existence. There are altogether thirty-one places in which beings manifest themselves according to their moral or immoral Kamma.
There are four states of unhappiness (Apaya) which are viewed both as mental states and as places.
1. Niraya (ni + aya = devoid of happiness) woeful states where beings atone for their evil Kamma. They are not eternal hells where beings are subject to endless suffering. Upon the exhaustion of the evil Kamma there is a possibility for beings born in such states to be reborn in blissful states as the result of their past good actions.
2. Tiracchana-yoni (tiro = across; acchana = going), the animal kingdom. Buddhist belief is that beings are born as animals on account of evil Kamma. There is, however, the possibility for animals to be born as human beings as a result of the good Kamma accumulated in the past. Strictly speaking, it should be more correct to state that Kamma which manifested itself in the form of a human being, may manifest itself in the form of an animal or vice versa, just as an electric current can be manifested in the forms of light, heat and motion successively — one not necessarily being evolved from the other.
It may be remarked that at times certain animals particularly dogs and cats, live a more comfortable life than even some human beings due to their past good Kamma.
It is one’s Kamma that determines the nature or one’s material form which varies according to the skilfulness or unskilfulness of one’s actions.
3. Peta-yoni (pa + ita) lit., departed beings, or those absolutely devoid of happiness. They are not disembodied spirits of ghosts. They possess deformed physical forms of varying magnitude, generally invisible to the naked eye. They have no planes of their own, but live in forests, dirty surroundings, etc. There is a special book, called Petavatthu, which exclusively deals with the stories of these unfortunate beings. Samyutta Nikaya also relates some interesting accounts of these Petas.
Describing the pathetic state of a Peta, the Venerable Moggallana says:
“Just now as I was descending Vultures’ Peak Hill, I saw a skeleton going through the air, and vultures, crows, and falcons kept flying after it, pecking at its ribs, pulling apart while it uttered cries of pain. To me, friend, came this thought: O but this is wonderful! O but this is marvellous that a person will come to have such a shape, that the individuality acquired will come to have such a shape.”
“This being,” the Buddha remarked, “was a cattle-butcher in his previous birth, and as the result of his past Kamma he was born in such a state. “
According to the Questions of Milinda there are four kinds of Petas — namely, the Vantasikas who feed on vomit, the Khuppipāsino who hunger and thirst, the Nijjhamatanhikaā, who are consumed by thirst, and the Paradattapajavino who live on the gifts of others.
As stated in the Tirokudda Sutta these last mentioned Petas share the merit performed by their living relatives in their names, and could thereby pass on to better states of happiness.
4. Asura-yoni — the place of the Asura-demons. Asura, literally, means those who do not shine or those who do not sport. They are also another class of unhappy beings similar to the Petas. They should be distinguished from the Asuras who are opposed to the Devas.
Next to these four unhappy states (Duggati) are the seven happy states (Sugati). They are:
1. Manussa — The Realm of human beings.
The human realm is a mixture of both pain and happiness. Bodhisattas prefer the human realm as it is the best field to serve the world and perfect the requisites of Buddhahood. Buddhas are always born as human beings.
2. Catummaharajika — the lowest of the heavenly realms where the Guardian Deities of the four quarters of the firmament reside with their followers.
3. Tavatimsa — lit., thirty-three — the Celestial Realm of the thirty-three Devas where Deva Sakka is the King. The origin of the name is attributed to a story which states that thirty-three selfless volunteers led by Magha (another name for Sakka), having performed charitable deeds, were born in this heavenly realm. It was in this heaven that the Buddha taught the Abhidhamma to the Devas for three months.
4. Yama — “The Realm of the Yama Devas.” That which destroys pain is Yāma.
5. Tusita — lit., happy dwellers, is “The Realm of Delight.”
The Bodhisattas who have perfected the requisites of Buddhahood reside in this Plane until the opportune moment comes for them to appear in the human realm to attain Buddhahood. The Bodhisatta Metteyya, the future Buddha, is at present residing in this realm awaiting the right opportunity to be born as a human being and become a Buddha. The Bodhisatta’s mother, after death, was born in this realm as a Deva (god). From here he repaired to Tavatimsa Heaven to listen to the Abhidhamma taught by the Buddha.
6. Nimmanarati — “The Realm of the Devas who delight in the created mansions.”
7. Paranimmitavasavatti — “The Realm of the Devas who make others’ creation serve their own ends.”
The last six are the realms of the Devas whose physical forms are more subtle and refined than those of human beings and are imperceptible to the naked eye. These celestial beings too are subject to death as all mortals are. In some respects, such as their constitution, habitat, and food they excel humans, but do not as a rule transcend them in wisdom. They have spontaneous births, appearing like youths and maidens of fifteen or sixteen years of age.
These six Celestial Planes are temporary blissful abodes where beings are supposed to live enjoying fleeting pleasures of sense.
The four unhappy states (Duggati) and the seven happy states (Sugati) are collectively termed Kamaloka — Sentient Sphere.
Superior to these Sensuous Planes are the Brahma Realms or Rupaloka (Realms of Form) where beings delight in jhanic bliss, achieved by renouncing sense-desires.
consists of sixteen realms according to the jhānas or ecstasies cultivated. They are as follows:
(a) T’he Plane of the First Jhana;
1. Brahma Parisajja –– The Realm of the Brahma‘s Retinue.
2. Brahma Purohita — The Realm of the Brahma’s Ministers.
3. Mahaā Brahma — The Realm of the Great Brahmas.
The highest of the first three is Mahaā Brahma. It is so called because the dwellers in this Realm excel others in happiness, beauty, and age-limit owing to the intrinsic merit of their mental development.
(b) The Plane of the Second Jhāna:
4. Parittābhā — The Realm of Minor Lustre,
5. Appamānābhā — The Realm of Infinite Lustre,
6. Ābhassarā —
The Realm of the Radiant Brahmas.
(c) The Plane of the Third Jhāna:
7. Parittasubha — The Realm of the Brahmas of Minor Aura.
8. Appamānasubha — The Realm of the Brahmas of Infinite Aura.
9. Subhakinhaā — The Realm of the Brahmas of Steady Aura.
(d) The Plane of the Fourth Jhana:
10. Vehapphala — The Realm of the Brahmas of Great Reward.
11. Asaatta — The Realm of Mindless Beings,
12. Suddhavasa — The Pure Abodes which are further subdivided into five, viz:
i. Aviha — The Durable Realm,
ii. Atappa — The Serene Realm,
iii. Sudassa — The Beautiful Realm,
iv. Sudassi — The Clear-Sighted Realm.
v. Akanittha — the Highest Realm.
Only those who have cultivated the Jhanas or Ecstasies are born on these higher planes. Those who have developed the First Jhana are born in the first Plane; those who have developed the Second and Third Jhanas are born in the second Plane; those who have developed the Fourth and Fifth Jhanas are born in the third and fourth Planes respectively.
The first grade of each plane is assigned to those who have developed the Jhanas to an ordinary degree, the second to those who have developed the Jhanas to a greater extent, and the third to those who have gained a complete mastery over the Jhanas.
In the eleventh plane, called the Asaatta, beings are born without a consciousness.
Here only a material flux exists. Mind is temporarily suspended while the force of the Jhāna lasts. Normally both mind and matter are inseparable. By the power of meditation, it is possible, at times, to separate matter from mind as in this particular case. When an Arahant attains the Nirodha Samāpatti, too, his consciousness ceases to exist temporarily. Such a state is almost inconceivable to us. But there may be inconceivable things which are actual facts.
The Suddhavasas or Pure Abodes are the exclusive Planes of Anagamis or Never-Returners. Ordinary beings are not born in these states. Those who attain Anāgāmi in other planes are reborn in these Pure Abodes. Later, they attain Arahantship and live in those planes until their life-term ends.
There are four other planes called Arupaloka which are totally devoid of matter or bodies. Buddhists maintain that there are realms where mind alone exists without matter. “Just as it is possible for an iron bar to be suspended in the air because it has been flung there, and it remains as long as it retains any unexpended momentum, even so the Formless being appears through being flung into that state by powerful mind-force, there it remains till that momentum is expended. This is a temporary separation of mind and matter, which normally co-exist. “
It should be mentioned that there is no sex distinction in the Rupaloka and the Arupaloka.
The Arupaloka is divided into four planes according to the four Arupa Jhanas.
1. The Sphere of the Conception of Infinite Space.
2. The Sphere of the Conception of Infinite Consciousness.
3. The Sphere of the Conception of Nothingness.
4. The Sphere of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception.
It should be remarked that the Buddha did not attempt to expound any cosmological theory.
The essence of the Buddha’s teaching is not affected by the existence or non-existence of these planes. No one is bound to believe anything if it does not appeal to his reason. Nor is it proper to reject anything because it cannot be conceived by one’s limited knowledge.
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