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Are we making rational decisions in the rice sector?

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By M. P. Dhanapala

Agrochemicals, including chemical fertilisers, are to be replaced by non-toxic organic manure and other environmentally-friendly products, based on the expert advice that the modern agricultural products are toxic due to indiscriminate use of agrochemicals. An example frequently cited was the Chronic Kidney Disease (CKDu) of unknown origin in the North Central Province. Also, some critics insist that those who promote agrochemicals are rewarded by multinational companies involved in the agrochemical industry.

As a result, agrochemicals, in agriculture, have become a topic, debated in public media by policymakers, their advisors, specialist doctors, university professors, professionals of organic agriculture, scientists, politicians and leaders of farmer organisations. The above-mentioned allegations were refuted as inaccurate, inconclusive and unscientific (Pethiyagoda, R., YouTube seminar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGe6ld2q1vs).

According to some scientists, the causal agent of CKDu was concluded as high concentration of Fluoride ion (Fl-) in drinking water. As a rice scientist, some issues bother me in this whole dispute; especially in the area of chemical fertiliser, the most indispensable, one and only input, that increases the productivity of crops.

Rice farming is the least remunerative of all occupations in Sri Lanka; the farmers in the past were involved in rice farming because of the social dignity, the pride of not consuming imported rice (Beven, 1914, Tropical Agriculturist, 1914 Dec.). Also, farming is considered an independent profession; the fact that one has to pay respect when dealing with the farming community.

Organic manure issue

Some critics insist that we have lost the organic manure technology practised 3000 years ago; probably a documentation failure. It would be great if we could recover the old technology from somewhere. However, in the recent past, as documented in the scientific journal ‘Tropical Agriculturist’, incorporation of bulk organic matter was recommended as early as 1914 for rice fields to circumvent disintegration and deterioration of soil structure, due to puddling during land preparation (Harrison, 1914). The nutritional status of the organic material concerned was not quantified or discussed. This recommendation was made during the British era, around the inception of the Department of Agriculture, and it is valid even today.

In the 1940s, farmers did cultivate traditional varieties with green manure, farmyard manure, compost, soybean cake and fishmeal, as organic manure but no specific recommendations were recorded. The targeted rice yield then was 15 bushels per acre (0.75 tons per hectare) but realised only a national average of less than 13 bushels per acre (< 0.65 t/ha). The government then had to import two-thirds of the rice requirement of the country to feed the population (Tropical Agriculturist, 1945 July – Sept.). The rice ration book continued till the modern varieties were developed and established. The present day advisors and policymakers may be unaware of or have ignored the rice ration book, each citizen had, with 52 weekly stamps, to obtain the imported (millcharred/white raw) rice ration from the nearby cooperative shop.

Incorporation of paddy straw into fields was emphasised, just before the turn of the Century, to sustain soil fertility and organic content of the soil, especially when the cropping intensity increased with the release of high potential short-duration rice varieties. This recommendation was complemented with site-specific soil test-based fertiliser recommendations, using the regional recommendations as guidelines, to prevent indiscriminate use of fertiliser. Also, the researchers were vigilant to keep the high organic soils with poor and impeded drainage (wet zone) devoid of organic manure while taking precautions to prevent straw or crop residue from becoming a primary inoculum of diseases.

Organic manure no doubt improves the physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil. Organic manure has colloids, composed of protein-rich material with negatively charged amino acids, and help to build up the soil structure and Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) thus improving the nutrient retention power of the soil. Organic manures are not known as rich sources of plant nutrients. The nutrient contents and efficiency of different sources of organic manure are shown in Table 1.

The nutrient content of organic manure from the above-mentioned sources in Sri Lanka cannot be significantly different from values in Table 1, unless some other additives had been incorporated in the process of manufacture.

Now, let us consider the nutrient recommendation for the most popular group of rice varieties (3.5-month) grown under irrigation in the dry zone. The present recommendation per hectare is 105 kg Nitrogen (N), 25 kg Phosphorus (P2O5) and 35 kg of Potash (K2O) (Page 15, Fertilizer Recommendation for Rice, Department of Agriculture, 2013). As an example, we will examine the requirement of the most controversial nutrient component, nitrogen (N), in this recommendation. To meet this N requirement, the farmer should have around 13 tons of moisture-free compost (0.8 percent N) for one hectare of land, assuming that the harvested straw of the previous season is not incorporated into the soil. If the compost available has 20 percent moisture, this figure would be a little more than 16 tons. The farmer then will have to pay for and carry in the field a little more than three tons of water on his back for every hectare of rice land cultivated. Additionally, there are peak requirements of N at different growth stages of the crop to promote yield components of the plant. The compost, once applied, will release N consistently, irrespective of the peak requirements of the crop growth stages and may continue this process even beyond the lifespan of the crop as long as the mineralisation process continues. This example may be too much of an exaggeration, but the advisors, or policymakers, should know how inappropriate it is, to substitute a technology, more relevant for home gardening, for extensive paddy cultivation; this probably will be the reason behind the denial of compost culture by commercially-oriented rice cultivators. Besides, it is unethical to force on farmers, a new technology, unfamiliar to them altogether. Organic farming specialists can demonstrate, in large scale field trials, their intended package of practices, specifically in different agro-ecological regions, to ascertain its appropriateness; feasibility, economic viability, sustainability and other advantages, to convince and gain farmer acceptance. The total package of the proposed organic rice farming may include other options; green manure crops, vermicompost, biofilms, effective microbes, biogas residual products, N fixing microbes and organic extracts of unknown origin and ingredients, but none of these technologies were field-tested and demonstrated with modern rice varieties.

One good example of Inappropriate Technologies is the ‘System of Rice Intensification (SRI)’ introduced in Sri Lanka around the turn of the Century. It was some form of environment-friendly, water-saving organic farming project with labour-intensive field operations, especially the transplanting procedure aimed at the exploitation of potential plant growth and the tillering capacity in rice to maximise yield. After a few years’ lapse, no farmers involved in the project could be traced to review its progress. If a technology is appropriate, you may notice lateral spread of the technology from farmer to farmer without any extension effort.

Inorganic Nitrogen as plant nutrient

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the application of Nitrogen (N) to improve rice yields was attempted using the American experience of Sodium Nitrate (NaNO3) in upland crops (Soybean). Nagaoka (1905) and, Daikuhara and Imaseki (1907) reported the superiority of Ammonium Sulphate ((NH4)2SO4) to NaNO3 as the source of N for rice. Subsequently, the basic investigations on the application of N for rice were made in Japan, India and Hawaii, confirming the superiority of the Ammonium form of N (NH4+) in rice, the process of nitrification and ammonification under different soil moisture regimes and the Nitrite (NO2-) toxicity when the concentration exceeds five to six parts per million (5-6 ppm) upon submergence of aerobic or nitrate-rich soil. One should realise that N in submerged soil, irrespective of its source (organic or inorganic), exists in the form of Ammonium ion (NH4+), a fact established universally.

Joachim (1927) stressed the importance of liberal manuring to improve yields at the onset of genetic improvement of crops, particularly when the pure-line selection was initiated with traditional rice varieties. However, excessive manuring succumbs the rice crop to diseases (Blast and Brown spot); the crop tends to grow excessively vegetative and lodges prematurely affecting yield. Though some improvement of N response was developed by introducing disease tolerant ‘H’ varieties from the late 1950s, the basic defects of the traditional plant type, leafiness and lodging, prevailed. The introduction of new plant types (modern varieties) improved significantly the harvest index of the plant and the grain yield response to added N. A new source of N, Urea (46 percent N), was introduced in the early 1970s to contain soil acidity developed by the regular use of Ammonium Sulphate (21% N) and Urea was utilised extensively thereafter as the major source of N.

The 16 t/ha compost requirement (105 kg N) of the example discussed in the previous section can clearly be fulfilled with 230 kilograms of Urea. Furthermore, the crop requirement at different growth stages can be met by the split application of Urea, as the N content of Urea will be available to the plant shortly after its field application.

Urea, (CO(NH2)2), is an organic compound denied in organic farming with a molecular structure composed of Carbon, Oxygen and two Amine groups with no toxic elements. The amine groups are apparently converted to ammonium ion (NH4+) by soil microbes under anaerobic conditions and get adsorbed to the Cation Exchange Complex. Any source of N, whether organic or inorganic, undergoes the same process of ammonification in submerged soils to form ammonium ion. If the soil is rich in CEC, the ammonium ion is kept tightly bound to the Soil Cation Exchange Complex and leaching and contamination of groundwater will be contained or minimised. As it is, the most appropriate solution to the current crisis is the recommendation of an organic-inorganic combination of fertilisers as recommended by the Department of Agriculture. This will enhance the efficiency of both factors, organic and inorganic, synergistically and prolong the availability of N for crop growth without contamination of groundwater. Also, the quantity of N can be reduced substantially without affecting the performance of the crop as the N component is thereby efficiently utilised.

Also, some scientists are investigating atmospheric N fixing microbes, specifically in the root zone soil (rhizosphere) and within the plant (endophytic). If this is a realistic goal and if the naturally occurring microbes can fix N beyond their biological limits, we are fortunate as the atmosphere around us is full of Nitrogen (80 percent). To observe N fixing soil microbial activity, some rice plots were maintained for more than 30 years at the RRDI, Batalagoda, without added fertiliser. Intuitively, by judging from the rice yields, I infer that the microbes associated in the soil of these plots are not capable of fixing more than 40 kg N per hectare, probably the biological limit of microbes and that too will be diminished when the crop requirement is met with added Nitrogen. Similarly, the inoculated rice plants, with endophytic bacteria to fulfil the N requirement of rice, would be a long shot. There were other concepts considered, promising in atmospheric N fixation in rice, but were abandoned prematurely as the technologies were found to be inappropriate; for example, Azolla-Anabaena complex and root nodulation in Sesbania species.

Any waste should not be converted to compost or organic manure as some sources are contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic products. Animal waste may carry residues of antibiotics used as growth promoters. The danger of developing antibiotic tolerant or resistant human pathogenic bacteria by free exposure to antibiotic residues or by exchange of genetic material (conjugation) among bacterial mutants with human pathogens is not ruled out.

The current status of rice production in the country was achieved through the mutual development of related technologies for more than a century. It is not a matter to be ruled out by the so-called expert advisors with one stroke of a pen; as a result of the transition to nontoxic organic rice cultivation, the loss incurred in national rice production will be colossal. This is not the time to learn organic rice cultivation with the textbook experience of experts with no field experimental evidence. The incidence of COVID-19 and other natural calamities (floods, droughts) would adversely affect global rice production and surplus production in rice exporting countries cannot be predicted. In this scenario, national food security for Sri Lanka could be further threatened disastrously through this adventure in organic farming that has been launched almost overnight, without any foresight whatsoever.

In the past, we had an excellent Agricultural Extension and Education System composed of regular Technical Working Group Meetings, Research-Extension Dialogues, Inservice Training Programmes and Field Visits, and a well-qualified, dedicated set of extension staff promoted Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) in rice production. This system should be revitalised to sustain the food security of the country.

(The writer is a former Director, Rice Research and Development Institute)



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Features

Rising farce of Family Power

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Former President Maithripala Sirisena has struck hard on warnings of being deprived of Civil Rights by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

In his recent statement, President Gotabaya was clear on observing the policies laid down in his Saubhagya Dekma manifesto. He recalled how the Yahapalana government had given no importance to the war heroes, intelligence services, and national security, which led to the Easter Carnage.

He was very clear that having a two-thirds majority in Parliament, this government is ready to respond to the false propaganda of the Opposition, and provide a meal free of poison to the people.

He said the Presidential Commission appointed by Yahapalana has stated very clearly who was responsible for the Easter Carnage. This included the then President, Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet of that time.

“We leave all legal action on this to be taken by the judiciary. We have trust in the judiciary and will allow justice to take place, All the PCoI reports have been submitted to Parliament. We will not poke our fingers into the judicial system. While maintaining the freedom of the judiciary, it is not possible to ask that some persons be brought to justice, and others punished,

 “If they want this action to be taken very soon, we can bring a Bill to Parliament (as done before) and remove all the rights of those responsible, so that they will not do such faults again.  If they want this, we are ready for it, as we have a two-thirds majority power. When asking for various things, they should do it with care. We are ready for this too. The people should not be fooled.

“If I am not good, and we are not good, is the alternative to this the Opposition? We have seen how they ruled for five years. That is why I was elected, although it was told that I would not get the votes of the minorities. But we won. Will they be able to reduce the Cabinet to 25?”

Mr. Sirisena’s response in parliament was to this claim of two-thirds strength.  In the midst of a major clash with government ministers, he made it clear that the government’s two-thirds power was due to the presence of the SLFP in the ruling coalition.

It certainly was a shake up to the show of two-thirds strength and power by President Gotabaya.

While President Gotabaya was clear on his following the findings of the PCoI, and stressed the call for action against Mr. Sirisena, there was total silence on the other recommendations of the Commission. The supporters who cheered him, raised no question about what the PCoI had recommended on Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero and the Bodu Bala Sena led by him.

Was it in keeping with the PCoI that Gnanasara Thero has been appointed to head a Task Force on One Country, One Law?  Is this One Law part of the new Gotabaya thinking on Green Agriculture?

What has emerged with the Sirisena response to the Gotabhaya challenge is the emerging reality of the Podujana Peramuna – SLPP politics. The New Kelani Bridge, which was opened, when Gotabaya made his strong speech, had to be kept closed the very next day, showing the rising confusion in Podujana Governance,

The warning given by experts about the situation relating to the LP gas cylinders, is driving a huge new scare among the public. If there are a few more gas cylinder explosions, there could be mass gas protests, even angrier that the farmer protests on the fertilizer disaster.

The Podujana government is certainly in a crisis of governance.  There are turn-arounds on many of its policies from Neo-Nitrogen fertiliser –  from cost to its benefit for Sri Lankan cultivation, and the payment to contaminated Chinese fertiliser. The turn back on the use of chemical fertilisers will also bring a huge new price to the cultivators, leading to another round of protests?

The Gotabaya Keliya is fast doing turns and twists on policies of the government. The Rajapaksas are being surrounded by faults and failures. It will certainly not be easy him to

use two-thirds power, when the reality is the rising farce of family power.

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A tribute to vajira

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By Uditha Devapriya

The female dancer’s form figures prominently in Sinhalese art and sculpture. Among the ruins of the Lankatilake Viharaya in Polonnaruwa is a series of carvings of dwarves, beasts, and performers. They surround a decapitated image of a standing Buddha, secular figures dotting a sacred space. Similar figures of dancing women adorn the entrance at the Varaka Valandu Viharaya in Ridigama, adjoining the Ridi Vihare. Offering a contrast with carvings of men sporting swords and spears, they entrance the eye immediately.

A motif of medieval Sinhalese art, these were influenced by hordes of dancers that adorned the walls of South Indian temples. They attest to the role that Sinhala society gave women, a role that diminished with time, so much so that by the 20th century, Sinhalese women had been banned from wearing the ves thattuwa. Held back for long, many of these women now began to rebel. They would soon pave the way for the transformation of an art.

In January 2020 the government of India chose to award the Padma Shri to two Sri Lankan women. This was done in recognition not just of their contribution to their fields, but also their efforts at strengthening ties between the two countries. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a raging pandemic, these awards were finally conferred on their recipients.

One of them, Professor Indra Dissanayake, had passed away in 2019. Her daughter received the honour in her name in India. The other, Vajira Chitrasena, remains very much alive, and as active. She received her award at a ceremony at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Modest as it may have been, the conferment seals her place in the country, situating her in its cultural landscape as one of our finest exponents of dance.

Vajira Chitrasena was far from the first woman to take up traditional dance in Sri Lanka. But she was the first to turn it into a full time, lifelong profession, absorbing the wellsprings of its past, transcending gender and class barriers, and taking it to the young. Dancing did not really come to her; it was the other way around. Immersing herself in the art, she entered it at a time when the medium had been, and was being, transformed the world over: by 1921, the year her husband was born, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis had pioneered and laid the foundation for the modernisation of the medium. Their project would be continued by Martha Graham, for whom Vajira would perform decades later.

In Sri Lanka traditional dance had long turned away from its ritualistic past, moving into the stage and later the school and the university. Standing in the midst of these developments, Vajira Chitrasena found herself questioning and reshaping tradition. It was a role for which history had ordained her, a role she threw herself into only too willingly.

In dance as in other art forms, the balance between tradition and modernity is hard, if not impossible, to maintain. Associated initially with an agrarian society, traditional dance in Sri Lanka evolved into an object of secular performance. Under colonial rule, the patronage of officials, indeed even of governors themselves, helped free it from the stranglehold of the past, giving it a new lease of life that would later enable what Susan Reed in her account of dance in Sri Lanka calls the bureaucratisation of the arts. This is a phenomenon that Sarath Amunugama explores in his work on the kohomba kankariya as well.

Yet this did not entail a complete break from the past: then as now, in Sri Lanka as in India, dancing calls for the revival of conventions: the namaskaraya, the adherence to Buddhist tenets, and the contemplation of mystical beauty. It was in such a twilight world that Vajira Chitrasena and her colleagues found themselves in. Faced with the task of salvaging a dying art, they breathed new life to it by learning it, preserving it, and reforming it.

Though neither Vajira nor her husband belonged to the colonial elite, it was the colonial elite who began approaching traditional art forms with a zest and vigour that determined their trajectory after independence. Bringing together patrons, teachers, students, and scholars of dance, the elite forged friendships with tutors and performers, often becoming their students and sometimes becoming teachers themselves.

Newton Gunasinghe has observed how British officials found it expedient to patronise feudal elites, after a series of rebellions that threatened to bring down the colonial order. Yet even before this, such officials had patronised cultural practices that had once been the preserve of those elites. It was through this tenuous relationship between colonialism and cultural revival that Westernised low country elites moved away from conventional careers, like law and medicine, into the arduous task of reviving the past.

At first running into opposition from their paterfamilias, the scions of the elite eventually found their calling. “[I]n spite of their disappointment at my smashing their hopes of a brilliant legal and political career,” Charles Jacob Peiris, later to be known as Devar Surya Sena, wrote in his recollection of his parents’ reaction to a concert he had organised at the Royal College Hall in 1929, “they were proud of me that night.”

If the sons had to incur the wrath of their fathers, the daughters had to pay the bigger price. Yet, as with the sons, the daughters too possessed an agency that emboldened them to not just dance, but participate in rituals that had been restricted to males.

Both Miriam Pieris and Chandralekha Perera displeased traditional society when they donned the ves thattuwa, the sacred headdress that had for centuries been reserved for men. But for every critic, there were those who welcomed such developments, considering them essential to the flowering of the arts; none less than Martin Wickramasinghe, to give one example, viewed Chandralekha’s act positively, and commended her.

These developments sparked off a pivotal cultural renaissance across the country. Although up country women remain debarred from those developments, there is no doubt that the shattering of taboos in the low country helped keep the art of the dance alive, for tutors, students, and scholars. As Mirak Raheem has written in a piece to Groundviews, we are yet to appreciate the role female dancers of the early 20th century played in all this.

Vajira Chitrasena’s contribution went beyond that of the daughters of the colonial elite who dared to dance. While it would be wrong to consider their interest as a passing fad, a quirk, these women did not turn dance into a lifelong profession. Vajira did not just commit herself to the medium in a way they had not, she made it her goal to teach and reinterpret it, in line with methods and practices she developed for the Chitrasena Kala Ayathanaya.

As Mirak Raheem has pointed out in his tribute to her, she drew from her limited exposure to dance forms like classical ballet to design a curriculum that broke down the medium to “a series of exercises… that could be used to train dancers.” In doing so, she conceived some highly original works, including a set of children’s ballets, or lama mudra natya, a genre she pioneered in 1952 with Kumudini. Along the way she crisscrossed several roles, from dancer to choreographer to tutor, becoming more than just a performer.

As the head of the Chitrasena Dance Company, Vajira enjoys a reputation that history has not accorded to most other women of her standing. Perhaps her greatest contribution in this regard has been her ability to adapt masculine forms of dance to feminine sequences. She has been able to do this without radically altering their essence; that has arguably been felt the most in the realm of Kandyan dance, which caters to masculine (“tandava“) rather than feminine (“lasya“) moods. The lasya has been described by Marianne Nürnberger as a feminine form of up country dance. It was in productions like Nala Damayanthi that Vajira mastered this form; it epitomised a radical transformation of the art.

Sudesh Mantillake in an essay on the subject (“Masculinity in Kandyan Dance”) suggests that by treating them as impure, traditional artistes kept women away from udarata natum. That is why Algama Kiriganitha, who taught Chandralekha, taught her very little, since she was a woman. This is not to say that the gurunannses kept their knowledge back from those who came to learn from them, only that they taught them under strictures and conditions which revealed their reluctance to impart their knowledge to females.

That Vajira Chitrasena made her mark in these fields despite all obstructions is a tribute to her mettle and perseverance. Yet would we, as Mirak Raheem suggests in his very excellent essay, be doing her a disservice by just valorising her? Shouldn’t the object of a tribute be, not merely to praise her for transcending gender barriers, but more importantly to examine how she transcended them, and how difficult she found it to transcend them? We eulogise our women for breaking through the glass ceiling, without questioning how high that ceiling was in the first place. A more sober evaluation of Vajira Chitrasena would ask that question. But such an evaluation is yet to come out. One can only hope that it will, soon.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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It’s all about France in Kandy !

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Sarah Toucas, Director Alliance Francaise de Kandy

This month’s edition of Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar, on Tuesday 30 November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, makes a journey to the hill capital Kandy to the Alliance Française de Kandy.

A venue of historical significance in central Sri Lanka which celebrates its 55th anniversary next year, the AF Kandy was once even located on the upper storey of the ancient Queen’s bath or the Ulpangé, just outside the Dalada Maligawa.

All about France and the French in Kandy, on the show will be the newly appointed director of the AF Kandy, Sara Toucas, who will talk about plans to further popularise the French language in Kandy.

Joining the show is also Dr. Kush Herat, former Director AF Kandy and visiting Senior Lecturer in French at University of Peradeniya, who talks about motivating undergraduates and inducting them to the French language and culture.

Frenchman Dr Jacques Soulié, a former Director of the AF Kandy who has contributed immensely to the propagation of the French language and culture in Kandy then takes viewers on a tour of his brainchild and a major cultural venue – The Suriyakantha Centre for Art and Culture – which has been visited by hundreds of Sri Lankans and foreign visitors.

To close the show is Ravana Wijeyeratne, the Honorary Consul for France in Kandy whose links with France go back to his childhood when his father Tissa Wijeyeratne was Ambassador for Sri Lanka in France in the early 1970s.

Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar

comes to you on Tuesday 30th November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

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