by Professor W. A. J. M. De Costa
Senior Professor and Chair of Crop Science Department of Crop Science, Faculty of Agriculture University of Peradeniya
Why use fertiliser on crops?
Fertilisers are used for two purposes.
One purpose is to provide essential plant nutrients that are required for crops to produce an economically-important product (i. e. food for humans, feed for animals, a variety of industrial products, etc.). Just as people require food, crops require nutrients for producing what is expected from them.
When a crop is harvested and its yield taken away, a large amount of nutrients is taken out of the system (i. e. the soil). Therefore, continuous cropping of a land leads to the depletion of nutrients in the soil. Application of fertilisers to such a soil replenishes its nutrient pool and makes continuous cropping possible. This is the second purpose of using fertilisers.
A natural ecosystem like a forest does not require an external input such as fertiliser because nutrients are not taken out of the system. Nutrients in dead leaves, branches, trunks and roots are recycled back to the soil. It is a ‘closed’ nutrient cycle, as opposed to the ‘open’ system in an agricultural crop.
Inorganic vs organic fertilzers
Inorganic fertilisers (normally called chemical fertilisers) contain nutrients in a concentrated form (i.e. fraction of the nutrient in a unit weight of the fertiliser is high). They are produced via industrial processes or by refining mined minerals containing the nutrient. Three major plant nutrients, viz. nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are supplied as inorganic fertilisers, either individually (‘straight fertilisers’) or in a mixture (‘compound fertilisers’).
Organic fertilisers (organic manures) are raw materials of plant, animal or human origin. When applied to the soil, they decompose and release their nutrients. In comparison to inorganic fertilisers, the fraction of nutrients in a unit weight of organic manure is much lower. Therefore, to give a crop/soil the same amount of a nutrient, a much greater quantity of organic manure than inorganic fertiliser has to be applied. All organic fertilizers are ‘compound fertilisers’ in the sense that they contain a mixture of nutrients though in a diluted form.
When applied to the soil, the inorganic fertilizers release their nutrients quickly. In recent times, nano-scale materials have been used to slow down the release of nutrients from inorganic fertilisers (i.e. called ‘nano-coated slow-release fertilisers’). When applied to the soil, organic fertilisers release their nutrients slowly, because the organic raw material has to decompose to release its nutrients. Natural decomposition is done by naturally-occurring soil microorganisms. Formulations of microorganisms are used to accelerate decomposition and nutrient release from organic fertilisers.
Why ‘modern’ agriculture uses large quantities of inorganic fertiliser?
Global population currently stands at ca. 7.7 billion and is projected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion in 20501. Land area suitable for growing crops is shrinking continuously because of a variety of reasons. Some of the productive lands are lost for urbanisation (i.e. population pressure) while some are converted to alternative non-agricultural uses (e.g. industrial purposes). On the other hand, a portion of lands available for crop production is gradually, but continuously, lost because they become unproductive and economically non-viable due to climate change (e.g. temperatures becoming too warm, rainfall becoming insufficient, etc.) and soil degradation (e.g. loss of fertile top soil due to erosion, loss of soil fertility due to continuous cropping and removal of nutrients without adequate replenishment, development soil problems such as salinity, acidity and accumulation of toxic material).
Increasing population and decreasing arable land area means that we are continuously challenged to increase crop yields per unit land area (usually called ‘crop productivity’) to fulfil the increasing demand for food, feed and the variety of products from agricultural crops. To produce a greater amount of yield from the same unit of land, a crop requires a greater quantity of essential nutrients—there is no such thing as a free lunch in nature— in particular nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). A crop has to obtain this increased nutrient requirement either from the soil (which may contain some amount of nutrients naturally) or via fertiliser applied to the soil. Except the soils in virgin lands, soils in the large majority of agricultural lands do not contain naturally the amounts of essential nutrients in quantities required by crops to achieve the productivity levels to meet the continuously increasing demand. Hence, the need to add large quantities of nutrients to the soil. This has to be done every season as most nutrients added during the previous season are removed as crop yield. Because inorganic fertilizer contains nutrients in a concentrated form, the required quantities of the three major nutrients can be supplied with a manageable quantity of inorganic fertiliser. Supplying of the same requirement with organic fertiliser would require substantially larger quantities, which are either not possible to find due to insufficient raw material or difficult to manage. Hence, the widespread use of inorganic fertiliser in commercial agriculture. Organic agriculture where crops are grown exclusively with organic fertilisers represents a small fraction of global agriculture (a very optimistic estimation would put it at < 5%).
Why the drive towards reduction of inorganic fertiliser use in agriculture?
While providing the required amounts of the three major plant nutrients to sustain crop yields to ensure food security and maintain soil nutrients at levels required for continuous cropping, application of inorganic fertilisers has caused adverse environmental and human health impacts.
Because nutrients are released readily from inorganic fertilisers, a considerable fraction of those added to the soil gets leached into groundwater and water bodies (i.e. rivers, lakes, reservoirs etc..). The consumption of water from such polluted sources has been linked to a variety of human health issues.
Inorganic fertilizers have been shown to contain toxic substances (e.g. heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, mercury, etc.) as impurities remaining in them after their mining and industrial manufacturing process. The accumulation of these toxic substances in the soil and water sources has been linked to certain human health issues. However, it should be noted that organic fertilizers, especially those of plant and animal origin, are not entirely free from toxic substances.
Alteration of the soil environment by adding concentrated nutrients alters the naturally-occurring community of soil microorganisms who perform many important functions in the soil to ensure its fertility.
In economic terms, inorganic fertilisers, most of which are produced in industrialised developed countries by multi-national companies, are prohibitively expensive to farmers in the developing countries.
Because of the above reasons, there has been a drive towards reduction of the use of inorganic fertilisers and a part-replacement of them by organic fertilisers. Such movements have begun in developed countries (as well as in some developing countries) since the1980s and gathered momentum during the last two decades. During certain periods, some countries and regions of countries have been forced to produce their crops largely on organic fertiliser because of circumstances (mainly political) (e.g. Cuba, Northern Province of Sri Lanka during the ethnic conflict).
Current situation in Sri Lanka
The present situation in Sri Lanka has arisen following a gazette notification by the government to ban the import of inorganic fertilizer and synthetic agrochemicals (i.e. insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc.) with immediate effect. The pollution of the water bodies and perceived links to human health issues, such as the Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Aetiology (CKDU) are cited as the reasons for the ban. While there have been a longstanding discussion at many levels of the Sri Lankan society on the role of inorganic fertilizers (and agrochemicals) in causing the above issues and calls for ‘toxin-free food’, the total and immediate ban came ‘out of the blue’ without any consultation (to my knowledge) with any of the relevant stakeholders (e.g. the Department of Agriculture, academia, the plantation sector research institutes, farmer organizations, growers of a wide range of crops or their organizations, private sector organizations in the supply and marketing chain etc.). Apparently, the President/government was acting on the advice of a few university academics (who are either advisors or political appointees as heads of public-sector institutions) and longstanding activists (e.g. Ven. Athuraliya Rathana, Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya et al).
Currently, all relevant public sector institutions have been directed to seek how alternatives to inorganic fertilizer (i.e. organic fertilizer) could be produced and supplied to farmers and growers in adequate quantities required during the Yala season which is already started and beyond. It has been stated in the media that any shortfall for the current season (and probably beyond until adequate quantities can be produced locally) will be provided through imported organic fertiliser. A similar strategy has been proposed for synthetic agrochemicals for which the principal alternative is pesticides of biological origin (i.e. Biopesticides).
Possible impacts of an absence of inorganic fertiliser in Sri Lanka
It is highly likely that in the absence of inorganic fertilisers, the productivity (i. e. economic harvest per unit land area) of some of the major crops in Sri Lanka (e. g. rice and tea), which are crucial to national food security and economy, will decline significantly leading to a decline in the total production (i.e. productivity × cultivated area). At present, Sri Lanka does not have sufficient sources of readily-available organic fertiliser nor does it not have the infrastructure in place to produce organic fertilizers in adequate quantities to fulfil even the minimum nutrient requirement of these two major crops considering the scale on which they are grown.
The prognosis would be the same for a majority of the other annual crops (e.g. cereals, pulses, vegetables, industrial crops, etc.) and floriculture plants (i.e. cut flower and foliage), which are grown on a smaller scale. Some crops such as rubber and coconut may not show an immediate decline in their harvest but will begin to show declines in the medium-term, depending on the existing fertility status of the soils on which they have been established and the overall management status of the plantation and its trees.
Why is Sri Lankan agriculture so reliant on inorganic fertiliser?
The scientific reasons
Soils in Sri Lanka are, by nature, relatively poor in the amounts of essential nutrients (i. e. the three major nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium plus magnesium, sulphur and calcium, which are also needed in relatively large quantities) that they make naturally available for crops growing on them. The natural supply of nutrients from a soil comes when the parent material of the soil (i.e. rocks and minerals) undergoes a very slow, gradual decomposition process called ‘weathering’. The plant nutrients are part of the minerals contained in the parent material and are released to the soil when the minerals weather due to the action of rain and other climatic factors such as temperature. Because of the high rainfall and temperature regime associated with the tropical climate in Sri Lanka, its soils have been highly-weathered over a long period of time (over several millennia) so that the existing soil minerals (the source of natural supply of nutrients) are considerably (if not severely) depleted of nutrients. Because of the high rainfall regime (especially in the wet zone and the Central Highlands and to a lesser extent in the dry and intermediate zones), a substantial portion of the nutrients that are released from minerals via the weathering process are leached and lost to the soil, further depleting its natural fertility.
Furthermore, most of the lands on which crops are currently cultivated in all climatic zones of Sri Lanka have been under cultivation for a long period of time. As explained earlier, long-term cultivation of a soil leads to depletion of its nutrient reserves.
Soils in the Central Highlands and those on sloping terrain in other parts of Sri Lanka are further degraded due to soil erosion caused by high-intensity rainfall. Erosion takes away the top layer of the soil and a substantial amount of nutrients naturally available along with it.
Because of the reasons outlined above, neither the grain yield levels of rice that are required to fulfil the annual national demand nor the green leaf yield levels of tea that would bring the expected level of foreign exchange could be sustained on Sri Lankan soils without providing the required quantities of the three major nutrients via inorganic fertilisers.
It is likely that in the absence of the recommended inorganic fertiliser (especially nitrogen fertilizer) inputs, yield reductions would become detectable in the current Yala season in rice and within a matter of a few months in tea. This is because of the specific physiology of these two crops. Nitrogen is critically-essential for early growth of rice and the leaf growth of tea. Therefore, a shortage of nitrogen to these crops would be felt almost immediately as a retardation of early growth of rice (which would be reflected as a substantial reduction in grain yield) and the weekly green leaf harvest in tea.
Similar to what happens in rice and tea, the retardation of growth and yield is likely to happen with a shortage of nitrogen fertilizer in all short-duration annual crops and commercial plants. Leguminous pulse crops (e. g. soybean, mung bean, cowpea, black gram, common bean, etc.) could be an exception because of their ability to utilise atmospheric nitrogen.
Impacts of a shortage of nitrogen fertiliser are likely to be delayed for a few years (as stated earlier) in coconut and rubber because of their specific physiology where the nut yield or latex (rubber) yield is not as dependent on an immediate nitrogen supply as the grain and leaf yields of rice and tea respectively. However, a shortage of nitrogen will cause a reduction in the internal processes of these plants, which will be reflected in a few years’ time, as a reduction in the processes leading to the production of nuts and latex in coconut and rubber respectively. Recently-planted and younger coconut and rubber plantations will show a retardation of tree growth which will delay the commencement of nut and latex production.
A basic scientific fact which should have been noted by the advisors to politicians, if not the politicians, is that a shortage of nitrogen affects the fundamental plant process, photosynthesis, which is responsible for growth and yield formation of crops2. Shortage of nitrogen, along with shortages of phosphorus, potassium and magnesium, decreases the rate of photosynthesis, which is translated in to a reduction of growth and yield of any crop, which may happen over different time scales in different crops. It is unlikely that in the absence of inorganic fertilisers, organic fertiliser applications would be able to prevent the resulting decrease in growth and yield of a large majority of commercial crops in Sri Lanka.
A few spice crops such as cloves, cardamoms and nutmegs, but not cinnamon and pepper, may escape yield reductions due to a shortage of inorganic fertilizer because they are largely present in homegardens in the Central Province which are generally not fertilized.
Out of the three major fertilizers, containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, a shortage would be most immediately felt for nitrogen fertilizer. The impact would be delayed for phosphorus fertilizer and it would be intermediate for potassium fertilizer. The scientific reasons are that nitrogen is the nutrient that is most critically-needed for a large majority of plant processes and is the most mobile nutrient in the soil, which makes it the most susceptible for leaching losses; phosphorus is the least mobile nutrient and therefore, can remain in the soil for
2 Evans, J. R., & Clarke, V. C. (2019). The nitrogen cost of photosynthesis. Journal of Experimental Botany, 70(1), 7-15. An expert review that was published in a highly-recognized scientific journal in plant sciences. Although most of its content is aimed at specialists in Plant Physiology, there are a few paragraphs (highlighted) from which an educated ‘layman’ reader could gather useful insights in to why nitrogen fertilizer is of such crucial importance for crops. a reasonable period of time and can be released to plants slowly; potassium is a nutrient which is intermediate in terms of its mobility in the soil and criticality of its need for plant processes.
What has been the response of the stakeholders?
This is only a snapshot from my perspective based on discussions with professional colleagues and contacts. An overwhelming majority of academics, research officers, extension officers, commercial growers and farmers do not agree with this immediate and total ban of inorganic fertilizers. A minority of stakeholders in the agriculture sector and an overwhelming majority of environmental activists (who unfortunately have no clear idea of how large-scale agriculture to feed a nation differs from growing a few pots of plants at home) have welcomed the ban. A powerful argument of this minority of stakeholders in the agriculture sector is that organic agricultural products (e.g. organic tea) fetches a higher price in the global market and will offset any loss of foreign exchange due to reduced total production. This argument ignores the decline in yield and total production of locally-consumed food (including the staple food, rice), the wide-ranging implications of which cannot be compensated by a higher price (which is unlikely to happen in the highly-volatile local market for agricultural produce).
Where do we go from here?
While disagreeing with a total and immediate ban on inorganic fertilizer, a majority of academics, research officers and extension officers, but not commercial growers and farmers, acknowledge that there is scope for an appreciable reduction in the quantities of inorganic fertilizer (relative to the levels that have been in use before the ban) without incurring a yield reduction. Farmers have been applying the inorganic fertilizers at rates which are above those recommended by the Department of Agriculture, because inorganic fertilizers had been made available to them at a highly-subsidized price.
Research on a range of different crops over several seasons across a range of locations carried out by my research group has shown that 25% of the recommended amount of nitrogen fertilizer can be reduced without incurring a yield reduction.
Therefore, a phased-out reduction of inorganic fertilizer along with a gradual increase of the contribution of organic fertilizer to supply the nutrient requirement of crops is a viable pathway that a majority of stakeholders agrees on. Increasing the contribution of organic fertilizer requires: (a) up-scaling of organic fertilizers that have been developed in Sri Lanka using microorganisms isolated from local soils; (b) developing infrastructure to produce such organic fertilizers at commercial scale; (c) changing farmer/grower perceptions and attitudes on the total dependence on inorganic fertilizers and start using organic fertilizer as a part-replacement via a concerted extension effort. (The agricultural extension service in Sri Lanka, which was acknowledged as one of the best in Asia in the 1980s, have been severely downgraded during the last three decades); (d) initiating a concerted programme to increase the organic matter content of Sri Lankan soils, which would enable them to retain a higher fraction of the nutrients applied to them via both inorganic and organic fertilizers and thereby minimize leaching losses.
Even if all the above are successfully implemented (which will take time especially in the current context), an agriculture sector, which is totally based on organic fertilizer—the first such country in the world according to the President—is unlikely to produce enough food (e. g. rice) to ensure food security in Sri Lanka or generate other agriculture-based products that fetch foreign exchange and support local manufacturing industries (e. g. rubber). Therefore, it is inevitable that a balance needs to be struck between the reduction of inorganic fertilizer (from the levels that were practiced before the ban) and a viable level of organic fertilizer as a part-replacement to provide the full nutrient requirement that a higher crop yield demands.
As a medium-term solution, research on a more balanced form of agriculture (i.e. an optimum combination of inorganic and organic fertilizer) within the climatic and soil conditions that are prevalent in Sri Lanka (while taking in to account their possible changes as part of global climate change) needs to be encouraged via increased funding. Currently, Sri Lanka invests only 0.11% of its GDP in Research and Development (in all disciplines including agriculture), which is one of the lowest even in Asia. Therefore, there is little room for optimism in this regard.
Importation of organic fertilizers
Importation of organic fertilizers is being promoted as a short-term measure to supply the nutrient requirement to agricultural crops during the period when Sri Lanka is expected develop its local capacity to produce organic fertilizers in quantities sufficient to meet the full nutrient demand of the crops. It is said that the quality of imported organic fertilizer will be assured via strict quality control procedures which conform to, for example, the EU Standards. Only time will tell whether this will actually materialize and provide a solution. A few points of major concern are as following:
Experienced Soil Scientists and fertilizer experts are of the opinion that concentration of nutrients in organic fertilizers is such that large quantities need to be imported (subsequently transported to fields and applied) to fulfil the nutrient demand to produce the crop yields at the required levels to ensure food security and sustain foreign exchange earnings.
Almost all organic fertilizers, being material of plant, animal or human origin, retain a diverse population of microorganisms. Unlike inorganic fertilizers, which are inert material, organic fertilizers are live material. Microorganisms, whether in soils, plants or any other location or entity, are often highly environment-specific. Introduction of such alien microorganisms to Sri Lankan soils could cause all types of unforeseen interactions with local microorganisms. Some of these interactions could have environmental repercussions, which are irreversible as once released to the soil, these alien microorganisms cannot be ‘recalled’. Therefore, it is always advisable and safer to develop organic fertilizers locally rather than importing.
Sterilization of imported organic fertilizer to kill all alien microorganisms via a process of fumigation after importation is suggested as a solution to this problem. However, the large quantities of organic fertilizers that are required to be imported and the toxicity levels
of the chemicals that are used in fumigation could lead to environmental issues that the organic fertilizers are aiming to prevent. Recently, the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture went on record saying that only sterilized organic fertilizer conforming to quality standards acceptable to a government-appointed expert committee would be imported. Given Sri Lanka’s poor record of regulation, implementation and enforcement of quality standards on a range of items, both imported and locally-produced and both agricultural and non-agricultural, it remains to be seen whether these promises will be fulfilled.
Rational medium- to long-term possibilities for reducing the use of inorganic fertilizer while increasing yields of major food crops at a rate required to keep pace with increasing population and consequently increasing demand
A few medium- to long-term options, based on sound scientific principles, are available and are briefly discussed below:
Genetic modification of crops
In addressing the challenges of increasing crop yields while decreasing their use of nutrients (i.e. increasing the yield per unit nutrient used), scientists have been trying to modify the components and steps involved in the photosynthesis process via genetic engineering. One of their aims has been to produce a plant which achieves a higher photosynthetic rate with the same level of nitrogen used. After about two decades of research effort, a recent research publication in the prestigious science journal Nature reports of such a breakthrough in rice3. Reading through it carefully, I gather that this new genetically-modified rice plant (we call them ‘transgenic’ plants) has the potential to achieve a higher photosynthetic rate and grain yield with the same level of nitrogen as the ‘normal’ plants (which are not genetically-modified). However, this is possible under ‘well-fertilized conditions’ meaning that at the currently-used high nitrogen fertilizer rates4. This particular publication does not indicate whether such higher levels of photosynthesis and yields are possible at lower than ‘well-fertilized conditions’ which are likely to prevail in fields fertilized exclusively with organic fertilizer. Nevertheless, as Professor Stephen Long, a recognized world authority on photosynthesis states, the production of this transgenic rice plant could be a ‘game-changer’ to increase grain yield of rice without a proportionate increase in nitrogen input.
However, it should be noted that a considerable time could elapse from the point of producing a ‘transgenic’ plant to developing a new crop variety that could be released to the farmers for commercial cultivation. Yet, this appears to be a solid step in the right direction.
3 Long, S. P. (2020). Photosynthesis engineered to increase rice yield. Nature Food, 1(2), 105-105. A brief comment by Professor Stephen Long on the recent breakthrough in producing a genetically-modified rice plant which is able to achieve a higher photosynthetic rate and grain yield with the same amount of nitrogen.
4 Yoon, D. K., Ishiyama, K., Suganami, M., Tazoe, Y., Watanabe, M., Imaruoka, S., … & Makino, A. (2020). Transgenic rice overproducing Rubisco exhibits increased yields with improved nitrogen-use efficiency in an experimental paddy field. Nature Food, 1(2), 134-139. The research publication which describes the above breakthrough in photosynthesis and nitrogen use. Increasing the organic matter content in soils
Soil organic matter (SOM) is a component of the soil in addition to the soil particles. While the soil particles arise from weathering of rocks and minerals of the soil parent material, SOM arises from the decomposition of organic material added to the soil. SOM helps to retain nutrients and water in the top layers of the soil where most plant roots are also present. In addition, SOM helps to improve the aeration and structure in the soil, which are vital physical properties in the soil to facilitate plant growth.
Except the soils in the terraced plateaus of the Central Highlands, soils of almost all arable crop lands in Sri Lanka have inadequate SOM. This means that the ability of these soils to retain the nutrients that are added to them, especially in the form of readily-released inorganic fertilizer, is limited. Therefore, a concerted effort to increase the SOM status in Sri Lankan soils will enable reduction of leaching losses of nutrients and associated environmental consequences such as pollution of water sources. Increased SOM will also enable reduction of the amounts of inorganic fertilizer applied without causing a shortage of nutrients to the crops as a greater fraction of the applied fertilizer remains in the soil to be absorbed by the plants.
Therefore, while the total and immediate ban of inorganic fertilizer and replacing them with organic fertilizer will not provide the required nutrients in sufficient quantities, the large-scale application of organic fertilizer, if it happens as envisaged, will serve to increase the SOM of Sri Lankan soils in the medium- to long-term. This will make the Sri Lankan Agriculture sector less-reliant on inorganic fertilizers. However, this will have to be a gradual, phased-out transition rather than a sudden, unplanned total ban on inorganic fertilizers. Such a transition should be towards achieving an optimum balance of inorganic and organic fertilizers, which will ensure food security while protecting the environment. This is an endeavour that has been undertaken in many parts of the world, which include both the developed and developing countries, and is termed ‘Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture’5.
5 Baulcombe, D., Crute, I., Davies, B., Dunwell, J., Gale, M., Jones, J., … & Toulmin, C. (2009). Reaping the benefits: science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture. The Royal Society. A very useful, concise, but comprehensive description of the salient features of sustainable intensification of agriculture written by a group
of experts from the Royal Society, UK. Can be accessed at https://royalsociety.org/topics-
President picks up the gauntlet
by Jehan Perera
By proroguing parliament President Ranil Wickremesinghe has given the parliamentarians, and the country at large, a reminder of the power of the presidency. There was no evident reason for the president to suddenly decide to prorogue parliament. More than 40 parliamentary committees, including important ones concerning public finances, enterprises and accounts have ceased to function. The president’s office has said that when parliament reconvenes on February 8, after the celebration of the country’s 75th Independence Day on February 4, the president will announce new policies and laws, which will be implemented until the centenary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence in 2048. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew transformed Singapore from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into one of the world’s most developed countries in the same 25 years that the president has set for Sri Lanka.
President Wickremesinghe has been getting increasingly assertive regarding his position on issues. Recently he attended a large gathering of Muslim clerics, where he was firm in saying that society needs to modernise, and so do religious practices. He has also held fast to his positions on reviving the economy and resolving the economy. There have been widespread protests against the tax hikes being implemented which have eroded the purchasing power of taxpayers. First they had to absorb the impact of inflation that rose to a rate of 80 percent at the time the country reneged on its foreign debt repayments and declared bankruptcy. Now they find their much diminished real incomes being further reduced by a tax rate that reaches 36 percent.
But the government is not relenting. President Wickremesinghe, who holds the finance minister’s portfolio, is going against popular sentiment in being unyielding on the matter of taxes. He appears determined to force the country away from decades of government policies that took the easy route of offering subsidies rather than imposing taxes to use for government expenses and development purposes. In Sri Lanka, the government’s tax revenue is less than 8 percent, whereas in comparable countries the tax revenue is around 20 to 25 percent. The long term cost of living off foreign borrowings rather than generating resources domestically through taxation has been evident for a long while in the slow growth of the economy even prior to the economic collapse.
Another area in which the president appears to have taken the decision to stand firm is the issue of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. This problem has proven to be unresolvable by governments and political leaders who give deference to ethnic nationalism. Being an ethnic nationalist in the context of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious divisions has been a sure way of gaining votes and securing election victories. No leader in Sri Lanka has to date been able to implement the compromise solutions that they periodically arrived at, the last being the 13th Amendment. Earlier ones included the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 which could not even be started to be implemented.
At the All Party meeting that he summoned to discuss the ethnic conflict and national reconciliation, President Wickremesinghe took the bull by the horns. He exchanged words with ethnic nationalist parliamentarians who sought to challenge his legitimacy to be making changes. He said, “It is my responsibility as the Executive to carry out the current law. For approximately 37 years, the 13th Amendment has been a part of the constitution. I must implement or someone has to abolish it by way of a 22nd amendment to the constitution by moving a private member’s bill. If the bill was voted against by the majority in the House, then the 13th amendment would have to be implemented. We can’t remain in a middle position saying that either we don’t implement the 13th amendment or abolish it.”
The 13th Amendment has not been fully implemented since it was passed by parliament with a 2/3 majority in 1987. Successive governments, including ones the president has been a member of variously as a minister or prime minister, have failed to implement it in a significant manner, especially as regards the devolution of police and land powers. When parliament reconvenes on February 8 after prorogation, President Wickremesinghe will be provided the opportunity to address both the parliament and the country on the way forward. Having demonstrated the power of the presidency to prorogue parliament at his discretion, he will be able to set forth his vision of the solution to the ethnic conflict and the roadmap that needs to be followed to get to national reconciliation.
It is significant that on February 20, the president will also acquire the power to dissolve parliament at his discretion. By proroguing parliament, the president has sent a message to both parliamentarians and the larger society that he will soon have the power to dissolve parliament with the same suddenness that he prorogued parliament. On February 20, the parliament would have been in existence for two and a half years. The 21st Amendment empowers the president to dissolve parliament after two and a half years. Most of the parliamentarians belonging to the ruling party are no longer in a position to go to their electorates let alone canvass for votes among the people. Under these fraught circumstances, they would not wish to challenge the president or his commitment to implementing the 13th Amendment in full.
On the other hand, the taming of parliament by the president does not guarantee the success of an accommodation on the ethnic conflict and a sustainable political solution. The ethnic conflict evokes the primordial sentiments of the different ethnic and religious communities. Political parties and politicians are often portrayed as the villains who led the country to decades of ethnic conflict and to war. However, the conflict in the country predates the political parties. In 1928, in response to demands from community leaders in Ceylon as it was then known, the British colonial rulers sent a commission to the country to ascertain whether it was ready for self-rule. The assessment was negative—the Donoughmore commission wrote that the representatives of the biggest community held to the position that their interest was the national interest. All the representatives of the smaller communities who were divided one against the other were united against the biggest.
An important role therefore devolves upon civil society not to fall prey to the divisions that come down the years. There is a need for enlightened leaders of civil society to work with commitment to explain to the people the need for a political solution and inter-ethnic power sharing that the 13th Amendment makes possible. There were signs of this during the height of the Aragalaya when the youth leading the protests called publicly for equal citizenship and non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and caste. They pledged not to be divided by ethnic nationalist politicians for their narrow electoral purposes. It is ironic that the government led by President Wickremesinghe has made these enlightened youth leaders the target of a campaign of persecution instead of making them a part of the solution by constructively engaging with them and issuing a general amnesty.
Privatisation of education and demonising of students of Lanka
by Anushka Kahandagamage
Sri Lanka is trapped in debt due to decades of corruption and short-sighted economic policies. To come out of the trap or, I would say, escape the moment, the government is seeking loans from the IMF, or anybody else who is willing to lend, no matter the conditions. To this end, under the IMF’s tutelage, the government is seeking to privatise education, aware that it will face the wrath of the people. In this setting, to suppress the protests, the government has adopted a strategy of demonising students, in the public education system.
School children as “drug addicts”
A media empire, which has strong ties with the current Lankan regime, recently sent shockwaves through schools, and their communities, by reporting cases of school children hooked on harmful narcotics. Following these reports, there were many write ups, social media content and stories published on the menace of drug addiction, among Sri Lankan students. That media network even released a video, interviewing two schoolgirls who claimed to be addicted to harmful substances. In the midst of the media frenzy, the police carried out surprise checks in schools, searching students’ bags. The state humiliated and terrified school children by using the police to conduct surprise checks in the schools and peek into the students’ backpacks, instead of investigating the avenues through which dangerous drugs enter the country. After a week, the Minister of Education claimed he was unaware that the police were conducting surprise checks in schools, with sniffer dogs, adding that there was no need to deploy the police force for this purpose. If the Minister was not aware that the police raided schools, it is not surprising that the state would also turn a blind eye to how narcotics enter the country. While there is a risk of students addicting to dangerous drugs, the state cannot place all the blame on students. Instead of taking responsibility for the state of affairs, and acting to keep harmful substances off the island, the state places the burden on schoolchildren and simply refers to them as “drug addicts.”
Bhikku students as “alcoholics”
The next example is from the Buddhist and Pali University, in Homagama. Similar to the first story, the same media network reported some irregularities occurring in the University. Those irregularities included the student monks forcing incoming students, also monks, to consume weed, liquor and party. Following this news report, some investigations were conducted in the University and empty liquor bottles were found in an abandoned well. Then we witnessed several press conferences where University authorities questioned the student monk leaders. While one cannot and should not disregard students’ violence upon another student, it is interesting to note the way the government is taking up the particular incident, at this particular point of time. There was a massive social media campaign to show that the student-monks are immoral and unworthy of education. It cannot be a coincidence that the student monks, at this University, were actively involved in the Aragalaya. In other words, the government was trying to defame the University, and the students, by labelling them as oppressors and alcoholics.
The Rajapaksa regime continuously used Buddhist monks, in their political operations, especially to incite conflict and win elections. The state has frequently deployed Buddhist monks to further its nationalist agendas. When the state used monks for their agendas, including to instigate violence, the monks were not framed as ‘immoral.’ The higher Buddhist authorities did not take action against groups, like Bodu Bala Sena, or Ravana Balaya, or their violent activities. It is ironic that the Government seems to be concerned about the ‘morality’ or ‘discipline’ of Bhikkus at this moment when many student Bhikkus have joined hands with the people to protest against the state.
University students as “terrorists”
The last example is the most pressing at this moment. On 18th of August, 2022, the police arrested Wasantha Mudalige, the Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Along with him, the authorities detained Hashan Jeewantha and the convener of the Inter University Bhikku Federation (IUBF), Galwewa Siridhamma Thera. The state labelled the politically active university students as “terrorists”. Again, this cannot have happened by chance; we all know the Aragalaya against the Rajapaksa dictatorship was heavily influenced by the Inter-University Students Federation and the Inter University Bhikku Federation. The student unions were the muscle of the people’s protests against the oppressive and corrupt regime. The Ranil-Rajapaksa regime labelled the student leaders’ terrorists and started arresting them.
The state’s stamping of University students as terrorists is a folly. If the state labels its own youth as “terrorists,” it means that the state has failed miserably because it is its own actions that have pushed them toward what is labelled as “terrorism.” The state should take a step back and reconsider its decisions.
Privatization of Education
The government and the government-validating media demonize students, labelling them as drug addicts, alcoholics and terrorists. The government undermines and defames the country’s student body. By doing so, the government is strategically isolating the students from the larger society and eroding public faith in them. Ironically, drug addicts, alcoholics, and terrorists are all confined to the public school and state university system, not private educational institutions. The media propagates the idea that students enrolled in the state education system are ‘immoral’ and ‘disobedient’. Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the puppet President of the Rajapaksa allies, proposes a new economic system which he thinks will counter the current balance of payment crisis. The proposal includes establishing an educational hub in Sri Lanka, which promises to privatise higher education in the long-term.
The state agenda of privatizing education is not a recent one, but it has been reenergized by the Ranil-Rajapaksa government in the context of crisis. Well before demonising the students, in the public education system, in June 2022 the government, national education commission, came up with an education policy framework.
Biased towards Rajapaksa ideologies, the national education commission that developed the policy, proposed to expand the privatization of higher education. In their report, the committee presents a table demonstrating how Sri Lanka allocates less money on higher education compared with the other middle-income countries. The next section outlines the way Sri Lanka relies more on government grants for higher education than other middle-income countries, which is confusing and contradictory, perhaps reflecting the grossly inadequate overall investment in higher education in the country. Then the report goes on to analyse how the poor school education system creates an unskillful student who is unable to think critically. It finally recommends promoting private participation in higher education, not only through funding but also by matching the curricula to fit the market and increase the “employability” of students. While on the one hand government pushes for privatising higher education, on the other, it demonizes the students in the public educational system. The State has seized the problem by its tail. The government is unable to perceive its own flaws in short-sighted policymaking, law enforcement, and corruption, and instead accuses and defames students, to distract them from its concerted effort to privatise education.
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
(Anushka Kahandagamage is reading for her PhD in the School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)
Janaka…Keeping the Elvis scene alive
For the past three years, local performers have certainly felt the heat, where work is concerned, beginning with the Easter Sunday tragedy, followed by Covid-19 restrictions, and then the political situation
Right now, there seems to be a glimmer of light, at the end of the tunnel, and musicians are hoping that, finally, the scene would brighten up for the entertainment industry.
Janaka Palapathwala, whose singing style, and repertoire, is reminiscent of the late Elvis Presley, says he was so sad and disappointed that he could not reach out to his fans, around the world, because of the situation that cropped up in the country.
However, he did the next best thing possible – a Virtual Concert, early last year, and had this to say about it:
“The concert was witnessed by so many people around the world, in 12 different countries, and I take this opportunity to thank all those who showed a great interest, around the world, to make the show a mighty success. Lasantha Fernando of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the USA, went out of the way to pull a huge crowd, in the States, to make the concert a massive success. Lasantha, by the way, has done many shows, in Minnesota, including a concert of mine, four years ago.”
Toward the end of 2022, the showbiz scene started to look good, with musicians having work coming their way – shows, sing-alongs, events, overseas tours, recordings, etc.
Janaka added that the Gold FM ’70s show was back after six years, and that the music industry is grateful to Gold FM for supporting musicians with such an awesome event.
“Also, the unity and the togetherness of the Sri Lankan western musicians, scattered around the globe, were brought together, once again, by the guidance of Melantha Perera.
“The song ‘Baby Jesus Is Fast Asleep’, written, composed and directed by Melantha, was a true Christmas gift to people around the world.”
Referring to his career, Janaka said that these days he is involved in a mega video production project.
“I intend to do a road show for a total Dinner Dance Promotion package, titled ‘Janaka with Melantha and the Sign’.
“Phase One of the project is already completed, and we are now heading for the second phase, where we plan to get Sohan Weerasinghe, Clifford Richards and Stephanie Siriwardane involved in the cast”.
Janaka also spoke excitedly about his forthcoming trip to the USA.
“I’m so excited to tour the USA, after three years. The ‘Spring Tour USA 2023′ is going to be different.
“I’ve done formal concerts, in the States, but this Spring Tour will be a series of Dinner Dances where I would be seen in action, along with the top ranked DJ of Washington D.C., Shawn Groove, and some of the best domestic bands in the States, and I can assure all my friends, and fans, in the US, that this new venture is going to be doubly exciting.”
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