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MONLAR: Agriculture output has dropped by between 30 and 50 percent

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

There had been a 30%- 50% drop in the country’s agricultural output, Chinthaka Rajapakshe, Convener of the Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) told The Island yesterday.

“The farmers, like almost everyone else in this country, are uncertain of their future and they have only sold a portion of their produce. So, for example, if a farmer produced 100 kilos of paddy, he would keep 50 kilos for his own consumption and sell only 50 kilos,” Rajapakshe said.

According to Rajapakshe widespread hoarding coupled with a steep drop in production means that there will be a food shortage in the coming months. “The government is already importing rice from India, Pakistan, Myanmar, and China has donated rice to us rice,” he said.

“Given the dollar crunch, I am not sure if we can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on food imports. The main problem with the government’s organic drive was that there was no planning. The Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Agrarian Services and the Mahaweli Authority failed to give proper directions to the farmers.”

The situation would have been better if the government had given cash directly to the farmers to produce compost and other inputs. However, the government insisted on handing over the production of compost and other inputs to businessmen who were their political supporters. These businessmen had produced low-quality fertiliser that was rejected by farmers, Rajapakshe said.

“Farmers had no faith in the government or organic agriculture because they realised that it was not done in good faith. It was done either because of the dollar shortages or because the government wanted to enrich its cronies,” he said.

MONLAR Convenor said that the other problem plaguing agriculture was the fuel shortage. Many farmers used pumps to irrigate their farms that ran on diesel and there had been a severe diesel shortage for months, he said.

“The current crisis in farming is a reflection of the chaotic nature in the country. The main problem is not the fertiliser or fuel shortage alone, it is that the farming community has lost its faith in the government.

Meanwhile, Dr. Lionel Weerakoon, former senior scientist at the Department of Agriculture said that the switch-over to organic agriculture could not be effected by fiat overnight. It had to be done over a period of time.

“27% workers, out of a labour force of eight million, are engaged in agricultural and related industries. There is a belief that the government banned agrochemicals due to the belief that excessive use and elevated exposure to fertilisers and agrochemicals might be a contributing factor to Chronic Kidney Disease. But this is not what scientists, economists or farmers believe,” he said.

In 2020, Sri Lanka imported through both state and private sector, fertilisers worth $259 million and this was 1.6% of the country’s total imports.

“The 2021 bill could have been anything between $300 and $400 million given international prices. The situation is even worse now because Russia, Belarus and China have limited their fertiliser exports. If we are to purchase a similar quantity of fertiliser as we did in 2020, we might have to spend 600 million US dollars,” Dr. Weerakoon said.

In 2019, the fertiliser subsidy programme cost the government around 46 billion rupees or $253 million, which is roughly 2% of the government’s recurring expenditure. Fully-subsidised fertiliser for smallholder rice production was one of the reasons why people overused fertiliser.

“The fertiliser subsidy was extended to other crops, including tea, vegetables, coconut, rubber, potatoes, fruit, and minor export crops. The government subsidises anywhere from 48-to-88 percent of the market price of a 50-kilo bag of fertiliser. In 2019, the government distributed around 300,000 MT of subsidised imported fertiliser among the cultivators of other crops. 44% went to tea plantations, 24% to vegetable producers, and 12% to coconut plantations with the balance being allocated to rubber, fruit, potatoes, and minor export crops,” Dr. Weerakoon said.

“There have been many attempts by the government and NGOs to promote more effective use of chemicals in agriculture for decades. These have not been successful and our agricultural systems are unsustainable. Given this context the decision to go organic was a very bad idea.

“There was a better plan in 2015. It was a soft shift to organic agriculture. The overall management of the country under the incumbent government has been disastrous. The current chaos in agriculture sector is a good example,” the senior scientist said.



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Weerawansa’s wife sentenced to RI

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Lawyers appearing for Shashi Weerawansa, MP Wimal Weerawansa’s wife, yesterday (27) appealed against a Colombo Magistrate’s Court decision to sentence their client to two years rigorous imprisonment.Colombo Chief Magistrate, Buddhika Sri Ragala found her guilty of submitting forged documents to obtain a diplomatic passport circa 2010. The Colombo Magistrate’s Court also imposed a fine of Rs. 100,000 on Mrs. Weerawansa. If the fine is not paid she will have to serve an extra six months.

Additional Magistrate Harshana Kekunawala announced that the appeal would be called for consideration on 30 May.The case against Mrs. Weerawansa was filed by the CID after a complaint was lodged on 23 January 2015 by Chaminda Perera, a resident of Battaramulla.

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Unions predict end of energy sovereignty

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

A government decision to allow all privately-owned bunker fuel operators to import and distribute diesel and fuel oil to various industries was a rollback of the nationalisation of the country’s petroleum industry and another severe blow to energy sovereignty of the country, trade union activist of the SJB Ananda Palitha said yesterday.Earlier, Minister of Power and Energy, Kanchana Wijesekera Tweeted that ‘approval was given to all the Private Bunker Fuel Operators to Import and provide Diesel and Fuel Oil requirements of Industries to function their Generators and Machinery. This will ease the burden on CPC and Fuel Stations provided in bulk’.Commenting on the decision, Palitha said that according to the existing law those companies only had the power to import, store and distribute fuel for ships. Those companies did not have the authority to distribute fuel inside the country, Palitha said.

“Only the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC) can distribute fuel inside the country. There is a controversy about the licence given to the LIOC as well. If the government wants other companies to import fuel, it needs to change the laws. The Minister does not have the power to make these decisions. A few months ago the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration used to rush Bills that adversely affected the country through Parliament. Now, since they don’t have a majority in parliament, they are using the Cabinet to make decisions that are detrimental to the country’s interests.”

Palitha said that the controversial government move would further weaken the CPC, and that the ultimate aim of the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government was to make the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) purchase fuel from private distributors. With a weakened CPC and a CEB under the mercy of private companies, the Sri Lankan state would have little control over the country’s energy sector, he warned.

“The CEB already can’t pay the CPC, and therefore how can it pay private companies? It will have to sell its assets. This is another step in the road to fully privatise the energy sector. When this happens no government will be able to control inflation or strategically drive production through fuel and energy tariffs. The people will be at the mercy of businessmen and the government will only be a bystander,” he said.

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Modi government moves to ‘solve’ Katchatheevu issue

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The Narendra Modi government is mulling restoring the traditional rights of Tamil Nadu fishermen in Katchatheevu, an uninhabited island of 285 acres, sandwiched between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Bay, with the BJP hoping the move could lift its political fortunes in the southern state.The government will push Sri Lanka to implement “in letter and spirit” the 1974 agreement reached between Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, then prime ministers of India and Sri Lanka, on the island.This will have to be done by withdrawing the “Executive Instructions” issued in 1976 without questioning Sri Lanka’s “sovereignty” over Katchatheevu, sources aware of the internal discussions in the BJP told the Indian newspaper, Deccan Herald.

Sources added that the discussions were “ongoing” at “various levels” including reaching out to Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka. The recent visit of TN BJP chief K Annamalai to Sri Lanka is also part of the outreach. Many feel the instructions issued in 1976 “superseded the provisions of the legally valid” pact between India and Sri Lanka, thus making Katchatheevu a subject of dispute in the Palk Bay.While the 1974 agreement gave away Katchatheevu, which was part of the territory ruled by the Rajah of Ramanathapuram, to Sri Lanka, the 1976 pact drew the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal.

“We cannot disturb the agreement signed in 1974. We are now finding ways and means to implement the agreement in letter and spirit. All we plan is to ask Sri Lanka to invoke Article 6 of the Katchatheevu pact. If Sri Lanka agrees, the issue can be sorted through Exchange of Letters between foreign secretaries of both countries,” a source in the know said.Another source said the time is “ripe” to push forward on the issue. “With fast-changing geopolitical situation in the region, we believe Sri Lanka will slowly come around and accept the rights of our fishermen,” the source said.

“The opinion within the party is that time is ripe to push this cause, with Sri Lanka beginning to realise that India can always be relied upon, given PM Ranil (Wickremesinghe) is pro-India.”

Articles 5 and 6 of the 1974 agreement categorically assert the right to access of the Indian fishermen and pilgrims to Katchatheevu and state that the “vessels of Sri Lanka and India will enjoy in each other’s waters such rights as they have traditionally enjoyed therein”.

However, fishermen from India were prohibited from fishing in the Sri Lankan territorial waters around Katchatheevu in 1976 following the signing of an agreement on the maritime boundary. The battle for fish in the Palk Bay has often ended in Indian fishermen being attacked by Sri Lankan Navy for “transgressing” into their waters.The BJP, which is yet to make major inroads in Tamil Nadu, feels a “solution” to the long-standing issue will give the party the much-needed momentum ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls and provide a chance to get into the Tamil psyche. Political analysts feel that it might also allow the BJP to needle the DMK and the Congress by pointing out that it has restored the rights “surrendered by them,” to Tamil fishermen

Senior journalist and Lanka expert R Bhagwan Singh said: “If BJP succeeds in its efforts, it will certainly help the saffron party in the coming elections.”

But a source said the move will “take time”. “We don’t want to rush and create an impression we are forcing Sri Lanka. We will take it slow. We will take every stakeholder into confidence and reach an amicable settlement with Sri Lanka. All we want to do is restore traditional rights of our fishermen,” the source said.CM Stalin also raised the issue at an event on Thursday, telling Modi that this is the “right time” to retrieve Katchatheevu.

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