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Policy blunders in agriculture:



When will our leaders learn?


Blunders in state agriculture policy making has been rampant, and the need for our leaders to consult experts in policy making cannot be overstated. Let us dwell into some of the blunders. The ‘Yahapalana’ regime banned glyphosate herbicide use, but yielded when alternative herbicides used in tea had residue levels above allowable limits in the made tea, leading to serious tea marketing problems. Consequently, the re-use of glyphosate in tea and rubber only, but not for other crops, was approved! Rubber industry never asked for it because it is not critically needed, as weeds are essentially managed in rubber plantations with cover crops. On the other hand, coconut plantations have the serious problem of managing the highly competitive grasses, and research has established that their control with glyphosate yielded 38% more as against only 18% when grasses were slashed.


Toxin-free agriculture project collapse

Then the Yahapalana regime proceeded pell-mell from its commencement in 2015 promoting organic farming and overlooking conventional farming. The Strategic Enterprises Management Agency (SEMA) was totally transformed into an institute for promoting the so-called ‘toxin –free’ farming activities. The chief visionary of the programme was, of course, the then President. Neither the Ministry of Agriculture nor the Department of Agriculture were consulted, but compelled to carry out various short-sighted, organic farming- related activities. The officials meekly yielded. Ven Ratana thero, M.P, who was virtually the second in command in the ill-fated project, produced his own fertilizer named ‘Pivithuru Pohora’., running a factory in Mahaweli System B!

A team of senior retired agricultural scientists, who visited the site to examine the performance of this ‘wonder fertilizer’, was confidentially told by the farmers that the paddy crop turned yellow following application of Pivituru Pohora, a clear sign of nitrogen deficiency, and they then secretively applied urea! Why ‘secretively’, because they were selling the produce to the daughter of a top politician in Polonnaruwa as ‘organic paddy’, at Rs 10/kg higher than the conventional paddy! The ‘Pivituru Pohora’ was obviously sold to farmers without adequate testing: the Department of Agriculture trials at Aralaganwila did not show response to that fertilizer!

The SEMA toxin free project too was a total failure and was closed down in 2019 as a consequence!


New government making

the same blunder

The new government has sadly failed to learn a lesson from the failure of the organic agriculture and associated pursuits of the previous regime! The new President, in his policy statement, announced his commitment to make the country totally organic in the next ten years! And the Governor of the Eastern Province, overwhelmed with organic farming, is compelling the officials to only promote it in the Province!

The whole world has yet only 2% in organic farming of which 66% is in pastures (for the rich to eat organic beef steaks!), only the balance being in other crops. Organic agriculture is expanding by only at 10% of its farm extent annually, implying that it will take at least 35 years for the entire world to be totally in it! Will it ever happen? The whole world moved away from organic farming from about the 1820s because it could not produce the global food demand. Vaclav Smil, distinguished Professor, University of Manitoba, for example, in 1987, estimated that 40% of today’s population is alive, thanks to the Haber-Bosch process of synthesizing ammonia.. However, organic farming may be promoted as much as possible, as organic food fetches a premium price giving good incomes to the farmer and , in any case, adding organic matter to our soils is highly beneficial. Total banning of agrochemicals is, however, never attainable! The detrimental issue is its excessive use. What is critically needed is to educate the farmers in judicious use of agrochemicals. No government in the recent past has addressed this vital issue effectively.


The oil palm fiasco

The plantation companies wanted to expand its cultivation to 20,000ha from its current 11,000 ha replacing some unproductive rubber with it. The Yahapalana Cabinet approved it several years ago, following which the plantations set up nurseries with imported high yielding hybrid seeds at a cost of some Rs500 million. The then President, however, went back on the Cabinet decision suspending its cultivation expansion! It would appear that the presidential decision was on the basis of a highly flawed report by the Central Environmental Authority, which has been totally rejected by the majority of scientists conversant in the matter, including the Coconut Research Institute, the organization mandated for oil palm research.

The outcry of villagers living close to oil palm plantations in the south was that oil palm dries up the soil and water bodies in their villages! Scientific evidence does not at all support this contention. The research evidence is that per unit area of land rubber and oil palm evapo-transpiration rates are comparable, and more importantly, whereas the water footprint, that is, the volume of water required to produce one metric ton of raw rubber is 32,410 cubic metres, that needed to make a ton of crude palm oil is only 19,148! In any case, the responsible institutions should have carried out a comprehensive hydrological study, comparing an exclusively oil palm area vis a vis a totally rubber area, to convince the villagers and policy makers. The politicians totally backed the villagers’ protests, obviously because of the then pending general elections. And one government politician in the south even proceeded to fell an oil palm tree in the wilderness, with the media coverage, to impress the villagers, just before the election! Even the Minister of Plantation Industries, a southerner has apparently meekly heeded the villagers’ objections. Being a qualified medical doctor, he should have gone on scientific evidence and correctly briefed the people and the President too.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has banned further oil palm cultivation in Sri Lanka several months ago. It is obvious that he has been totally misinformed on the subject. The benefits of oil palm are huge. It is the number one vegetable oil in the world, producing 35% of the global vegetable oil demand from 19 million hectares as against the number two, soybean, which produces only 28% of the oil from 147 million hectares, because of its very low productivity being only about a tenth of oil palm. Coconut yields only one fifth that of oil palm. Over the last 50 years, its production globally has increased 30 fold from less than 2.5 million MT in 1970 to over 70 million. More than a third of the global oil palm plantations are in the hands of small farmers, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia, where many are shifting from other crops such as rubber to oil palm because of the much higher returns. The Table below shows that the returns from oil palm in the local scenario is far more that of the other three plantation crops.


Palm oil and health

Some argue that palm oil has health risks. In fact, its cholesterol elevating saturated fat (palmitic acid) content is only about 45%, whereas that of coconut oil is over 70%. However, both these oils have a number of other health benefits. Palm oil has the advantage of having 39% linoleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid, (the same principal fatty acid as in olive oil), that lowers the bad cholesterol but does not affect the good cholesterol.

However, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) pronounced a few years back that consumption of palm oil in moderation has no cancer risk. Further, a more recent, comprehensive review in the Journal, Nutrients (2019), 10 reputed scientists concluded that there is no direct or indirect evidence of palm oil consumption being associated with cancer in human beings.

It is unfortunate that the President did not consult the Coconut Research Institute, the organization mandated for R & D on oil palm, before making this vitally important national decision. Further, a team of sixteen senior scientists including eleven academics(professors) well versed in the subject, wrote to the President recently seeking an appointment to brief him on the subject, but, was told by his office that already a policy decision has been made on the matter! Must not faulty policies be rectified?


Expand coconut in the dry zone for oil?

Further, the government has now apparently rushed into a decision to plant up 50,000 ha coconut in the dry zone under drip irrigation for increasing oil production. It would appear that coconut is already grown in nearly all areas in the dry zone suitable for it. Is the water available during the droughts for irrigation?. Further, there is strong research evidence that with global warming and temperatures shooting up during droughts, especially in the months of April and August, coconut pollen germination is inhibited in the dry zone, causing poor fruit set. Have these factors been taken into consideration. Ideally the crop for the balance dry zone appears to be cashew, which can bring in more income if grown scientifically than coconut. We do not have highly productive cashew dwarf hybrids of the type in the picture.

They should be secured from other countries perhaps through a germplasm exchange programme. However, it is reported that the University of Wayamba has recently produced hybrids with a yield potential of 13-15kg/tree/yr after the 4th year and at least they should be actively promoted among growers.


Alternative land for oil palm

If the government is reluctant to grow oil palm in the wet zone rubber lands, an alternative is to use the uncultivated paddy fields which amount about 60,000 ha of which nearly 50,000 are in the wet zone. The appropriate ill-drained soils should be drained for the purpose and oil palm grown on raised beds as seen in the picture, being done for coconut in Thailand. The excess water can be retained in ponds at the bottom of the catena for fish culture. Such cultivation could provide our entire vegetable oil demand, saving some Rs 40 billion spent on import of palm oil. Alternative crops for these lands are of course coconut, vegetables and horticultural crops. The Agrarian Development Act of 2000 may need to be amended for the purpose.


Learning from India

We have lessons to learn from India both on oil palm and policy making! India is targeting cultivation of 2 million hectares of oil palm by 2030, replacing much of its nine seasonal oil crops from irrigated lands because of their poor yields (usually less than 1ton/ha/season). Already over 400,000 ha have been planted to it . India has a huge vegetable oil import bill much of it being for palm oil!

The decision to expand oil palm cultivation was made by the Planning Commission of India after extensive deliberations by the experts in the Commission. The Commission was first set up during the Nehru regime in the 1950s, and the present Prime Minister has changed its name to the National Technology Commission (Niti Aayog in Hindi). Its functions amongst others are creation of innovation and knowledge, and advising the government on major developmental policy issues. Sri Lanka should necessarily follow suit and have such a commission so that leaders act on the advice of experts, and not on misinformation of ‘Dicks, Toms and Harrys’!

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A change of economic policies for Sri Lanka



Millions of Sri Lankans are anxiously waiting to see what actions will be taken to make life bearable again.If we follow the example of successful countries we see them exploit their opportunities, and use the wealth created, not to import cars and go on luxury trips abroad, but to re-invest the money proceeds in further projects to bring in even more money. They proceed in this way until their citizens have good standard of living. Probably, the best example of that compounding of wealth is Singapore.

Singapore exploited its geographic advantages. It provided cruise ships with bunkering services and repair, later they provided airlines with refueling and expanded that to one night free stop- overs for passengers to buy luxury goods at their glamorous, tax-free shopping malls. The Japanese were making wonderful new gadgets: cameras, music players, portable radio cassette players, binoculars, all available in the malls and sold tax free!! Lee Kuan Yu forbade the ladies to wear denim jeans, and to wear dresses with hem lines coming down two inches below the knee! He even instructed the ladies to smile! No man could have long hair for fear of arrest. Littering was prohibited, so was chewing gum and smoking butts on the roads and pavements. The place was kept clean!

They used the proceeds arising from all this commercial activity to build housing blocks, develop new roads and other beneficial projects. (Individuals were not allowed to walk away with the profits, just to fritter them away.) Sentosa Island had installed a communications dish antenna connecting it with New York and the financial markets. This was an example of intelligent seizing of opportunities. I account for this intelligent development as due to the high educational and knowledge of Singapore’s progressive management. The result is a firm currency, holding its value.

Something similar has happened to Russia. Russia is rich. It is under progressive intelligent management. Stalin had developed the railway network across the full eleven time zones. But many areas remained to be connected. Putin found the finances to develop coal mines, develop oil and gas deposits and build railway bridges and tunnels for better access to markets and their demand for Russian products. Even as you read this, trains of 70 plus trucks, each with 70 tons of coal are grinding their way to China, day and night. Gas is flowing through an extensive network of pipelines, both east to China and west to friendly countries in Southern Europe. Mr. Putin and his men have succeeded in getting Russia fully functional. And the more Russians there are to spend money, so the more demand for goods and services: shops, etc., providing multiplying employment in Russia.

Mr. Putin wants to build a road and rail link south through Iran to India. A design plan is in the works. It is being discussed with Iran and India. Putin is displaying initiative for the benefit of Russia and its citizens. Putin cares for the citizens of Russia and is creating both wealth and jobs too. Architects are designing attractive living spaces and buildings which provide a better environment for Russians and contractors are building it. Education of Russian citizens is playing a big part in Mr. Putin’s thinking, too. Russia needs a talented workforce.

The result is that the currency, the Ruble is strong and does not devalue. It keeps its value.Belarus, Russia’s neighbour, can also be praised for outstanding development. The population in the big towns is cossetted with amenities and facilities which provides a luxurious way of life for townspeople especially those with industrial jobs. However, it must be admitted, the standard of life for the minority 30% population living in the countryside has yet to catch up. The administration is strict and everyone is law abiding. For example, you can leave your hand phone at your seat while you visit the toilet conveniences and it will remain undisturbed until you return.

Belarus, being a mostly agricultural country has a big tractor manufacturing plant, it has a fertiliser mining and producing plant, it has a commercial vehicle plant, DK MAZ which produces industrial trucks such as fire extinguishing trucks and also produces the most comfortable, bright, low step buses and so on, and of course, Belarus makes its own industrial vehicle tyres. The towns are prosperous and clean and Minsk, the capital is a beautifully laid out city. Town apartment blocks are multi-storied living spaces, but are so well designed and fitted as to provide pleasant living spaces for its people. These reduce urban sprawl across the wooded countryside.

What are Sri Lanka’s strengths? It is a small island thus making communications short and sweet. Its location in the Indian Ocean is a plus, its scenic beauty is a plus allowing a thriving tourist trade for people from colder climates, and its soil and climate allows almost anything to be grown. Therefore its agriculture is a great strength. Its long coastline can provide fish if the fisherised. It has deposits of graphite and phosphates which can be exploited to produce profits for further investment in development projects. It has its illiminite sands which are an extremely valuable asset but need to be controlled and exploitation expanded. It has a whole gem mining industry which need to be managed in way beneficial to the government. It has several government owned businesses which need to be overhauled and modernized to convert losses to profits. The rupee in 1948 was equal to the English pound, now it is around 450 rupees to the Pound. That gives a good description of Sri Lankan past governance.

Profits from projects need to be ploughed back into further projects to bring about a higher standard of living for all its inhabitants. Then the Lankan reputation of being a paradise island with happy people will be restored.

Priyantha Hettige

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Sapugaskanda: A huge challenge for RW



It will be interesting to see if anything fruitful will come of the so-called “investigation” announced by the Minister-in-charge, about what seemed like an outrageous overtime payment to the petroleum refinery workers.While waiting for the outcome of that investigation, I thought of highlighting again the real and central issue that cuts across all loss-making government undertakings in Sri Lanka, such as the CPC, CEB, SriLankan Airlines, etc. that have been mercilessly sucking off tax-payer’s money into them like “blackholes”.

These organisations have been typically sustaining a mutual understanding with corrupt or inept politicians. “Sahana milata sewaya” (service at a concessionary price) was the catchphrase used by them to cover up all their numerous irregularities, wanton wastage, gravy trains, jobs for the boys and massive corruption, mostly with direct and indirect blessings of the politicians.

Here, I’d like to bring out just one example to help readers to get an idea of the enormity of this crisis built up over the past few decades. You’ll only have to look at what seemed like gross over-staffing levels of the CPC’s Sapugaskanda refinery, compared to international standards as shown below:

* Sapugaskanda Refinery – 50,000 Barrels Per Day (BPD); 1,100 employees Superior Refinery, Wisconsin, USA – 40,000 BPD; 180 employees

* Louisiana Refinery (including a fairly complex petrochemicals section), USA – 180,000 BPD; 600 employees

* Hovensa Refinery (now closed) – US Virgin Islands; 500,000 BPD; 2,100 employees.

These are hard facts available on the Internet for anyone to see, but I’m open to being corrected. I doubt if any sensible private investor would even dream of allowing such a level of gross over-staffing in their businesses.

As everyone knows, this is the position in all government business undertakings, as well as in most other government agencies in Sri Lanka. One can say that Sri Lankans have been willingly maintaining a crop of GOWUs (Govt Owned Welfare Undertakings), primarily for the benefit of the “hard-working” employees of these organisations, but at an unconscionably enormous cost to the rest. Obviously, this “party” couldn’t have gone forever!

Will Ranil be up to this challenge? I doubt very much.

UPULl P Auckland

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Edward Gunawardena: ‘The IGP the country never had’



On a seemingly fine Friday afternoon, day two of the England v India second Test of the LV Insurance Series (that turned out to be a day five thriller), oblivious to how his day would tragically pan out, our dad, retired Senior Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Edward Gunawardena, was glued to his television enjoying the contest between the two cricket giants. As time passed by that afternoon, he felt uncomfortable, weak and had minor discomfort in breathing. Our family doctor, Dr Lakshan Fernando, swiftly visited home and on strict instructions to bed rest, our dad enjoyed his chicken soup for dinner that was prepared by his beloved wife, our mum.

Later that night tragically he took the last breath of his life, and he completed the last heartbeat of his life in the presence of two of his most trusted people, our mum and our family doctor.

This day was that dreaded “Friday the Thirteenth” – in the month of August last year. Our tragedy was upon us.A year has passed, by but the loss is still deep rooted, although it was comforting that his passing was peaceful knowing that he had the assurance of having Dr Lakshan beside him, who in fact rushed him from our home to Central Hospital in Colombo that night in his own vehicle in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, ever so determined to save our dad’s life. It was a blessing to know that our dad had our mum and Dr Lakshan beside him as much as it was possible.

Edward Gunawardena had a successful journey starting his early years through St Joseph’s College, Colombo, Peradeniya University, Michigan State University, USA through sheer determination to succeed, despite him and his three brothers losing their mum when he was at a tender age of just four years. He served our country for nearly three decades in the Police Service in various capacities, including as the Director of Intelligence, Director of Presidential Security, DIG Metropolitan and Senior DIG Administration; and continued his services as the Special Advisor to the Chancellor at the University Grants Commission, Chairman of the National Lotteries Board and in the Board of Directors at the Lake House Newspapers Corporation.

Most would consider retirement in the ripe old age of sixties, but our dad was blessed to have joined JF&I Printing and Packaging Company, an international company with the head office close to our home. This enterprise was owned and led by renowned late Dr Neville Fernando and his son Neomal Fernando. Edward Gunawardena found his renewed passion and purpose of working with such a talented and committed group of colleagues, where he thrived in making a significant difference to a spectrum of many individuals with a common goal. There was a family atmosphere with abundance of gratitude whilst professionalism was being maintained. The feelings were mutual, and this was evident at a time when our dad was unwell and required a blood transfusion – seven of the junior colleagues at JF&I showed their willingness and donated their blood with heartfelt love and gratitude towards him. Knowing that such generosity and love existed in a working environment was a sincerely humble attitude. This is a true reflection of our dad’s character and personality of giving where reciprocation was demonstrated.

Patriotism and loyalty were two of his strengths. His dedication and professionalism in the Police Service were commendable. This was once clearly expressed by the late Professor Carlo Fonseka at the launch of our dad’s second novel “.. Edward was the IGP (Inspector General of Police) that the country never had”. A truly inspiring and a remarkable Officer and a Gentleman.

His generosity and care extended way beyond his professional arena. One of his many philanthropic contributions was the resurrection of the village Buddhist temple’s school ‘Daham Pasala’ with the support from the late Deshamanya H K Dharmadasa well known as ‘Nawaloka Mudalali’, the founder of the Nawaloka Group. Our extended family and many thousands of youth in the Battaramulla area have benefited and continue to imbibe the doctrine of Buddhism, thanks to the dedicated committee led by it’s Chief Monk, Jinarathana Himi.

As an enthusiastic writer and a passionate citizen, he wrote many thought provoking and fearless articles to the newspapers, which were very well received by the readers. He was not afraid to speak the truth and to stand up for those who did not have a voice, and he became a respected contributor maintaining honesty and integrity. One of his most poignant articles we recall was days after the tragic Easter Sunday bombings, titled “The Unpardonable Blunder” bravely challenging the chain of command and with deep sorrow on the devastating destruction, loss of lives and many innocent people maimed and scarred for their entire lives.

Today, we are relieved that he didn’t have to witness the dismal state of affairs our country is going through as a consequence of decades of poor leadership, mismanagement, and most of all, unprecedented levels of corruption in the recent era of respective governments.

As our dad, we are immensely proud of who he was, his achievements and most of all for how he has bettered many lives throughout his life, with his generosity, professionalism and willingness to help, advise, guide, nurture and mentor all with a selfless attitude. We believe that his legacy has been passed on through many who he has had close connections with. We are thankful that his writing legacy would also continue through his creations of the two novels “Blood and Cyanide” and “Memorable Tidbits…”.

Even until his last days and hours he was sharing his experience and wisdom with everyone around him, that was the calibre of the gentleman. His humble stories of meeting President Nixon at the Fulbright Scholar Dinner at the White House, meeting the 124th Emperor of Japan, Emperor Hirohito at the Akasaka Palace, and his conversations with the great Arthur C Clarke, will always be fondly remembered by us. One of the famous quotes that our dad hilariously shared was the quote from Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom about his political nemesis, the former and the predecessor Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. “The difference between a misfortune and a calamity is this: if Gladstone fell into the Thames it would be a misfortune, but if someone dragged him out again that would be a calamity.”

Our dad was and will continue to be our hero and mentor. Today, we wish to extend our utmost appreciation to each and every one of you who had a close bond with him and made his life purposeful, joyful and complete. We thank them sincerely.

His last day of life was instrumental to the creation of the Edward Gunawardena Memorial Trust that is being organically grown, currently sponsoring medical students at the Rajarata University who are striving to become medical professionals, and as with Dr Lakshan, who was taking care of our dad, these students will have the opportunity to potentially treat and care for many deserving people and make their lives better, and also save many lives.

Whilst we take this opportunity to once again thank all those who were in his life,we would love to hear and treasure all the memories they shared with him. We welcome your recollections, your thoughts and your appreciations of Edward Gunawardena and please do send them via the email

My sister and I would value and appreciate the stories that you have had the pleasure of experiencing with him and of him.

With gratitude,

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