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Policy blunders in agriculture:

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When will our leaders learn?

By Dr PARAKRAMA WAIDYANATHA

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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Opinion

Reminiscences of Colombo University Arts Faculty and Library

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Whilst extending my felicitations to the University of Colombo on the centenary celebrations of the Faculty of Arts and the Library of the University, I would like to record my contribution towards these two units as the Registrar of the University.

It was during Prof. Stanley Wijesundera’s tenure as the Vice-Chancellor (VC) in 1980 that the proposals for the buildings in respect of the Chemistry Department, Physics Department, New Administration, Faculty of Law, Faculty of Arts and the Library were mooted and submitted to the Treasury. At that time it was the National Buildings Consortium that assigned the Consultants and the Contractors for the new buildings to be constructed. Within that year the Treasury allocated sufficient funds for the Chemistry, Physics, Faculty of Law and the New Administration buildings. However, no funds were allocated to the Faculty of Arts and only Rs. 7.5 million was allocated for the Library building.

With the funds allocated the Chemistry, Physics, Law Faculty and the new Administration buildings were able to get off the ground. The construction work in respect of the other two buildings could not commence due to non-allocation of sufficient funds, even though the consultants and the contractors and already been selected.

As the Minister of Finance at that time was from Matara, he was more interested in getting the required buildings for the newly established University of Ruhuna completed, which was in his electorate. This meant that the University of Colombo would not get any funds for new buildings other than those buildings where the construction work had already begun.

The university needed a building for the Faculty of Arts very badly as this Faculty had the largest number of students. The Vice-Chancellor requested me to draft a letter to the Minister of Finance. Accordingly, I drafted a letter and submitted to the VC for his signature. He told it was an excellent letter, and he signed without a single amendment and submitted same to the Minister. The Minister approved the releasing of the funds. Now the consultants to the building project studied the area required for the building and found that a small portion of land was necessary from the land of the Planetarium. My efforts to get the land from the person in charge of the Planetarium, the Senior Assistant Secretary and the Secretary himself were not fruitful. I told the VC of the position and that he would have to speak to the Minister in charge of the Planetarium, Mr. Lionel Jayathilaka. He got the Minister on line and addressing him by his first name and informed the Minister of the problem. The Minister immediately got it attended to. However, when the construction work started, they found that the additional land area was not necessary.

At that time, the payments to the consultants of building projects was 15% of the total value of the cost. So, in designing the building they tried to add various unnecessary items to jack up the cost. When the first phase was completed, the building looked monstrous and it was like a maze, as it was difficult to find your way out once you get in. I requested the architect to add some coloured tiles on the floors and the stairway and a few decorations on the walls. The university had a never ending tussle with the contractor as he was like Shylock asking for more, when everything had been paid. He tried various tactics but did not succeed in getting anything more as I was adamant not to give in.

When the second stage of the building project came up, I told the consultant to drop all the unnecessary items and have a straight forward building. This was done by the new contractor at much less cost to the university.

The Library building was the last of the buildings planned in 1980 that was awaiting construction. When Mr. Richard Pathirana became the Minister of Higher Education, I spoke to the two engineers who were assigned the task of supervising the building projects of the universities, and managed to get the funds passed by the Treasury for the construction of the Library building. When the Minister came on a visit to the university, he told me that the building that should have been done for Rs.7.5 million will cost Rs.253 million. I told him that the Treasury never gave any money after approving the initial funding of Rs.7.5 million. Anyway, I had achieved what I wanted to do and the building was successfully completed. Now the furniture for the Library had to be procured. When quotations were called the suucessful tenderer had brought a sample of the study tables. I rejected this as it was inferior to what I wanted and asked the officer concerned to get the design of the furniture from the library in the University of Peradeniya. This was done and the furniture was installed. The official opening of the new Library was arranged. By that time I had retired from the position of Registrar and was the Director of the Institute of Workers’ Education. Even though I was instrumental in getting the building done, I was not invited for the function. That is gratitude!!

 

H M Nissanka Warakaulle

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Opinion

Ali Sabry bashing

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Justice Minister Ali Sabry has appealed to his critics to spare him from the criticism that he was behind the calling of applications for the appointment of Quazis for Quazi Courts (The Island/23.01.2021). In my view, the allegations levelled against Justice Minister Ali Sabry are unfounded and uneducated. If you are an educated and unbiased citizen of this country, you’ll understand it better. The applications for Quazis for Quazi Courts have been called by the Judicial Service Commission, an independent Commission chaired by the Chief Justice of this country. If you aren’t happy with this decision, you have to take it up with the Chief Justice, not the Justice Minister. He has no control at all over the Judicial Service Commission. In a way, criticising that Justice Minister influenced the Judicial Service Commission, chaired by the Chief Justice, tantamounts to contempt of the Supreme Court. Moreover, Quazi Courts have been in existence for well over 70 years, and it hasn’t affected the Sinhalese or the Tamils nor has it been incompatible with the common law of this country. If there is any serious discrepancy, it can be rectified. But I wonder why the calling of applications for Quazis has now become an issue. I also wonder if the removal of Quazi Courts was promised as a part of the subtle 69 mandate. This is not the first time similar allegations have been made. When Rauf Hakeem was Justice Minister, Member of Parliament Pattali Champika Ranawaka  made serious allegations that more Muslim students were admitted to the Law College and led many protests and ultimately a group of monks stormed the Law College in protest. He had charged that Law College entrance exam papers were leaked and criticised the then Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem for it. He  knew very well that Law College came under the Council of Legal Education chaired by the Chief Justice and  Attorney General and two other Supreme Court judges among others were  members of this Council, yet he had made these allegations with a different motive. Amidst international outcry, Muslim Covid victims have been denied burial. To make the situation worse, some vindictive, venomous elements are now trying to create another bad scenario that Muslims can’t marry either according to their faith, and tarnish the image of this country internationally and drive a wedge between communities. Therefore I earnestly ask the law abiding and peace loving citizens of this country to work against these vindictive, venomous elements.  

 

M. A. Kaleel 

Kalmunai. 

 

 

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Opinion

What do Northern political parties seek?

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Political parties, based in the North, are reported to be getting prepared to attend the UNHRC sessions next month. For several decades, the only thing they did for their constituents is to spread feelings of hate among them, against the government and the people living in the South. Today, we have two important issues where India is involved – re. the Colombo Harbour and the death of four fishermen. There is another perennial issue of Indians fishing in our waters. Have these parties uttered a single word on those matters? What do they expect to gain, or achieve for the Northerners, even if they could prove SL war crimes allegations at the UNHRC? Can they honestly say that they were not a party to the LTTE and other terrorist outfits which looted, tortured and killed hundred or thousands of civilians, both in the North and the South?

Other than shouting about the rights of their people, have they done anything for the wellbeing of the people in those areas? Whatever was given to the people were those given by the Government on a national basis. Excellent example is the conduct of C V Wigneswaran, who held the high position of Chief Minister of the Northern Province for five years – had he done any significant service for the people? Those parties never complain about India for the killings, torturing and raping done by the IPKF, or the damage and loss due to the activities of Indian fishermen.

India too overlooks all that, and to keep Tamil Nadu happy, forces the SL government to grant whatever the Northern Parties demand.

 

K SIRIWEERA

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