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Province-based Devolution in Sri Lanka: a Critique

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by G H Peiris

Continued from Wednesday 16

Those provincial boundaries have remained almost unchanged during the

past 131 years, in disregard of ecological, demographic, economic and political transformations. What prevails now is an archaic and outmoded design that catered to different needs and bureaucratic circumstances.

The provincial administrative system had

only nominal contact and control over many functions of government. Those that were under the direct control of the government such as administration of justice, security, health services, road construction, land development, major hydraulic systems, postal and telecommunication services, railways, etc., were centrally controlled and invariably had sub-national spatial networks of their own.

In addition, and more significantly than all else, throughout British rule there was no irredentist threat from the Indian Sub-Continent which was largely under British rule. Nor did ‘Ceylon’ face serious external threats of destabilisation or conquest except, briefly (in 1942), during the Second World War.

Accordingly, an attempt to conduct Provincial Council elections without changing the existing configuration of provinces is tantamount to disregarding the fact that the continued existence of the present network of provinces, while not achieving effective empowerment of the under-represented and impoverished segments of our population, perpetuates the irredentist threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. It also ignores the ‘never again’ mandate offered by the people to the present government at the Parliamentary elections conducted last August for a major constitutional overhaul involving, inter alia, province-based devolution.

When the Dutch possessions in Sri Lanka, transferred to the British in 1796, were granted the status of a Crown Colony in 1801, the existing system of regional administration that had consisted of three ‘Collectorates’ was replaced with a network of thirteen ‘Provinces’, each centred on the coastal town after which it was named.

That arrangement, along with a separate administration over the ‘Kandyan Provinces’ annexed by the British in 1815, lasted with some modification until the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms of 1833 when a unified system of administration embracing the entire country was established. These reforms entailed, inter alia, the setting up of a hierarchically arranged system of regional administration in which five ‘Provinces’, each under the authority of a Government Agent, constituted the basic spatial frame. The Provinces were subdivided into Districts, each comprising several Headman’s Divisions. In many instances, the Headman’s Divisions had some correspondence to the pre-British administrative units of the Portuguese and the Dutch in the lowlands and of the Kandyan kingdom in the highlands.

Yet, in demarcating the Provinces and the Districts, hardly any attempt was made either to draw from history or to accommodate the geographical realities pertaining to criteria such as access to physical resources, resource management, composition of the population, and the interdependence of the different parts of the country from the viewpoint of their development prospects. In practical terms, the main rationalisation of the provincial demarcation appears to have been that of using the best fortified coastal urban centres left behind by the Dutch (Colombo, Galle, Jaffna and Batticaloa), and the capital of the former Kandyan kingdom as bases for developing a system of control over territory, most of which was yet to be explored.

Indeed, it almost seems as if, in establishing a uniform administrative system over the entire country, and in dividing the country into Provinces and Districts, the British made a conscious attempt to move away from tradition as a means of consolidating their hold over the country.

The most pronounced feature of the provincial framework instituted through the reforms of 1833 was the annexation of the outlying territories of the former Kandyan kingdom to the coastal provinces. For instance, while Nuwarakalāviya was included in the Northern Province, Tamankaduwa and a large portion of Uva were placed within the Eastern Province. Likewise, while the Western Province was made to extend well into the Kandyan territories of the western flanks of the Central Highlands, parts of Sabaragamuwa and Uva were incorporated into the Southern Province. It has been asserted (Mills, 1964:68; de Silva, 1981:261-2; Kodikara, 1991:4-5) that the new arrangement amounted to a dismemberment of the former Kandyan kingdom, and was intended, in the words of Mills, “… to weaken the national feelings of the Kandyans”.

 

British administrative Demarcations of 1833

Superimposed on John Davy’s 1821 demarcation of the Kandyan Kingdom

 

NOTE: This illustration confirms the submissions by Mr. Samanthe Ratwatte at the SEC meeting on 3 December 2020 on the dismembering of the Kandyan Kingdom by the British in 1833.

 

Over the next few decades, as population and economic activities expanded, new provinces were carved out of existing ones, bringing their total number to 9 by 1889.

The provincial administration, as indicated by the content of their ‘Annual Reports’, though nominally entrusted with a wide range of functions, was largely concerned during these times with the tasks of revenue collection, infrastructure development in the form of minor construction works, and the monitoring of living conditions among the people. The government activities directly relating to the emerging modern sector of the economy, the administration of justice, and the maintenance of law and order were, for the most part, orchestrated from Colombo. Thus, the creation of new provinces – North-Western Province in 1845, North-Central Province in 1873, Uva Province in 1886, and Sabaragamuwa Province in 1889 – was, in effect, not much more than a process of increasing the number of urban centres used as the principal bases of regional administration. The provinces were not intended to serve as spatial units for the devolution of government authority except in matters of routine administration; nor were they expected to acquire an ‘identity’ in a political sense. In fact, as Governor Ridgeway observed (Administration of Ceylon, 1897:52-53) almost at the end of the 19th century:

“The existing map of the island, compiled chiefly from General Fraser’s map made early in the century, contains errors so numerous and so gross as to make it useless for administrative purposes. For example, 400 miles of provincial boundaries are still un-surveyed. Only three of the larger rivers have been completely surveyed, while in the case of the largest in the island, the Mahaveli Ganga, there is a gap of over 20 miles.”

The provincial demarcation as it stood in 1889 has remained unchanged for well over 130 years. Intra-provincial administrative adjustments were made at various times bringing the total number of Districts in the country from nineteen in 1889 to twenty-five at present. Government Agents of the provinces, holding executive power over their areas of authority, coordinated a range of government activities in their respective provinces. It is important to note, however, that in certain components of governance, while the related regional demarcations did not always coincide with provincial and district boundaries, the Government Agent had either only marginal involvement or no authority at all. This was particularly evident in fields such as the administration of justice, maintenance of law and order, and the provision of services in education and health care, in which there is large-scale daily interaction between the government and the people.

 

Post-Colonial Territorial Divisions

In the early years of independence, with the passing of the Administrative Districts Act No. 22 of 1955, the province lost whatever importance it had up to that time as a unit of regional administration. Since then, until 1987, the district served as the main unit of regional administration, acquiring, with the increasing politicisation of bureaucratic activities in the country, some recognition as a spatial entity to which the powers and functions of the central government could be decentralised (de Silva, 1993:109-116). A series of reforms implemented since 1973 –the setting up of District Political Authorities, post of District Ministers, District Development Councils, and District Planning Units– not only had the effect of institutionalising the process of increasing political control over the administrative machinery, but also enlarged the range of decision-making functions performed at the level of the district.

From perspective of the SEC, changes that were introduced under the so-called ‘Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution’ and the Provincial Councils Act of 1987 could be seen, not merely as a revitalisation of the concept of the province as a unit of administration to which certain routine functions of the central government are decentralised, but as an attempt to grant political recognition and distinctiveness to the province as a unit of territorial control, and thus make the spatial framework of provinces the unit of devolution of government power from the Centre to the Regions. This latter, as the observations made above indicate, is a feature which the provincial network left behind by the British never possessed and was, in fact, never intended to possess.

 

The legislation to establish a system of Provincial Councils, drafted in the course of negotiations that led to the ‘Indo-Lanka Accord’ (a.k.a. Rajiv-JR Pact’) of 1987, was passed by parliament in November that year amidst fierce opposition from both the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the main party in the parliamentary opposition, as well as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP/People’s Liberation Front) which was engaged in an anti-government insurrection at that time. It provided for the transfer (subject to overall control of the central government) of a fairly wide range of powers and functions to councils elected at the level of the provinces. The powers vested by the Act on the president of the country vis-à-vis the Provincial Councils included that of appointing the ‘Provincial Governors’ and, more importantly from the viewpoint of the present discussion, the discretion of permitting the merger of provinces on a permanent or temporary basis to constitute an area of authority of a single council. The power to dissolve a provincial council was also vested in the president.

The clauses of the Provincial Councils Act pertaining to the merger of provinces were exercised by the president in September 1988 to bring about a merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces. This was a response to what had become an unequivocal demand of the Sri Lankan Tamils. The merger decision was intended to be temporary, pending the verdict of the inhabitants of the areas concerned at a referendum on whether it should be made permanent. Though the ‘North-East Provincial Council’, elected to office two months later, survived only until the final stages of withdrawal of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force from Sri Lanka. On the basis of a Supreme Court decision in 2006 which held that the temporary merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces was no longer valid in law, the two provinces were demerged for the continuing operation of the Provincial Councils Act of 1987.

 

* * *

The antecedents of the PC system sketched above constitute only two sets of reasons that justify the appeal for its abolition. There are others, the most important among which are the blatant malpractice, extravagance and waste which it has involved all along. As one of our most venerated monks (a staunch source of support and constructive criticism of the ‘regime’) asked last night (13 December) in the course of his comments on the contemplated staging of PC elections, why is it, with all the power you already have, necessary to create more positions of privilege to your henchmen? As reported by the ex-Commissioner of Elections, the last parliamentary elections cost the government a staggering 15 billion rupees.

 

Burdened, as we are, with the necessity for pandemic precautions, island-wide PC elections will probably cost even more. With that level of expenditure, surely we can achieve a great deal of empowerment of those in dire poverty.

 



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COVID-19: Contradicting caregivers, confused civilians, complementary curatives

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by Dr. M.A. Mohamed Saleem

“It is more important to consider other ancient medical traditions prior to the knowledge we have nowadays” – Hippocrates

Since December 2019 COVID-19 has engulfed all countries. More than 100 viruses of this family produce respiratory cold-like symptoms. Any virus can gain greater pathogenicity and cause the manifestation of varying symptoms but, people also recover quickly. Over the last two decades the world has witnessed Coronaviral behavioural changes, designated SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2010/11. Within two years however, SARS and MERS disappeared.

COVID-19 caused by SARS-CoV2 (which broke out in 2019), is claimed to have jumped from bats in Wuhan, China. According to virologists such a sudden viral evolutionary jump from animal to human is uncommon as it takes a long-time span to occur naturally. This virus could have been released or accidentally escaped from a lab and evidence seems to suggest that Wuhan Institute of Virology and Wuhan University Centre for Animal Experiment, in collaboration with the US-based EcoHealth Alliance, were engaged in a “gain-of-function research”.

Why would anyone take a less virulent virus from the wild and make it more virulent and powerful by infusing gain of functions knowing its potential to spread fast and cause adverse effects?

A COVID-19 health crisis has been ‘foretold’ at a conference in the USA years before its actual breakout in December 2019. According to another report, the World Bank had supported WITS (World Integrated Trade Solutions) Test Kits, labelled COVID-19 Test Kits, being exported in 2017. Although this trade entry has now been withdrawn the suspicion of a well-planned and coordinated health crisis lingers on.

Contradicting Caregivers:

Health policy-makers and caregivers have been giving mixed signals all along starting with acknowledging COVID-19 a problem. Initially, some considered the problem short lived and would pass like a seasonal cold, while others, led by the WHO, launched massive international propaganda to alert the public about the potential threat and laid out strategies to be followed to mitigate virus transmission.

It appears that there was a concerted effort to raise people’s fear and vulnerability to the virus. Those deemed infected, along with other members of the household, were quarantined in designated camps and a total lockdown enforced to confine people in their dwellings. As safety measures, wearing face masks to prevent free passage of 0.06 – 0.14 micron sized COVID-19 viral particles, but masks only help recirculate air trapped within), and maintaining one-meter distance between individuals were made mandatory. Even the asymptomatic were claimed to host the deadly virus, mortally frightening and compelling the masses to undergo Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests to ascertain their health status.

It is claimed that the actual virus Sars-Cov-2 has never been isolated and purified and therefore, it is impossible to test for it and discern between different types of pathogens. Yet, the WHO prescribed using the PCR test to ascertain COVID-19 cases. As PCR readings are taken at an elevated reaction thresholds, even dying cell chromosomal RNA fragments become visible, mostly producing false positive results, indicating large numbers of people who did not have the virus. Nonetheless, all tests were included to project higher infection rates which further raised people’s fear of contracting the disease.

Some healthcare workers have also challenged hospital admissions and hospital certification of deaths. After declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, anyone admitted to or dying in hospitals, even with other pre-existing or acquired condition(s), was listed as a COVID-19 victim, allegedly to inflate casualty numbers. Autopsies were not allowed on ‘COVID’ victims but where it was performed, in defiance of the official position, no evidence of COVID-19 was found suggesting that the death had occurred due to some other cause. Moreover, the annual number of deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic have not been significantly different from previous years. Nonetheless, consolidated mortality figures were used to project the severity of COVID-19 and emphasise the urgency for a quick fix.

Surprisingly, it is reported that the WHO did not allow, in the early stages of the pandemic, the use of any drug available at that time. However, health experts in many countries claim to have successfully used drugs like hydro chloroquine and Ivermectin as preventives and therapeutics to treat COVID-19 patients while the WHO kept insisting on the continuation of precautionary protocols until vaccines arrived. There is now a growing opinion that infection could have been halted had the use of Ivermectin (a drug on the WHO’s list of essential drugs and has been in use for a number of years) been allowed from the beginning: A plea that is now being taken to the Indian courts.

By March 2020 the whole world came to a standstill, gripped by an unprecedented fear of impending doom and helplessness. Anything that offered a ray of hope was welcome: An ideal condition to try out experimental vaccines in the pretext of emergency use, disregarding the danger warnings from very reputable scientists against using untested vaccines and short circuiting the lengthy vaccine development and certification process taken before public use. Emergency use also provided the legal cover for manufacturers against any adverse effects of vaccines.

Confused Civilians:

Confusing is the manner in which the experimental vaccines are being pushed as the only way out of the pandemic without providing people information on research and clinical data integrity, including ingredients used in the vaccines, how and for how long they were tested, how effective they are and the duration of their efficacy and possible side effects, and implications to different age groups when vaccinated. These have now become hotly discussed topics.

The unanswered question is why a vaccine is necessary when the effectiveness of vaccines rolled out ranges between 62 and 95 percent, whereas the reported survival rate of those infected and cured by age groups are: zero to 19 years 99.99 percent, 20 to 49 years 99.98 percent, 50 to 69 years 99.5, over 70 years 94.6 percent, and given that conventional wisdom has always favoured acquiring natural immunity as the best form of defense. Recently a Pfizer scientist observed that immunity gained through exposure to the virus is better as efficacy of a vaccine is generally judged by the severity of illness and mortality among vaccinated. In the case of diphtheria, the death rate was more than 90 percent and even a 50 percent effective vaccine was then considered a major success.

When hundreds of unvaccinated and fully vaccinated people in Massachusetts, USA, were tested, 75 percent of the infections were among the vaccinated. Recently, in Israel, 60 percent of the hospitalised were fully vaccinated, leading to a conclusion that the fully vaccinated can equally harbour and transmit the virus as the unvaccinated and that the vaccines only lessen clinical systems and not a cure for the disease as was the case with previous vaccines the world had known.

Since discovery, vaccines have had a chequered safety history. Anticipating challenges, the USA had created a Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System (VAERS). Over the years, many complaints of damage resulted in vaccines being withdrawn and compensation paid. According to VAERS a total of 726,963 adverse reactions to COVID-19 jabs, including 15,386 deaths, have been reported and similar adverse cases are also constantly being reported in other countries.

Mixed signals from caregivers is highlighted in recommending the use of gene-interfering Pfizer/biotech vaccine for children in spite of some reputable immunologists calling to question its suitability for that age group who are still in their formative stages. Recommending the use of different vaccines (without knowledge of long term effects by combining vaccines) if the same vaccine is not available for the follow up jab, seems difficult to comprehend. The allegation that some vaccines, like Pfizer, contains poisonous graphene oxide has not been refuted.

Why should reputed scientists world over, backed by equally strong scientific evidence of vaccine side effects, calling for a pause and review of the vaccination programme face censorship? This is the greatest puzzle for civilians.

Complementary curatives:

Complementary medicines consider clinical symptoms as response to restore body health. They attempt to maintain a strong immune system as a blanket barrier to fend off ‘foreign’ objects from gaining access to internal organs and intervene before the onset of diseases. According to traditional Chinese medicine emotions, food habits and lifestyle strongly influence the manner of re-establishing internal energy balance that will determine the progress of healing.

In this era of fast food and destruction of natural resources beyond their replenishing capacity to support ‘modernising’ lifestyles, a large percentage of the people are immunocompromised. A vaccine’s safety and effectiveness is determined by the type of immunodeficiency and degree of immunosuppression. As each person is different and immunodeficiency can also vary over time, any decision to recommend a particular vaccine should depend on a case-by-case analysis of the risks and benefits and cannot be centrally dictated.

Unlike many western countries Sri Lanka has established equally effective institutions of complementary healthcare systems: Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and homeopathy. When faced with large infectious breakouts like dengue, Chikungunya and the current COVID-19, these alternative systems can contribute immensely with curatives. Unfortunately, such health expertise has been sidelined when forming COVID-19 health advisory teams. This need not imply that the country is deriding the importance of complementary cures.

Several countries have reported very healthy people developing blood clots and going into cardiac arrest after receiving some kind of COVID-19 vaccination. They also claim fast waning of vaccine efficacy, few weeks after taking the jab. Western medicine cannot explain the reasons behind these, but only continue to recommend more booster vaccine doses.

The final evaluation of vaccines, rolled out under the emergency phase, is targeted for early 2023. No one knows what the final vaccination regimes are going to be against possibly recurring viral mutations and health hazards. Many countries, including Sri Lanka, cannot follow such an expensive and uncertain vaccination process, mainly dictated by profit-making pharmaceutical groups. Therefore, the search for alternative non-synthetic remedies and natural, healthy food habits to maintain natural immunity are given a renewed emphasis everywhere. It is unfortunate that in Sri Lanka this is not even a talking point and those who could are left sidelined.

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How do we market Sri Lanka globally as a unique country – green socio-economic system

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By Jayampathy Molligoda, Chairman, SLTB.

Introduction:

One consignment of ‘Potassium Chloride’ fertiliser arrived on September 14, presumably, to be applied for the paddy sector. The potassium chloride is not an organic material. However, the input materials approved for organic farming need not only be organic. Potassium Chloride is a mineral and not organic, but it’s permissible to be used for organic farming under international and SLS standards. Even some chemicals such as copper based chemical mixtures are allowed to be used for organic farming under international standards.

Tea sub sector:

As for the tea sector, what we have been saying is the government policy change as per Cabinet decision on 27th April, will enable us to arrest the tea land degradation and improve soil quality and thus moving towards green agriculture- plantation economy. As stated in the Cabinet paper, the state policy change is ‘migrating into green socio- economic pattern; this can be termed ‘regenerative agriculture’ or the green economic system. One of the milestones in the Tea strategy 2030 road map is improving soil quality and air and water quality through an integrated soil fertility management and balanced nutrient management.

Nevertheless, SLTB officials are closely watching and monitoring the entire tea supply chain – five months have lapsed from the government policy change prohibiting fertiliser imports and up to end September, a detailed scientific analysis on statistics of production, auction sales data and physical inspection of factories/estates have not revealed any major drop in quantity, however there will be issues if no nutrients are provided at the earliest.

Tea Production:

Cumulative tea production for the period January to September 2021 shows an increase of 16% respectively against last year.

Addressing tea growers’ concerns:

In fact, the tea production to date is higher than the average of the corresponding period during the last five years. This shows that good weather conditions,especially water and sunlight, are equally important, along with providing required nutrients. Therefore, it is important to address the adverse effects of ‘climate change’ through mitigating and adaptation strategies. The confusion here is that the majority of the people have misunderstood the word ‘organic’ in the government proposal, thinking the stakeholders are required to immediately convert tea production and exports into organic. We need to educate the farmers and there should not be loss of income for efficient growers even during the transitional period. At the same time, malpractices and under-utilisation of land and over use of inputs without following GAPs need to be arrested by the authorities. The name of the game is ‘green agricultural system’ as stated in the said Cabinet paper and the President’s address at the General Assembly, United Nations, recently – green energy, green agriculture-this is how I understood the vision.

The positive feature is the emergence of R&D initiatives mooted by the tea sector hitherto not happened and the admission that there has been an excessive usage of chemical fertiliser and decline in yields. There has been hardly any soil analysis undertaken during the last couple of years and lack of site- specific fertiliser application. Scientists have concluded that beneficial microbes in the soil are disturbed with excessive application of chemicals.

In order to address farmers concerns and genuine grievances, there is nothing wrong in using nano-hybrid chemically bonded, ‘slow release’ fertiliser until we are self-sufficient in the production and supply of ‘organic’ fertiliser. Based on approvals received from the government, the private sector importers have already been allocated ordering sufficient quantities of Ammonium sulphate last week (under Import control licence scheme-07/05/21) to be mixed with minerals such as ERP and potassium for tea estates. The production and supply of organic fertiliser is also increasing.

However, if they don’t provide with sufficient N and K, there will be issues both in quantity and quality. Another issue for exporters is lack of shipping space and shortage in containers more than other Issues- that’s being sorted out.

Conclusion:

My understanding is the vision of The Head of the State is; How do we reposition and market ‘Sri Lanka’ globally as a unique country? As for Ceylon Tea marketing strategy- how do we position ‘Ceylon Tea’ in the minds of discerning tea consumers globally as a unique product? The State policy change should be viewed in that perspective. Our ‘Ceylon Tea’ Brand story; the cleanest tea in the world is being reinforced with this state policy change: ‘green socio- economic pattern’. This is on par with the Tea strategy road map 2030 prepared by CTTA, the private sector apex body for tea industry, in consultation with Tea Board, Ministry and other stakeholders. Let us work together to realise true potential to obtain higher net foreign exchange, so that the benefits will trickle down to the farmers in accordance with the Tea Control Act No. 51 of 1957. The way forward strategy should be communicated to everyone.

 

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100% Organic Agriculture: A costly experiment leading to National disaster

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by Professor W.A.J.M. De Costa
Senior Professor and Chair of Crop Science, University of Peradeniya

Five months have elapsed since the government’s, in all probability the President’s, decision to ban inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals to immediately transform Sri Lanka’s agriculture into totally ‘organic’ (or ‘green’ as the President referred to in his address at the SL Army’s 72nd Anniversary last week). At present, almost the entire agriculture sector is in crisis and the farming community is facing uncertainty at this crucial period of the year when the major crop-growing season is about to begin. Therefore, it is imperative that the President reconsider his decision to avert a national disaster. A recollection of the events leading to the President’s decision and its aftermath shows the extent of confusion that reigns, the muddled thinking of those in charge and the consequent mismanagement of this issue.

Background to the Decision

According to the President, the decision to ban the use of inorganic fertiliser and synthetic agrochemicals (which include pesticides and herbicides), was taken to safeguard peoples’ health and protect the environment. A close examination of scientific evidence, available in Sri Lanka (or worldwide), has failed to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between inorganic fertiliser use and any of the major human health issues prevalent in Sri Lanka (e.g. Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Aetiology). A similar conclusion can be made on synthetic agrochemicals as well. While excessive use of fertiliser and agrochemicals could lead to human health and environmental issues, available statistics on fertiliser and agrochemical use in different countries show that their use in Sri Lankan agriculture cannot be categorised as ‘excessive’. Therefore, it is clear that the decision to ‘go 100% organic overnight’ was based on ideology and wishful thinking rather than on solid, scientific evidence.

Was there a clear plan in place prior to taking the decision?

All actions of the government, since the implementation of the fertiliser and agrochemical ban, clearly demonstrates a complete absence of an alternative plan prior to the decision. A major decision, such as this, necessitated a comprehensive analysis of its costs in terms of potential reduction of crop yields, its economic and social implications on farmer livelihoods, national food supply and the entire social fabric. The perceived environmental and human health benefits should have been weighed against the risks of disrupting the food production and supply chain and the ensuing social instability.

Furthermore, there should have been a rational evaluation of the alternative strategies (e.g. local organic fertiliser production) with regard to their practical feasibility, time frames available, effectiveness and cost. However, it is abundantly clear that none of the above has taken place prior to the decision. Unfortunately, this is another example of a major policy decision being taken without a rational, scientifically-valid analysis of either the current status of the issue or possible consequences of the decision.

Stakeholder response in the immediate aftermath of the decision

The stakeholder responses to the decision have fallen in to three broad categories. A minority consisting of hard-core organic agriculture advocates and environmentalists voiced their approval, arguing that: (a) protection of human health and environment should take immediate precedence over any concerns about reduced crop yields and consequent shortages of food supplies; (b) a gradual transition to 100% organic agriculture would be difficult to implement because of farmer preference for inorganic fertiliser and agrochemicals when they are available. Hence, it was argued that their total ban was needed to implement organic agriculture. For example, the highly-influential Buddhist monk, Ven. Omalpe Sobhditha Thera, who is often a strong critic of the present regime, advised the government not to ‘take a step backwards’ on the fertiliser and agrochemical ban.

The second category of responses came from a majority of the general public, including a fair proportion of agriculturists, who accepted the decision to go ‘100% organic’ as a ‘good’ decision in principle, but one that should have been implemented over time and in phases. This group assumes that it is possible to fulfil the national food requirement by 100% organic agriculture at some future date (by which time the national population also will have increased further).

In contrast, a majority of agricultural scientists and practitioners who are knowledgeable about the science of crop production based on the principles of agronomy, soil science, plant nutrition and plant protection is of the opinion that 100% organic agriculture will not totally fulfil the country’s food requirement, either now or in the future, but can be practiced on a limited scale for niche markets (as is the case worldwide). The majority of farmers, in their conventional wisdom gained from several generations of farming, also comes to the same conclusion that national-scale crop production, in an economically-viable scale, is not possible with 100% organic agriculture. This constitutes the third category of stakeholder response. For example, the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Peradeniya, which consists of more than 110 academics with expertise in different sub-disciplines and specialities of Agriculture, in a communication to the President and the Government, advised identification, based primarily on soil fertility status, of specific areas in Sri Lanka, for possible gradual introduction of the practices of organic agriculture to pilot-test the feasibility of transition to organic agriculture in the future. This position also underlies the fact that 100% organic agriculture across the whole country and its agriculture sector is not a viable option.

It is hoped that events in the five-month period since the decision, especially during the past month, will have shifted the responses of some stakeholders from category one to category two and from category two to category three.

What has the government done or tried to do since the implementation of the ban?

Local production of organic fertiliser

Everything the government has done or tried to do during the last five months shows its lack of preparation and inability to address the issues and challenges ensuing from the ban. The widely-held assumption among the advocates of the immediate and total ban of inorganic fertiliser was that crop nutrient requirements on a nation-wide scale could be supplied with organic fertiliser, prepared locally. There was a proliferation of programmes, mainly in local authorities and farms maintained by various government institutions including the military, to produce ‘compost’, an organic fertiliser with generally low and variable nutrient concentration, mainly from solid waste, animal manure and crop residue. Because of the rush to produce organic fertiliser on a scale sufficient to meet the national demand within a few months, none of the locally-produced organic fertiliser is tested for its quality in terms of the presence of required nutrients (e.g. nitrogen) and soil amendments (e.g. organic matter) or the absence of potential harmful agents. In this regard, the presence of heavy metals, such as Lead, Cadmium and Arsenic at levels above their tolerable thresholds is a distinct possibility because municipal solid waste, which is a common source material for compost production by local authorities, could contain material having the harmful heavy metals mentioned above.

Now, at the beginning of the Maha cropping season, which is the major season in Sri Lanka, it has become abundantly clear that local production capacity of organic fertiliser, irrespective of its quality, is inadequate to meet the national-scale demand for plant nutrients of crops to be grown.

Importation of organic fertiliser

The discussions that took place among officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Agriculture and the advocates of organic agriculture revealed the fact that even those who strongly advocated and advised the President to implement the ban did not have an evidence-based figure on the per hectare organic fertiliser requirement to calculate its national requirement. As a result, the government’s position on importing organic fertiliser was shifting and evasive in the immediate aftermath of the ban, with the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture making contradictory statements, both in and outside Parliament. When the realisation finally dawned on the government officials that local organic fertiliser production will not be sufficient for the coming Maha season, there has been a bungled attempt to import a consignment of organic fertiliser from China, which is still continuing. This is despite the samples of this consignment twice-failing the tests for the presence of microorganisms.

The threat of introducing foreign microorganisms to Sri Lankan soils via imported organic fertiliser

At the very outset of the ban on inorganic fertiliser, independent experts had warned of this very significant danger of introducing foreign microorganisms to Sri Lankan soils, which could lead to a myriad of complex ecological processes with potential to disrupt the existing soil microbial community and set-off adverse environmental consequences. Unfortunately, this well-meant advice of experts fell on deaf ears. The importance of protecting the native microbial population in a soil cannot be over-emphasised as the microbes play a pivotal role in many soil processes which sustain and regenerate its fertility. One of the major critiques of the large-scale use of inorganic fertiliser has been their modification of the natural soil microbial communities.

Importation of liquid organic fertiliser

When the attempt to import solid organic fertiliser from China was stalled (may be temporarily as attempts to import it are still reported to be continuing behind the scenes), there are reports that organic fertiliser in liquid form, a nitrogen extract according to the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture, has been cleared for importation from India. A loophole in the existing regulations has enabled importation of liquid fertiliser which only requires to be free from ‘harmful’ microorganisms whereas solid organic fertiliser needs to be free from all microorganisms. The term ‘harmful’ microorganisms has no scientific validity in the broader context of environmental microbiology. This is because a microorganism that is categorised as ‘harmless’ at the time of its introduction to a foreign environment could easily become ‘harmful’ by fast proliferation in the absence of the ecological controls (e.g. natural enemies, environmental controls, etc.) that were present in its original environment to regulate its population within ‘harmless’ limits. Therefore, application of imported liquid organic fertilisers has the same level of threat to the local soil microbial population that the solid organic fertiliser poses.

It should be noted that if liquid nitrogen fertiliser is added to the soil, it is more likely to be leached down with rain or irrigation water and possibly pollute ground water than even the solid inorganic nitrogen fertiliser, thus nullifying a major argument for ‘going 100% organic immediately’. It is possible to apply the important liquid organic fertiliser to the plants as a ‘foliar application’. However, as in the soil, such an application poses a threat to the microbial communities that are present on plant leaves (called the phyllosphere microorganisms) by the foreign ‘harmless’ microorganisms, which are allowed to be applied along with the imported liquid fertiliser. A substantial amount of research done by Sri Lankan as well as foreign scientists has shown that phyllosphere microbes provide protection against a wide-range plant pathogens (i.e. disease-causing organisms such as fungi, bacteria, phytoplasma, viruses and viroids) by various mechanisms and thereby provides natural protection to agricultural crops from a range of plant diseases. A possible disruption of the phyllosphere microbial community by foliar application of imported liquid organic fertiliser containing foreign microbes which are perceived to be ‘harmless’ could potentially increase the risk of disease outbreaks in major crops which will be impossible to control, especially in the absence of synthetic agrochemicals.

Crucially, in a crop such as tea where leaf quality is of paramount importance, foliar application of imported organic fertiliser containing foreign ‘non-harmful’ microorganisms could alter the leaf biochemistry in such a way to disrupt the key characters of made tea such as its flavour and strength. The negative impact that this will have on the Sri Lankan tea industry, which in these COVID-19-affected times has been one of the few assured sources of valuable foreign exchange, will be incalculable and may well be irreversible as a market lost cannot be easily recovered.

Furthermore, foliar application of liquid organic fertiliser would not bring any benefit to the soil. Application of solid organic fertilisers, most of which are really ‘organic soil amendments’ rather than ‘organic fertilisers’, improves the soil physical properties which are important to sustain and regenerate soil fertility. Accordingly, apart from increasing the threat of crop disease incidence by introducing foreign microoganisms, promotion of foliar application of organic fertiliser will not contribute to the government’s perceived benefits of ‘going 100% organic with immediate effect’.

This bungled attempt to import organic fertiliser, in solid as well as liquid forms, clearly demonstrates the government’s muddled thinking in its rationale, planning and implementation of this grand scheme of becoming the first country to go 100% organic in its agriculture. It is telling that Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha Thero, who was a strong advocate of this scheme a few months ago, went on record saying that in view of the clear and present dangers of importing organic fertilisers, it would be better to go back to the inorganic fertilisers.

Intervention of the Chinese Embassy and undermining of DoA officers

The statement put out by the Embassy of the Peoples’ Republic of China, a friendly country providing an enormous amount of aid to Sri Lanka, casting doubt on the validity of scientific procedures adopted by the National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQS), which is part of the Department of Agriculture (DoA), in detecting the presence of microorganisms (i.e. bacteria belong to the genera Bacillus and Erwinia, which contain several bacterial species which are enormously harmful to agricultural crops, both in the field and after harvesting) in the samples of solid organic fertilizer to be imported from a Chinese manufacturer, raises several points of concern. Even though the Embassy claimed that a minimum period of six days is required for detection of the above microorganisms, Sri Lankan scientists with expertise in plant microbiology and plant pathology, pointed out that the microbiological and pathogenicity tests required to make scientifically-valid conclusions on the presence of the above organisms can be done within three days. It is notable that none of the higher authorities in the Ministry of Agriculture or the Department of Agriculture came out to defend the validity of the testing procedure and the professional integrity of research officers of the NPQS who carried it out.

Instead, conspiracy theories (e.g. contamination of samples by injecting microorganisms in to them) and blatant threats of investigation by the CID by the Cabinet Minister of Agriculture himself sought to intimidate DoA research officers and undermine their work. When the second set of samples, which was reportedly brought under Police protection, also failed the microbiological tests at the NPQS, there is now talk of bringing a third set of samples to be tested. It appears that the government is bent on somehow importing this consignment of organic fertilizer from China. One wonders whether the statement put out by the Chinese Embassy envisaging resolution of this issue for the ‘benefit’ of both parties is a ‘veiled threat’ or not.

In the broader context, this represents another instance where the Sri Lankan government and its institutions have failed to support its scientific and research community whose work, performed with enormous difficulty in severely under-resourced infrastructure, provides the framework and solid facts (instead of wishful thinking based on speculation) for effective policy formulation.

(To be continued)

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