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The Fertiliser Fiasco: Discretion is the Better Part of Valour

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By Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha

In his novel published in 1891, tiled “The Light that Failed”, Rudyard Kipling wrote the phrase, ‘biting the bullet’ to express the thought that fortitude can be gained by ‘biting a bullet’! As things are, should the President and government continue ‘biting the bullet’ or compromise in sincerity as discretion is the better part of valour.

The farmers have a genuine grievance in that there is no fertiliser, organic or inorganic! And organic fertiliser is not something that can be produced overnight. They are adamantly up in arms, and it would appear most likely that paddy and other arable crop cultivations will incur huge production losses. Farmers in the Mahaweli and other irrigated lands have taken up the unyielding stand that unless fertilisers are available, they will not cultivate this Maha season. Crop losses without fertiliser and other inputs can be as high as 40-50%, if not more, leading to a highly calamitous national situation. The same applies to plantation and other crops. Expert calculations reveal that tea yields too could decline by 50%!

More importantly, there are no readily available organic materials, vegetable, animal or other to meet the nutrient demand of the three million hectares of crops! Most plant–based organic matter has only about 1% nitrogen, if not less. Assuming, however, that together with animal dung and other organic matter sources the figure is increased to 1.5% and on average a hectare of cropland requires 100kg N per year, the total annual organic fertiliser demand should be at least 200 million tons if not more to provide the nitrogen requirement.

The average N demand for tea is at least 200kg/ha/yr, and some vegetables and other crops too, require more N than 100kg/ha/yr. The issue then is, how such a huge demand of organic fertiliser is to be met locally.

The recent fiasco with the attempt to import a seaweed- based organic fertiliser from a Chinese enterprise, Seawin Biotechnologies, is well known. Samples tested locally were reported to be contaminated with a harmful bacterium, Erwinia and the importation was stopped. Incidentally, the local Chinese Embassy had the audacity to contest the report of our quarantine authority, that the culture of the microbe could not have been done in the three-or four-day period as reported, but a senior professor of microbiology of the Peradeniya University and other specialists in the field have debunked the Embassy claim!

The supplier claims that fertiliser is heated to a temperature of 600 degrees centigrade to kill microbes. If so, how was the live pathogen detected. At this temperature not only microbes but also nitrogenous compounds should break down! Then how is the nitrogen replenished?

According to the company’s brochure on ‘seaweed granular compound fertiliser’ there are seven fertiliser formulations available for sale comprising nitrogen (N ) phosphorus (P2O5) and potassium (K2O), and nitrogen is replenished as ammonia, urea or nitrate! (Please see Table)

So, evidently, it is a granular fertiliser mixture of chemical and organic materials. The supplier does not claim that the product is organic, and it cannot as other than the ‘organic matter’ and the’ seaweed extract’ the rest are inorganic chemicals! So, clearly, having heated to the high temperature and losing the nitrogenous compounds, inorganic nitrogenous chemicals have to be added to achieve the required nutrient composition. So, the product is no longer fully ‘organic’. Then, who is deceiving whom?

Moreover, these seaweeds are believed to be essentially harvested from the Yellow Sea off the coast of Quindío City, an area highly polluted with metropolitan waste and excessively contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. The status of these heavy metals are, however, not cited in the fertiliser composition table in the brochure. Further, although the supplier has apparently promised a 10% nitrogen content in the formulation, it is impossible to get such a high value from seaweeds! On the whole, then there are grey areas in the fertilizer deal.

The President and the government are apparently now gradually yielding to the countrywide fertiliser demand pressures of the farmers as evident from a recent news item that chemical fertiliser for corn will be imported. Then what about tea and other crops?

As per the ‘grapevine’ there is evidence that some nano (chemical) fertilisers are also to be imported and the Tea Research Institute has been asked to work out how much ammonium sulphate as the nitrogen fertiliser source is needed for the country’s tea apparently because some stocks of the latter being available. Ammonium sulphate has only 21% nitrogen whereas that of urea is 48%. Because of production interferences due to COVID the urea prices have shot up by 35 -43%, from April to September 2021, and the same should be true for other straight fertilisers.

Ammonium sulphate price globally is now reported to be about USD200/ metric ton whereas that of urea is about 450 USD. So, in terms of N contents in the fertilisers, the cost should be comparable except for the haulage. However, over application of ammonium sulphate can be detrimental in that the added sulphur in the soil is reported to inhibit phosphorus uptake by crops affecting growth and yield! Urea is the better option as the nitrogenous fertiliser when large quantities of it are needed.

In conclusion, it is the ignorance and obstinacy of the authorities that has pushed the country into this calamity. Minister after minister are obsessed with the “wasa visa” myth as evident from their utterances both in Parliament and outside! It is the general belief, without evidence that, agrochemicals are the cause of many non-communicable diseases.

No politician speaks about ambient air pollution, the leading environmental health risk factor locally and globally. Records reveal that nearly 3.5 million premature, non-communicable deaths, for example, in 2017, were from stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, lower respiratory infections, and diabetes.

The President should, as a matter of priority, obtain a report from the health authorities on this matter of agrochemicals and health. This false belief was aggravated as a result of the initial suspicion that the chronic kidney disease (CKD) of the Rajarata was caused by agrochemicals but none of the research supported this contention. Research evidence gathered over several years, especially during the period 2010 and 2018 by no less than five groups of researchers established that the most likely aetiolating agent is hard water and fluoride in the some dug wells especially on high ground, as those who drank such water were essentially the ones that contaminated the disease.

Those who consumed water from the streams, reservoirs or dug wells in the plains did not contact the disease! Some of the research conducted by the current coordinator of CKD activities in the Health Ministry too supported this contention!

However, it is sad that the health authorities have failed to brief the President, the Health Minister and the government in general on this vital matter! Had this happened the President would, not have rushed into this decision of ‘going organic’ virtually overnight!



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Opinion

Building trust, a better investment

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The government has allowed private companies to import chemical fertilisers. The farmers had been holding many a street protest against the government’s blatantly unwise policy of shifting to organic farming overnight, but to no avail. The Minister concerned and others repeatedly said that they would not change the government’s decision as it had been made for the good of all the people. The farmers had no problem with organic farming but insisted that the transition had to be phased out to avoid serious adverse effects. But no! The government never relented and tried to show that the street protests were instigated by interested parties including chemical fertiliser companies, to make the government unpopular. The government insisted that chemical fertilisers have caused many ailments including the dreaded kidney disease and turned a deaf ear to the farmers’ grievances.

However, hot on the heels of Mr. Modi’s U-turn last week, the Minister has changed track and tells us that the government, being one which is always ‘sensitive to people’s concerns’, has decided to make chemical fertilizers available through private imports, but would not import them on its own or change its policy of going fully organic. Questioned by journalists, another ruling party spokesperson quipped that the government’s decision came about neither due to the Indian PM’s ‘example’ nor in response to the loud protests. It is a result of the discussions held within the party, he assured.

However, it is unfortunate that the government had to wait for more than seven months to be ‘sensitive to peoples’ concerns’. If the ruling party members had only taken a few minutes to watch TV news headlines, they would have proved their ‘sensitivity’ months earlier, not waiting for Mr. Modi to steal a march on them, so to speak. To any reasonable person, the government obviously has responded to the rampant protests that were actually the climax of a prolonged process, which began with pleading, explaining their predicament, reasoning, chest thumping, expressing disbelief, which gradually culminated in loud protests, burning of effigies and threatening to come to Colombo in numbers. Surely, Mr. Modi didn’t make it any easier for the government to justify its ‘sensitivity’ to farmers’ grievances!

Thus, to any reasonable person, the government had actually responded to the unbridled anger of the helpless farmers, not to their grievances. What’s more, looking at how the government had handled the previous issues of a controversial nature, it is hard to recall any instance where it promptly responded to people’s concerns; it was always a case of responding to people vehemently protesting as a last resort- be it the Port City issue, Eastern Terminal, Teachers’ salary or Yugadanavi Power Plant issue, not to mention the pathetic state of innocent villagers being perpetually traumatized by wild elephant attacks often taking their lives wantonly. In each of these cases, the government, wittingly or unwittingly, seemed to regard the voices of concern, not as appeals worthy of serious attention, but as attempts at disruption or politically motivated interventions. This, surely, does not augur well for the government or support its claim to ‘sensitivity’ as regards people’s concerns.

The government’s decision to compromise on its strict chemical fertiliser ban, which has come soon after Mr. Modi’s reversal of sorts, allows room for the discerning public to make obvious inferences, despite the government’s claim about its decision not being influenced by that of the Indian PM. In fact, the government reps have nothing to gain by pretending to blush when journalists suggest that they perhaps took a leaf from their neighbour. Even at this juncture, people’s representatives seem reluctant to prefer sincerity to affectation; hence the government’s growing aloofness, which is causing a “severe trust deficit”- to borrow a pithy phrase from The Island editorial of November 19.

As the representatives of the public, what any government needs to foster are sincerity and empathy. It is this tacit bond between the people and the government, which will consolidate trust in the long term. Being the party that holds power, the onus is on the rulers to secure people’s faith. Instead, every party that has come to power since Independence has always helped the Opposition to make a five yearly ‘ritual cleansing’ in the eyes of the people. So, the wheel turns.

Susantha Hewa

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Opinion

Don’t harass whistle-blower

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Thushan Gunawardena, who alerted the authorities and the media to a serious fraud taking at Sathosa should not be harassed by the Police as it is clear that he has no political motives and has acted in the public interest.

The Cabinet minister concerned is attempting to show a conspiracy against him when he has failed to prevent such frauds at Sathosa and let it continue as there were benefits flowing to him in addition to his being able to employ family members and manipulate the system for personal profit.

It is patently clear that he is trying to take the investigation in a different direction and prevent changes that would clean up the mess that is contributing to the massive losses at Sathosa.

Mahinda Gunasekera

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Opinion

Stanley (Sam) Samarasinghe

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A TRIBUTE TO A PATRIOT

Even with the prior knowledge that the end was near, when the news of the passing away of Sam on the 23rd of November 2021 was conveyed to me, it was difficult to bear. Though living the better part of his adult life in the United States, to those with whom he had regular contact and dialogue, he was ever present. He succumbed to an illness that he bore with courage and fortitude for several years. In that time his enthusiasm to live his life to the full did not diminish. Except family and close friends none had even the slightest inkling that he was battling an invasive enemy within.

I have described Sam as a Patriot, if its definition is “one that loves his country and zealously maintains its interests”, then it fits him well, as he did that in full measure.

Having schooled in Kandy at Dharmarajah College, Sam completed a special degree in economics at the Peradeniya University where his father worked. Having being accepted by both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, he turned to his mentor, Professor H. A. de S. Gunasekera, who had advised him to take Cambridge. He went there with his wife Vidyamali, whom he had met at Peradeniya and obtained his Ph.D. in Economics. They both returned to Peradeniya and Sam became a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics. He taught there until 1989, when he left for the United States with his wife and two sons, Mevan and Ranmal. He was appointed Professor of the Development Studies Programme at the USAID, a position he held for many years in Washington. But what is remarkable, is that he continued his abiding interest in the many facets of Sri Lankan life, especially in education and politics and of course, Kandy. He returned to Sri Lanka at least twice a year. While others would spend such breaks as a let up from work, Sam vigorously involved himself in many spheres of activity.

Along with Prof. Kingsley de Silva, he created the only intellectual hub outside of the Peradeniya University in Kandy at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES). As Director, he secured funding for many academic projects that the Centre did. Sam was instrumental in the ICES buying its own place and then constructing a tarred road leading to the Center. The way he set about it will give the reader an idea of the man Sam was. The road served at least 12 houses. He arranged a meeting of all the householders and sold them a deal that none could refuse. Each household was asked to pay proportionately to the distance from the main Peradeniya Road to their house. At the end of the exercise. Sam refunded the excess in that same proportion!!

Sam was an academic, researching and writing extensively, sometimes collaborating with other academics such as Prof. Kingsley de Silva and Prof. G.H. (Gerry) Peiris. On several occasions, he brought out his post graduate students from the Tulane University, New Orleans (where he was Visiting Professor of Economics) to Sri Lanka and to Kandy, arranged field trips and had them interact with academics and professionals.

His particular interest in Kandy made him do a study of its traffic congestion and organised a public seminar with other experts on the subject. As the President of the Senkadagala Lions Club, Sam obtained funding for many of its projects. In fact, Sam had a penchant for writing up project proposals, an expertise he ungrudgingly shared with anyone who asked for it. He started a monthly local newspaper in 1994, the “Kandy News”, becoming its Chief Editor and its main sponsor. The last issue was a special supplement done in the run-up to the Kandy Municipal Council election in 2018.

When the tsunami stuck the country in 2004, Sam was the lead Consultant of a World Vision programme designed to make a qualitative assessment of tsunami and non-tsunami villages from Kalutara in the Western Province to Kilinochchi in the Northern Province. A task he successfully completed with his team under the aegis of the ICES.

He was an advocate for cooperation and harmony among the races. His involvement in the post tsunami work in Jaffna and Trincomalee with the Lions Club is proof of that, as much as it was when he asked the guests to the nuptial reception of his son Mevan, not to give presents but to contribute towards the project initiated by Mevan and himself in giving school books and equipment to the Tamil Primary School at the Gomorra Estate in Panwila.

My own association with Sam goes back to the time I ran for office as Mayor in 1997. He threw his weight behind me helping out in ways too numerous to mention. That friendship grew and grew and it embraced my family as well. He would ask me to criticise his writing especially on politics. He was a stickler for accuracy and uncompromising on facts. His opinions were rational, practical and unbiased. A bubbly personality, he was always a believer that there are better times ahead. His enthusiasm was infectious. His criticism of events and people were never personal. There is much to take from the life and times of Sam Samarasinghe.

We share his loss with his wife, the two boys of whom he was justly very proud of and his siblings whose welfare he always had. The country is poorer for his passing.

May he find peace in Nibbana!

Harindra Dunuwille

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