Kath Noble

Will this be a happy New Year for Sri Lanka’s farmers?

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on April 17, 2010

Meeting paddy farmers in Polonnaruwa to find out if intervention is working.

There is something vaguely depressing about paddy fields after the harvest. Where there was once a flawless carpet of the most brilliant green shoots, almost screaming with life as they swayed to and fro in the breeze, there is now nothing but straw. Stumps, actually. And in a rather dull shade of beige. It’s not just that the plants look dead. They have been trampled upon, destroying the near perfect image of organisation and industry their caretakers took so long to achieve.

A season is over and the next is yet to begin. The farming world is essentially on hold.

Such periods of inactivity are best spent in reflection, so I headed up to the Polonnaruwa district in search of the answer to a question that has been troubling me for some time – now that we pay a lot more for our rice, are paddy farmers doing okay?

Readers will no doubt be only too aware of the increase in prices. It costs us at least Rs. 60 for a kilo these days, but I remember paying no more than half that amount only five years ago. Many people will have found such rapid inflation very difficult to bear, given that rice is a staple food that is consumed in large quantities by pretty much everybody in Sri Lanka.

We are encouraged to believe that this is a necessary sacrifice.

During the election campaign, politicians traded insults on the subject in their inimitable way. One side claimed to be the saviours of the farming community, while accusing the other of having done their best to wipe it from the face of the earth. Most people won’t have heard the reply, given the domination of all debate in the last few months by the Government. It wasn’t exactly thoughtful, anyway.

Mahinda Rajapaksa certainly looks a bit more inclined towards paddy farmers. He comes from a rural area, wears his satakaya almost day and night, and is prone to talk at length about self-sufficiency, the strength of the village and how his father washed his hands in the sluices of the Hambantota paddy fields on his way to submit his nomination papers, amongst other things. He has even been known to tuck up his sarong and get behind a buffalo at a Wap Magul ceremony – I am still trying to forget that image and the rather unpleasant extent of thigh he was showing.

It is the almost exact opposite of the picture we have of Ranil Wickremasinghe, who is considered far more likely to be seen with his feet up at the Hilton.

But these are just impressions. What matters is what they have done while in power.

Five years into the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, that should be our concern – what has he actually achieved?

Farmers have plenty to say about their situation and what has changed over time. They aren’t often asked, of course, as Colombo is usually far too busy debating the relative merits of various not so different electoral systems, the pros and cons of trying Sarath Fonseka in a military court as opposed to sending him to Hulftsdorp, the presence or otherwise of flaws in the yet to be implemented Seventeenth Amendment, and other basically useless issues.

Most eloquent was an eighty-something year old man known as Haramanis. Thinner and more wrinkled than anybody I have ever seen, he lowered himself into a chair on his front porch and began a slow, quiet – and yet so devastating – attack on the powers that be. They had destroyed the farming community, he said. What was once a worthwhile and meaningful occupation had been transformed into something akin to slave labour. Farmers were suffering. They worked day and night in the fields, but for what? They were lucky if they had enough to eat. If he were able to stop it, he said, he wouldn’t allow a single grain of paddy to so much as fall on the ground by accident. Planting it deliberately was madness.

Of course, he said all this while sitting beside his neighbour who had recently bought a tsunami machine from China without even needing to take out a loan.

Jayatissa, an NGO-linked activist, explained what he described as the unfortunate state of paddy farmers. By way of illustration, he read out a list of the costs involved in cultivating a hectare of paddy. The trouble was that he ended up with a figure that implied that farmers could earn Rs. 20,000 per month in the Maha season, as long as they had some of their own machinery and were ready for a bit of hard slog, which he denounced as impossible when I did the sums. Everybody agreed with him.

However, nobody talked about their costs exceeding their income, nor of falling into debt and thinking of committing suicide, which was a regular occurrence in visits to the Polonnaruwa district five years ago.

I put this down at least in part to the fertiliser subsidy. Although not really in the best interests of the country in the long term, as it perpetuates dependence on chemicals that damage the environment and cause sickness, while costing an awful lot of money, there is no doubt that it has helped farmers enormously. Governments have been subsidising fertiliser for decades, of course, but it has been a while since an administration took it as seriously as Mahinda Rajapaksa has done. Hundreds of billions of rupees have been spent under his stewardship. I didn’t meet a single farmer who complained about either the amount of the subsidy or the price of fertiliser.

Some people argue that the increasing trend of farmers giving up their land and offering themselves as agricultural labourers undermines the welfare impact of this policy. But wages are said to be about Rs. 800 per day, which is pretty reasonable.

A young man in his mid-twenties called Thushara who farms a couple of acres and runs his family’s small mill was actually quite optimistic. Although they had got into trouble a while back and had to mortgage their property, he said, things weren’t so bad now. He certainly preferred this work to a job in Colombo. People were coming back to the village to cultivate their fields, he said. They were doing alright.

It was rather a mixed bag of comments, readers will note.

But there was one thing on which they were all very clear. That is that the Government purchasing scheme was nothing more than an exceptionally well advertised scam, on which it would be perfectly stupid to count.

I couldn’t find a single farmer who had sold their harvest to the State. They hadn’t received the promised amounts of Rs. 29.50 for Nadu and Rs. 31.50 for Samba either. But this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Only days earlier, the responsible minister had told journalists at a press conference in the Mahaweli Centre that there was no need to worry about farmers because the Paddy Marketing Board had purchased 15,000 MT or so in the Maha season. It is a joke, albeit one we have heard on so many occasions over the years, when the expected yield is more than 150 times that amount.

Private traders are put under no pressure whatsoever to offer the guaranteed prices.

When the market is tight, farmers get more for their paddy, as happened in the last few seasons. They were a good deal better off for a while. Now they are starting to find life a bit trickier again. It depends on international developments as much as anything, as would be expected in an open system.

It is a matter of control.

Farmers like Haramanis remain frustrated because they aren’t able to manage their own affairs. They feel that somebody else is in charge, leaving their wellbeing to fate or the gods. Since the disintegration of the cooperative system and the consolidation of power in the sector in the hands of a few big operators, farmers haven’t been in a position to bargain. They must take what they are given, and that is always a smaller portion than they are due. Even when they are doing okay, they know that others are profiting still more and denying them their fair share. It isn’t a very healthy situation, but it is one with which many of us can empathise.

The gap between producers and consumers has become unnecessarily and counterproductively wide. And the Government doesn’t appear to have a plan.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is fortunate. His failure to tackle this root cause of the problems experienced by the farming community has yet to be exposed. It may stay that way for some time, but he should know that disaster could strike at any moment. Or creep up on him gradually, more likely.

That he has taken more of an interest than Ranil Wickremasinghe either did or would isn’t enough.

Meanwhile, the most immediate problem is with the urban poor – what is he doing to make sure that they can afford to eat as much as they need and have enough left over for their other necessities?

I don’t know. That question will have to wait for another occasion. The war has always been used as an excuse for any and all economic woes, only sometimes with good reason. Now that it is over, people quite rightly will be less patient. They will want an answer too.

Perhaps then it will be possible to look at the remnants of a season’s hard work with something approaching cheerfulness. To see their colour as a rather subtle kind of gold. To think of how what is left of the plants is going to be ploughed back into the earth to nourish a future harvest. And to regard the piles of paddy lying around by the side of the fields as signs of wealth and happiness, even if not quite things of beauty.

This article was published on the editorial page of The Island on April 17th, 2010. The internet version can be accessed here.

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