Bad Policies Leading Sri Lanka to Starvation


Fears of a food shortage loom as there is no backup plan for food security or food protectionism in Sri Lanka. Food security has also emerged as a major global issue as a result of the pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine, which are racing together to push millions more into poverty.

In April 2022, the World Bank estimated that for every one percentage point increase in food prices, 10 million people are pushed into extreme poverty around the world, and that impact has already been felt in Sri Lanka, which is deep-diving into a bigger risk of a food crisis exacerbated by bad policies, horrendous political upheavals, and of course, an energy and dollar crisis.

According to the World Bank, “increases in food prices and supply shocks can fuel social tensions in many of the affected countries, particularly those that are already fragile or affected by conflict,” a phenomenon that is currently occurring in Sri Lanka.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa emerged from his cocoon last week to announce his last-minute plan to address the looming food crisis when the pandemic had been wreaking havoc on the people of this country for nearly two years. Despite the fact that he expressed a desire for self-sufficiency, his miscalculation in converting the country to organic farming dashed any remaining hope for the future.

Six days ago, the President instructed Agriculture Ministry officials to immediately begin a public-private cooperation to safeguard the country’s food security. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has even warned that a catastrophic food crisis could hit Sri Lanka in August and persist until early 2023. The admonition, however, should be aimed at individuals who mislead the people who are now stranded and are queuing on the streets. It remains unclear what it means to launch a public-private cooperation to secure food security.

Green Economy Task Force failed to capture the seriousness of agriculture

The Green Economy Task Force, lobbied and executed by the President himself on 10 May 2021, did not take off well. The Task Force was chaired by Basil Rajapaksa, the Special Representative of the President. It consists of 46 members, including five Cabinet Ministers, a Governor, 14 State Ministers and a female Member of Parliament. One of the members said that Basil had only appeared at the inaugural meeting and never showed up for other meetings held thereafter.

The other members of the Task Force are; Ministers R.M.C.B. Ratnayake, Chamal Rajapaksa, Mahinda Amaraweera, Mahindananda Aluthgamage and Ramesh Pathirana, Governor Anuradha Yahampath, State Ministers Duminda Dissanayake, Arundika Fernando, Roshan Ranasinghe, Kanaka Herath, Janaka Wakkumbura, Mohan de Silva, Wimalaweera Dissanayake, Kanchana Wijesekara, S. Viyalanderan, D. B. Herath, Shasheendra Rajapaksa, Dr. Nalaka Godahewa, Seetha Arambepola and Channa Jayasumana, MP Manjula Dissanayake, Dr. M.W.N. Dharmawardena, Jayampathy Molligoda, Jayantha Wickramasinghe, Prof. Sudheera Ranwala, Dr. G.A.S. Premakumara, Specialist Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya, Dr. D.M.J.B. Senanayake, Prof. S. Ananda Kulasuriya, Dr. T. L. Gunaruwan, Prof. P.I. Yapa, Dr. H.M.G.S.B. Hitinayake, Dr. Azeez Mubarak, Dr. Yasantha Mapatuna, Dr. Krish Dharmakeerthi, Sachithra Yapa, Wicky Wickramatunga, Herman Gunaratne, Dhammika Kobbekaduwa, Devaka Wickramasuriya, Jeevaka Atapattu, Dilshan Fernando, Mohamed Anees Junaid, Dilith Jayaweera and Vijith Welikala.

The Cabinet approved the overall policy framework and proposals contained in the Cabinet Memorandum submitted by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on 27 April to transform Sri Lanka towards a green socio-economic model with sustainable solutions to climate change.

However, the Task Force received little institutional support, and the appropriate GNs, GAs Samurdhi officials were deafeningly mute. The attendance at the first meeting was 47, then it plummeted to 24 at the second meeting, and only 16 showed up for the third, and Basil was not present at any of those meetings. The roadmap was there, but there was no direction, according to a participant who requested anonymity.

Some members sought to persuade the President that organic fertiliser cannot be implemented overnight and that it is a scientific procedure. However, the President is claimed to have said, “not to talk about it, but it should be carried out as planned.” However, he failed to provide instructions on how to complete the task in the manner that he desired.

The President lacked the motivation when the Task Force was constituted. He had been counting on the task team to do it without giving any directions. “Neither were pledges nor contributions made. There was no campaign taken over by the 14,000 Grama Niladharis working in the country to educate on organic farming.” The President had directed the Task Force to coordinate with the Task Force on Economic Revival and Poverty Eradication and the Presidential Task Force for ‘Gama Samaga Pilisandara’ (Dialogue with the Village) Rural Development.

While certain members tried their hardest to boost organic fertiliser, when it proved to be a ‘failure’, the government refused to lift the prohibition on chemical fertiliser, so that the supply chain would not be disrupted. This was another failure by the President.

An integrated test management system was built, as well as a sophisticated nutritional system for the integration plant, and a guidebook was printed. That is no longer in the internet domain. They were agri-research-based instructions on how to build compositions, for example.

The task force disintegrated without the additional backing, and some of the members blamed President Rajapaksa.

At the time of the roadmap, the country had enough organic fertiliser, and over 27 firms were willing to deliver 500,00MT of organic fertiliser and liquid bio fertiliser.

Ceylon Today learns that companies had promised 7500,00 MT of liquid bio fertliser and 250,0000 MT of organic fertiliser, but the Task Force remained silent. Then came the announcement that China and India were rushing to deliver organic and nano fertliser to the country, and the fertiliser mafia could not be challenged once again. The People’s Bank and the Bank of Ceylon would provide low-interest loans, and operations were to begin in 30 days, but there was little impetus. In fact, organic is a trading concept which comes with a paid certification process. Unfortunately, the government’s green concept was misled as an organic programme.

Ceylon Today also learns that the USD 6.7 million payment to China’s Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group Co., Ltd., over its organic fertiliser deal was purely compensation for not accepting their product, but the government announced that the payment would bring in a new organic fertiliser consignments from China, but no new organic fertiliser consignments have arrived in Sri Lanka for the USD 6.7 million payment.

The government failed to bring organic fertliser from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries instead of China.  Following the 1957 Rome Treaties to launch the European Economic Community, the Convention on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was drawn up to reform the OEEC. The Convention was signed in December 1960, and the OECD officially superseded the OEEC in September 1961. It consisted of the European founder countries of the OEEC plus the United States and Canada. Three countries, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy — all OEEC members — ratified the OECD Convention after September 1961 but are nevertheless considered founding members (source: Wikipedia).

What was alarming is that between January and March 2022, the country’s 800,000ha of paddy field remained dry and cracked, with nothing planted, and the blame is on the government and former Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, who fought popular opinion against going organic during a food crisis. Today, he is absent from the entire catastrophe he produced, having left the President to deal with it alone, as it was his idea through his ‘flagship’ project
Saubaghyaye Dekma.

Ceylon Today met W. D. K Mudith Perera, President of the United Rice Producers’ Association, who highlighted the mistakes and urged the government to demonstrate its plan ‘B’ for securing food for the people. His Association has over 400 members throughout the island, with its main office in Polonnaruwa.

He pointed out that the  paddy area could have been used for green gram, cassava, and sweet potato cultivation, which require very little water and fertiliser, between January and March (before Maha). However, such vision was not ingrained in the system. The area has currently been left dry, with only roughly 200,000ha of paddy cultivated by the SME sector. At least another 200,000 ha could have been used for green gram, cassava and other grains like cowpea and other cereals and people would not have gone hungry. He continued, “In order to join the long queue to acquire commodities, one must eat something, and green gram or cassava would keep him or her alive.”

He also remarked that we had to rely on loans and struggle to find organic fertiliser because we don’t have any money. Several local companies now give farmers free organic fertiliser, but the country’s yield still falls short of 50%, he added.

The government should have begun food crop harvesting on the 800,000ha until next March, but it appears that had not struck anyone.

“The point was that neither food security nor organic issues were discussed in parliament in terms of finding a solution.”

Paddy cultivation has declined by 50 to 60 per cent in Ampara, 50 per cent in Polonnaruwa, and 50 per cent in Hambantota.

Where is the Damubulla Cold Store?

It is clear that the distribution of vegetables and other food crops is also lacking, and it has been three years since the Dambulla cool room was supposed to be created using the Indian grant of LKR 300m. Dr. Harsha de Silva, then Minister of Economic Reform and Public Distribution, and Deputy High Commissioner of India
Dr. Shilpak N. Ambule laid the groundwork for a new 5000MT Temperature Controlled Cold Storage facility for Perishables in Dambulla in 2019, prior to the Presidential Election. It was a cooperative project of the Governments of India and Sri Lanka, and it consists of multiple stages, the primary one of which is the construction of the Cold Storage building and refrigeration chambers. Before the election, the storage facility was half completed but the incumbent government has not completed it as yet.

Ceylon Today asked the Indian High Commission in Colombo for an update on the Dambulla Cold Storage Facility, and the response was that it is at the “advanced stage of construction’”.

Veyangoda grain storage – dilapidated and unused

Another disheartening fact is that the Veyangoda Grain Storehouse, on a 20ha plot of land, remains dilapidated and overgrown with grass. It includes eight paddy storages. This is part of the Food Department, and the storage facility was refurbished in 2015. It features all of the amenities, including temperature-control gadgets. Grain storage does not require the use of any chemicals. Perera stated that if the Food Department’s 20 hectares of land could be planted with green grams, 20,000 families would have enough food.

Perera said despite the government not announcing their assessment on the decline of paddy due to lack of fertiliser it is easier to assess it.

When the paddy stock in the combine harvesting machine is full, the equipment alerts with a bell, indicating how much paddy was collected. “When 400kg of paddy is collected, the machine alarm will sound, signalling the paddy to be unloaded.” It used to ring every 20 minutes as the paddy filled up, but now, because there is less paddy out there, it takes more than 40 minutes to ring the bell when combine harvesting equipment are on the paddy area harvesting. Filling the combine machine, which used to take 20 minutes, now takes 30 to 40 minutes, implying that there is no paddy.

However, President Rajapaksa indicated last week that negotiations with numerous countries to meet the fertiliser demand had been successful, and that farmers should not stop cultivating during the Yala Season owing to a lack of fertiliser or for any other reason.

Yala season preparation should be finished by now, and fertiliser distribution should be completed, according to Perera. Sri Lanka has been promised 65,000 metric tons of urea from India, and farmers are waiting for it to be delivered by the Modi government. Who is in charge of the country? Is it Modi or Rajapaksa, Perera questioned.

The President’s switch from chemical fertiliser to organic fertiliser and back to chemical fertiliser rocked the country and cost him dearly in his political career. The President also remarked that the Ministry of Agriculture must provide full cooperation in order to carry out chemical or organic fertiliser farming in accordance with the ‘interests of the farmers’.

The President has urged the officials to identify paddy fields that are not used for cultivation during the Yala Season and to encourage the cultivation of essential crops including green gram, cowpea and soybean in these, farmers can be given an opportunity to earn a higher income.

 “This message from the President comes too late,” noted Perera, who had been talking to several government officials but to no avail.

Last week, the Indian government announced a temporary ban on wheat exports, citing the need to focus on domestic demand, according to The Hindu. The Russian attack on Ukraine, a key wheat-producing country and a major supplier to the European market, has destabilised the global agriculture market. Aside from national obligations, the ruling noted the need for India’s wheat among its regional neighbours. Sudhanshu Pandey, Secretary, Department of Food and Consumer Affairs, referred to several countries like Russia, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Bulgaria, Turkey and Hungary, which have taken measures to restrict the export of wheat, and indicated that it was natural for India to follow with a similar order.

People’s power has taken the lead in Sri Lanka in the recent times, putting the government in hot water. This occurred owing to a lack of fuel, gas, and electricity. People have managed to stay fed so far, but famine is on the rise. Hunger would be the final thread in the lifeline none would like to challenge, and if starvation is not controlled, the country will face civil upheaval manifolds. The failure of successive governments to appoint a visionary leader was the downfall of Sri Lanka and today people are paying a heavy price but that cannot continue.
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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan