No Regime Could Challenge Paddy Monopoly – Mahindananda Aluthgamage
By Sulochana RamiahMohan
Minister of Agriculture, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, spoke to Ceylon Today on the controversial overnight banning of chemical fertilizer by the Government and how they are mitigating the agitation that followed. He also pointed out that the Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) Chairman Dr. J. Mannapperuma’s sudden resignation was done on his own volition and that the Minister is only aware of that fact, despite Dr. Mannepperuma claiming that constant changing of paddy and rice formulas had inconvenienced his work. The Minister also said the paddy monopolies were never challenged until this administration took office and that many paddy mills have been raided lately. Following are excerpts of the Interview:
Who advised the President to introduce organic farming (despite its benefits) overnight?
A: The President has not hoodwinked anyone. Even in the election manifesto put forth by the President at the last Presidential Poll, it has been clearly spelt out that cultivating crops with the use of chemical fertilizers, which was done since 1965, should come to an end. It is with that notion in mind that the President and those behind this concept took this radical and timely decision to do away with the use of chemical products in all cultivations. Another reason why the President took this decision is because the concept which he explained was accepted wholeheartedly by the masses at the election. Hence, it is clear this is not a decision that was reached overnight; the President took this brave and bold decision in order to achieve the anticipated target.
Are you aware that no country has gone fully organic although many had tried but failed? If so, as the Minister of Agriculture, didn't you realise the practical issues of banning chemical fertilizers overnight?
A: Yes, as you mentioned, no country in the world has moved towards using carbonic fertilizer 100 per cent. But, the fact of the matter is most nations are now gearing to step into this novel concept and are taking measures to this effect. We were also forced to face consequences of the unrestrained use of chemical fertilizers and such products. However, the Government took the courageous decision to introduce carbonic fertilizers having considered the wellbeing of the farming community in this country. Also, this concept of carbonic fertilizer is not something new to this country. We must understand that the chemical mafia will always strive to overestimate the value of the use of chemical fertilizer and similar products, and farmers must not to fall prey to such tactics.
The farmers were unprepared for it and they still suffer from low crop yields. Do you take responsibility of the overnight flip to total organic farming that has led to an economic disaster in Sri Lanka and still not been overcome?
A: Your question is akin to a question posed by someone from a chemical fertilizer firm. As mentioned, there will be no reduction in the harvest from the use of carbonic fertilizer. Harvests can always dwindle irrespective of the type of fertilizer used and due to reasons such as faulty technology and natural causes. So, we are now taking action to introduce the latest carbonic technology to our farming community.
There were also claims that many tea estates suffered without fertilizer and that tea exports have declined by 12.06 per cent last month. Has that been sorted out now?
A: There were also instances in the past where the tea harvest had reduced drastically. As this Government has decided to shift to large-scale organic cultivations, there is no need to be unduly alarmed by the spread of such canards by some chemical fertilizer firms.
There were many small-scale farmers who were affected by the fertilizer ban. Did the Government compensate them?
A: Almost all questions posed by you are angled favourably towards the chemical fertilizer firms. Are you aware that smalltime farmers in rural areas are those who use the least amount of chemical fertilizers? These people always had access to carbonic fertilizer.
As the Minister of Agriculture, have you assessed the loss of massive crop failures as a result of a ban on fertilizer?
A: As the Minister of Agriculture I carried out an analysis on harvests during the previous Yala Season and I noticed that the last Yala Season was successful unlike the previous seasons. Yields are also affected by various natural calamities and during harvest time. Likewise, the affected harvests cannot be deemed as having taken place after the ban on chemical fertilizers.
Chairman of PMB Dr. J. Mannapperuma resigned due to irregularities in pricing structure of paddy and rice when the price formulas are fixed. Why do you keep changing the pricing structure?
A: There was no pressure from us on the head of the PMB that led to his resignation. He resigned on his own volition. I am only aware of it and I cannot dwell on something which I am not privy to.
How much chemical fertilizer is now imported after banning it?
A: Only a small amount has been brought down. That is also through the direct supervision of the Department of Agrarian Development.
Can you give us statistics on how many hectares of paddy land is being cultivated in Sri Lanka currently and how many hectares of land is used for vegetable cultivation?
A: Throughout the country there are 1.6 million hectares of cultivations. Half of that number has been used for paddy cultivations.
Organic foods are expensive in the market even if you want to introduce them. What is the roadmap for promoting organic food in large quantities?
A: Aren’t you aware that even chemical fertilizers were provided to farmers under a concessionary rate? Not just that but more relief has been given to chemical cultivations. Due to this reason the produce could be given at a lower price. To date no such relief has been offered to carbonic cultivations. For the first time during the upcoming Maha Season we will be providing carbonic fertilizer relief to farmers. By now the Government has decided to provide a sum of Rs 12,500 to farmers who churn out carbonic fertilizer.
There are allegations that a top paddy dealer in the Polonnaruwa District who runs a paddy monopoly, and farmers cannot surpass him and sell for a better price. Is there a paddy mafia in Polonnaruwa that you are dealing with?
A: No regime thus far had been able to challenge the paddy monopoly in this country. But, this Government decided to take on this paddy mafia and as a result even paddy mills were raided. As you said it was as part of this well-coordinated programme that we were even able to raid Dudley’s paddy mill.
You have already hinted about mafias in the agro-business and that 96 per cent of the data released by the Agrarian Services Department on the distribution of chemical fertilizer in the past is inaccurate, the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agri Research and Training Centre said. What was the underlying reason for this?
A: The incident that you mentioned actually took place and it came to light following a data survey done six years ago. Though there are no large disparities in data collated nowadays, we must still acknowledge that there are certain disparities in it.
You have also said there are four separate mafias in the agriculture sector that is in operation. Who are they and have you prevented their operations?
A: Yes, as you said there are four mafias that are operating in the local agrarian sector. We are aware of the rice, seed, fertilizer and vegetable mafias. As a responsible Government and one that works for the people we are taking action to end these mafias. Especially by 2024 we are confident that we will be able to end all seed imports to this country. You will even see youths in the Nawalapitiya estates have started to grow chillies unlike in the past. We are also looking into transporting vegetables via train.
Sri Lanka is expected to stop importing chillies from 2024. How confident are you on this and what sort of survey have you done before stopping importation?
A: The chillies requirement annually for this country is 50,000 metric tonnes. Of this need only 50 metric tonnes is produced locally. Hence, we have to incur heavy foreign exchange to import chillies. It is due to this reason that we have decided to popularise this cultivation throughout the country and coax more people take it up. We are hoping that by 2024 we will be able to produce the amount of chillies that this country need.
What makes you believe that Sri Lanka’s decision to invoke emergency regulations to control essential food prices was not due to a food shortage but to control a ‘food mafia’. Do we need to pass an emergency law to bring food prices down?
A: What you are saying is right to a certain extent. Actually our Consumer Affairs Authority Act (CAAA) is not powerful enough. Due to this we are unable to take stern action against those who conceal essential food stocks. As a responsible Government the actions of certain big-time traders who conceal food stocks when people are fighting a pandemic cannot be condoned. Due to all these reasons as per the powers vested in his portfolio, the President was compelled to – Mahindananda Aluthgamage No Regime Could Challenge Paddy Monopoly As the Minister of Agriculture I carried out an analysis on harvests during the previous Yala Season and I noticed that the last Yala Season was successful unlike the previous seasons. Yields are also affected by various natural calamities and during harvest time. Likewise, the affected harvests cannot be deemed as having taken place after the ban on chemical fertilizers The incident that you mentioned actually took place and it came to light following a data survey done six years ago. Though there are no large disparities in data collated nowadays, we must still acknowledge that there are certain disparities in it act on Emergency Regulations. But you must remember that this measure will only be temporary. Once the CAAA is amended and activated there will be no need for the enforcement of the Emergency Regulations.
Although you mention a food mafia, the number of persons who have hidden food items is not many as you claim and people are frustrated without milk powder and essential stuff for daily use. Can you disclose what is really going on?
A: As I said earlier these are mafias. There is also a mafia in the milk powder sector too. Having hidden milk powder stocks they are demanding the Government to spike the prices. Globally the use of milk powder is limited now. But, it is not so here. But, we will be doing our best to change these habits of the masses by 2024. Already we have allowed the private sector to import 4,800 cows. The Government has also decided to grant them 2,771 acres of State lands for milk farms. We will be looking to tie up with the private sector towards the development of the dairy industry.
When will Sri Lankans have ample food items at a low cost? Today rice, sugar, dhal, milk, onions prices have increased. Can you say when will this shortage end and inflation come down?
A: Considering the pandemic situation in this country it would be possible to answer that question once it is eradicated and the country returns to normalcy.
How much of organic nitrogen fertilizers would be imported by the Government for organic farmers?
A: The import of carbonic fertilizer cannot be undertaken in an ad-hoc manner. There are agrarian scientists and State institutions that proffer advice in this regard to the Government. Based on such instructions we will only import carbonic fertilizer depending on the necessity.
The Government sought technical assistance from the Country Representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to Sri Lanka, Vimlendra Sharan, to formulate a fast-track programme to switch into resilient, sustainable agricultural practices. What is the progress?
A: The precise answer to this is with the Department of Agriculture. Hence, I cannot shed more light on it