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Sunday, 6 March 2016

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Farmers go to town

Protesting farmers demand fertiliser instead of direct cash:

When Nimal Gunadasa sat on a rattan chair surrounded by his children under the thatched roof of his mud house, he was hopeful that the Budget proposal presented by the new coalition government would usher in some relief for him and his family. Perhaps he could finally start building a house or send his youngest son to school, neither of which he could do with his meagre income as a farmer.

The farmers protest in Colombo last December against the removal of the
fertiliser subsidy. Pic: Saman Mendis

"I knew when the proposals were read out that it would spell doom," he said. "Collectively, our farming community is agitating because three months after the Budget reading, we are still without any money and with no clear idea as to how this system will work."

The disenchantment and tinge of resentment are shared sentiments among farmers who rely heavily on subsidies, handouts and other concessions, said K. Jayakody, an importer of agro chemicals.

"When you begin to separate the wheat from the chaff, you realise that the barnyard banter from the State, rings hollow to the farming community, agitating for months, demanding fertiliser at a further subsided rate," he said.

Farmers dressed in black loin cloth converged in Colombo last December to protest against the Budget proposal relating to fertiliser subsidy and threatened a repeat performance this week. Farmers are unanimous in urging the State to swap the proposal to provide subsidised fertiliser at Rs. 350 a bag instead of cash payments to buy their own fertiliser.

Cash instead of fertiliser

"Purchasing fertiliser independently would mean, buying it at the market rate. The cash payment is insufficient to cover this cost," Jayakody said, alleging that the proposed scheme is beneficial to importers of fertiliser but not farmers.

"The Treasury takes a while to settle our bills," he said. "This way, we can import it and sell directly to the farmers, bypassing the bureaucratic system. It is also profitable," said Jayakody, adding that implementing the new scheme would be tough.

"There is no proper mechanism on how the State will implement the proposed scheme. The best option at this point will be to revert to the old system, until a new one is devised."

The warning from farmers' associations about further protest action, has not dissipated. "It is only when they agitate and embarrass the government that they get some attention, Namal Karunaratne, National Organiser, All Ceylon Peasants' Federation, said.

"Last week, our protests in the Polonnaruwa and Hambantota townships caused roads to be cordoned off. This week, we surrounded the house of Agriculture Minister Duminda Dissanayake, demanding some form of redress," said Karunaratne, a former North Western Provincial Councillor of the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

A furore erupted in Parliament last week when JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake accused the government of ignoring the plight of the farming community.

"The protests are politically motivated," said N.P.V.C. Piyathilaka, Additional Secretary of Administration at the Ministry of Agriculture. "There is no shortage of fertiliser as farmers claim. We have 100,000 metric tons at State-owned warehouse while private companies also have stocks of between 60,000 to 70,000 metric tons."

Piyathilake who also oversees the work of the National Fertiliser Secretariat said the shortage of fertiliser was "purely artificial."

"Farmers don't realise the benefit from this allowance. We assure them that there won't be any delays in the transfer of money. But they are free to determine as to how to spend it." While the government dillydallies on the new scheme, organisations such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) have found innovative ways to circumvent the issue.

IFAD, a leading multilateral investor, has pledged US$ 25 million to help agribusiness link up with small farmers and companies here. "This is in addition to supporting policy dialogue in the sector and assisting in the mobilisation of financial institutions to provide micro-financing," said Anura Herath, Country Program Officer, IFAD.

The government which buckled under pressure from protesters, moved swiftly to make an announcement last week that the maximum price of 50 kg of fertiliser would be Rs. 2,500 and instead of providing Rs. 25,000 as the annual allowance per hectare, farmers would qualify to receive Rs. 50,000 for two hectares of paddy cultivation.

An authoritative source at the Treasury said, while sporadic announcements have been made, there had not been arrangements on how the money will be dispensed. "There were talks on disbursement through the Divisional Secretariats islandwide but a subsequent proposal, was to release the money through national banks. The second proposal was almost winning, until officials came to understand that not all farmers had bank accounts or knew to open one."

More dilemmas

Meanwhile, the Cabinet's Economic Management Committee (EMC) announced that the Paddy Purchasing Board would purchase a kilo of keeri samba at Rs. 50, samba rice at Rs. 41 and nadu rice at Rs. 38. It also proposed to purchase paddy, subject to a maximum quantity of 2,000 kg from a single producer.

It is also learnt that the EMC has also debated the possibility of offering a subsidy to importers of fertiliser at the point of importation.

"We're spending Rs. 7 billion annually to import fertiliser. This must end," said Prof. Rohan Rajapaksa, Senior Professor and Chair of Department of Agriculture Biology at the University of Ruhuna. "Most of the fertiliser distributed is not actually required."

Prof. Rajapaksa explained that the country had been importing in bulk and distributing fertiliser in uniformity in all districts when in reality, different parts of the country needed different quantities of fertilisers.

"Farmers are not educated on the needs of the soil. It was this practice which has led to over usage in parts of the North Central Province, now plagued with Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology (CKDu)."

Prof. Rajapaksa expressed dismay over the absence of a consultative process involving scientists and academics, when devising the scheme. "We would like to engage in this decision-making process at policy level," said the former Executive Director of Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy.

It's still not too late, he noted, warning that the government should make a move before the farmers converge in Colombo again.

 

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