Farmers go to town
Protesting farmers demand fertiliser instead of
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
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
"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."
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
"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
"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.