YAHAPALANA AND THE ECONOMY Part 14
Posted on August 16th, 2019

KAMALIKA PIERIS

DAIRY INDUSTRY.

Ministry of Rural Economic Development had imported high- yielding pregnant milch cows from Wellard Rural Exports Pvt. Ltd., Australia. They had arrived in November 2017. These cows were imported as part of an initiative by the Ministry of Rural Economic Development. The Ministry had ignored the warnings given by the Department of Animal Production and Health that cows from Australia carried highly contagious and deadly diseases.

3,030 of these cows were distributed to 46  middle-scale dairy farmers around the country. Investors paid Rs. 200,000 per cow and the government contributed Rs. 265,000.  The dairy farmers were told that these cows would produce 20 litres of milk a day on average. They were advised to get rid of the Sri Lankan animals they already had.

the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the corruption of the Yahapalana government was told that these cows carried the deadly Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) virus infection, which was new to Sri Lanka  The cows also had fasciola hepatica (common liver fluke) a disease which had not been detected in Sri Lanka since 1973. Fasciola hepatica could affect humans as well.

These cows were in bad shape when they landed here, the dairy farmers said. A number of cows died, while a number of calves aborted or were stillborn. Dairy farmers had complained about the matter to the authorities. The farms had cows imported from New Zealand as well. These cows are in much better health.  the problem is with cows imported from Australia.”

They pointed out that BVD was known as the ‘dairy industry’s silent killer’ since cows carry BVD throughout their lives and infect others. In foreign countries, such animals are immediately killed. We also suggested that we follow similar procedures, but the government ignored the suggestion. The calves live in many of our farms. This is a threat to our dairy industry.

The government also failed to send the diseased cows back to the supplier. The Ministry was not prepared to ask Wellard to pay compensation nor was it prepared to obtain compensation from the Cabinet, complained to the farmers.

Many farmers testified that they were plagued by financial difficulties due to loans taken by them to take part in this government-subsidized scheme because the cows produce less milk than what was promised.

Kingsley Walter Senanayake, who had thrice won the award for the best milk farmer of Matale, yesterday, told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry  probing corruption in the current administration that he was plagued by financial difficulties due to loans taken by him to take part in this government-subsidized scheme to introduce high-yielding imported pregnant cows, in 2017. I took part in the project because of the assurances given by the Ministry but now I am in debt. I had never been in debt before.”

. “We were assured by the Ministry of Rural Economy, that the Ministry would ensure that the farmers received cattle feed at a concessionary rate of Rs. 40 a kilo and that steps would be taken to procure the milk produced at a higher price. However, we were never given subsidized cattle feed and I soon discovered that I was making a loss.” Senanayake said that he had bought 16 cows and six of them had died. 

Senanayake said that it cost him about Rs 30 to 35 to produce a litre of milk from local milch cows and it fetched about Rs. 65. “To maintain a local milch cow, on average, I spend about Rs. 350 a day and I can earn about Rs. 603 daily. For an imported cow given to me by the Ministry, I have to spend about R. 1,100 per day but I can make only about Rs. 1,088. This is when they produce the most amount of milk.” The imported milch cows consumed about 10 kilos of cattle feed a day and that alone costs over Rs. 600.

He had drawn a loan of Rs. 10 million from the Commercial Bank to finance the project and since the project had been a complete failure he had not been able to pay back the loan for eight months. The bank keeps telling me that it would sell the land I mortgaged as it wants to recover the loan.

Wellard Rural Exports Pvt. Ltd. Australia and its local agent Foresight had provided the plan for constructing cattle sheds to all farmers who took part in the project regardless of the climate and geography. “Wellard assured that they would provide medical facilities for two years. But these cows died between 8 and18 months and I feel that if they had responded on time when I complained, some of the cows could have been saved.

There have been five investigations into the matter.  First, the Ministry appointed a committee to evaluate the phase I of this cow scheme. That was not to inquire into the disease issue but to move on to phase II of the project. The committee met in January, February, and March and prepared the report. The team only visited six farms, out of 66, before preparing their report. On receiving the reports, the government then paid an advance to import another batch of 15,000 cows. 

Questioned by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry the chairman said did not possess any minutes of the meetings or a list of farms the committee had visited. The committee had visited six farms. He could remember the names of two owners. , but I can’t remember the names of the owners of other farms I visited’. He also said that he wasn’t sure how many cows he had observed.

This Committee told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that they had found the cows to be weak, but they had not taken into consideration whether the animals suffered from serious diseases. When asked by the Commission about the possibility that the cows were weak because they were suffering from the disease the chairman said, “I don’t know. I don’t know about diseases. Checking diseases is not my specialty.”

The main problem according to the investigating committee, was the feed. “The main issue was food. Farmers thought they could give feed that they give to local cows. But these imported cows weigh about 400 kilos and need about 50 kilos of feed. Most farmers were not educated on the need to grow grass or to stock feed. We could see that the cows were not getting enough feed by looking at their bodies.

 The second issue with the cows,  said the committee,  was that farmers hadn’t done enough to place the cows in a climate similar to where they came from. He added that the sheds built for cows were not suitable.  However, they had been built according to a design provided by Foresight, Sri Lankan agent for Wellard.

The second investigation was by the government Veterinarians. They conducted their own inquiry and they too gave evidence before the Presidential committee. They, however, knew about disease and informed the Committee  “Our officers kept tabs on those animals and they found several cows with  BVD when they commenced investigations. Soon after they found live eggs of fasciola hepatica in cow dung. 

The Vet dept of the Ministry, made inquiries and It then emerged that the Chief Veterinarian Officer of Australia  had informed  his Director of Animal Production and Health  that the animals sent to Sri Lanka, were from a farm that had been free from BVD for one year, but on November 22, 2017, a lab report showed that 21 cows had been infected with BVD. they delayed sending the report to the Sri Lankan officials, Chief Animal Quarantine Officer, Sri Lanka got this report only on January 10, 2018, and Director – Livestock Planning and Economics saw this only two weeks later. 

The Vets said that it was clear that Wellard had been aware of the lab report before shipping the cows to Sri Lanka because they had removed the cows diagnosed with BVD from the shipment. However the cows which had been with them were sent. “It was the responsibility of Wellard to send Sri Lanka healthy cows.  The Ministry could have taken action. “Unfortunately nothing happened.” .

Further according to the relevant quarantine  Act,  every animal imported to Sri Lanka shall be subject to quarantine for a minimum period of thirty days. While usually they were held in one designated location, in this case, the cows were sent to various farms across the country, before the end of the quarantine period This kind of thing has never happened before”.

The third investigation came from Australia. A team of auditors from Export Finance Australia arrived in Sri Lanka in July 2019 to conduct an independent assessment at the farms that took in milch cows.  They selected 15 farms out of 67. The local dairy farmers said the Australian team had visited some farms and attempted to find fault with farming practices there.

Fourthly, the Presidential Commission of Inquiry investigating corruption in the current administration, announced in July 2019  that they will commence an inspection tour of farms which have got 3,030 substandard imported Australian cows from the government. They will also inquire into claims that the cows are suffering from Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD), hitherto not found in Sri Lanka.

Lastly, Minister of Public Reform and Public Distribution Dr. Harsha de Silva dismissed allegations that the government had distributed 3,030 substandard imported Australian cows among 46 investors and dairy farmers in 2017. The Minister said, in July 2019, that he had visited several farms on his way to Sri Pada. He said he could not recall the names of the farms he visited, but on one farm, a farmer got nearly 40 litres of milk each per day from the cows imported from Australia”. But on some farms, the cows were in pretty bad shape. My conclusion is that farms that were able to maintain the cows properly, got bigger yields than those which were not properly maintained, he said.  ( CONTINUED)

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