How our excellent agricultural extension system of the Sixties was sacrificed.
Posted on September 10th, 2020

By Garvin Karunaratne  former G.A. Matara

In view of the attempts by our President to boost our agriculture, it may be worthwhile to ascertain what did happen to the excellent agricultural extension service we had in the Sixties- the effort of the combined Agriculture Department and Agrarian Services. 

I enclose a chapter from my forthcoming publication: NuwaraKalaviya which details what happened.. 

I was stunned  to read  a news item stating that  youths from schools in. Anuradhapura are very likely to be the cannon fodder for renal disease. Students in grades 10 to 12 in the North Central Province are prone to contact renal diseases…earlier it was people in the 30s and 40s.”(Daily Mirror (12/4) 

My mind lingered to the 25,000 farmers of the North Central Province who have succumbed to the CDKu- the Kidney Disease.  Some of them may have been the young farmers with whom I worked in the 296 cultivation committees I set up in 1962. Then there was a hive of activity- discussions and arguments  going on for hours at times till late at night-the thrust of it was to use high yielding varieties and supplement with fertilizer. This was accomplished.  

Sad to say,  some two decades later certain  administrative changes that were made did decimate the very effective   agricultural extension system that we had.  . In addition with the abolition of the Paddy Lands Act in the Eighties, the agrarian services with its overseers and the cultivation committee, the peoples’ organization at the village level ceased to exist. In around 1993, the trained agricultural overseers- the Krushikarma Vyapti Sewakas at the village level who formed the king pin that guided fertilizer and weedicde use at the village level were promoted as Grama Niladharis and till today no extension overseer with any training has taken their place. The farmers have no one to guide them. The closest trained officer is the Agricultural Instructor at the divisional level who has any number from 5000 to 14000 farmers to provide guidance. 

To my mind this lacuna in the agricultural extension system is the main cause for the misuse of fertilizer and weedicides that has caused the kidney disease. We have taken many steps, like providing clean water in barrels, establishing water treatment plants, having kidney dialysis machines at hospitals but these do not touch the core cause.  

Guiding famers to use the essential fertilizer, weedicides and pesticides is the key, In paddy cultivation we have high yielding varieties that require a fertilizer input.  This matter cannot be settled until we have a trained overseer at the village level and also build up a vibrant agricultural extension system. Left to themselves without any technical input the farmers misuse fertilizer, using the wrong fertilizer and unnecessarily large doses of it.  The massive subsidy given for fertilizer also helped the misuse of fertilizer. 

It is my opinion is that in addition to all other factors that have been identified the excessive use of fertilizer is a major cause. 

 The problem with the use of fertilizer is that there are three varieties, phosphate, potash and sulphate. Each fertilizer has to be used at different stages of the paddy plant and can have negative results if misused.  Further the effect of some varieties like ammonium sulphate and urea is easily visible which make farmers use this variety only and ignore the rest. Thus for best results a vibrant extension service is essential. 

 Let me draw on my experience as an administrative officer. I handled fertilizer distribution to the entire island in 1962 in the Agrarian Services Department and was instrumental in sending out the first island wide circular which detailed the amount of fertilizer to be used, which fertilizer and at what stage. At that time farmers used very little fertilizer and the green revolution was pursued apace with the introduction of new varieties of paddy that had a high response to inorganic fertilizer. 

 Later in 1962 to 1964, I was implementing the Paddy Lands Act in the Anuradhapura District, establishing cultivation committees and planning the use of fertilizer and high yielding varieties. The farmers were very enthusiastic and there was great progress. 

 The use of fertilizer proceeded apace and Sri Lanka almost reached self sufficiency whilst implementing the rice ration scheme, issuing rice at reduced rates by 1970. 

 During these years of expansion- I was working in Sri Lanka till 1973 and even for another decade later there was no major problem about the negative use of fertilizer. 

 At that time there were two major Departments that attended to agricultural extension. The long standing department was the Department of Agriculture, which was well staffed with qualified officers. At the District level there were District Agricultural Extension Officers(DAEO) who were authorities in the use of fertilizer. Under them in each District there were Agricultural Instructors at the Divisional level. They had studied agriculture for two years. I have met them again and again on my visits and I was always impressed with their knowledge. Each Agricultural Instructor had a number of Krushikarma Vyapti Sevakas(KVSs)- Field Assistants who were posted at the village level. These officers had an years’ training in paddy cultivation. 

 With the establishment of the Agrarian Services Department in 1958, to implement the Paddy Lands Act a boost was given to paddy cultivation by the establishment of cultivation committees. Each District was headed by an Assistant Commissioner and under him there were Divisional  Officers  who had around half a dozen Field Assistants.  The Field Assistants were trained in agriculture. This staff guided the work of the cultivation committees and we got down to planning the use of fertilizer at the village level. The KVSs of the Agricultural Departments  also worked with the cultivation committees. Peoples participation was foremost in the working of the cultivation committees and this combined strength of the Department of Agriculture and Agrarian Services did create wonders in increasing paddy production. 

 However this efficient extension service went through four major changes from the Seventies. 

 Firstly the Agrarian Services Department which was following the socialist concept of people’s participation was given less and less prominence and ultimately the cultivation committees were disbanded with the abolition of the Paddy Lands Act. Though the Agrarian Services yet has petty offices at the divisional level, these offices have hardly any tasks and their work today is a fraction of the work we did in the Sixties. The Cultivation Officers and Yaya Representatives under the Agrarian Services Act were ineffective. 

 The Department of Agriculture which was the technical department with specialist officers had a major shake up when President Premadasa decided to absorb all KVSs- some 2300 as Grama Niladharis.. Out went the qualified officers who were working at the village level guiding the farmers. For a few years there was no agriculture staff at the village level under the Agricultural Instructors, till President Kumaranatunge created the Samurdhi Niyamakas-O Level qualified youths were appointed and they knew no agriculture. Till today these Niyamakas continue. Some of them have of their own accord mastered something in agriculture due to their enthusiasm but unfortunately to date they have never been trained. 

 Another change was devolving Agriculture and Agrarian Services to the Provincial Councils by the 13 th Amendment to our Constitution. Thenceforth the efficiency depended on the whims and fancies of the Provincial Minister of Agriculture. Gone are the days when I was in charge of fertilizer extension and distribution for the entire island, when I did send out the first circular detailing the manner in which fertilizer had to be used. That was before e mails and computers came in. The circular was roneoed on a Gestetner machine and posted. Every Field Assistant in every corner of the island received it the next day. That was a time when we had an efficient postal service. The Field Assistants had to summon the cultivation committees discuss, draft plans and get down to implementation immediately. The Field Assistants knew that I or some Assistant Commissioner would pounce on them impromptu, check the progress and they knew what would happen to their service if they were found asleep. That efficient administration was totally lost with the Provincial Councils being devolved with agriculture.  

 A fourth force was the IMF and the World Bank which came up with their Training & Visit System of Agricultural Extension (TVS) which forbid  the use of people’s institutions- cooperatives and in Sri Lanka, cultivation committees and instead dictated a direct role for the Departments of Agriculture. The KVSs were asked to document the number of farmers they met individually. With as much as a few thousands of farmers in their areas the KVS could meet only a few. The only method of meeting a large clientele is by using cooperatives,  cultivation committees and such people’s organizations. This did away with popular participation. The participation of the farmers is essential to enable them to use high yielding varieties and fertilizers in the appropriate manner so that they can get the maximum harvest.  The farmers have to be consulted; their participation evoked and working with them is an art in itself. Many village level workers handle their work in a directive manner and they prefer to instruct farmers rather than work with their participation. This is what happened with the imposition of the TVS. The TVS system was imposed, with the offer of grants and loans of foreign exchange, with added grace periods, when no payment had to be made and it was immediately adored by our leaders because of the offer of foreign exchange. It sounded the death knell for our excellent and vibrant extension system, done with full peoples’ participation. There is room to think that this move of the World Bank was aimed at crippling the development in agriculture that was taking place apace in the Developing Countries. One will be convinced of this sabotage only when one learns about the ill effects of the Structural Adjustment Programme which  the IMF introduced to our countries in the next few years, which I have detailed in my book: How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka: (Godages)

 In 1995 I came back to Sri Lanka and working on my small family farm, I had the occasion to go again and again to the extension offices at Udupila and Kadawata. I have narrated my experience in my book: How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka”. 

The officers there did not know the exact amount  of fertilizer I should use and relate it to the high yielding varieties of paddy. At my insistence they raked their files and provided me with details. The circular advised the use of ammonium sulphate and urea at the basal stage and no mention was made of its use as the top dressing.. I brought this to the notice of the Secretary to the Ministry and .months later I got a reply to the effect that the advice given to me was out of date by half a dozen years. About a year later I dropped into one of these Centers  and to my amazement I found that even then the top dressing had not been incorporated into the advice. There is not a single farmer who does not know that ammonium sulphate/urea has to be used as the top dressing.” 

 What this illustrates is a total break down in agricultural extension. This is corroborated by Agricultural Officer Cecil Dharmasena in his very insightful article in The Island of  22/4/13, he states, 

The lack of an organized and coordinated extension and advisor system today as we had in the past(prior to the Provincial Council Administration System), where the Department of Agriculture through its comprehensive  island wide extension division provided an efficient service appears to be the biggest drawback in agriculture at present.” 

 He refers to both the decision of President Premadasa to make all KVSs Grama Niladharis leaving a gap at the village level as well as the decision based on the 13 th Amendment to our Constitution to devolve the subject of agriculture to the Provincial Council as the cause. He even states that today all types of agencies of the Provincial Council and private sector offer confusing services.” 

 These details about the lacuna in the extension services is further  corroborated by another Agricultural Officer, Ranjith Mulleriyawa in The Island of 4/6/13, where he states that after the promotion of the KVSs- the Field Assistants at the village level to become Grama Niladhari, the Agricultural Instructors had to supervise and offer extension services to as much as 13,000 farmers at Yodakandiya and 3,500 farmers at Ranoruwa. Covering even 500 farmers is a major task for a single officer and covering thousands mean that the service will be severely crippled. Even today the Agricultural Instructors cannot offer a proper service as their assistants are the Niyamakas who in their ignorance of agriculture are actually the laughing stock of the farmers. Having met a few farmers here and there on my annual visits I can definitely corroborate with both Ranjith Mulleriyawa as well as Cecil Dharmasena for the total breakdown of agricultural extension. The heading of Ranjith Mulleriyawa’s article  itself Truth is Stranger than Fiction: Messing up Agriculture” speaks volumes. Further the Niyamakas belong to the Agrarian Services Department while the trained agriculturist, the Agricultural Instructor comes under the Department of Agriculture.  

 In fact I was convinced for long about the fact that the extension system had broken down with fertilizer being misused but I wanted definite corroboration and this paper emerged after reading their insightful comments. I am most thankful to them. Crusader Ranjith Mulleriyawa is no more.  He passed away recently. 

The fact that the extension service is broken up is also clearly evident because the planting of paddy is now not adhering to the rainfall pattern, though the bulk of paddy cultivation is rainfed. In the earlier system under the Vel Vidanes of the days when the Government Agents handled minor irrigation and later when the cultivation committees handled paddy cultivation there was a definite system where the farmers met at Kanna meetings at the beginning of each season and decided when to cultivate, what seed to use and when to harvest etc. Even fines were decided which was strictly enforced by courts of law.  After the cultivation committees were disbanded the Yaya Representatives under the Agrarian Services Act were ineffective. Now, Kanna meetings are not held systematically, with the result that late cultivation is common and the harvest gets damaged by the oncoming rains. 

 It would augur well for our Ministry of Agriculture to please consider establishing a people’s institution like the cultivation committee to handle paddy cultivation and the use of fertilizer could be attend to by this organization. This is a prime requirement today. 

With the breakdown of the extension service the farmers are left to their own devices. I have spoken to a few farmers on my visit last year and they were using ammonium sulphate and urea at the basal stage, Every one research paper I have read of fertilizer use tells me that ammonium sulphate or urea if used at the basal stage just leaches into the soil in the absence of a standing crop to absorb it. To my thinking this misuse of fertilizer is one of the main causes for the CDUK disease. I have no doubts about it. 

  Further the Niyamakas have to be trained and may I suggest that this be taken up immediately- at least a months’ crash course in paddy plantation. 

 I fear that the neglect in agricultural extension which is key to the neglect in the use of fertilizer if not corrected will lead to the  kidney disease spreading in Sri Lanka which may kill perhaps millions. Let that predicament not happen to my motherland. We do have the ability to avoid it.” 

Garvin Karunaratne, Ph.D Michigan State University,  

Former G.A,. Matara 

  08092020 garvin_karunaratne@

2 Responses to “How our excellent agricultural extension system of the Sixties was sacrificed.”

  1. Gunasinghe Says:

    Dr. Karu, Point well taken. Whole agriculture department is ruin now. I was a plant pathologist (RO) at Mahailluppallama. I joined in late 1979. At that time the station was doing good with lot of officers with experience and extension division had a good in-service center. Lot of training were taking place at that time. I used to go to fields and took time to talk to farmers and gave some instructions how to control some diseases specially in Chile cultivation. I left Sri lanka in 1983 with wining Fulbright scholarship. I tried to come back after finishing my PhD and Department refused to extent my no-pay leave and fired me. To make the story short, in my recent visit ti MI research station I was so sad to see the situation. All the building were in ruin. Many research fields are with grass and other weeds. No in-service center. Extension is no more. Department has gone to dogs. I am from a Village in Anuradhapura area. When I went to my village I noticed that most of farmers spaying weedicides to clean NEYARA (dived liyadi in paddi field). Old days farmers clean NIYARA with UDALLA. It is clear that weed killers abused.

  2. Nimal Says:

    There must be a safer fertilizer in the world market that is being used in the Western countries where safety and health of the users and people are paramount. I lost some close relatives who were transferred to Pooinaruwa areas where they all died of kidney failure.

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