A crisis of the Nannied
Posted on January 4th, 2022

Sugath Kulatunga

We are a much-nannied society. We live on subsidies from womb to tomb. We enjoy free health, free education, subsidized electricity, and water. Our farmers get their irrigation water-free and are given a guaranteed price for their main products. Besides all these, we also enjoy the fundamental right to defend these rights. We do not for a moment think that there is no free meal. Somebody else is paying for it.

One has to be happy with the present predictions of the serious food crisis by March this year. I hope the nanny mollycoddled population and the government is groping for solutions and pushed in different directions by the next election and percentage-minded politicians, gutless set of bureaucrats and one-track-minded professionals will wake from their slumbers and get down to work. Subsidies are not properly targeted. The fuel subsidy benefits the owner of a luxury limousine or a three-wheeler owner. It is the same with education and health subsidies.

Public Servants and Shop and Office workers enjoy 104 days of weekends and 25 public holidays. No government has had the courage to demand a reduction of holidays and do more work when salaries are increased. No wonder that productivity has suffered and FDI is discouraged.

We have had a series of crises in sugar, cooking gas, fertilizer, and vegetables, some of which are associated with scams. We expect an acute crisis in rice soon. We continue to be troubled by the balance of payments and the burden of debt which are outside this note.

Crisis in Sugar

This was a crisis that could have been avoided. The first mess-up was in the sugar swindle. Here it is the Consumer Affairs Authority and the Ministry in charge which did not go by the clear provision of the CAA Act. When the CAA ended the price control of Sugar (which was at Rs 80), the Authority should have entered into an agreement in terms of Article 14. (1) where the Authority is empowered to enter into such written (binding) agreements as it may deem necessary, with any manufacturer or trader or with any association of manufacturers or traders to provide for— (a) the maximum price above which any goods shall not be sold; (c) any other conditions as to the manufacture, import, supply, storage, distribution, transportation, marketing, labelling or sale of any goods.

The CAA did not do it and allowed the traders to sell sugar over Rs 200 and making massive profits. The state minister lamented that the Ministry had no power to act. Only conclusion that one can come to is that this was purely a crisis created by the CAA and the Ministry of trade.

Crisis in LPG

This foul-smelling crisis in cooking gas was again allowed to aggravate by the Ministry of Trade. It was quite obvious that the explosions were due to what was inside the cylinders. What are outside i.e. regulators, burners, tubes had been used for years without any problem? The Minister and the regulatory authorities were unable to get the gas companies to declare the composition of the gas inside the cylinders. Even today they have not revealed that information.

Crisis in vegetables

In the past, there were a few serious attempts to increase food production. The first one I remember was the grow more food campaign launched by Dudley Senanayake, with an emphasis on the production of rice. The campaign was personally led by Dudley, who had a genuine love for agriculture and was following in the footsteps of the Father of the Nation, DS.

The next prominent campaign was launched as a cultivation war (waga sangramaya) by Mrs. Bandaranayake. At that time there was a grave shortage of food- mainly rice, so much so, people were requested to skip a rice meal on one day of the week and were encouraged to eat manioc and pulses. The UNP went to town against the consumption of manioc. They invented reports of manioc poisoning and people dying of eating manioc. Today manioc consumption is recommended even to control cancer.

It is unfortunate that our Agriculture authorities have not done much research on foods other than on rice of which they have excelled. For example, Manioc as a food has been overlooked whereas it is the staple food of around 800 million people in the world. There are so many varieties of yams that are not seriously promoted. In this country, even a temporary shortage of food items is used as a platform to denounce the ruling government. There is never a national approach to rectify the perennial problem. Breadfruit trees are one of the highest-yielding food plants known. A single tree can produce between 50 to 150 fruits per year can be propagated through tissue culture. But the Agriculture authorities did not think it was important. Today a fruit is Rs150 plus.

To make an immediate impact on vegetables we can adopt greenhouse technology which has been implemented successfully by the EDB for vegetable cultivation from a few years back with the cooperation of leading exporters of vegetables. Idle land around cities could be leased out to Super Markets to grow vegetables under greenhouses.

A strategy that has tremendous potential to increase the production of vegetables and fruits is home gardening. It has been promoted with fits and starts but not on a continuous and comprehensive scale. One does need a vast space of land to grow a few papaya trees or a few chilies and brinjal plants which can be grown in pots. Of course, it is not as dramatic as exhibiting the exorbitant price of a single chili in public. There is no efficient system for the supply of seeds and providing instructions. The present government had a program for the distribution of quality seeds, but it has fizzled out.

Railway land, in the centers of production of fruits and vegetables, could be used with cooling facilities,as collection and packing centers of fruits and vegetables. Thereafter the products could be transported in crates to wholesale distribution centers in consumption areas in refrigerated wagons. It is suggested that the Railway learns from the Assam Rail which uses Reefer wagons to transport perishable products all the way to Calcutta. GMR is perhaps the biggest landowner of developed land in the country. All that idle land from Dematagoda to Fort could be used for development.

Village Fairs have been the centers of the exchange of rural products. At present they lack even the basic facilities. They need to be improved.

As I was writing this note I heard the belated news of the incentives for home gardens. This is good news but this exercise too has to be well planned.  There are 24 agro-ecological regions in the country which represent a combination of particular characteristics of climate, relief, and soil and farming systems (C.R.Panabokke). This advantage should be made use of to get optimal results. There has to be ground-level planning to prevent gluts in the market. The media should give more space for the dissemination of information on agriculture. It will be useful to make home gardening a compulsory subject in Schools and have school gardens. It is also useful to introduce new crops popular in other countries.

Crisis in Milk foods

Not only self sufficiency but an increase in the consumption of milk foods was envisaged 60 years back in the agriculture development plan of Philip Gunawardhana. The quality of the local herd was to be upgraded through Artificial insemination and stud services. The Animal’s Act prevented cross breeding with local bulls. The dairy farms with improved breeds like fresian, and Ayrshire were maintained in upcountry farms for dairy products as well as for breeding stock. Thamankaduwa Livestock project was launched to breed cattle crossed with Jersey. A large herd of

Jersey heifers were imported and bred in Ambewela. Ridiyagama buffalo farm was meant to supply quality breeding material.

There is no need to import cows as the quality herds in the existing farms can supply all the semen needed. The bull calves from these herds can be distributed to stud centers island wide. The government can learn from the Private sector farm in Ambewela on importing semen, animal feed and establishing pastures.

Food self Sufficiency is generally considered as the self-sufficiency in the staple foods. It is a mistake to consider that we have achieved food self-sufficiency when there is no import of rice. In 2020 SL produced 5000 million MT of Paddy. When this is converted into rice it is around 3200 million MT of rice. The same year we imported 1.29 million MT of wheat. This means that we were only around 67% self-sufficient in our staple cereals.

Conclusion- What we see today is that the nursemaid has heard the crying babies and come to soothe them with some sweets stolen from the same babies (as duties and taxes). I for one would have liked the crises other than that of LPG to continue so that the necessary structural changes could take place. It is the bitter medicine.

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