23 May, 2022


Sri Lanka’s Perpetual Surplus And Perennial Imports Of Paddy

By S. Sivathasan

S. Sivathasan

S. Sivathasan

Mr. Neville D. Jayaweera, of good report is too well known for me to introduce or write about. I invoke his name to recall two quips of his on the Food Production Drive of Dudley 1966 -70, the part he played in it and the fate he suffered. With conviction about the need for this effort and probably enamoured of the success surrounding it, he devoted much time of the SLBC to sing its praise. He was the first Chairman of that institution. This had earned him the ire of Srimao who succeeded Dudley as PM in May 1970. Those whom she saw as contributing to success were moved out and the first in line were the ablest (not a few). NDJ and Bradman Weerakoon were among them.

Mr.Jayaweera assumed duties as GA Vavuniya. At a conference he told the officers of the District assembled at the Kachcheri, about his career. “Youngest AGA Badulla, Youngest GM Gal Oya Development Board, youngest GA Jaffna, youngest GA Trinco, youngest Head of SLBC and oldest GA Vavuniya”. The officers gleaned the reason. At a subsequent conference when he doubted the achievement figures in agriculture presented at the conference, he said “You gave the figures, I publicized them and now both of us are here together”. So where does truth lie? Statistics prepared with professionalism and disseminated with impeccable honesty carry conviction. When credibility with the reader is lost everything is lost. At least two institutions need to be a beacon. The Department of Census and Statistics and the Central Bank are the two.

Dudley’s Achievement

The country has had three Ministers of agriculture DS, Dudley and Phillip, knowledgeable, committed, earnest and with a sense of mission. A fourth Lalith had his wings clipped at birth lest he blazons forth. Yet he made a success of agriculture and the portfolio was snatched in a year. A Head of Government who channeled the benefit of his experience and all his energies for the success of agricultural production was Dudley during his premiership. His government determined the achievable, declared in 1966 that 70% self-sufficiency in paddy production was the target for 1970 and set about its task diligently. He brought under his wings, agriculture, irrigation and district administration together with all the institutions connected to them and seen as fundamental to success. Plans were pragmatic, reports  authentic and timely and the country came to know them as such. In 1970, when achievement was assessed, it was a neat 70%. Dudley had met with his finest hour.

For once since independence the writer was able to see real success in the period 66/70. Not ever after did he have the satisfaction of seeing it. This statement is made with more than four decades experience at divisional, district, provincial and national levels. Study, travel and interaction with engagement in agriculture and irrigation buttress that experience. A  refraction between report and actuals became visible in later years. It is now the tradition and the norm. Yet I have to mention that DCS  continued to do its work the professional way, till the Census of 2011. In the statistics of agricultural production, reality and reportage differ. Here too it is collation of data from other institutions without much scrutiny, doctoring presumably at command, interpretation and publicity by others that have sullied the Department’s work.

Compatible Statistics

In the war years (Production War) of 1973 onwards, many an institution of government yielded to the temptation of being on the right side. This phenomenon has continued since with greater acceleration. The tempo has increased in the last two decades with repeated failure to hit the target. There has been a clear pattern in the orchestration. After Maha harvest the country is on the threshold of exports. Greater chances after the Yala harvest but they begin to fade in October and disappear by November. At this moment, the importer lying in wait springs into action with the media in cohort for a full scale blitz of impending disaster. A bleak Christmas and a bleaker New Year with food shortages will spell doom upon the government. When the Trade Ministry joins the chorus, the government caves in and both Christmas and New Year are saved with rice arrivals in January and February! The best timing to flood the market, cheapen paddy prices, ruin the farmer and make the country import dependent. A mastery over a plethora of statistics is crucial for the correct decision to be taken. No public servant conversant with this environment can or will ever get into a street fight. Never, Never in the writer’s view was there a likely shortage in the last 20 years, in the months of December, January, February to warrant a media blitz or to justify panic purchase. Everyone should be aware of the availability of wheat to supplement rice and to rescue the consumer.

Confusion about the environment takes many forms with evil consequences. What are the forms? An incredible increase in extent asweddumised, to support acreage cultivated in order to boost production achievements, generally more than targets. The ubiquitous acreage yield for paddy – an index of productivity – is always available as a mathematically based measure to tie up any lose ends of statistical incongruence. This particular feature I have personally examined for no less than 45 years to discover a neat compatibility. A highly respected Secretary a Civil Servant told me 40 years ago that a UN expert attached to a Ministry for quite some time had ‘marveled’ at how well the agricultural statistics fell into place. More relevantly they also fitted into import statistics of the Food Ministry and the Trade Ministry. The production and consumption statistics always tallied with the statistics of the Central Bank’s – Consumer Finance Survey – which is a near perfect volume brought out every 10 years. So much for an instrument which is handy for the powers that be. A Tamil poetess of ancient times prated that “At will and with ease she could sing for her supper and compose for her living”! With equal ease statistics are also produced or used in SL now.

On Self-Sufficiency

This practice was to inflate the image of those managing agriculture. In 1967, Mr.Jayaweera as Ch. of SLBC instituted an innovative daily 3 minute evening programme. It was called ‘National Awakening Seminar’. Well known personalities participated in them. One day a star personality was Mr. Baku Mahadeva, a distinguished Civil Servant who then was Secretary Agriculture and was also responsible for much of its success. On potato production he said “We have achieved self-sufficiency… We wondered how, as all of us knew that production level was 35,000 tons when 70,000 was the requirement and target. Then came the balance part of the sentence … at half the level of consumption”! Mr. BM had no need to boost anybody’s image, least of all his. Motives in subsequent decades were different. The country was at fault for never asking about paddy and other food crops, at what level of consumption?

Paddy had singularly different treatment annually and paddy production suffered most while the paddy farmer incurred the worst. Since rice is the staple to the consumer, its supply and price are politically sensitive. It should therefore command diligent attention of the politician and the bureaucrat and a fervent examination of statistics pertaining to it.  But is that so? If that be so why this phenomenon outlined below?

Statistical riddle

For a population of 24 million by 2020, paddy production on 400,000 ha in Maha and 200, 000   ha in Yala would suffice. (The Maha land stretches for Yala as well)

As a margin for the untoward, another 50,000 ha may be allowed. As of now, available asweddumised land for paddy is 800,000ha. Land surplus for paddy is 350,000 ha. Then why place an embargo for uses other than for paddy? Available irrigable land is a substantial amount of cultivable land. Extent lying fallow annually is a fast growing phenomenon.

Then why continue to construct high cost and less economical irrigation schemes to deliver new land when existing irrigable land remains uncultivated? Can anybody adduce a rational explanation?

What really is wrong  with statistics? Absolutely nothing. What is disconcerting is its abuse. But that apart is that precious effort is criminally wasted through non-use. The data given above is an example of either non-study or non-use or cavalier rejection. Authentic statistics splashed at decision making moments make a difference. Not a soul in this world can reject them or override them. In my 40 or more years, not one officer has walked into a conference room with an authentic statistical publication in hand.

Farming and Trading

What were the consequences? Unrealistic achievements prated about by the powers that be and then parroted indiscriminately by others. Imports of food commodities are curtailed, shortages result, quick fix imports are resorted to and they come in just before harvest when shortages are great. The gravest consequence is the flooding of the market and depressing of prices. The importer and the wholesaler gain most, retailer gets a margin and the farmer suffers incessantly. Efficiency in the timing of imports from the point of the importer and the trader, drives more farmers to suicide. This has been the repetitive phenomenon for decades on end with no signs of abatement or redress. This becomes an annual feature with a total absence of policy for a sustained period. Caprice of the trading environment becomes more devastating than the vagaries of weather.

Voiceless Farmer

In the clash of interests, the farmer is squeezed out at all times. In numbers he loses out to the consumer, whose vote weighs more heavily with the politician. It is common knowledge that the latter salivates more than Pavlov’s dogs when the stimulant is votes. In organization the farmer is no patch on the industrial sector or the unionized worker. The import – export lobby is always ahead of the mute peasant. The former can raise its voice to reach the cabinet but the latter is voiceless. He is a far cry from his compatriot in France, Germany, Japan, UK or US. For his daily diet he gets welfare, war victory and religious revival. Their ‘benefactors’ hold with Napoleon “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet”. Like children going to sleep with ghost stories, they are made to go to it in a cold sweat with stories of the omnipresent tiger laid to rest and yet alive and stalking. Miserable is their plight with none to speak for them. Economic forces will drive them from poverty to penury and ultimately out of agriculture.

Concluding Remark

The mad obsession with paddy farming and with agriculture places the severest constraint on other pressing demands for more economical land use. Sugar cultivation, industrial parks and for housing development to name but three.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    So then is all the ‘rice vermicilli’ a new fad of some sort? Is the current excess of rice an illusion? Why is Maliban making ‘rice biscuits’? Is there an attempt to create a shortage of rice?

    What about Maize? Have we not pretty well achieved import substitution? What about cow pea and bull pea and all the other peas as well, are we not now self sufficient?

    It is not true that since the subsidized fertilizer has seeped so deep into our soil and groundwater due to over application thanks to the subsidy that farmers will now proceed to fertilizer less cultivation (at least as far as the phospates are concerned) over the next few seasons?

  • 0

    Interesting article Mr. S. Sivathasan, I saw a YouTube Video of Mr. Anura Kumara Dissanayaka during his budget speech where he touch upon 2013 budget allocation for paddy export and excess in rice production. He also mention how the retirement age for farmers has been increased thus depriving them of the pension for 3 years while they has to contribute during that period.

  • 0

    Sivathasan says “For a population of 24 million by 2020, paddy production on 400,000 ha in Maha and 200, 000 ha in Yala would suffice. (The Maha land stretches for Yala as well)”

    There is one key statistic missing. That is yield per ha, which differs from season to season and zone to zone. The erudite writer seem to make the same mistake as others of misrepresenting statistics?

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