By Jehan Perera –
The government decision to import “quality plant nutrients” including urea, corrects a major mistake that should not have been made and which has costed farmers and the economy dearly. So far the relaxation of the ban seems to be for commercial crops grown by the business sector. Government officials have said permission has been given to import fertilizer for export crops such as tea, rubber and coconut and also specialist fertilizer needed for greenhouse cultivation. In Moneragala, for instance, it is reported that Dole Banana and sugar cane cultivations are being provided with the required chemical fertilizer. The question is when will the fertilizer ban be removed for rice and vegetable cultivators who are small producers.
There is confusion on this that is reflected in the media. Agriculture Secretary Prof. Udith Jayasinghe stated that the government has given permission to import quality plant nutrients. Minister of Agriculture Mahindananda Aluthgamage declared that no such decision has been made by the government. According to Front Page, which is a news service of Verite Research, these two stories were reported as separate headlines in the Sinhala and Tamil newspapers- Lankadeepa, Mawbima, Divaina, Aruna, Dinamina and Virakesari.
The decision to ban chemical fertilizer has been met with opposition from the country’s experts in the field of agriculture. Academics from the universities have issued statements but to no avail. It may take some more time and more protests before the government finally yields to pressures from below, like the powerful government of Prime Minister Modi did last week in India. With public protests mounting from all parts of the country, and accompanied by opposition political protests in Colombo, the government is likely to be forced to change course. It is reported that traders at economic centres have said that incoming crops had dropped sharply. Vegetable prices have almost doubled.
Modern high yielding hybrid varieties of agricultural crops require larger inputs of chemical elements such as Nitrogen which is supplied by chemical fertilisers in concentrated amounts and by organic fertilisers in much lesser amounts. While organic fertilisers are appropriate to traditional crops, the yield will be significantly lower. It can be surmised that those who advised the president to ban chemical fertilisers overnight had no real expertise in the area of agriculture. They may have had expertise in the area of health. There is a need for those who are qualified on the basis of merit in the area that is in question should make the decision.
According to the Economynext website, “Sri Lanka banned chemical fertilizer after the Government Medical Officers Association and a Buddhist monk Athuraliye Rathana carried on a campaign against them, claiming that kidney and other non-communicable diseases were caused by agro-chemicals. The GMOA has said that according to Pliny the Elder, a Roman author ancient Sri Lankans had lived for over 140 years when there were no chemical fertilizer.” In addition to merit, there needs to be both rationality and science in the making of decisions.
It is unfortunate that the state institutions vested with responsibility to ensure agricultural productivity were unable to have an impact on the rationality of the decision to ban chemical fertilisers. The ban was implemented with immediate effect despite being at high cost to the national economy, to farmer incomes and to consumer prices. This is indicative of the lack of voice and strength of the relevant state agencies that needs to be rectified. The two ways to rectify their weakness is to ensure that persons appointed to high positions of state are competent and that once they are appointed they are secure in their positions to stand up for what is right and rational. An appointing authority comprising the government, opposition and civil society, as envisaged by the 17th and 19th Amendments would be more likely to make suitable appointments than the president acting by himself with his advisors.
The failure to reverse the idiosyncratic decision to ban chemical fertilisers for over six months points to the need to strengthen state institutions. Decisions on issues that affect the country as a whole need to be taken by institutions and not by individuals. In the Sri Lankan context this would call for the repeal of the 20th Amendment to the constitution which strengthened presidential powers at the expense of state institutions. A key feature of the 20th Amendment is to give to the president the sole authority to appoint persons to high positions of state.
On the other hand, the key feature of both the 17th and 19th Amendments was to vest the power of appointments of high state officers in the hands of the constitutional council, which was designed to be a multi-partisan selection body. The Constitutional Council comprised members of the government, opposition and civil society in a tripartite mechanism. Instead of having the president pick the top officials himself, the 17th and 19th Amendments ensured that such appointments were made jointly by government, opposition and civil society representatives. It is more likely that the better choice would be made by a multi-partisan body jointly than by a single individual advised by his associates.
It is to be hoped that the new constitution that is being drafted, and which the prime minister has promised by the end of the year, would take these considerations into account. The members of the expert committee entrusted with drafting the new constitution have themselves been appointed by the president. There is no indication of participation by other members of the government or of the opposition or of civil society in their selection. A worst case scenario would be one in which the expert committee seeks to introduce the centralization inherent in the 20th Amendment to the whole of the constitution. This would vitiate pluralism, diversity and weaken the system of checks and balances within the country that are needed to facilitate better decision making at all levels.
The fiasco over chemical fertilisers, where decision makers make decisions outside their areas of competence, highlights the pitfalls that over centralized decision making can lead to. In a similar manner, over centralized decision making can lead to decisions that are insensitive to regional, ethnic and religious differences that exist among the people. The different communities living in the country are plural in their traditions and practices, and should have the right to be different and the space to practice their different traditions. They should not be subjected to discrimination or be forced into a centralized straitjacket which are the issues that led to decades of ethnic conflict and finally to the war for separation.
Another reason why 20th Amendment is not the way forward is that it leads to the weakening of institutions that are mandated to check impunity, bribery and corruption in the country. The media headlines these days, thanks to the courage of investigative journalists, are stories of mega corruption, including on the purchases of substitutes for chemical fertilisers. These allegations need to be investigated by law enforcement agencies and judicial authorities who do not feel they are beholden to anyone, including the appointing authority. The travails that Sri Lanka is currently going through highlights the need for the best appointments to be made, with merit being recognized and integrity being encouraged, which will be best done jointly and collaboratively by the government, opposition and civil society.