By Harini Amarasuriya
Recently, Minister of Lands, S.M. Chandrasena, speaking to the Media said the Government policy on fertiliser – or specifically, the switch to organic fertiliser was an ‘experiment’. If the experiment failed during this current Maha season, they would reverse their policy, he promised.
The Minister hails from Anuradhapura, an area that is largely agricultural, where the livelihoods of many are dependent on farming. One would think that he was well aware of the challenges faced by our farming communities, who struggle to make a living at the best of times.
Labour force participation in agriculture is 25 per cent, yet the agriculture sector only contributes approximately 8 per cent to the national GDP. In comparison, the industrial sector contributes around 25 per cent and the service sector almost 60 per cent, according to 2020 figures. This is reflective of the crisis in the agriculture sector, which has been systematically neglected for several decades.
Dependant on the vagaries of weather as well as the market, farming is gradually becoming an unsustainable livelihood. Young people are turning away from agriculture and farming lands are abandoned. Indebtedness, exacerbated by predatory micro-finance companies is high, especially among women. To talk of ‘experimenting’ with such a community, during the main cultivating season, is callous beyond belief. To simply brush off the concerns raised by farmers with glib statements about reversing policy if necessary shows a disconnect with the lives of the people that is shocking even from a jaded and tarnished politician.
But, the stubbornness with which Government Ministers and MPs are defending this agriculture policy, even when it is politically disadvantageous, points to a bigger problem. It is very clear that for some reason the President is absolutely convinced by the decision to shift overnight to organic agriculture, contradicting what is in his own campaign manifesto, which describes a far more realistic, systematic shift towards reducing chemical fertiliser while promoting organic farming.
The basis on which the President made this decision is puzzling to say the least. Apart from the President of the GMOA, Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya, who has been stoutly defending the President’s policy, most specialists in the field of agriculture and food security have expressed concerns about the Government’s strategy. They point out that a switch to organic farming needs to happen systematically, and involves a lot more than simply banning chemical fertilisers. Preparation of the soil, availability of appropriate seeds, determining the types of organic fertiliser required for different crops, teaching farmers appropriate methods, etc., require research, planning and hard work.
Certainly, encouraging organic farming is necessary and clearly the way of the future. The influence of multinational fertiliser and seed companies on agriculture research and policy must be curtailed. Yet, even non-experts in the field will recognise that such a major shift in policy cannot be done cold turkey and that doing so not only places the livelihoods of the farming community at threat, but also the food security of people.
Yet, the Government is simply going ahead with this move with absolutely no consideration of any of the issues that need to be addressed. If we go by the statements by various members of the Government, it is also evident that most have no idea whatsoever about what they say. For instance, the fact that farmers are being given money to produce organic fertiliser is touted as a way of dealing with the fertiliser shortage.
Farmers are promised compensation for their losses. Whether farmers are producing or can produce sufficient fertiliser to meet the requirements for the current season and that fertilisers have to be made to suit the specifications of different crops, etc., seem to have escaped the notice of Government spokespersons. That, farmers have no desire to be compensated but simply want to be able to get on with their livelihoods seems beyond the comprehension of politicians who have got used to thinking of people simply as stooges who can be appeased with handouts.
Why is the Government determinedly pursuing this strategy and also defending it so strenuously? For one, there is a real fear, that this strategy has been adopted to force farmers to abandon farming and their lands thereby making it easier for the Government to acquire farming land and sell it to local and multinational corporations. There is already evidence of farming land being abandoned as farmers are unable to access fertiliser (organic or otherwise) to start their work on time.
The other issue – which is perhaps as alarming – is that we can see the consequences of unchecked Executive power. Although, we remain theoretically a parliamentary democracy, with a Cabinet of Ministers and a Prime Minister accountable to Parliament, after the 20th Amendment, the Executive has been extraordinarily strengthened. Lately, the President has been issuing directives and making policy decisions seemingly without consulting his Cabinet. Consequently, his Government has had to scramble to explain and justify increasingly indefensible decisions.
For instance, the President recently appointed a Task Force to work on law reforms under the theme of ‘one country, one law’. The Task Force is headed by Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, a monk most famous for his divisive politics and himself out of jail thanks to a pardon from the previous President. There are no women or representation from the Tamil community on the Task Force. Although tasked with law reforms, neither Gnanasara Thera nor the majority of others on it, are legal experts.
Leaving all this aside, this task force was appointed when the Ministry of Justice is already working on legal reforms, including reforms to personal laws which have long drawn attention for violating the general law of the country and certain provisions of the Constitution. There is also a Committee appointed by the President, working on a draft Constitution, an initiative the Minister of Justice, Ali Sabry, often refers to in the context of legal reforms. So where does this latest Task Force fit in with all these other initiatives? Media reports suggest that the Minister for Justice was blindsided by this latest initiative by the President.
Rumblings of discontent have started to emerge from the smaller constituent parties of the ruling coalition, including the SLFP, of the non-consultative nature of decision-making within the Government. That their protests reek of hypocrisy – they all voted in favour of the 20th Amendment, which effectively stripped Parliament, the Cabinet, the Prime Minister and the Judiciary of its independence and powers of oversight – is ironic no doubt. Their motivations for choosing this moment to criticise the Government, when the popularity of the regime is on the wane, also suggests self-interest rather than standing up for any principles. Yet, their criticisms draw attention to the way in which the Executive is able to overlook concerns of other branches of Government – a very dangerous situation.
All of this is evidence of a deepening crisis of governance in the country. Even the most competent and politically astute leader needs to be held accountable and limits must be placed on the exercise of power. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa by now has unfortunately proved himself, neither competent nor politically astute, and is thereby creating an unstable, confused and erratic political environment.
Coming out of this crisis will not be easy – but there are important lessons to be learnt. The crisis must be understood as institutional and structural and not simply one of individual, personal weakness. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is himself the product of a steady erosion of systems, institutions and the democratic ethos in this country. Disillusionment with politics as usual, drove people to pin their faith on an ‘outsider’, a ‘strong man’: The changes people wanted were going to be delivered by the ultimate ‘anti-system’ man.
Bulldozing homes to make way for walking paths and shopping malls was equated with what it takes to re-build a country in the throes of multiple crises. But, unfortunately, that’s not how it works. The crisis we are facing is political and a political solution is required to get us out of it. Picking the right political solution will be the challenge we will all have to face in the not so distant future. Let us hope that the lessons we are learning at this moment, will not be forgotten then.