From the time he began voting, Kurunegala farmer B.M.H. Jayatilleka has not backed any party other than the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) at the polls. By extension, his vote in recent elections went to the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Front) that the Rajapaksas carved out of the SLFP where they made their political careers.
In the presidential poll of 2019, Jayatilleka voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In the 2020 general elections, he campaigned hard for Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who contested from Kurunegala district, located in Sri Lanka’s North Western Province and home to a large population of farmers and military families. Prime Minister Mahinda polled a record 5,27,364 preferential votes in that election, reflecting his enduring electoral appeal a decade after the armed forces under his leadership defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ending the country’s long civil war.
In the last few months, though, Jayatilleka feels very differently about his hitherto favourite political camp, with his staunch loyalty giving way to seething anger. “I will never vote for them [Rajapaksas] again in this lifetime,” vowed the farmer leader, nearing 70. His shift is drastic, much like President Gotabaya’s overnight policy switch to ‘organic only’ agriculture that triggered it.
No transition plan
On May 6, President Gotabaya issued a gazette banning the import of chemical fertilizers, in what was widely seen as a rash embrace of organic farming promised in his poll manifesto. At a time when all sectors, including agriculture, were reeling under the persisting economic impact of the pandemic, the Rajapaksa administration’s announcement, perhaps the most consequential change to agriculture policy in the region in recent decades, came with no consultation, forethought, or convincing transition plan apparent.
In a curiously belated effort months after changing policy, the Ministry of Agriculture on Thursday (December 16) said it was setting up a task force to study and report on the “adverse effects of the use of chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides on the human body.”
President Gotabaya has defended his ambitious initiative locally and at international fora. “We need a new agricultural revolution that is not against nature,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow held in October-November. Acknowledging there was “some criticism [of] and resistance” to his government’s ‘organic only’ policy, he told the summit: “In addition to chemical fertilizer lobby groups, this resistance has come from farmers who have grown accustomed to overusing fertilizer as an easy means of increasing yields.” He did not mention Sri Lankan scientists, who have slammed the initiative, terming it “ill-advised” and “a catastrophe” in the making.
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