Farmers across this paradise isle are raging against a man-made disaster courtesy of a presidential directive. Holding placards in their starving paddy lands and hollowed out cash crops, they protest against a crippling shortage of fertilizer, the reason for that being a dimwitted presidential order to ban chemical fertilizer. Worst still, the ban was announced out of the blue, taking them by surprise in the height of the corona virus pandemic. Tea smallholders lament their harvest had plummeted to one third – from 900 kg per acre to 300 kg. Subsistent farmers point to emaciated pumpkin.
Their grievances fill the prime time news of television stations, even some, which are staunchly pro-government. They are not just sound bites, nor are personal tragedies. They are the tip of an iceberg of a major national calamity that would come to full force in a couple of months when the country faces a full-blown man-made food crisis for the first time in its history and an unprecedented rise in poverty in farming communities.
If you are a dispassionate watcher of world affairs, you might guess that when a Third World country does things, no one else has not ever done, and is simply guided by guesswork, sans scientific logic, that doesn’t end well. Like the economic joke about a 100 dollar bill lying on the road, if something is so good, someone else has already picked it up – The bottom line is that if some things are too good to be true, they aren’t true.
As for the Presidential ban on fertilizer, it is going to be a monumental disaster. Consider the captive group on whom this experiment would be tried on. Sri Lanka’s farmers account for nearly 25% of the country’s workforce. They contribute barely 7.5% to the GDP. In other words, the low productivity per farmer means that they earn only 30% of the GDP per capita. Sri Lanka’s GDP per capita in 2019 was US$ 3853 (World Bank). Put the dichotomy of the output and workforce of the agricultural sector, the average per capita income of a farmer would be US$ 1156. That would place them barely above the World Bank classification of a low-income country (US$ 1036 as of the year 2020). Effectively, Sri Lanka’s farmers are eking out a living on par with Sub Saharan Africa.
It is the very survival of these communities that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is threatening with his ill-advised fertilizer ban. There is a near consensus among Agri scientists that the yield reduction of the organic fertilizer only crop cultivation is significant. According to well-documented research work, the mean yield reduction could vary from 19% to 25%. When the existential conditions of Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector and other extraneous factors counted on, the fallout is likely to be much larger.
The President is effectively hollowing out 25% of the earnings of these already cash-strapped communities. His gamble is pushing a good part of Sri Lanka’s farmers, who are living on the fringes of poverty, back into abject poverty. This is a crime! To be blunt, this is a crime worse than white vans.
Alongside the collective misery of farmers, there will be a national crisis due to the economic fallout of the substantial drop in export income from tea, rubber, and other cash crops, and a potential food crisis.
Many countries that experienced a pandemic infused negative growth in 2020 are bound to bounce back. Some others, like Sri Lanka, which are still barely coping with, still have the opportunity to economic revival in the second half. However, the self-inflicted agricultural crisis would mean, Sri Lanka would lose a minimum of 30% of the output of the agricultural sector. This government has not just squandered economic revival, it has self-inflicted colossal damage, which no sane entity would do.
This is a sequel to my last week’s column where I argued against the folly of the fertilizer ban. But, farmers in Sri Lanka don’t read English newspapers. It is disheartening to see the extremely limited critical discourse on the impending fallout in the vernacular media. Much of that discourse, if any is sanitized or politicized. This is not a political problem. This is a looming national crisis.
Also, you have a freak show of sycophants defending a policy that is indefensible. Jokers have replaced the agri-scientists and agronomists in deciding and defending the policy. One such, Anuruddha Padeniya of the GMOA has all of sudden become the authority in agriculture. Sycophants are competing for brownie points from their political masters.
Equally disappointing is the absence of a coherently articulated opposition by the opposition parties. The Samagi Jana Balawegaya interlocutors seem to be at a loss of distinguishing crass reality and fiction of the fertilizer ban. Some speak out against the shortage of fertilizer but fail to tackle the policy that is the root of the problem. Some fellows seem to buy the skewed rationalization of health reasons.
A political opposition that is not capable of identifying the economic viability and tremendous social-economic cost of a demagogic policy is indeed a case in point of poverty in Sri Lankan politics, the very reason why Gotabaya Rajapaksa is now the President.
Mr. Rajapaksa himself is being overly callous; he is inflicting pain and misery upon his very constituency, the archetypical 6.9 million who voted him to power. Funny thing though most of the farmers, who would go broke at the end of this farming season, thanks to Mr. Rajapaksa’s policy, are yet to blame him. They reproach the local officials for hoarding fertilizer or failing to provide them with the stuff on time, but fail to understand the root cause of the shortage. Their ignorance in their small worlds is shielding President Rajapaksa from their scorn for the time being, just like the same conditions elected him to power. (This may sound like a condescending take, but, that is how the world of inequality functions).
However, this cloak of complacency cannot last forever and will shatter at some point in time.
But, why wait till this irrationality runs its full course?