For Muthu Sivamohan, a farmer leader in Sri Lanka’s northern Kilinochchi district, the uncertainty looming over his paddy yield, after the government banned chemical fertilizers, is only comparable to “two other periods of crisis”.
“The first was when Prime Minister Sirimavo [Bandaranaike] introduced import substitution in the 1970s,” said the 63-year-old farmer. He vividly recalled the “severe food shortage” during the period, with long queues outside shops as people waited for hours to buy a loaf of bread. “There was hunger all around. We survived on king coconut and manioc mostly.”
All the same, offering some respite then was her government’s boost to local production, especially benefiting small farmers growing vegetables and cash crops. Senior farmer representative Subramaniam Kanapathipillai recalled northern farmers garlanding Ms. Bandaranaike with chillies, in appreciation of her government’s support to them. “That is why farmers here [north] of a certain generation have a soft spot for the [Bandaranaike’s] Sri Lanka Freedom Party,” he said.
The civil war began a decade later and lasted about 30 years as the armed forces fought the LTTE. The Tamil-majority north and east were stifled with violence, an economic blockade, and no access to national markets. “Those were extremely difficult times, but we did not go hungry. We grew our own food and had enough to eat,” Mr. Sivamohan said, contrasting the years of strife with the current situation.
The government’s overnight policy shift to organic agriculture in May this year, farmers like him fear, might slash their yield so drastically that a food scarcity may not be far.
Similar fears surfaced in August, when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared an Emergency to ensure distribution of essential food items, seeking to prevent market iregularities and hoarding. Along with the government’s bold import restrictions to preserve dwindling foreign reserves, the move saw anxious consumers lined up outside stores, invoking memories of the 1970s. The government has since eased local food distribution and removed price controls, but the cost of nearly all essential food items, fuel and cooking gas, have risen severalfold.
Meanwhile, the government’s ban on chemical fertilizer has heightened farmers’ apprehensions, especially after sowing season began some weeks ago. Now, they are dreading the harvest early next year.
Ketheeswaran, 37, has sowed paddy in 20 acres. “Ideally, I should have sprayed the [chemical] fertilizer now, about 30-35 days after sowing. I haven’t been able to do that. The crop will certainly suffer,” he said anxiously. “I doubt if I will get even half the yield I got last time.” The drop in production that the district’s farmers anticipate could impact rice consumption in the entire Northern Province, as Kilinochchi is the largest producer of paddy among the five northern districts, growing about 1.5 lakh tonnes in 2020.
The problem, though, is not peculiar to Kilinochchi. Farmers across the country growing paddy — Sri Lanka’s main food crop — and tea, a crucial export item, are raising alarm. Engaging over a quarter of the country’s labour force, Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector contributes about 8% of the GDP.
Significantly, farmers in the country’s Sinhala-majority south who voted for the Rajapaksas are protesting day after day, burning effigies of the Agriculture Minister, and raising angry slogans against what is arguably the most unpopular policy decision of the Rajapaksa administration in its two years in power.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, however, is determined to keep his poll promise. In his election manifesto that is now his government’s policy framework, Mr. Rajapaksa promised “a revolution” in the use of fertilizer, with a decisive shift to organic farming and focus on home gardening. The initiative, in addition to saving dollars spent on importing chemical fertilizers, was pitched as a response to the prevalence of a rare kidney ailment
However, his government did not consult farmers or experts. Challenging the government’s claim that chemical fertilizers caused farmers’ kidney ailments, scientists have dubbed the current crisis “the most turbulent” period in Sri Lanka’s agricultural history. The government’s outright switch to organic fertilizer is a “catastrophe” in the making, senior soil scientists Prof. W.A.U. Vitharana and Dr. W.S. Dandeniya warned in a column for the local Sunday Times, arguing that the damage to the country caused by “such short-sighted decisions” will be “irreversible”.
Amid mounting resistance, President Rajapaksa appointed a panel on green agriculture last month. Except, it did not include a single representative from farmers’ organisations. “There are so many farmers’ societies across the country, and they could not consult even one of us while taking such a consequential policy decision?” asked Subramanian Yatheeswaran, secretary of a farmers’ federation in Kilinochchi, baffled by the exclusion. Moreover, the government’s supply of organic fertilizer since the ban has been erratic and unreliable, paddy farmers noted.
The transition from chemical to organic fertilizers, farmers and experts emphasised, ought to be gradual. “We are not opposed to organic farming, but it [the shift] cannot be overnight like this,” said Mr. Sivamohan, recalling that it was during Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time as President that the government heavily subsidised agrochemicals. “It was in that decade that farmers became more reliant on chemical fertilizers.”
Even the harvest early next year — one of Sri Lanka’s two main harvest seasons tied to the monsoon — may not accurately reflect the impact of the policy shift, said R. Ravindrakumar from a federation of paddy farmers. “Some farmers used chemical fertilizer leftover from last year. You see, we are used to war-time scarcity and intuitively stock up a little. We heard of some others purchasing it in the black market,” he said. “It is the next harvest that will deliver a deadly blow to us.”
With no solution apparent, farmers are worried – about their next yield, as well as its impact on the country’s food security. “If our people go hungry next year, the government should not hold farmers responsible. If citizens starve, it will be a shame for the country,” Mr. Sivamohan said.