Flexibility the key

Friday 5th November, 2021

India, yesterday, deployed its Air Force cargo planes to transport consignments of nano nitrogen liquid fertiliser here. The emergency airlift of fertiliser has given the lie to Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Altuhgamage’s claim that there is no fertiliser shortage in the country, and the protesting farmers are furthering the interests of the powerful agrochemical industry. The air delivery of fertiliser is also proof that the government has plunged headfirst into its organic fertiliser drive without a proper plan. (It never thinks before leaping!)

This land like no other has been ruled by many patriotic leaders for more than seven decades, but it is still a burden on other nations, which are kind enough to clean up unholy messes here.

The government should have bargained for the problems its sudden ban on agrochemicals was bound to cause, and formulated a strategy to tackle them. (One wonders how on earth the present-day leaders waged a successful war against the LTTE.) By undertaking to implement the government’s organic fertiliser project in a hurry, at the behest of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Agriculture Minister Aluthgamage, has landed himself in the same predicament as the proverbial drunkard who dived into a swimming pool in darkness only to find that it had been emptied! It is puzzling why the protesting farmers are burning only Aluthgamage in effigy. Are they scared of giving the same treatment to his bosses?

Nobody in his or her proper senses will oppose the promotion of organic fertiliser. Sri Lanka’s agricultural fields are oversaturated with chemicals of all sorts, and the farming community is trapped in a vicious cycle; they have had to keep applying huge amounts of agrochemicals lest they should suffer crop losses, for hardly anything grows on the dead soil unless loads and loads of various fertilisers are applied. Farmers used to apply synthetic fertiliser generously far in excess of recommended amounts because it was heavily subsidised. Soil must be allowed to heal, and at the same time it must be ensured that there will be no food shortages, and farmers will not suffer losses.

The solution would have been for the government to tread cautiously, reducing the use of chemical fertiliser gradually and proceeding with its organic fertiliser project systematically. If this method, suggested by agricultural experts, had been adopted, farmers would not have experienced shocks; they would have had enough time to adapt to changes; the need for airlifting fertiliser would not have arisen, and India would have been spared the trouble of deploying its military cargo carriers to rush fertiliser here. The government’s mighty hurry has caused problems not only to Sri Lankan farmers but also to Indian taxpayers who, we believe, will have to bear the cost of airlifting fertiliser.

Minister Aluthgamage is bandying about figures to bolster his claim that most farmers are now preparing their fields for the next cultivation season. He, true to form, is painting a very rosy picture of the situation. Whether his figures are correct, one may not know, but even if they are, will there be a good yield? The minister has admitted that there could be a drop in yield due to the sudden switchover to organic fertiliser. He says farmers will be compensated in such an eventuality. Losses that farmers suffer due to poor yields are a serious issue that should be sorted out. They must not be driven to suicide. But the real problem is the prospect of a severe food scarcity due to crop losses.

There has been a significant decrease in global food production, over the years, as international organisations such as the World Bank have pointed out. Hence the need for the government to ensure that there will be no decrease in the local food production. Instead, it has chosen to go ahead with its fertiliser experiment, which has gone wrong and badly impacted the agricultural sector. It should not lose sight of the fact that it will not be able to import food due to the prevailing forex crunch and/or in case of other countries experiencing food shortages.

The government had better rethink the manner in which it has launched its organic fertiliser drive. It ought to listen to independent agricultural experts, farmers’ associations and other stakeholders, and make a course correction immediately so that it can work on its mistakes, produce enough organic fertiliser and relaunch its go-organic campaign systematically with the participation of the farming community. Intransigence does not pay. Flexibility is the key.

Thank you

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