By Arun Kumar Shrivastav
With 22 million people, Sri Lanka is reeling under an acute food crisis with prices of staple food rising uncontrollably and people running out of cash. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government appears utterly clueless in tackling the evolving situation.
By now, the Sri Lankan food crisis is global news, and it presents a unique case study in the field of agriculture where a well-meaning initiative went wrong. In March last year, the Rajapaksa government announced that Sri Lanka would stop using agrochemical fertilizers and convert to a fully organic agricultural system. The import and use of chemical fertilizers were banned. Sri Lanka, which grows two paddy crops annually, saw a drastic drop in farm yields.
First, the announcement to stop chemical fertilizers-based farming came too abruptly for the farming equipment to absorb the shocks. Second, there was neither adequate stock of organic manure in the country nor proper training to farmers to take up the initiative on a sure and confident footing. As a result, the decision was met with more protests than enthusiasm.
The country’s effort to import organic manure from a close friend and neighbour China ran into rough weather, bringing a bitter diplomatic row on the platter for the Sri Lankan government to deal with. It so happened that Sri Lanka placed an order to import organic manure from China, but the shipment’s sample tested to have dangerous microbes.
The country returned the shipment and refused to pay, blaming the Chinese company for supplying poor-quality organic manure. In retaliation, China banned a top state-owned Sri Lankan bank that had issued a Letter of Credit. By now, it was October 2021, and the fiasco had started causing food shortages and rising prices. Sri Lanka turned to its neighbor India for support.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unique macho diplomacy, India landed two Indian Air Force heavy-lift cargo planes in Colombo with 100 tonnes of nano fertilizers. But by then, the farmers had missed a crucial few rounds of agricultural activities. The government realized its mistakes and lifted the ban on agrochemical fertilizers.
On December 22, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa removed agriculture secretary, Prof Edith Jayasinghe, hours after he warned that the country was fast slipping into a severe food crisis.
In its latest move to handle the crisis, the Rajapaksha brothers, who occupy the president and prime minister positions in the country, have asked India to open a new line of credit even as it helplessly seeks China to ease the debt burden on the island nation. The Sri Lankan government is planning to bring a relief package for the people worth $1 billion, and it has appealed to the world to help the country tackle this crisis.
The Sri Lankan experiment to turn its agriculture completely organic has failed miserably and has pushed its 22 million people into a food crisis that could have easily been avoided by implementing the decision in a phased manner.
It serves as an essential lesson to many of those who champion the cause of organic agriculture. The good thing about organic farming is that the product is healthier.
Organic farming can be an excellent option for those who do it themselves on a small scale. But there is a negative side, too. Organic farming is not scalable, and it leaves behind more carbon footprints. The Sri Lankan examples signifies the fact that a nation is responsible for serving food every day on every plate and it can’t take decisions on agriculture matters without thorough planning.
India, which has recently nudged its farmers to take up natural and zero-budget farming, needs to show more sincerity on the issue. Not that natural farming or zero-budget farming is a bad idea. They aren’t. But it cannot be relied upon to feed 1.4 billion people.
Another important message from Sri Lanka, where the elder brother is the prime minister and the younger brother is the president is that a double-engine government is not necessarily double-intelligent. In the ongoing election environment, when Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand are to elect new governments, the pitch for double-engine government sounds to lack the faith in intelligent decisions arrived at through debates and cross opinions.
Indian politicians must look at the example of how Sri Lanka has lost its way by choosing a double-engine government. Such governments don’t always mean good for the people.
Given the uneducated and poor people who constitute most of the Indian electorate, Indian political debate tends to trivialize serious issues. It manages to entertain the voters than educate them on issues that matter. That alone can hold the promise to lift the people from the backwardness that seems to have become endemic. (IPA Service)