Sri Lanka needs a dynamic agricultural development policy

A text of a speech delivered by Prof. Wiswa Warnapala - Minister of Higher Education on the occasion of the inauguration of the National Symposium on Agriculture at the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Ruhuna at Mapalana on 23rd October, 2008.

(November 01, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It was in 1935 that D.S.Senanayake published his book ‘Agriculture and Patriotism’ in which he stated that Sri Lanka was‘ an essentially agricultural country’ and wanted the policy-makers to give priority to the development of agriculture. He saw the development of agriculture as an aspect of patriotism. The acreage under cultivation was estimated to be about one-fifth of the total area of land in the country.

Since this Faculty of Agriculture is in the South of the country, I need to say that there was a southern intellectual –cum-politician who identified and analyzed some of the major issues affecting agricultural development of Sri Lanka; he was Dr. S.A.Wickremasinghe, who published in the fifties, ‘ The Way Ahead’. Dr. S.A.Wickremasinghe, discussing such issues as water and power, soil erosion, fundamentals of scientific agriculture, soil and its fertility, the problem of productivity in agriculture, and flood protection, made a number of suggestions pertaining to the development of agriculture, primarily focusing on irrigation, flood protection and denudation. I mentioned that the land under cultivation in the thirties was estimated to be one fifth of the total land area of the country; the total land area was 16 million acres, and as we know six cash - crops began to dominate the agricultural sector from the latter part of the 19th century. Though the population began to increase during this period, the area under cultivation did not increase; this means that the agricultural land, in relation to the increase in population, has been shrinking over the last fifty years. Therefore, one could identify the major aspects of our agricultural problem, and it is on the identification of the major features that a realistic agricultural development policy could be formulated.

As a social scientist, I would like to look at the Sri Lankan agricultural problem from the point of view of the following aspects - inadequacy of cultivated land, the continued shrinkage in the context of an increasing population, pressure on land, primitive methods of production, absence of capital, fragmentation of land, sub-division of holdings, low productivity and the absence of marketing facilities. In general, there was land hunger in the country, and as English economists of the 19th century stated that population tends to increase beyond the limits of subsistence. In other words, the production of food was not enough to feed the increasing population. All these issues, since the forties, attracted the attention of our policy-makers, who made an attempt to tackle the agricultural problem by a land policy, land alienation and an irrigation restoration policy. No much of an effort was made to deal with the root cause of the problem, which came to be recognized as landlessness, agricultural stagnation and decline in productivity. Main policies, since the famous Land Commission of 1935, were directed towards appeasing the land hunger. In other words, the cultivator was provided with the necessary minimum of land for cultivation, and the idea was to see that he continues to remain in traditional agriculture. There was the need to correct the obsolete forms of tenure and ownership, but the important needs were cheaper credit, better marketing facilities, etc. Such basic ideas guided the agricultural development policy in the post independence period. The policy was to increase agricultural production through colonization schemes and settlement of farmers in different parts of the country. Nobody denies that it served a limited purpose but it did not address the agricultural problem in the country. With the growth of the plantations based on crash crops, the traditional agriculture, which was the life-blood of the peasantry of the country from ancient times, came to be totally neglected, and it was part of the colonial economic strategy. This neglect of the island’s peasantry resulted in the virtual destruction of the traditional agriculture. It was the Kandyan peasantry which experienced the worst and they, because of the expansion of the plantations, were converted into a ‘landless proletariat’, who were dispossessed of their traditional land. This was the result of the British land policy which had a devastating effect on the Kandyan peasantry. This, in the later years, was seen as a major social problem and the Kandyan Peasantry Commission, appointed in the fifties to study the problem, made a number of recommendations for the re-habilitation of the Kandyan peasantry. The most important fact which affected the peasantry was the dispossession of their land and the resulting landlessness. All these factors interfered with the agricultural productivity in the area of traditional agriculture. It was on the basis of the important recommendations of the Kandyan Peasantry Commission that an effort was made to link the re-habilitation of the Kandyan peasantry to an over-all economic development strategy of the country. Instead of doing this, the whole re–habilitation programme was treated as a social welfare programme and economic considerations were ignored, because of which the re-habilitation of Kandyan peasantry as a part of an agricultural development plan came to be neglected. Though measures were taken to address such questions as economic-holdings, the consolidation of holdings and the reform of the land tenure, they were not integrated into an overall agricultural development plan, through which surplus population was to be removed from land. It was during this period that it became clear that the Sri Lanka’s agrarian structure could not support the increasing population.

It was in the period after 1956 that several important agricultural development policies came to be introduced; in other words, it was a break-away from the earlier policy of land settlement in the dry zone, and the need to transform of the agrarian relations in the rural sector and the need to grow more food influenced the shift in the agricultural policy. The Paddy Lands Act of 1958 was introduced with a view to radically altering the agrarian relations in the rural economy of Sri Lanka, and it sought to ensure greater security to the tenant farmer, and secondly it intended to ensure that all paddy land are cultivated. Similarly, the Land Reform Law of 1972 was the next important piece of legislation with which a ceiling was imposed on the ownership of land. An equally important Productivity Law was introduced with a view to enhancing the productivity of agricultural land.

In 1977 the agricultural development policy focused on the accelerated Mahaweli Development Programme. These were landmarks as far as the agricultural policy of the country was concerned, and they, though made a vital contribution to the development of the country, failed to guide the evolution of a dynamic sustainable agricultural policy which could address the issues of poverty as well as the production of enough food for the growing population. Though several policy changes were made in the last several decades, the island’s agricultural sector has failed to produce enough food locally, resulting in the importation of food, which, annually, cost the nation nearly Rs.60 billion.

It was true that Sri Lanka was able to escape the recent world food crisis; it, however, came to be revealed that the food security situation was not at all good. Now the Government, with the avowed enthusiasm of the Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Services, Mr. Maithirpala Sirisena, has launched a massive ‘Grow More Food’ campaign, the aim of which is to encourage people to cultivate every inch of land available, and it is only through such a concerted effort and a dynamic policy that the country can emerge out of a similar crisis in the future. It is in this context that this Symposium becomes important and relevant, and it, above all, gives Universities an opportunity to get involved in the development and planning of agriculture through both advice on public policy and through the production of professionals in the field of agriculture science. Already an institution has been created for this purpose; I refer to the Sri Lanka Council for Agricultural Research Policy, with which academics are involved, and this amply demonstrates the importance we attach to the need for cooperation between the policy- maker and the researcher in the relevant field.

In the past, the Sri Lankan Universities, as centres of learning and research, were not given much of an opportunity to get involved in public policy planning; the strategy of the present Government is to make use of the country’s intellectual community of the Universities to assist in the formulation of relevant public policies. Today an effective partnership between the Government and the Universities has been established, and this is of fundamental importance for both the Universities and the Government as it is through this partnership that research in the Universities could be developed for the betterment of the country. In order to promote high quality research in the Universities, the following characteristics need to be fulfilled by a University. They are as follows:-

1. High quality faculty committed to research and teaching;

2. High quality graduates students who want to learn to perform;

3. An intellectual climate that encourages research and scholarship;

4. Facilities for both research and teaching;

5. Research funding;

6. An effective infra-structure for research;

7. High quality leadership which can motivate both teaching and research.

The proper role of the University in a knowledge economy has become increasingly controversial; this controversy involves both research and teaching while there is consensus on the role of the University in disseminating knowledge through the teaching function; there are disagreements over the manner in which knowledge is generated. The question is whether the relevant knowledge is generated through research. As I mentioned earlier, the need for rapid agricultural development in Sri Lanka is a national need of immediate importance, and it, therefore, needs a set of immediately relevant policies and the initiative for such policies could emanate from the Universities. It is now accepted that research productivity is fundamental in establishing a University as a prominent institution, and the formulation of public policy has also become increasingly dependent on their research productivity.

We in Sri Lanka need to remember one important principle. The solving of local problems through local means must be holistically considered, this is what we need to emphasize; technological knowledge alone is not sufficient. One has to understand the people and the environment, and then only priority-areas could be identified through an understanding of the relevant factors in that specific area. Local problems cannot be solved by solutions imposed from elsewhere, and this is why research needs to be done with a relevance. In the sphere of agricultural policy, policy and system research are essential, and it needs to be conducted by professionally - qualified persons. One type of essential research is that which supports public policy formulation; we know that effective and sustainable policies, specially in the field of agriculture, requires comprehensive and inclusive information. For instance, in the thirties and forties and even in early fifties, agricultural statistical information was lacking and this interfered with policy formulation. Since independence, the country has developed a system for the collection of economic and social statistics and this means that vital data is now readily available.

The knowledge derived from appropriate research is an essential element in national policy formulation; in the era of the knowledge-driven economy, knowledge based public policy formulation is fundamentally important. For instance, in the Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector, the small-holders are a majority, and this applies equally to both the plantation sector and the traditional sector.

According to the Census of Agriculture conducted in 2002, there were about 3.3 million holdings in the category of small-holdings, out of which 1.5 million was enumerated in the category of less than 40 perches in extent. The remaining 1.8 million was found to be more than 40 perches. Small-holdings, basically, are the holdings below 20 acres in extent. Therefore, ours is a growing small-holders economy, which in my view, needs special attention and special policies in order to make them to grow more food or to make use of the holdings more effectively. Suitable technologies are necessary to increase the productivity in the small-holdings, and it is this aspect of our rural economy that needs new policies and strategies. In all the developing countries, agricultural productivity improvement have been linked to investment in Research and Development (R & D), and it was this kind of investment which resulted in faster agricultural growth in the developing countries and it stood at 2.6 percent in 2004.

The developing countries, according to the World Development Report of the World Bank, accounted for an impressive 79 percent overall agricultural growth, and their share of the world agricultural GDP rose from 56 percent in 1980 to 65 percent in 2004. The economic transformation that is now taking place in Asia is primarily due to agricultural growth; it was not due to the expansion of land areas under cultivation but due to the increase in productivity. In the sphere of agriculture, Sri Lanka has the resources and the country, at this stage of her development, needs relevant agricultural development policies and this Symposium, which we are inaugurating today on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Ruhuna, is certain to provide the required advice and guidance to the policy-makers so that Sri Lanka, under this regime led by His Excellency Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, can formulate a dynamic and sustainable agricultural development policy for the economic development of the country.
- Sri Lanka Guardian