Irrigated dry zone paddy production way ahead of rain-fed wet zone


Sarath Amunugama

Speech delivered by Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama at the Sri Lanka Economic Association Annual Conference held at Centre for Banking Studies at Rajagiriya recently.

The theme of this conference is modernizing agriculture and industry. I thought I should look back on my own experiences and talk about amodernizing agriculture, because today our agriculture is in crisis due to a variety of reasons. Our paddy production is not satisfactory. We had to import rice and the distribution system is far from perfect. So, I would very much like to invite this Association to look in to this matter and make suggestion as to how we can change this situation.

Looking back on my own career, I was one of the Government Agents involved in the Green Revolution where we were able to virtually double the production of paddy within a short time. The main feature of that achievement was consistent and determined policy formulation and enforcement, so that everybody involved in that agricultural program from the Prime Minister down to the farmer were all committed to those activities. A package of new cultural practices was introduced to farmers which revolutionized paddy cultivation. This was followed by the Mahaweli scheme which also expanded agricultural production substantially and also helped in increasing the electricity supply. There was also the attempt to harness the Walawe river in the Chandrika wewa and the Udawalwe and Samanalawewa projects.

Now all these activities were predicated on one idea - that the farmers want an assured supply of water for cultivation. It is very difficult to persuade farmers to make the investment, both of time and effort if the ultimate fate of their crop is not so certain. So right along from the time of independence in Sri Lanka, actually even dating from the State Council era, leaders of this country invested in irrigation so that farmers would be certain of that vital variable in agricultural production.

So the first question I want to ask is that after these long time investments in irrigation and water supply, should we not prioritize our paddy production programs to the reality of the availability of irrigation water? Before the initial colonies in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa etc. were started, only a small fraction of paddy production was through irrigated cultivation. The rest was all dependant on rain water. However, now the equation has changed. I think there is more land irrigated by major schemes, village tanks and so on, so that we can legitimately ask the question - should we not change our policy and concentrate on increasing production in the irrigated areas which basically fall in the dry zone in Sri Lanka? Now if you look at the statistics I think about 30% of our work force is employed to contribute about 9 % of the GDP in agriculture whereas virtually a similar amount in the workforce contributes about 30% of the GDP in industry. If you compare the levels of investment in the rural areas and the output in agriculture, particularly in paddy production, we face a question of productivity and inadequate returns. Are we getting anything like the type of return that we should get? This is the question that we need to urgently ask ourselves - whether we should not concentrate on the irrigated areas and release the other areas, particularly in the wet zone for other types of crops.

When I was Minister of Irrigation I looked at this question together with the Malaysian authorities because they have a system where they have what are called wet zone irrigation methods which are completely different from dry zone agriculture. Research is different, the types of crops that are cultivated are different, assistance is different. In other words they have a much more complex and sophisticated approach to domestic agriculture. This is something that is very necessary. For example if you look at our production statistics per hectare, in the Dry Zone I was told we are not doing so badly. We are second only to Indonesia in production. But if you take it together with very poor production figures in the wet zone (take Kandy district as an example, my own district, it is probably 20-25 bushels per acre, whereas in the dry zone you can get anything up to 80-100 bushels per acre), the national average is not attractive. This situation demands a new approach. The question now arises whether we can’t have an alternative approach to the large investments we are making particularly in irrigation.

The second problem that has arisen is the breaking up of the linkage between major irrigation schemes and what are called minor irrigation schemes, that is, village tanks and larger tanks within the village orbit, partly because of the Provincial Council system. I don’t want to bring up controversial issues relating to devolution, but because of an arrangement whereby the central government looks after the major irrigation schemes, and provincial government looks after minor irrigation the disconnection I referred to earlier has occurred. I think that experiment has not worked well and we are not getting the best out of the present arrangement.

Thirdly, the rules and regulations that exist now prevent the farmer from experimenting. I have personal experience. For example in my electorate we cultivate 60 acres of ginger. When you take Elephant House Ginger Beer you can be assured that the ingredients are coming from my electorate. We have forward contracts. The farmers earn something like 2 – 3 lakhs of rupees a season. They have all invested in tractors. Now we are going in for turmeric and various other crops as well. One of the biggest success stories in the NCP is the cultivation of maize. There is tremendous production, but now the farmers are running into a problem because there is an attempt to control prices to suit the poultry industry. So now we have hit a wall there.

Then another issue which has been highlighted for a long time is the question of the ‘economic unit’. Statistics clearly show that the unit of production particularly in the wet zone, is not really viable. It does not give an adequate return which is linked also the various traditional systems of share cropping and other practices. So a lot of that land is actually lying fallow. We should do a research on what is ostensibly paddy land and how much of it is actually left fallow. I would say in the wet zone easily more than 50% of that land is not cultivated. Governmental warnings that such land will be taken over and so on is not having any effect because there is very little that the owners can do. For example in many of these little blocks of land there are hundreds of owners. So unless something is done to deal with this disfunctional ‘pangu’ or share system we can’t get much benefit out of the land set apart for paddy cultivation in the wet zone.

These are some of the practical aspects that we have to take note of. We have the Paddy Lands Act which was a very forward-looking piece of legislation at that time because it aimed at empowering the actual cultivator as against the absentee land owner. Now what has happened is that those rules are not enforced properly. There is a stalemate between the owner and the tenant cultivator. Very often that cultivator is now out of his earlier social class and does not want to be engaged in agriculture any longer. So this needs to be looked at afresh particularly in terms of the current units of cultivation. There is a lot of research done on this subject. I can remember when I was a student in the university, Dr. Andaraweva, who was a very distinguished economist. who unfortunately died very young, wrote on the economic unit or the size of the paddy land that would yield reasonable returns.

These are some of the many areas that we have to look into and though we know that agriculture makes an increasingly smaller and smaller contribution to GDP we can’t forget the fact that most of the people who are engaged in agriculture are the people who are the least empowered in the sense of education and social status. They are marginalized in their own villages, so that this is a group of people who cannot be ignored though their actual contribution to the GDP may be diminishing.

I would like to ask the SLEA to examine this subject and help us to come out with some drastic changes. We can’t go on like this, because although every loss is attributed to climate change it is also a very convenient way of covering up our defects. Every time we can’t meet our targets, we talk of climate change – it is almost as though we need climate change. So I think we should rely on the economists of your association to go deeper, to look into these matters, and make some important recommendations which I hope the government will implement.

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