Whither the Department of Agriculture?

Open letter to Minister of Agriculture Mahinda Yapa Abeywardane

You will recall that at the behest of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a five member team of experts reviewed the research and development (R & D) activities of the DOA under the aegis of the National Research Council. I was the Team Leader of this mission. The preparation of the report, which was quite comprehensive, took over six months and it contained over 25 recommendations relating to research and research management, extension, recruitments, promotions, training and other aspects of human resource development, and institutional reforms. The report was presented to you and the Secretary to the President in the presence of the then Secretary to your Ministry and senior officials of the Ministry and the DOA inclusive of the then Director General. The recommendations in the report were discussed in detail, and it was agreed to implement them in full. The Secretary to the President, in fact, went to the extent of emphatically asking your then Secretary to do the needful, and report progress to him within three months. It is very sad that over two years have elapsed, and except for just one recommendation, that of appointing three Additional Directors-General, no other recommendation has yet been implemented.

You will also recall that many months back at your request and that of your present Ministry Secretary, we discussed this matter on two occasions and you asked me to help prepare a cabinet paper for seeking its approval to appoint the Advisory Board, a recommendation in the Report, to assist the Director General of Agriculture in implementing the Report and in other R & D matters. I did take the trouble of preparing that paper which was given to your Secretary. Later on, when I enquired from him about progress, he indicated to me that the matter was dropped due to objections from the DOA management. Surely, am I to believe that objection from the DOA management stultified implementation of a report prepared on a directive of the head of state, and one which the Secretary to the President asked to be implemented?

I am thoroughly disappointed about this matter as the Leader of the mission which ‘burnt a lot of midnight oil’ on the task, let alone the waste of resources provided by NRC.

Furthermore, because of my abiding interest in the agriculture of this country, and more specifically agricultural R & D, I want to bring to your kind attention, two other short sighted decisions, in my view, that have been made by the Ministry recently, and I am dismayed that you have allowed them to go through. They are:

1. The transfer 25 of the qualified senior officers of the DOA to the District Secretariats; and

2. The splitting of the Horticultural Research and Development Institute into two institutions, one for fruits and the other for vegetables.

Transfer of 25 officers

You are aware that DOA is highly depleted of qualified and experienced staff because of past serious lapses in training and succession planning. I am aware that, for example, ten years ago there were, at least 5 PhD-level rice breeders. There is now just one such trained breeder and he too, I am told, is due to retire soon! I need not tell you that it is the research more than any other single factor that has made the country self sufficient in rice, pushing yields from 1.6 MT/hectare in the 1960s to 4.5 MT/hectare today. The qualified staff situation is as desperate in several other DOA institutes such as the Field Crops Research and Development Institute. . At the rate of trained and experienced staff depletion in the DOA, the country will soon have nowhere near the critical mass of scientists needed to meet the challenges of food security and climate change! In this scenario, is it a wise decision to transfer scientists out to the districts on the pretext of improving technology transfer in the periphery? Surely, that is the mandate of the Provincial extension system. I am told that nearly all these transferees are ‘vegetating’ in the district secretariats, some being used by the District Secretaries to take down notes at meetings! An anecdote goes that one such officer who complained to the District Secretary that he has no work, had apparently been asked to develop the garden of the secretariat for the time being! It is said that allocations are to be made from the 2013 budget directly to the district secretariats for agricultural activities to be conducted by these officers. Would not there be then duplication of activities and clashes with the provincial programmes?

Splitting of the Horticultural Research and Development Institute(HORDI)

I was informed by several senior officers of DOA, that this highly irrational decision initiated by the Ministry against the objections of the DOA management, to have two institutes one for vegetables and the other for fruits, was because ‘some officers are not working’ ! Surely, that is not the ‘remedy for the sickness’! . Whatever the issue is, in this desperate situation of the dearth of qualified officers, and where many are doing research on both fruits and vegetables, this split will cause serious lacunae in many fields in the two institutes. It is also said that plans are underway to split the DOA research farms between fruits and vegetables. These decisions to me are akin to splitting a man into two and asking the two halves to do separate jobs! Further, a main recommendation in the Review Report was to right size many institutes to utilise the available limited resources, particularly the qualified staff, more effectively and to avoid duplication. In this regard, it was recommended that the Horticultural Research and Development Centre at Horana, where the crop portfolio and R & D activities are nearly the same as those at HORDI, Peradeniya, be down- sized to an outreach R & D unit, transferring the bulk of the staff to HORDI to strengthen it. Ironically, the opposite has been done! It has now been elevated to the level of an Institute – "The Fruit Crops R & D Institute"!

Both these decisions that have been made overlooking the objections of the DOA management, without doubt, will have very serious negative repercussions, and I urge you to reconsider them. Perhaps you should refer the two matters to an independent panel of experts in the field for their views and act accordingly.

I trust you will take my observations in the right spirit. Permit me to copy this letter to the President for redress, and also to bring it up for public debate through the media.

Dr. U. P. de S. Waidyanatha

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