Agriculture: A dynamic force of prosperity, wellbeing and reconciliation in North


By Professor Ranjith Senaratne

Senior Professor of Crop Science, University of Ruhuna and Vice Chairman, University Grants Commission


The Northern province comprising five districts, namely Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Mannar accounts for 13.54 % (8,884 km2) of land area and 5.2 % (1,058,762) of the population of the country. Agriculture is the mainstay of the people in the region where around 60% of the people are engaged in farming and related activities, and 45% of the labour force directly depends on agriculture. The Jaffna farmer is known for his industriousness and diligence; thus prior to the onset of the ethnic conflict in early 80’s, Jaffna contributed to around 12% of food production in the country. For instance, it accounted for around 75%, 30%, 30% and 15%, respectively, of the production red onions, chillies, grain legumes and rice in the country. The Northern Province practices both rain-fed as well as irrigated agriculture. It is endowed with 11 major and 54 minor tanks linked to a fairly well distributed irrigation canal system feeding over 40,000 ha of agricultural land.

However, as a result of the protracted internecine conflict, the performance of all the sectors of the Northern economy including agriculture was drastically affected. Concomitant with it was the loss of livelihood and means of sustenance of millions of people living in the North. Therefore in rebuilding and resuscitating the Northern region, it is imperative to revitalize the sector of agriculture in order to restore and improve the livelihoods and socio-economic standards of those engaged in farming in particular and the regional growth and development in general.

Consequent to the poor performance of agriculture sector in the North, the government had to sustain a heavy bill for the import of commodities such as onions, chillies, potato, groundnut and black gram. The import bill for the said items currently exceeds US$ 250 million or Rs. 33 billion annually. In addition, a large sum of money is spent for the import of fruits such as grapes, oranges, pomegranate etc., which can be successfully grown in the North.

Therefore, it is of utmost importance to take the necessary steps to augment production and improve the processing and marketing of the said field and fruit crops that will not only help reduce the drain of valuable foreign exchange from the country, but also divert a substantial proportion of that US$ 250 million to the Northern region triggering and promoting its development and wellbeing of its people. Besides such a situation will facilitate and foster the process of reconciliation which is another high priority need of the hour.

Therefore it is imperative to chalk out strategies to make the most of the opportunities and possibilities available while dealing with the issues and challenges encountered in the realm of agriculture. Here the focus will be only on crop production though, broadly speaking, agriculture embraces animal husbandry and fisheries/aquaculture as well.

Issues and Challenges

The agriculture sector in the North encounters manifold issues and challenges particularly due to the protracted conflict. Though the situation has progressively improved over the past few years due to interventions by the Government, the following aspects need to be addressed:

1. Lack of improved varieties and inadequacy of seed and planting material

2. Non-adoption of new agro-technology

3. Heavy postharvest losses

4. Lack of value addition and new product development

5. Poor market access

6. Lack of institutional support

7. Lack of storage and processing facilities

8. Lack of forward and backward linkages

9. Neglected and damaged irrigation tanks and canals and resultant heavy water losses

10. Poor in-service training facilities and extension services

Opportunities and Strengths:

The government had accorded top priority to the development of the North and the East. Construction of the A-9 Road at a cost of Rs 19,125 million and the restoration of the northern railway line after 24 years at a cost of 8 billion are just two telling examples. Moreover, the main roads in the northern province are being rehabilitated and widened at a cost exceeding Rs 60 billion and 234 Grama Sevaka Niladari Divisions (GNDs) in the Northern province will be connected by developing "missing links" - a road network facilitating rural centric development.

Besides, the harbours in Kankesanturai and Point Pedro will be developed as commercial ports. The improved physical connectivity by road and railway augmented by sea and air by means of the airport at Palali and the seaports of Kankesanturai and Point Pedro, coupled with e-connectivity via an island-wide modern and sophisticated telecommunication network provides a sound infrastructure base for launching development initiatives.

University of Jaffna – Centre of regional development through knowledge connectivity

Jaffna had been a Mecca of culture and scholarship as well as a cradle of intellectuals, scholars, scientists and professionals who have made immense contribution to the national development. Restoration of its grandeur and glory is the need of the hour and the University of Jaffna being the intellectual pulse and brain trust in the region has a pivotal role to play in this regard.

The Government has provided a sum exceeding Rs. 1000 million over the past 3 years for the enhancement of academic programmes and improvement of infrastructure facilities of the University of Jaffna and another 4 projects valued at Rs 675 million are in the pipeline. In addition a sum of Rs. 80 million has been provided to University of Jaffna in 2013 over and above the regular allocation to enhance its academic stature and research profile. Moreover the Indian Government will fund the establishment of the Faculty of Agriculture and the Faculty of Engineering at KIlinochchi at a cost of around Rs. 390 million and Rs. 2430 million, respectively. These will make the University of Jaffna with 8 faculties, namely Agriculture, Arts, Applied Sciences, Business Studies, Engineering, Management Studies and Commerce, Medicine and Science with 326 academicians including over 29 professors and 78 PhD holders, a formidable, catalytic force of regional development. The universities, being centres of knowledge creation and dissemination, will provide the knowledge connectivity, a key element for developing a knowledge economy

The Faculty of Agriculture, University of Jaffna had been functioning in Jaffna amidst limited facilities and physical constraints for its growth and expansion. Having recognized the role and importance of the Faculty of Agriculture could play in the regional development, President Mahinda Rajapaksa made available a block of land (400 acre/162 ha) with some partially constructed buildings at Ariviyal, Nagar, Kilinochchi for the re-location of the Faculty of Agriculture. It was shifted to the new location late last year, providing space for its growth while responding to regional needs.

This faculty is currently in the process of enhancing its academic, research and out-reach programmes through capacity building. It has a dedicated and dynamic academic staff with over 200 students. Northern agriculture which has lagged behind for three decades owing to the conflict shows great promise now. It poses to the staff and students a wide range of issues as well as opportunities for constructive engagement with the farming community of the North. Therefore the Faculty of Agriculture through mobilizing and channelling its intellectual and infrastructural resources could become a true and effective partner in the development of the region.

The Northern Province has another unique advantage as it is blessed with a very able, amiable, mature and wise Chief Minister, Justice C.V. Wigneswaran, who is at the helm of its affairs. He has a highly professional approach to development with broad perspectives. He has an open mind and is receptive to novel ideas and proposals for regional development. That has made it very easy for the academia to work with him in a mutually rewarding and reinforcing manner for regional development.

Prospects and opportunities in agriculture Fields crops such as chillies, red onion, Bombay onion, black gram, groundnut and sesame can be successfully cultivated in a commercial scale in the North for the import of which Sri Lanka currently spends over US$ 300 million annually. In addition, fruit orchards with compatible crop combinations can be established as multiple cropping systems backed by the requisite storage and processing facilities and marketing strategies. Horticultural crops such as mango, banana, grapes, orange, pineapple, pomegranate, cashew and wood apple hold promise in this regard. Introduction or development of new varieties, i.e. in grapes, pomegranate etc. with market demand proves important.

Moreover, crops as nellie, palmyrah, drumsticks and tamarind which are relished particularly by the people in the North may be promoted through value addition and new product development, i.e. canning of palmyrah toddy and packaging palmyrah jaggery in a more appealing manner by covering with a tinfoil and a wrapper like the way chocolate is marketed and canning drumstick so that they will have a niche market overseas. Given the Sri Lankan expatriate population exceeding 1.2 million and a comparable number of expatriates from Tamil Nadu, there will be a steady and lucrative market, bringing in a good income to the North.

Another such area is floriculture, which has a growing demand at home and abroad. In view of the flourishing tourism industry, new emphasis on town planning and urban development, and increase of the living standards of people, there is a steady demand for flowers and floral products. In addition, flowers are closely associated with the Hindu culture and are used widely and frequently in religious and cultural activities. Moreover, floriculture can be an appealing means of income and a source of respite and mental solace to those who have been rendered widows following the ethnic conflict. There are more than 40,000 widows in the Northern Province and floriculture could help them start a new life. Moreover, under "Divi Neguma" assistance is provided to establish home gardens. When rain water harvesting is established in each household, it can support home gardening almost year round, adding to the household income and nutritional security. Besides, it can be another diversion for the widows.

However for the above initiatives to be successful, all the key institutions in the public and private sector ought to work in concert, ensuring an integrated supply chain. Among the public sector institutions, the Provincial Council, Department of Agriculture, Department of Irrigation, Palmyrah Board, Department of National Botanic Gardens, Banks, In-service Training Institute, District Secretariats etc. assume considerable importance. While mobilizing the support of the public sector institutions, the University of Jaffna needs to forge a strategic partnership with the Chambers of Commerce and the industry. To this end, private sector institutions such Hayleys, CIC, Lankem, Aitken-Spence and such like should be encouraged and promoted to invest not only in the production, but also in processing, value addition, new product development and marketing.

The UGC is endeavouring to obtain the services of a Senior Fulbright Fellow from the USA to the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Jaffna to link it with renowned foreign universities so as to promote research, agri-business and agro-based innovations for the regional development. Besides, it will promote and support link programmes between the universities in the North and South providing for exchange of staff and students, collaborative research and joint supervision of postgraduate students. Such linkages will enhance the academic and research programmes in agriculture and allied fields at the University of Jaffna while promoting academic excellence and high impact research.

Concluding remarks

With the return of peace and stability to the country and establishment of key infrastructure facilities, the North is progressively returning to normalcy restoring its grandeur. The youth who were denied of space and opportunity for personal and professional development are looking to avenues for growth. In this regard, the agriculture sector can offer many opportunities not only for the youth to be gainful employment, but also for regional growth and development. The University of Jaffna with a Campus in Vavuniya constitutes the brain trust and intellectual pulse of the region. The Faculty of Agriculture re-located at Kilinochchi will be able to play a pivotal role in providing strategic leadership, direction and guidance to draw up and implement a high impact agriculture development plan jointly with the Northern Provincial Council. It can also promote and encourage the engagement of the private sector in agricultural development in the region.

Augmentation of the production of field, fruit and floricultural crops through improved varieties and agro-technology and reduced post-harvest losses coupled with value addition, new product development and effective marketing will make agriculture a robust industry. It will bring in a great deal of income and investment to the Northern region raising the socio-economic standard of those engaged in agriculture and allied fields who account for over 60% of the population in the region. That will herald a new economic era promoting human wellbeing and reconciliation.

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