National Policy Framework : Incentives for youth to take up agriculture | Sunday Observer

National Policy Framework : Incentives for youth to take up agriculture

The agrarian policy should also take note of the experiences of other countries, which have broken out of the rural underdevelopment mould and transformed into modern agricultural economies. Pic: Lake House Media Library
The agrarian policy should also take note of the experiences of other countries, which have broken out of the rural underdevelopment mould and transformed into modern agricultural economies. Pic: Lake House Media Library

One of the major problems impeding the economic advancement of Sri Lanka is the backwardness of its agriculture, particularly the paddy sector. This has resulted in retarding the growth of an internal market and in a failure to release workers (apart from women, freed by herbicides from their traditional task of weeding) to the labour market.

Underemployment

Low labour productivity has dogged Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector, a few years after the British Occupation became entrenched, following the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms (from which historians, conventionally, date the so-called ‘Modern Era’ of Sri Lanka).

The expropriation of common land under the Crown Lands (Encroachment) Ordinance and the later Wastelands Ordinance, removed from the peasantry their access to a marketable surplus. Their consequent position as subsistence farmers became entrenched when they became enmeshed in debt traps to usurious trader/moneylenders. Despite the Paddy Lands Act and Land Reform, the average holding size remains uneconomic, and farmers do not have the wherewithal to introduce labour-saving technologies.

The dichotomy of rural under-employment combined with a labour shortage is not unique to Sri Lanka. The peculiarities of paddy cultivation cause it to be a problem, even in richer countries such as Thailand, where a lack of land reform has resulted in a shortage of labour for its export-based manufacturing industry.

Policy framework

The newly-elected Government’s National Policy Framework (NPF), the summary of which saw the light of day on December 14, envisages the solution of the agrarian crisis though a mixture of structural changes, welfare measures and technological fixes. It hopes, to make the country self-sufficient in agricultural products.

It has mooted introducing a ‘New National Agricultural Policy’, after an in-depth review of the present policies. One hopes that this will revisit the structure of the subsistence paddy economy.

The measures stated in the NPF suggest modernising agriculture, by introducing environment-friendly farming, economising water use and promoting solar-powered pumps, introducing high tech agriculture, and promoting the cultivation of other food crops.

Incidentally, the NPF reveals one of the major shortcomings in Sri Lanka’s development thinking, by suggesting the import of tax-free solar powered water pumps and solar cells. Why import, when the agricultural sector should be providing a market for locally-manufactured farm machinery? Sri Lanka has a developed pump-manufacturing industry, which could be encouraged to produce solar-powered pumps locally, and manufacturing solar cells is not rocket science any more.

This is especially relevant because the NPF depends on garnering the “energies and capacities of universities, research institutes and private sector” in developing the agricultural sector.

Progressive

One of the more progressive measures the NPF suggests is to expand agriculture production by providing good seed and planting materials, introducing a ‘domestic seeds policy’ to produce international-standard seeds, compulsory certification of imported seeds, and establishing a seeds bank under the Ministry of Agriculture to ensure seed safety. Although the document does not include a policy on genetically modified organisms, no doubt the seeds policy will address this controversial topic.

One may also laud the plan to promote and popularise organic agriculture, by converting traditional farming villages to exclusive organic fertiliser use, developing two million organically-fertilised home gardens, producing bio-fertiliser and organic fertiliser of high standard –using the forests and wetlands – and initiating a proper waste management system. The NPF advocates introducing an internationally acceptable organic product certification system,by improving the Sri Lanka Standards Institute to secure the certification.

One of the major problems faced by consumers is the high level of produce wastage in harvesting, storing and transportation. The NPF seeks to tackle this by combining public and private sectors in a program of action and expanding the role of railways in transporting produce, introducing new rolling stock and improving railway infrastructure.

A major issue facing the sector is the disinterest of the younger generation in cultivating paddy or other crops. The NPF envisages incentivising them by promoting youth agricultural entrepreneurship and providing tariff benefits and low-interest loans for the budding agri-businesspersons.

Farmers’ problems

The truly progressive side of the NPF’s agricultural policy comes out where it does take on the problems faced by the farmers.

A key issue they face is uncertainty, in the face of the vagaries of the climate (exacerbated by global warming) and of cycles of shortage and glut. The NPF seeks to mitigate these uncertainties by introducing a new, attractive insurance scheme as well as a new crop insurance scheme.

The proposal to re-establish the pension scheme for farmers would, of course, remove the uncertainty over the income that farmers have in their retirement.

Given the small size of the average paddy land holding, land productivity has crucial importance for paddy farmers. The NPF deals with this issue as well, by introducing a methodology to bring lands to productive uses as well as an integrated soil fertility management system. It also envisages introducing an Agriculture Crop Management System, which would optimise output.

It also proposes a revolution in the use of Fertiliser, by replacing the existing fertiliser subsidy scheme with an alternative system, providing both inorganic and organic fertiliser free of charge to farmers. Costs will presumably be reduced through its proposal to initiate a programme to produce all essential fertilisers domestically.

The real bite of the NFP, as far as agriculture is concerned, is nestled unobtrusively in various locations throughout the text.Breaking the mould

The crucial issue confronting Sri Lanka’s agrarian sector, both paddy and other crops, lies in the structure of subsistence farming. Farmers are enmeshed in debt, often to buyers of their produce, and are subject to the stranglehold of middlemen.

The NPF seeks to deal with the problem of usury, by introducing a simple, low-interest agricultural credit scheme for farmers. This would have the advantage for the government of bringing part of the black economy into the white, by eliminating agrarian ‘gini poli’ (usurious interest, getting its name from the defunct British ‘guinea’ currency – interest being a shilling on a pound, or a guinea return for a pound loan, 5%).

The proposal to promote a pre-contracts system along value chains would also benefit farmers. Prices would be stabilised by a combination of controlling import of agricultural products, setting up different guaranteed prices for a kilogram of different varieties of paddy, and expanding the role of the Paddy Marketing Board to purchase paddy without delay.

It also intends promoting co-operative farms at regional level. The country gained considerable experience in farming co-operatives during the 1970s, with a unique system of farmers holding their land, but pooling all their other resources. In developing the new agrarian policy, the government should take note of such experiences.

The agrarian policy should also take note of the experiences of other countries, which have broken out of the rural underdevelopment mould and transformed into modern agricultural economies.

It should observe, particularly countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan (Chinese Taipei) advanced their agriculture through land reform (the maximum holding being 1-4 ha, compared to 10 ha in Sri Lanka), mechanisation and outsourcing of industrial manufacture to farmers (enabling them to use their leisure hours for income generation).

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