There is need and urgency to revive the farm sector

Sathiya Moorthy

Chennai 5 January 2024 

The Sri Lankan government’s New Year decision to generate a policy framework for ensuring a larger role for the farm sector for building a developed nation by 2048 should be welcomed for more reasons than one. However, 2048 is too distant a time for achieving whatever goals that may be set for reviving the farm sector as the delay could also contribute to further deterioration of the nation’s economy and society.

First and foremost, Sri Lanka is an agrarian economy since time immemorial. It continues to remain so. President J R Jayewardene’s policies based on western market capitalism has not achieved the desired results, and sadly so. All that it has done is to kill the agriculture sector.  The clock has to be set back and then the policy should help take the nation forward in that direction. 

Promoting the farm sector means that the nation can cut down on food imports and thus save on huge forex outflows, month after month, year after year. Unlike other sectors barring oil imports, food imports cannot be stopped unless domestic production picks up quick and fast. If enough is produced locally to meet domestic demand, and there is surplus to export, Sri Lanka can also generate additional forex. 

Tea still, coconut and rubber earlier are prime examples. Today, all three products require revival at the earliest and better quality-control, pricing and marketing technology. This is not to rule out further financial and technical inputs for increasing and improving their production. In the absence of them, the latter two products have suffered badly and tea has been languishing despite the world pepping up Sri Lanka as the supplier of a high quality brew.

National shame

It is sad that ahead of the Christmas-New Year celebrations this time, people were relieved when the Cabinet decided to import one-million eggs immediately and follow it up with another 1.5 million.  Around the time, there were also reports of the government importing 50,000 tonnes of rice. Opposition criticism or constructive suggestions from economists centred on their claims that the variety did not attract local palates, and not about the national shame of the need for importing basic food and nutrient needs like rice and eggs full seven decades after Independence. 

Credit for such a dismal situation should go almost entirely to JRJ, whose economic policy killed the farm sector at one go. It’s true of associated sectors like dairy, poultry and horticulture. Today, the country imports not only rice  but even vegetables and fruits, and of course, dairy products, not to leave out poultry products like eggs. 

It is a further shame that urban Colombo woke up to the 2022 economic crisis (only) when milk cartons, cheese and bread began vanishing from store shelves, followed of course by fuel. Yes, they returned home from the ‘GoGotaGama’ Aragalayaprotest site on the capital’s Galle Face Green when their immediate demand for a change of government leadership was met, however half-way it was. 

Almost all of them educated elite, who pat themselves on the back as being among the best of minds not only in the country but in the whole of South Asia, bothered about the day after.  They were satisfied when those missing bread packets, cheese and milk cartons were back in their refrigerators.  

Less said about the policy-makers and the political administration the better. Their entire past one-plus year, post-crisis, post-Aragalaya has been spent on obtaining IMF loan and placating China, the largest creditor, to agree to reschedule its loans to the country. The political Opposition is quiet on the larger issues and has picked up individual issues independently to criticise the government in a long run-up to the presidential polls later this year, with the parliamentary elections offered alongside for effect.  

Elementary, yet…

It has thus been left again to the government to revert at least part focus on the farm sector.  Grant the government the benefit of doubt that he was engaged first with immediate issues on hand, starting with stabilising the economy from further deterioration, and then work towards the future, with the fond hope that the IMF could take the country to where President Wickremesinghewants by 2048. 

Reviving agriculture (alone) can lead to self-reliance at least in one sector, namely, food production, hence dollar-saving from import-substitution, and later through possible exports, of value-added farm products like fruit pulp, etc.  A real effort in this direction has to cover not only rice and kurukan but also vegetables and fruits, dairy and poultry products, too – and of course, rubber, coconut and tea, among other cash crops. All this would require coordinated planning for the short, medium and long terms.   

It should include such inputs as irrigation and fertiliser, both of which have issues of their own. Annual floods-mitigations plans for the short, medium and long-term plans are not in place even now. This in turn drives farmers, big and small, out of the farms.  Nor is there any systematic support for the farming community during drought years, which too is not infrequent. 

For the country to achieve self-sufficiency in food, it has to reach self-sufficiency early on in inputs like seeds and fertiliser. President GotabayaRajapaksa’s decision to stop the import of chemical fertiliser with immediate effect and replace it with organic fertiliser imported from China was flawed for more than one reason. 

The basic flaw was about the overnight ban of imports, not only of chemical fertiliser but also of such basic items like turmeric without notice. Turmeric is on everyone’s dining table for every meal in every Sri Lankan home, rich or poor, cutting across ethnicity. 

For a mindless government to ban its imports with the hope and promise of helping domestic farmers produce more overnight was quixotic, to say the least.  But such has also been the approach of successive governments when it comes to managing the economy and promoting the farm sector, though distanced by a measure.

White elephant projects

There is also another issue that needs to be addressed if the farm sector has to show results, now or later. This is so even if these is adequate governmental enthusiasm and inputs starting with investments, especially in allied sectors like setting up (more) seed labs, fertiliser units and procuring milch cows if the country’s cattle-heads are found wanting in that department. 

The perceived inadequacy in motivating the nation’s youth in returning to the farm sector as a means of honourable and equally paying livelihood. The country’s continued focus on the education sector over the past seven decades has created generations of youth with basic school-leaving certificates, be it of the O-Level or A-Level.  As if by a conspiracy of the urban elite, the gates of higher education were kept deliberately narrow for rural students, especially, though there has been some improvement in the 21st century. 

Yet, white-collar jobs are still hard to come by in required numbers. The pride that individuals and families invested in education, starting with the early Tamil employees’ families of the erstwhile British rulers, meant that the unpredictable farm sector was not the right path to choose for livelihood. 

Gota did it right when in his government’s last budget, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was also the finance minister, allocated huge funds for skills-education. It again did not fructify then or since. Unlike the import-bans, this could have waited for a couple of years to fruition, yet owing to the economic crisis and regime-change, this too has not taken off. 

Mechanising the farm sector, wherever needed (and not possible) and creating jobs in allied sectors like fertiliser units (whether organic, chemical or both) may be one place to begin. But there has to be evidence that the farm sector, with or without technical education, is a paying proposition. Maybe, the government can consider introducing farming as a part of technical education in the country’s ‘colleges’, or have separate farming courses for school-leavers with field training and more from O-Level on, if not earlier. 

One of the major reasons for the economic problems arose from China-funded ‘white elephant projects’ and the attended debts that were massive, whether they qualified as a debt-trap in the conventional sense of the term.  As much as the physical debt, if not more, China-funded projects kept denying  jobs to Sri Lankan youth as all of them went to China and China alone. This included on-site employment, too.  

This in turn hit family incomes on the one hand and government revenues on the other. When push came to the shove, the economy collapsed though this was not the only cause for the national crisis. However, it certainly was among the major reasons why individuals and families ran out of cash and bank balances too quickly even before they could reconcile to the fact of the impending crisis. 

Love for labour

Farm sector is a relatively low option for families, especially in the large rural sector, to revive an individual’s economy first and contribute to the national revival even more, in later stages. If the government and the society as a whole can revive the lost love and respect for labour that is not white-collared or even blue-collared in the traditional sense, it can help. But like with the bigger industry sector, there can be no output without input. 

All of this means that the government panel studying resurrection and rejuvenation of the agriculture sector has to take all facts and factors into account without over-simplifying them into a straight-jacket mode. Such a course will be disaster-in-waiting, from which there will be no escape for the nation and the people.

(The writer is a Policy Analyst & Political Commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: