By Lankathilaka

In August 2021, the government allocated 3.8 billion rupees to buy organic fertiliser from local producers to pursue its ambition to transition from the use of synthetic to organic fertiliser.  

The return on the investment could be far from commensurate because of the government’s repeated backtracking on its decision to ban the use of synthetic fertiliser for the switch to happen. It has now come full circle and the ambition to go organic is fading away fast. Plans are underway to import weedicides and fungicides which were also banned, on a licence. This will do away with the need for a gazette to be issued to revoke the ban. It could take about three months for the chemicals to arrive in the country and until then the fate of crops will be hanging in the balance. In yet another recent turn around the government said it will import 30, 000 metric tons of sulphate of ammonia for the tea industry. It has already started airlifting thousands of liters of nanonitrogen from India to use in paddy cultivation for the current maha season. The total quantity of nano nitrogen which has been ordered is 3. 1 million liters. Both sulphate of ammonia and nano nitrogen are synthetic fertilisers. Sulphate of ammonia has been used in Sri Lanka in the past but the nano nitrogen from India is a new product that went into mass production as recently as May this year. Very little is known about how its properties can impact on human safety. It is unclear if the government has carried out tests on it because there has been no clear statement from it so far about the product.

Talking on a TV program last week ProfessorAruna Kumara, who is a specialist in crop science at the Ruhuna University, explained how nano nitrogen which is made up of small particles could enter the body through the eyes and ears and get absorbed by the skin. Because its application involves spraying it on the leaf of the plant, there is room for it to escape and remain in the atmosphere. The question is whether it has the potential to become toxic.

This is the first time that farmers in Sri Lanka will be working with nano nitrogen and whether they have been given the necessary training and provided appropriate safety gear to wear during its application are also questions which need answers. The use of nano nitrogen itself is a catch 22 situation. For it to be applied on the leaf, the plant has to have leaves which in turn will grow only if the soil has nutrients.  The function of the nano nitrogen is to provide the nitrogen which the plant needs.  

In addition to human safety, according to Professor Aruna the product has not been tested in India about its suitability for use in paddy cultivation even though it is going to be used inSri Lanka this maha season. It is a crucial period for the country’s food security because 800, 000 hectares of paddy are sown during this season to produce 65 percent of the country’s rice needs.

The decision to import nano nitrogen from India has been a desperate measure on the part of the government which is caught between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand the government has to placate farmer agitation which has been growing by the day.  What started out as small pockets of localized protests have now grown into mass demonstrations of effigy burning as farmers cry out for fertiliser to till their land.

Another thorn in the government’s side is an initial quantity of around 20, 000 metric tons of organic fertiliser which was imported from China and failed quality testing carried out by one of the country’s watchdogs, the National Plant Quarantine Service (NPQS), after it was found to be contaminated with crop destroying bacteria such as Erwinia. In a letter he wrote to the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), the Director General of the Agriculture Department said the shipment of fertiliser is a phytosanitoryrisk and a biosecurity threat. The SLPA is under pressure from agriculturists and environmentalists not to allow the ship which was initially identified as Hippo Spirit but then changed to Seiya Explorer, to berth anywhere in the Colombo port. The Centre for Environmental Justice, a group which works actively to enforce the law for environmental justice, has taken a court order to prevent it from happening but also to stop the import of organic fertiliser into the country because it is a violation of the Plant Protection Act. No 35 of 1999. In what is most likely an attempt to navigate these roadblocks, in addition to changing the name the ship has been turning its Automatic Identification System (AIS) on and off which runs contrary to maritime regulations. The AIS was introduced as a security measure to keep track of ships after the 9 / 11 attacks in the USA.

What was initially a commercial transaction has now snowballed into a diplomatic spat which has soured age old ties between the two countries after the Chinese embassy got involved to negotiate a settlement to the disputed fertiliser shipment. The embassy went as far as blacklisting the Peoples Bank where a Letter of Credit had been opened to pay for the fertiliser. The payment is currently being held in abeyance after the Ceylon Fertiliser Company got an order from the commercial high courtpreventing the LC from being encashed. Reliable sources said that negotiations are taking place between the Chinese embassy and the government to resolve the continuing crisiswhich is likely to end with Sri Lanka paying around $ 9 million for the shipment of fertiliserwhich in the end will be dumped in the sea. The question that will have to be answered by the government is how the fertiliser was shipped without the greenlight of the NPQS.

Ironically, intertwined indelibly with Sri Lanka’s fertilser fate are her two geo strategic allies China and India. It has been customary for Sri Lanka to play both China and India, which is also viewed as a proxy for the USA. This is a public secret. In recent months, China has been Sri Lanka’s preferred flavour. From vaccine diplomacy, currency swaps and bailouts and investment in the Colombo Port City, it is to China’s bosom that Sri Lanka has been cosyingup. China in return has nurtured Sri Lanka, the jewel in her South Asian crown, while Indiawaited in the sidelines.

September was a catalyst for a kick start to Indo -Lanka relations to mend old hurts. In early October foreign secretary Harsh VardhanShringla came on a four day visit for what was officially claimed to be for a review of bilateral relations. Unofficially, it was seen as a move to get Sri Lanka to distance herself from China against whom India’s allies in AUKUS are making war preparations. On the heels of his visit was that of India’s army chief General Naravane to boost defence ties and later the arrival of a flotilla of Indian navy vessels for naval exercises. The visit of Indian business magnate Gautam Adani was to seal the deal to manage the Colombo Port’s West Container Terminal which had been left in the cold for months. India even stretched her diplomatic courtesies for PM Modi to meet with NamalRajapakse, a junior minister in the Rajapakse government, after the inauguration of the Kushinagar International Airport.

The time was also opportune for Sri Lanka to reach out to India for help with the gnawing fertiliser issue. The government approached the Indian High Commission for assistance to procure fertiliser and the High Commission reciprocated by facilitating contacts withfertiliser suppliers in India. The Indian Farmers Fertiliser Company Ltd (IFFCL) was chosen to supply the 3 million liters of nano nitrogen and the local facilitator was United Farmers Trust Ltd (UFTL), which describes itself as an organization established to ensure food safety and farmers welfare in Sri Lanka. UFTL has five shareholders, one of which is the Sri Lanka India Trade and Investment Promotion Chamber which issued a press statement following local media reports that some of the money for thepurchase of the nano nitrogen had been paid into an account belonging to UFT instead of that of IFFCL. Among the contents of this statement was the claim that the Chamber had offered $200 million credit terms to Sri Lanka through the Indian High Commission with no interest for two years for future purchases. The Indian High Commission was unavailable to clarify this claim.

The government’s experiment to convert from the use of synthetic to organic fertiliser will be a costly one, the objectives of which will elude it most certainly in the short term. The government has already started importing synthetic fertiliser to use in paddy cultivation this maha season and also for the tea industry.  Sceptics point out that making the transition even in the long term will be nothing but a pipe dream.

Meanwhile, the government’s recent decision toreduce the tax on rice to 25 cents and lift price controls on 17 essential food items including lentils, sugar, potatoes, dried fish, green gram, chicken, milk powder, maize and coconuts will be one way of ensuring there will be no food shortages following the fertiliser fiasco as predicted by agriculture experts. At the same time, for a government which has now become notorious for its cronyism, it will open the floodgates for unrestrained food imports.




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