The government clamped down on dissent as protests erupted in Colombo and other parts of the country over the fuel price hike which has seen the cost of living sky rocket, and the ban on chemical fertilizer imports which is crippling the agriculture sector. Protestors travelled in a motorcade around Colombo with members of the National Peoples Power (NPP) which has said it will give leadership to the people during their struggle. On Friday, the NPPs female wing vocalized their hardships in a protest. They pointed out how a tea bun and a ballpoint pen, consumer items popular with schoolchildren, had each gone up in price by five rupees. The government, they said, had precipitated a situation which had made them come onto the streets. On Friday in Kulipyapitiya, the protests came close to the electoral seat of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse. Members of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, NPP and the UnitedNational Party stood in solidarity with angry protestors and all denominations of the clergy against a move to relocate a medical unit from the Kuliyapitiya teaching hospital to Kurunegala, the Prime Minister’s parliamentary seat.    

Earlier in the week, a photo of an elderly woman being pulled in different directions by a group of police officers in what clearly was a disproportionate use of force, went viral on social media and other platforms. She andeducation sector trade unionists were protesting about the General John Kotelawala Defence University Bill which was to be taken up in Parliament last week for a vote.  Shelved by the previous government in the face of widespread opposition to it, what the Bill proposes will result in a parallel higher education network with a heavy military influence and will undermine the status of the University Grants Commission which currently administers the country’s 16 state universities. The Bill paves the way for the Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) which is a fee levying establishmentunder the Ministry of Defence to have a powerful Board of Governors, most of whomwill be from the military including the commanders of the tri forces.  It will have the power to determine entry qualifications of students and academic and non- academic staff, affiliations with other universities to award degrees and take measures to safeguard national security.  The Bill bans student unions.  In addition to generating a climate of fear in higher education establishments and the suppression of independent voices, the Bill can result in degrees being bought and not necessarily earned for academic performance.  While the vote on the Bill was deferred following the protests, a number of protestors including the General Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union Joseph Stalin and 15 others were forcibly sent to a quarantine centre in Mullaitivu.  It triggered a reaction by school teacher unions which withdrew from conducting online classes.

The popular sentiment among protestors and others is that the government is abusing the quarantine regulations to quell dissent. Opposition political parties have said they will petition the Supreme Court to challenge the legality of the provisions of the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordnance under which the arrests are being made.  Last week, more than 350 parliamentarians from the opposition and the public protested at Independence Square in the heart of Colombo about the government’s repressive use of the quarantine regulatory framework.

What will bond protestors in the days to come, is their vow to continue with the protests until the people get some relief from their everyday struggles.



The ban on chemical fertilizer imports which was gazetted earlier in the year and has become a protracted issue continues to meander with no tangible solution in sight. What has now become obvious is the evident loss of face for the government if it is to backtrack on its decision. As one observer quipped, it is easier to count the number of gazette notifications the government has not revoked.  Resetting the clock again will not be an easy one although prudence dictates that it should be done, and fast. Agriculture sector specialists predict food shortages, price hikes and loss of livelihoods. In the fruit and vegetable export sector alone between 8, 000 to 10, 000 job losses are anticipated, discounting the impact on the wider community.  According to industry insiders, although there has been talk of lifting the ban partially to allow the import of fertilizer for floriculture, nothing concrete has happened. Speaking to the media soon after his release on bail from prison for purportedly violating quarantine regulations by taking part in afarmers protest, Saman Vidyaratne of the NPP fired the first salvo at the government. Give the farmers fertilizer, any fertilizer, organic or chemical’. While the government vacillates without taking a decisive step, commercial and other crop growers are in limbo.  They have sounded the alarm about the availability of fertilizer after the current stock, which is around 105 metric tons, runs out. Tea plantation smallholders are complaining about the tea leaf on tea bushes turning yellow without nitrogen, a key nutrient for the plant to grow, and which it gets from the urea in  fertilizer.

Despite the government announcement banning fertilizer imports, on the 9th of July a quantity of 10, 000 metric tons of fertilizer was reportedly imported from Indonesia. The arbitrary application of the ban has sparked accusations against the government that it is allowing its cronies to import fertilizer in contravention of the ban while restrictions on other imports including cars and car spare parts, turmeric and basic essential consumer items are applied strictly.  Industry experts fear that importing fertilizer in this manner, will trigger a trade in the black market. The quantity of fertilizer imported to Sri Lanka is determined based on the extent of cultivation and nutrient requirement of the respective crops. For example, in the case of paddy cultivation, assuming a yield of five tons from one hectare of land, the nitrogen requirement is calculated as 105 kg, which is provided by adding 225 kg of urea. The National Fertilizer Secretariat of the Ministry of Agriculture is the responsible agency that approves the import quantity of fertilizer in keeping with the Regulations of the Fertilizer Act No 68 of 1988.  In 2021, the authorised import quantity of urea is 247,000 metric tons. The calculation has been done assuming 1.3 million hectares of paddy being cultivated in both Yala and Maha seasons. Though the actual requirement is about 295,000 metric tons the targeted import is about 46,000 metric tons less than the usual requirement, making allowances for uncultivated paddy lands and lower nitrogen requirements for areas with lower average yields

Although the government’s move to ban chemical fertilizer imports has been welcomed in principle by many, those who are directly involved in commercial and domestic crop cultivation bemoan the lack of planning and preparation. The preparation of the volume of organic fertilizer that is needed, which is ten times more than chemical fertilizer, will require at least two years. Even then, industry experts point out that what is feasible is the phased out use of organic fertilizer rather than a full conversion which soil scientists have said with no uncertainty cannot happen. The world is not without examples.  Europe for instance is converting only 25 percent of its agricultureland to organic farming.  The oft cited example of Bhutan is another.  Despite several years of planning and preparation to convert to organic by 2020, Bhutan had to extend this deadline to 2035 while having to grapple with food shortages and abandoned tracts of agriculture land during the transition.



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