The growing economies of India and China which together hold a third of the world’s seven billion population is making commodity prices to rise due to demand emanating for those, from the two Asian giants.
Their consumption requirements are not just confined to raw material needs to feed their factories, and energy to run them only. But as their people become wealthier, they also become fastidious in their eating habits.
And when they increase their food intake because of increasing consumer spend, there might not be sufficient agriculture produce or food, that is grown in their own respective countries, leave alone to export, but to meet their very own home consumption needs as well, thereby making them to turn to imports as a result, to feed the ever rising demands of their populations, due to their increasing purchasing power, caused by rising wealth and the desire for a higher standard of living.
But that also causes problems to import dependent economies like Sri Lanka, which rely on imports not only to meet their energy and heavy machinery requirements to keep the systems of production going because of the unavailability of such raw material and technology locally, at least up to now, but it also encompasses the need to import certain basic food commodities such as big onions, dried chillies and potatoes to name a few (most recently chicken and eggs as well), which are generally imported from countries such as India and Pakistan because of the paucity of production of such commodities here and the heavy demand for the same by the local consumer.
Such imports are generally also cheaper than procuring them locally because of Sri Lanka’s high cost of agriculture production. This is a problem that needs to be addressed, especially when food commodities become scarcer and scarcer worldwide, because of increasing demand and consumption due to growing populations and rising income levels elsewhere.
Grow more food? Yes, that, at least appears to be the solution at face value. “Grow more food” was the slogan of the Dudley Senanayake Government of 1965-70.
But “grow more food” may be easier said than done.
There may be certain bottlenecks that have to be first sorted out to make such a slogan a reality.
High cost of production and smallness in the land extents available for cultivation to farmers are some of the problems that beset the local agriculture sector, impeding its progress and raising the question of economic feasibility by bringing such small tracts of land under the plough.
This in part is compounded by the fact that 80% of the land in Sri Lanka is owned by the Government. So there is only 20% of freehold land remaining for farmlands, factories, housing and so on, not enough, agro-industrialists and economists say, to take Sri Lanka to the “next level” of profitability in the Agriculture sector.
Even some of the lands allocated to the Mahaweli settlers under the Accelerated Mahaweli Development programme of 1977, still belong to the state. As such the farmer who was given a few acres of paddy land and homestead land has to hold on to it, even though the pie may have had got smaller due to the emergence of his children and grandchildren, claiming their share as well from so mean an inheritance.
The idea of the state holding on to the land and having the farmer as the trustee and not as the owner at the implementation of the Accelerated Mahaweli Development project some three decades ago may have been with the objective of protecting the farmer from the village moneylender. So that even if he gets into debt he will still have his land, without having to sell it to pay off the debt, thereby fulfilling one of the objectives of the Mahaweli scheme, ie providing land to the landless, including paddy land for cultivation and highland for his and his family’s dwellings and to grow other varieties of agriculture crops on it.
Rice, as it was then, is still is now, the over-arching food crop in Sri Lanka.
But with the advent of the farmer’s children from childhood to adulthood and even his grandchildren too undergoing the same transformation in the 30 years that have passed since the Mahaweli land allocation was first begun, in 1977 or a few years thereafter, a few acres to be divided among so many from one and the same family, all claiming their share from the measly pie, does not appear to be practically viable and economically feasible or sustainable.
Further, with the advent of the open economy having had thrown up other avenues of employment other than farming, the original Mahaweli farmer’s progeny may not like to be tilling and farming the land like his father or grandfather did.
So the opportunity should be made available for such to sell their land and move on.
Land titling appears to be the solution to this morass. That will truly empower the Mahaweli settler and his progeny by being the sole owner of such land, to do as he pleases, with a clear title of ownership to such land, even to dispose of it if he so wishes to.
It’s economies of scale, where the cost of production goes down, whether it be in industry, agriculture or services, due to mass scale production and the demand for such, that make any venture profitable and feasible.
Land fragmentation for agriculture does not help to keep the cost of production down. It does not make agriculture feasible. The Government, without mouthing political slogans like “Api Wawamu, Rata Nagamu” should also have complementary laws in place to make such slogans a reality.
Even the feasibility of the “archaic” Paddy Lands Act of 1958 which mandates certain obligatory rights on the landlord to his tenant farmer may need a second look if agriculture is to be a sustainable and profitable industry in the island.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has a 2/3rds majority in Parliament to change the Constitution and the laws of this land for the betterment of his countrymen. What is now needed is for him to have the political will to do the same.
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