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PADDY HARVEST: Recent reports in the media said that farmers who laboured hard to get a massive harvest at the Maha season, had found it rather difficult to get their produce sold.

A few years ago the media also reported that some farmers who were unable to sell their harvest took their own lives due to their inability to settle loans and face the society.

The recent heavy rains played havoc and some farmers could not gather their harvest before the rains fell. Some farmers at Galgamuwa told me that a colleague of theirs was to kill himself as he could not gather the harvest to a safe place before heavy rain and all his labour had been washed away.

The Governments and the Opposition from time to time play on the lives and the struggle of the farmers. They promise to do everything under the sun to help the farmers. But the fate of the farmers remains the same except in some cases.

Sri Lanka is basically an agricultural country. The polity of this soil heavily depends for sustenance on rice and agriculture based products. From the time immemorial our forefathers have been farmers and the farmer community had its pride of place in society under the rule of the Sinhalese Kings. The chronicles provide ample credence to this fact. The farmers had a high regard in the times of the Kings.

They were offered extra land and given all assistance to cultivate the cultivable land. There was no question of scarcity.

Sri Lanka was best known as the granary of the East. The harvest was rich, there was plenty of food and any visitors were treated with sumptuous foods. Robert Knox, a prisoner of the Sinhala Kings for some time in his writings speaks in glowing terms about the farmers of this country. In one instance he said the farmer taken out of the field clean, was fit to be a king. That is the history of this country.

During the times of the State Council, and after Independence as well, D.S. Senanayake as Agricultural Minister and Prime Minister gave a boost to paddy cultivation. New colonies were set up. His son, Dudley followed in the footsteps of his father and gave encouragement as Prime Minister.

Ministers like M.D. Banda and Hector Kobbekaduwa were all out to help the farmer and agriculture. The `Govi Hamudawa' was set up, `Govi Rajas' were felicitated and they were offered foreign trips as part of encouragement and also providing them an opportunity to learn about their industry.

With the Open Economy policy taking root, attention was diverted towards industrialising this country. The West was rather interested in investing in industry than helping to boost agriculture. But with all that the farmer community remained in tact and they were toiling the field and thanks to their courage we have our daily food, rice.

Coming to the present, that is to the period of post Independence Sri Lanka, we find the farmer lost his due place in society and he was almost thrown to the back door with the steps taken towards industrialising the country.

Many of us including MP and Ministers have our roots within this farmer community and hence we cannot just ignore the farmers. That is the reason why despite heavy lobbying to turn this tiny, beautiful island into an industrial hub, the farmer reigns supreme, a fact the Governments have realised.

This is why the Government and the Ministers of Agriculture in the present administration beginning from the year 2004 went on record with the promise that they would treat the farmers better and give a guaranteed price to their harvest.

As promised, the present Government announced a guaranteed price for paddy. Money was allocated. Steps were taken to provide spacious buildings to store paddy. Despite all that, farmers had found it rather disheartening and many have reminiscences of their bitter experience in trying to sell paddy at the government promised guaranteed price.

True that the Government was keen to see the farmers got the best. They promised to release sufficient water to provide fertiliser at concessionary rates and provide Bank loans on easy terms. Money was allocated and the respective officers attached to the purchasing unit were ready to purchase at the guaranteed price.

But what the farmers say was that it was not easy to sell their harvest to the Government. They complained they have to take their produce to the purchasing centres. They have to hire tractors for this purpose. The officers do not purchase as they go. They take their own time. The farmers have to keep on marking the time. Sometimes they have to spend three to four days. During that period of time they have to feed the drivers and they themselves have to find food at a price.

Once they are called in with the paddy they have taken, the purchasing officers will strictly observe the instructions issued and if the produce is not to the standard set, then they would be rejected. The farmers have no option but come back empty handed. If the stock is purchased the farmers are given a voucher and they have to wait to get the money. With all this the government purchase only 20 per cent of the total harvest, the farmers pointed out.

Some farmers from Anuradhapura who approached "Gamaya" said that they were reluctant to cultivate paddy during the Yala season. Some of them have abandoned their fields. Others have converted their fields to plant banana. They told me that when the promised fertiliser was distributed it was late.

"When the plant reaches 45 days we need to fertilise "bundi goyama". Last time when Government distributed fertiliser it was late. When it is past time, the yielding harvest is below their expectation and they would have more "bol" paddy good for nothing. So even if we get fertiliser at a concessionary price, we must have them on time.

They claim that they would prefer to sell their produce to private sector Mudalalis, because there is no hassle whatsoever. Of course the mudalalis do not pay the amount the Government has guaranteed. They also do not reject but buy the total stock. Also whether one likes it or not, one has to sell the bulk of the harvest to the private sector as the Government purchase only 20 per cent. The farmers are compelled to sell the balance to the private sector.

Recent media reports said that the Agriculture, Irrigation and Mahaweli Development Ministry has conceded that the purchasing process the Ministry adopted was not very successful. Despite the Ministry allocating Rs. 3000 million, the Government could only purchase 15 to 20 per cent of the total harvest.

This being the situation, it is up to Minister Maithripala Sirisena to come out with an acceptable proposal to help farmers who are toiling hard to keep us alive. It is high time the Minister introduced a scheme to give due recognition to farmers like other Ministers did in the past and give them an opportunity to enhance their knowledge in cultivation methods.

At the same time ease the purchasing process so that the farmer will go with confidence to the State purchasing officers with their harvest. The time is ripe to act.



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