Department of Agrarian Services:
Major player in agriculture sector
Deshamanya A L Ibralebbe
(Sri Lanka Administrative Service) Former Assistant Commissioner of
It is almost by a truck with destiny that the food production
programme in the island got tagged under the Civil Defence Commissioner
during the peak of the Second World War.
The ‘Grow more Food’ campaign, Emergency Food production scheme, the
Home Garden Scheme and the Estate Food Production Scheme together with
the food distribution scheme found their origin as emergency measures
intended for a short duration.
In point of fact the Food Department that implemented a subsidy
scheme with the rice ration books was the key Department that handled
most such short term targets including the Estates Food Production
Scheme which was later based on the Food Production (Estates) Act No: 40
of 1954. It was the latter Act, hitherto implemented by the Department
of Food Production that gave the nucleus to the origin of the Department
of Agrarian Services that commenced on October 1, 1957.
In that stage of development, a civil department had purely to attend
to matters of ordinary law and order while a service department was
always an arm of defence. As to how food production and provision of
auxiliary services to such production got tagged under ‘Civil Defence’
is thus a happy co-incidence. For those of us, who are familiar with the
development of administration both under the pre-independence era as
well as the post independence era know the rapid strides made by the
state sector after the island became a free country.
It is in this background that one has to assess the role of the
Department of Agrarian Services which was created under the Food
Production (Estates) Act No 40 of 1954.
The Department of Agrarian Services props the agricultural sector in
this country by the provision of auxiliary services to the Agricultural
Development of this island.
The older Department like Department of Agriculture and the Food
Department engage their attention on the issue of production and
distribution of agricultural products including paddy. But for these
functions to be efficiently carried out there was a need for an
infrastructure servicing facility. It has to be noted that in the case
of the main commercial crops both research and servicing were provided
by distinct agencies but in the case of servicing the agricultural
sector, the only omnibus structure was the Department of Agriculture
which could not cope with every aspect of servicing the agricultural
Research in cultural practices, varieties of paddy and modes of
farming implements indeed form heavy subject-matter for any single
agency to handle efficiently and on an islandwide scale.
The manner of land ownership of the total extent of land under paddy
cultivation also by its natural flow of events emphasized the need to
provide for a strong servicing agency. The 510,677 hectares of land
under paddy is almost twice in extent to the land under any of the major
commercial crops tea, rubber or coconut.
Paddy has 7.8 percent of land compared to 3.9 percent of land under
tea. According to the 1971 census 50 percent of the working population
is engaged in agricultural sector and the average land holding is less
than about 1 acre which suggests the complicated nature of the human
relationship involved in the administrative management of these land
holdings. Thus when the Agrarian Services Department was created on
October 1,1957 with M S Perera of the former Ceylon Civil Service as its
first Commissioner, few realized that a fast growing organization had
commenced its role.
This origin was further enhanced when the Paddy Lands Act No: 1 of
1958 was introduced bringing in its wake a tremendous change in the
pattern of the tenurial system. There was a firm guarantee of status to
the tiller of the soil, whose role was further propped up by a host of
services that covered the full process of cultivation from the
germination of the seed to the final disposal of the full grown grain.
At its commencement, the Department was in charge of various
functions like control of Salvinia infestation, operation of the
guaranteed price scheme, Estate Food Production Scheme, Crop Insurance
Scheme, Credit facilities for fertilizer and chemicals and a servicing
sector to group farming communities.
In fact within the first few years of the working of the Department
it was found that some of these functions formed independent sources of
sustenance by completely autonomous agencies and it was in that
background one has to consider that later development of the Fertilizer
Corporation, the Paddy Marketing Board, the Crop Insurance Board and the
origin of the People’s Bank.
It is to the credit of the Department that its pioneers were men
dedicated to an ideal to the achievement of which every routine was
devoutly applied with a firm emblem of warmth of regard to the
beneficiaries who happened to be the downtrodden tillers of the soil.
The bright image that had been built up by the Department today is
the result of that self less service of the executives, the field staff
and every other type of staff, clerical and technical. As a matter of
fact, it will not be out of place to record with deep appreciation of
the services of the Divisional Officers of the Department, 15 of whom
were recruited on May 2, 1958 when the Paddy Lands Act was introduced in
a limited number of Districts like Kandy, Kegalle and Ratnapura.
The effect of the first few years of its operation was so attractive
that even overstepping the staggered terms of implementation; the Act
received wide acclaim throughout the island and in fact if there be a
very balance judgment passed on the successful working of Public Service
Department. Established under post independence era there is hardly any
doubt that this Department should emerge as a very strong contender over
all new organizations however cleverly managed or attendant upon
whatever of average Lankan’s urgent need.
The Divisional Officers of this Department are called upon to perform
multifarious functions to make for a very effective administration of
the Agrarian reforms of the island and true to this role it is credit
worthy that this Department which commenced with the promulgation of the
Paddy Lands Act in 1958 with its action limited to a few districts –
Colombo, Hambantota, Kandy, Kurunegala, Kegalle and Ratnapura – had
today spread itself as a key department in the island.
It has reached the door steps of every farmer and the Agrarian
Services Centre has caused such crescent as in action that today it is
making close chase as a public office of importance to that of the AGA’s
office which is the pivotal point of general administration of the
This widespread action is to the credit of every respective Head of
Department and the Divisional officer in spite of serious limitations,
can probably claim to have played a very effective role in help rendered
to respective Commissioners and their Assistants.
The liasion between farmer and the Department is directly a charge of
every Divisional Officer and it is the successful liasion that had
largely caused for the immense image that the Department has carved in
the country today.
The many changes that have come about present a continuity in the
operation of the law base on the relative experience of both the
official as well as the participant. The experience shown in the working
of the Paddy Lands Act had convinced every reasonable critic that it was
heavily biased on the side of the tenant cultivator who on very
frivolous ground tended to make himself a nuisance on every type of land
owner, the hard-hearted as well as the very innocent.
The Cultivation Committee under that Act has now been replaced by the
Cultivation Officers who in all instances are persons appointed from the
locality on whom the usual restriction of holding public office will act
as a system of control against possible abuse.
The Agricultural Productivity Committee known under the Agricultural
Productivity Law, had been replaced by the Agrarian Services Committee
that embodies both recognized local officials as well as the
representatives of the farmers.
Self-sufficiency in food
It has to be observed that both the tea and rubber industries have
been able to finance their administrative institutional arrangement by a
cess fund which is a collection on every pound of tea or rubber
exported. If that same principle is applied to make the acreage levy a
sufficiently strong source of finance, many difficulties which Agrarian
Services Centres now face can be eliminated with success.
The fact that the Department has the infrastructure alone is no
criterion of its success. Much of it has to flow upon the conscious
application to work of the departmental staff who in spite of the
increased numbers should draw upon the lessons of all past staff whose
dedication to work the present prestige of the Department is largely
due. An lonian script describing man’s nature in his mystical beginnings
reads ‘Charity seeks not her own profit’.
This should be a motto for every employee of this Department and its
beneficiaries so that when the Diamond Jubilee is celebrated there can
be many achievements of pride not excluding that of self-sufficiency in
food, which we are fast reaching, thanks to the effort of all and single
of the staff as well as the beneficiaries.
It may please to note that the first Commissioner General of this
Department was M S Perera of the Ceylon Civil Service, who contributed
largely towards the growth of this Department. It is pertinent to
mention here the fact that the District Assistant Commissioner’s Office
in Puttalam town was forcibly shifted to Chillaw town by my successor in
1987 in spite of strong protests by the public which was absolutely
against their wishes.