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Department of Agrarian Services:

Major player in agriculture sector

Deshamanya A L Ibralebbe
(Sri Lanka Administrative Service) Former Assistant Commissioner of Agrarian Services

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.

Commercial crops

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 sector.

Farming communities

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.

Multifarious functions

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 island.

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.

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