Reversing ages of neglect | Daily News

Reversing ages of neglect

The coconut industry in a nutshell provides a rather representative, albeit sad, view of how the export sector and the powerhouses of local production deteriorated in post-independence decades, particularly after the liberalization of the economy from which time the country became susceptible to ‘winds of change’ from outside our shores.

The Government in the latest move to revive the sector is bringing three major State organizations that monitor coconut cultivation together, and amalgamating them. This includes the research arm, the Coconut Research Institute (CRI).

The fact that there were three separate organizations that oversaw one export commodity is a sign that post-independence administration was not geared towards manageability and sustainability. Top-heaviness was a hallmark of how key sectors were managed by pundits who often equated development with having a complex governance network.

The wider the tentacles of the governance structure, the more it seemed the panjandrums that managed State sector organizations had the ability to maintain the ‘pukka sahib’ persona — and go around making decisions on behalf of the ‘common man’.

The political leadership that created these institutions also did not have results in mind. The top decision makers were more in love with the image, the exterior, and the feeling of being ‘wonderfully in charge of things’ to really care about the results.

The country paid the price. Leave alone having a vibrant export commodity in coconut, these days we do not produce enough of the crop for domestic consumption. This is with three State institutions with paid staff going from circuit bungalow to circuit bungalow, from seminar to seminar and drawing perks for “developing the industry and investing in the science.”

This has been the story for tea and other commodities as well — but fortunately tea had the inputs of the private sector that invested in the continued survival of the commodity as a crop with international demand.

The coconut industry also succumbed to the gullibility of the ‘experts’ who were coopted wittingly or unwittingly into condemning coconut produce — primarily coconut oil, that had a demand from domestic consumption that could by itself sustain the industry.

But the experts, ‘health and nutrition advisors’ among others had run down coconut oil as a valuable kitchen commodity, based on the false narrative that it builds up cholesterol, which in turn leads to the hardening of arteries that causes heart attacks.

We have to blame our own for letting such canards take root. The myths may have been created by manipulative foreign forces that wanted to replace the market for coconut oil with their own alternatives. They may have had their stratagems, but they only succeeded in realizing these schemes because we let them, by not being bold enough to build a counter-narrative that could demolish their disruptive theories.

Then, we allowed almost all the commodity crops to go to seed. This management failure was also due to lack of planning, coupled with top-heavy structural deficiencies. Other countries have five-year plans and 10-year plans — but we often took pride in the fact that we had no plans at all. There was the miniaturization of coconut plantations as we let our lands be blocked out into smaller and smaller plots. Blocking out and selling coconut land for housing almost became a hobby among the smallholders.

This was allowed to continue despite the fact that some Cabinets had two or three ministries for plantations. There were commodity specific portfolios in many Cabinets and if there was no Cabinet portfolio for a specific commodity, there was at least a non-Cabinet State ministry slot.

All these institutionalized structural quirks made sure that the mismanagement was magnified. Ministries and State ministries were working at cross purposes and often Departments with allocated tasks were wary of attending to anything outside of assigned duties for fear of encroaching in to areas of another ministry.

What has befallen coconut cultivation here is truly a calamity. This was the land of coconuts — plain and simple. Coconut plantations were the first thing any visitor to this country saw, whether he or she was approaching our shores by sea or by air. Today, coconuts have become a scarce commodity during certain seasons at least, and it is a fact that we have to import the nuts to meet the domestic demand.

The collective failure of past Governments is monumental in this regard. That the present dispensation has sought to amalgamate the industry sector entities and rationalize the basic approach to develop coconut cultivation is a giant step that inspires confidence. Bold decisions are being taken, and there is no attachment to tradition or how things were done in the past. Where others may have said the feeling that the CRI is a holy cow because it is a research institute should prevent any amalgamation with other State bodies, the decision makers have put aside those cosmetic arguments, and practically approached the task of developing a sector that should have been booming in this country because coconut is as natural to us as the air above or the seawater that surrounds this truly resplendent isle of ours.