‘Revitalising the agriculture sector, our aim’ | Daily News

‘Revitalising the agriculture sector, our aim’

State Minister Shasheendra Rajapaksa (Picture by Upali Jayaratne  - Panadura Group Corr.)
State Minister Shasheendra Rajapaksa (Picture by Upali Jayaratne - Panadura Group Corr.)

Paddy and Grains, Organic Food, Vegetables, Fruits, Chillies, Onion and Potato Cultivation Promotion, Seed Production and Advanced Technology Agriculture State Minister Shasheendra Rajapaksa is a humble and amiable politician with a strong social conscience who has been striving to revitalise the agriculture sector.

His foray into politics was not a mistake but the choice of people of the Uva Wellassa region where thousands laid down their lives during the Uva-Wellassa rebellion against the British colonials in 1818.

Rajapaksa who prefers fair justice and equity for his people, in an exclusive interview with the Daily News, says that the Government is making every possible effort to end the rice mafia in the country.

“Time has come to end the era in which the rice market is manipulated by a few mill owners,” he said while asserting that the Government lacks an effective mechanism to counter false allegations against it. The State Minister also said a subtle campaign with ulterior motives is underway to embarrass the Government.

The full interview:

Q. Several development projects were in progress when you were the Chief Minister of the Uva Province. These projects were suspended by the previous Government after they came into power in 2015. Are you going to restart these projects?

A. We had a massive plan for the development of the Uva Province, particularly the Moneragala District, which is represented by me. We focused on the development of infrastructure facilities including roads and supplying of electricity, and potable water to the people of the two districts in the province. Over 92 percent of the households in the province have received electricity under the Uva Udanaya (Uva dawn) programme which began in 2010. At present over 95 percent of households in the province have electricity.

The Government led by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa succeeded in developing the road network connecting major towns with the villages and bringing dividends of development to the villages by the end of 2014.

The farmers at grassroots level had a problem in bringing their produce to the market due to lack of transport facilities. The development of the road network helped them find market avenues for their products.

A plan was in place from 2014 to 2018 for the provision of potable water to the people in the Badulla and Moneragala Districts. Thirty-four projects were identified under this plan. We managed to complete two water supply projects, namely the Kumbukkan Oya Project and the Kataragama Project. Over 45,000 families living in Buttala, Okkampitiya, Nakkala, Moneragala and Siyabalanduwa are benefited by the Kumbukkan Oya Project and 42,000 acres of arable lands are under the plough.

Q. Why were these projects suspended by the previous Government in 2015?

A. I do not know why these projects meant for the benefit of the people in the Uva province were suspended by the Yahapalana Government. They may not have had an interest in implementing these projects or maybe they were not capable of implementing this type of development drives for the benefit of the people. I personally believe that the previous Government was incapable of bringing development to the village.

Q. Are development activities taking place in the Uva Province at present?

A. Yes. The present Government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has focused on completing the road development drive which was begun by our Government before 2015 and almost all major construction companies in the country are presently engaged in road development projects in the district.

We are going to recommence the water supply projects which were halted by the Yahapalana Government. Water Supply Ministry Secretary Dr. Priyath Bandu Wickrama along with the other officials recently inspected all parts of the Moneragala District to look into the possibility of recommencing these abandoned projects.

Q. The education sector has undergone several waves of reforms during the past three decades. What is your programme for the uplift of educational standards in the province?

A. We have focused on promoting educational standards in the province for which over Rs. one billion has been allocated by the Government. A meeting was held with the Governor and other stakeholders in the province to discuss how these funds are utilised for the uplift of education as a large number of schools in the district come under the Provincial Council’s purview.

When I was the Chief Minister of the Uva Province, we succeeded in introducing an early childhood development policy and a special authority was also set up for the development of this sector in the province.

A new syllabus was also formulated with the help of the experts in the field and all preschools are bound to follow this syllabus. Preschool teachers are also required to meet a certain level of educational standards as per the registration process.

Over 80 percent of preschools in the province which have met the necessary criteria are registered with the authority. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should be given the credit for establishing a State Ministry for the Uplift of Early Childhood Education under the Education Ministry.

Q. Why do you focus more on the development of the Moneragala District than Badulla District?

A. I think the political leaders in the Moneragala District may have not properly identified what the people in the district want. Some think that the people in the district are dependent on subsidies. The Moneragala District had been receiving stepmotherly treatment under UNP and Yahapalana Governments. The people in Wellassa do not want subsidies. They could make their ends meet without any issue as they have coconut, jak, and breadfruit trees in their gardens. They are not starving. What they want is to have proper education for their children.

Q. There is an allegation that farmers in the Moneragala District find it difficult to market their produce. What is your view?

A. I do not think that there is any difficulty in marketing their produce. Informal cultivation has become the root cause for farmers to undergo difficulties in marketing their produce.

The agriculture officer at the village level should actively be involved in regulating crop cultivation in the country. This will help farmers to find a better market for their produce. The tradition of raising a single crop by all farmers should be dispensed with immediately. Crop diversification should take place.

Agricultural research officers coming under the purview of the Agrarian Services Department have failed to suggest to farmers what crops should be cultivated.

A dedicated economic centre along with a processing unit will also be established in the province with the objective of providing market avenues for the agricultural produce in the Moneragala District.

This proposed economic centre will also serve farmers in the adjoining districts and the farmers’ produce will also be sorted and graded at this centre to cater to customers’ needs.

Q. There are serious allegations against the Agriculture Ministry for failing to keep a buffer paddy stock to regulate the rice prices in the market. What is the Agriculture Ministry’s role in the control of rice prices?

A. The Agriculture Ministry does not hold any responsibility over rice prices in the market but we are responsible for the cultivation, purchasing and storing of paddy.

The country annually requires 24 metric tonnes of paddy for consumption and the monthly rice requirement in the country is only two metric tonnes which include white raw, samba and steamed rice. The harvesting of paddy has started.

The Government is purchasing paddy from farmers at Rs. 55 per kilogramme with the intention of ensuring a better price for farmers. The farmers at the grassroots level are benefited from this move. The Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) together with agricultural research officers at the village level started purchasing paddy at Rs. 55 per kilogramme from farmers and our target is to have a stock above 300,000 metric tonnes which is above the country’s average requirement.

When we announced a maximum price of Rs. 55 for a kilogramme of paddy to buy from farmers, the private sector started purchasing paddy from farmers at Rs. 57– 60 per kilogramme. The Government recently decided to purchase paddy at a fixed price of Rs. 57 per kilogramme from farmers.

Farmers are reluctant to sell their paddy harvest to the Government or the private sector either, expecting that their produce would receive a higher price later. If we purchase paddy at above Rs. 57 per kilogramme, the rice prices will have to be increased. The Government recently decided not to allow any force to increase rice prices above Rs. 100 per kilogramme.

There are one million paddy farmers in the country but we have to feed 22 million people in the country. If rice is not sold below the controlled price, the Government is ready to issue 25,000 metric tonnes of rice to the market every week to keep the rice prices below Rs. 100.

The PMB will process paddy stocks from time to time through small-scale mill owners and release these stocks to the market through Lak Sathosa, if rice prices do not come down.

There are more than 400 small-scale rice mill owners whose businesses are on the brink of closure as a few mill owners are dominating the market. The PMB will venture into rice processing soon with the support of small-scale rice mill owners and the Board has a plan to erect paddy silos too even though a silo cost Rs. 200 million to the Government.

The paddy purchasing drive is continuing and the Sri Lanka Army renovated more than 300 paddy stores in the country on the directive of the President with the intention of storing more stocks. We expect to fill all stores belonging to the PMB with paddy.

Small-scale mills are located around PMB stores in almost all parts of the country and we will issue paddy stocks to these mills to be supplied to Lak Sathosa.

For the first time in history, 24 institutions have been brought under the Agriculture Ministry to provide streamlined service to the public, particularly the farmers, and institutions related to agriculture, trade and consumers are also interlinked.

Q. You are the State Minister in charge of potatoes. How are you going to tackle the shortage of potato seeds every season?

A. The shortage of potato seeds is not a new issue. When farmers are faced with financial issues, they are in the habit of selling their seeds.

We are going to set up a seed bank at the agrarian division level to help the farmers who fail to keep seed stocks.

The capacity of the Potato Research Centre in Seetha Eliya has been augmented by three-fold for the production of Generation I potato seeds by investing Rs. 300 million. There may be less progress this year. But the programme will bear fruits from next year. We expect to fulfil 60 percent of the potato requirement of the country within a very short time.

Q. The fertilizer subsidy introduced by your Government benefitted thousands of farmers and that subsidy helped make the country self-sufficient in rice. But, some politicians alleged at the 2015 Presidential Election that fertilizer subsidy had caused chronic kidney diseases. What is your plan for the promotion of organic farming in the country?

A. The organic farming project is underway in 50 agrarian services divisions and paddy, vegetables and fruits are grown under this project. The Agriculture Ministry is purchasing the crops produced using organic fertilizer by these farmers.

There are two Government entities that are responsible for importing chemical fertilizers to the country. We will turn one of such institutions for the production and import of organic fertilizer to the country.

A laboratory will be set up in Makandura for testing of organic foods and fertilizer for which Rs. 200 million has been allocated by the Government. The private sector is far more ahead of us in terms of producing organic foods.

The Agriculture Ministry has drawn less attention towards the production of organic fertilizer and some officials are also responsible for this situation.

When we imposed a ban on the import of several items that can easily be grown in the country, there was a hue and cry in the society. Prices of turmeric and undu went up. But now the situation has changed and the farmers find it difficult to market their turmeric harvest.

A number of companies producing value-added products out of turmeric have decided to grow their turmeric requirement within the country.

Q. How are you going to ensure a constant supply of agricultural produce while maintaining a stable price for them in the market?

A. All institutions related to agriculture, trade, and irrigation are making a concerted effort to ensure that there is no shortage of agricultural produce in the market.

Farmers should adopt a timetable in terms of ploughing and harvesting and the Irrigation Department should also have a proper mechanism to release water to farming lands. Stability in price can be maintained and the shortage of agricultural crops can be avoided when crops are cultivated according to a timetable.

The Agriculture Department is obtaining international assistance including from the World Bank for the modernisation of the agriculture sector aiming at increasing our production. Seven processing units are also to be set up covering all parts of the country. We are getting expertise from many countries including Israel to develop modern farming technology.

Q. Some political parties within the Government fold are criticising the Government’s policies and these parties seem to be forming a faction within the Government. Does this mean that cracks are developing within the ruling alliance?

A. No, not at all. There may be lapses on our part and no one is perfect. It is better if our lapses are pinpointed by our own family members rather than outsiders. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s politics are very different from others in the game. We are always in the regular process of rectifying our shortcomings and marching forward. Although we are treading on different paths, we will be together at last. It may sometimes be the day prior to the election.

Complaints by the children of a family do not imply that these children are against the father. The father is listening to the demands made by the children. Even if a child thinks he wants to leave the family, that never happens. Even if he leaves, it will not make much difference.

We will not allow the Opposition to build political platforms against the Government. The President has allowed the constituent party members in our fold to air their views, grievances and concerns. The President is giving a patient ear to their concerns.

The ruling alliance comprises many political parties and they have different views. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa can endure hurtful and intense criticism with patience as a politician.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not a politician and his decisions may sometimes be not popular. But he is making the right decision for the benefit of the country. When the ban on many agri produce including turmeric was imposed, he came under heavy criticism by many parties. But the country has benefitted from this move as farmers started growing them locally.

Q. Various quarters blame the Government for the alleged surge in deforestation and they say effective measures are not in place to arrest the situation. What is your view?

A. The Government refutes factually inaccurate and false allegations. There is a subtle move to embarrass the Government by making false allegations that the Government is involved in clearing forestlands.

A girl who participated in a TV programme had claimed that lands belonging to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve are being destructed. But the officials confirmed that the land in question does not belong to the Forest Conservation Reserve and it is located 11 Km away from the Sinharaja forest boundary. The Government has never allowed any person to clear lands belonging to the Forest Conservation Department and engage in Chena cultivation.

A person can complain to the Environment Police if any sort of destruction is caused to the environment. But the complainant should be able to give full details of the incident and the area where it is taking place.

There was an era in our country in which massive destruction was done to the environment due to the acceleration of the Mahaweli Development Project by the UNP Government but no one raised such issues at that time. The Mahaweli Authority is presently involved in a massive reforestation drive.

Q.The Government has been faced with several allegations which included deforestation, reduction of sugar tax benefiting a trading company and soaring rice prices in the market. Why does not the Government have an effective mechanism to counter these allegations?

A. That is true. We do not have an effective mechanism to counter these allegations. But concerns raised by the public in some instances are correct. If people have money in their hands, over 60 percent of problems faced by them are over.

No one is asking why a ban has been imposed on imports. We have obtained massive loans for the development projects implemented by the Government and we have to save foreign exchange to repay these loans. The Government has already planned the repayment of another loan instalment by the end of this year.

A colossal amount of money is spent a day for the prevention of COVID-19 and nobody is thinking about this. All income-generating sectors have been affected due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The tourism industry collapsed and the employees in the sector do not have an income.