Monday, January 26, 2009

A look back in history when Sri Lanka was known as the granary of the East

This blog is dedicated to understanding the present processes of agriculture in Sri Lanka, with a view to coming up with proposals to drastically improve on the miserably low productivity we are stuck in today. A brief look at history is also useful in making this case.

Amongst other activities I am a rice farmer in the Polonnaruwa district, and my paddy fields are fed with water from the Minneriya tank. This ancient tank also supplied water to paddy farmers a thousand years ago.

During the reign of King Parakrama Bahu the Great, when we were known as the granary of the east and when he sent a navy to conquer what is now known as Myanmar, people lived in a collection of villages, which were protected by forts and some by natural barriers of mountains and lakes. For obvious practical purposes the collection of homes were close to a water source.

The farmland that was fed by a sophisticated system of tanks and canals, was outside the village, and when dawn broke they went out to cultivate this land. Often the land was owned by the King and so it was a kind of tenanted land, where a rent in the form of money or service had to be paid. Substitute the word state for king, as that in effect was what the king provided in return. The security, and administration was carried out under his aegis.

This resulting arrangement meant that all farmland remained that way, and was not encroached on for home building or building one’s ranchettes, that many people in the Polonnaruwa now live in. The agricultural land was always kept that way and all effort was to use organic planting practices to maximize yield, as there were no pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Admittedly, the number of people in this district were a fraction of today’s population, with a lot of land forested. The varieties of rice were indigenous, part of the over 500 varieties of rice prevailing in that age, so that regional grains were planted to suit the specific local conditions, which include weather pattern and soil conditions.

Instead of separating agricultural land from areas of habitation, recent practice in the last 80 years has been to give agricultural land to landless peasants from all over the country to live in, on the assumption that they as peasant farmers will have an increased income and quality of life. In practice what has then happened is that land has got divided amongst children and grandchildren. It is difficult to find any productive agricultural plots amongst the many homes and home gardens dotted all around. Very few of the owners of these ranchetts are farmers, and most of them are in service sectors such as retail, security, defense, healthcare, education, government and construction. Just on the street I live in given by DS Senanayaka for farming, there is not one full time farmer. I fear that the WHOLE COUNTRY is becoming one massive suburb with people living in ranchettes of up to three acres each and so agricultural land is disappearing.

8 comments:

George said...

This phenomenon (of children not wanting to follow their parents into farming) is seen all over the world. The work is too hard, rewards few, and better paying jobs are available. But, as you said, the land is being divided and subdivided, which is an added problem.

Anonymous said...

Well I think you're missing the point. Instead of thinking of "the productivity of agricultural land in Sri Lanka," why not think about "the happiness of people living in Sri Lanka?"

If we use happiness as the standard measure of success, are people happier living in their 3 acre "mini-estates" (referred to as "ranchettes" in your blog), or breaking their backs diggging and redigging the soil in an endless cycle which is much more work and yields few rewards when compared to the service sector.

Rajaratarala said...

I agree let people do what they want, however when productive agricultural land given free is instead used to just build a house then we are taking away land that can be tilled by machine by one man working 100 acres and not the back breaking work you referred to. It is the land policy that is at fault not what the people do with what is given, What is the objective? to produce food or give land free to people to live on?

Rajaratarala said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
N said...

I have to agree with the author RE land policy. Many country's including the US and the UK (the bastions of free will) have comprehensive land use policies to protect agricultural land from the very issues called out here. It's time that Sri Lanka had this drawn up and implemented to protect our future. Land use is something that affects all of us, from what we eat, to the seas and the climate. It needs forward looking, intelligent regulation.

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