Friday, October 23, 2009

The issue of Boat People has been completely ignored, is there a reason?

I have returned to Sri Lanka after a lifetime overseas, and it is nearing the 5th year, where I have struggled, with my blog illustrating the good and the bad. The issue of Sri Lankan citizens fleeing the country by any means possible, risking their lives is one that is truly troubling me.

I have noticed that as a matter of policy, the Sri Lankan government has decided to stay completely silent on the subject of the 300 people who are being detained in Indonesia for attempting to go to Australia illegally and the 80 or so people who have taken a boat across the Pacific, attempting to land in Canada.
Let me address each of the points. I suspect it is illegal for a Sri Lankan citizen to leave the country by means other than BIA Katunayaka's immigration controls. They have therefore committed some kind of crime in doing so. Then the Sri Lanka Navy that is supposed to provide surveillance of our maritime assets has failed to spot these boats leaving the country. Presumably in the same vein may not be able to spot unauthorized craft landing illegally either! Is the government embarrassed by this breach or completely non-plussed?
I then read that an official spokesman questioned the validity that they were Sri Lankan as they did not have any documentation on them confirming who they were, as they presumably ditched or had no form of identification, a usual practice, amongst people seeking refugee status. While that is technically correct, the overwhelming evidence is to the contrary, and one cannot hide behind this excuse.
Seeking refugee status while making the statement that they would be imprisoned or discriminated in some way, is the usual modus operandi of a refugee to obtain sympathy, and the hunger strikes and threats on their persons seems to be a way of garnering sympathy and supporting their case.
Once the identity of these people have been obtained and I presume submitted to the Sri Lankan authorities by the country harboring them, checks made to determine if any had LTTE connections has brought to light one or two who are wanted. This further corroborates why they left, but not others who have no such threat. However some of them can be escapees from the Detention camps in the North aka Welfare Villages. Paying US$45,000 to escape is a huge king’s ransom to leave the country. I cannot believe the main smuggler took all this money without sharing it with some enabler in high places. Have any of the ruling class received a kick-back from this largesse? I find it hard to believe where there is money to be made some politician is in the thick of it, re-enforcing the reasons for a news blackout.
I believe the Government of Sri Lanka, should show loyalty to its own citizens by making a statement to the effect that, “We are very sorry to hear that people smugglers have assisted our citizens to leave the country with the promise of better prospects, by misrepresenting the conditions prevailing in Sri Lanka. We are prepared to unconditionally take them back if they are able to show some proof that they are Sri Lankan. They will not be subject to prosecution because they broke the law, except for the smugglers. We further appeal to our citizens not to be fooled into such escapes, as there is no other reason other than purely economic for their desire to leave.”
The silent stance taken is an indirect confirmation that they prefer as many citizens who wish to make a gateway to do so. There is no display of concern for their well being, or steps to prevent further departures. While the reason for departure is not race based, it is more likely that a Tamil refugee is granted asylum as compared with a Sinhala one due to the recent actions taken by the Govt. That further encourages the Tamil refugee to seek this rather treacherous route out.
While the media display the people and their actions, there is not one iota of local concern by anyone for their well being especially as they are citizens of Sri Lanka who are undergoing severe hardship where they are currently being held. Of course Tamil rights groups in Australia and Canada are providing legal representation in order to get them released and admitted to the respective countries of their choice.
The lack of sympathy for these people in Sri Lanka will further increase the argument these people have in leaving, as well as find grounds for why they cannot be returned. This policy of no comment has been adopted all along, but the damage it is doing to the reputation of the country and the government is much higher than the government cares to admit, or possibly they don’t even realize it!
Concerted action in collaboration with the countries where these refugees are fleeing to, is required. Note they are not fleeing persecution and going to India, so the smell of ‘economic refugee’ tag is obvious. This collaboration will educate people wishing to flee about the stupidity of so doing, and that the money that they are spending can actually be more useful in Sri Lanka to give them a better life.
The UN organization on Migration, IOM also has a part to play in this regard and can play an intermediary role in preventing this exodus, while conducting some form or program in explaining the legal ways of successful emigration.
In conclusion, it is safe to say that people will try whatever means at their disposal to achieve their goals. Whether they achieve this or not is open to debate, but a consistent policy stance by the host country and that of origin is required to cover areas such as immunity from prosecution on return and basic rights of the individual both to deter them from leaving and making conditions favorable at home, so this will not happen in the future and tar the reputation of Sri Lanka.

Monday, October 19, 2009

One writes not expecting to see one’s article in print, now the fallout!

The Sunday Leader in the special Kottu section of October 18th published the previous blog entry, with my permission of course, but I for some reason thought it was the earlier article, the comments there from resulted in the published piece.

Either way it was an entry out of personal experience and not empirical evidence as should be appreciated. I would however like to elaborate on some of the issues dealt with in the said piece as this debate is nevertheless important and opportune, and the sooner we tackle this problem of diet holistically, so we bring in the agriculture sector as well as the consumers of their produce on to the same plane.

I would like to add that while the farmers in Polonnaruwa eat white rice, usually parboiled nadu, devoid of nutrients, and full of starch, the Southerners tend to prefer Rathu Kekulu, or red rice of various hues of redness.(note that the level of polishing determines the level of redness and not the type of rice per se) So there are regional disparities in diet. At the same breath I would like to add that the red rice I am referring to is currently selling about 10Rupees a KG below the aforesaid parboiled nadu. So it is a fact that many of the affluent in Colombo eat lower priced rice than their staff, who eat the white parboiled. Of course they do eat out and imported Basmati seems to be dish of choice at restaurants.

My struggle with regard to selling organic vegetables is however something I still grapple with. Most of my completely organic foods are very small in size when compared with the non-organic versions and sometimes have insect and other exterior blemishes. In my very small level of cultivation, without the aid of greenhouses etc, my organic products cost more than twice to produce, but are perceived as inferior products by the consumer, until I spend hours giving a lesson in nutrition. It is impossible for me to win this struggle on my own, as attested by my road to penury as a result of my efforts. These points also should go into the overall education on healthy eating habits.

Needless to say the most embarrassing part of the published extract was about my personal preferences and diet, for the world to read, but then again that’s what blogging is about. Despite my unbelievably poor and irregular eating habits, I have hardly had cause to take as much as a panadol in the past 5 years back in Sri Lanka. I attribute it to just drinking King Coconut water, Fresh Milk from my cows, and the juices from the oranges, limes and lemons I grow. For all intents and purposes they are all organic and see an earlier entry to explain what I mean.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Rural Diet has become the Urban Diet and vice versa!!

One of the comments I had for my previous blog entry on the poor state of the Rural Diet was about what it is that they should or could eat.

My diet bourne out of a lifetime in the West, is to say the least, very poor in quality. It is still difficult for me to eat healthily despite the healthy food I grow around me.Sadly it is out of what one is used to, and it is difficult to change in mid life. If one is interested I will let on, but even I am embarrased that beggers in Sri Lanka eat a more healthy and balanced diet. My diet was bourne out of English boarding school food of baked beans, fried bread, oily chips, mashed potatos out of powdered smash tins, and rhubarb crumble. Then as a poor starving student it was just soup and rice,which has made hodi and bath my favorite food even now!! So it is what you get used to that one likes irrespective of how healthy it is.

In the village context, "rata kama" or foreign seems to be gaining popularity, because some years ago, when I gave a Dansala in Hingurakgoda, and asked what they wanted, they said they wanted noodles!! I was more appalled the other day when my man in Polonnaruwa said there was nothing to eat. That meant that he had not chosen to grow anything in the home garden despite numerous requests. Home grown food to him is not food! There are enough leguminous crops that grow easily in Sri Lanka, and I grow, Bathala, Manioc and Hingurala that can substitute for rice if the latter is not available.

I digress, but to make the point, I would like to note that as I sell my produce to my customers in Colombo on Mondays, and every household asks for red rice be it samba or the long grain rathu kekulu. This red rice is rarely sold in the Kade in Godagama not 30Km from Colombo, as they demand white rice. In addition to the various yams I mentioned in the earlier paragraph I sell Kehel Muwa and the following list of greens, freshly plucked on the morning of delivery.

Namely: Gotukola, Mukunuwenna, Kohila, Kankun,Kola Guva, Kathurumurunga,Salad Leaves, Nivithi, Gus Nivithi, and Kanda Kola like Penela, Athavariya, Pol Pala and Monara Kudumbi. I also sell a Kalawampala which consists of Manioc leaves, Passion Leaves, Pumpkin Leaves, Japan Batu Kola and a few others.

There is a great demand in Colombo for such as there is little availability and what there is, the source is suspect due to hygenic reasons. In conclusion I have noticed the need of the urban dweller to eat more healthy food while the rural dweller shuns what is freely available around him. I guess it is human nature to want what you don't have so I rest my observation and let you the reader be the judge.

I firmly believe that as we are creatures of habit, that it is very important to impart healthy eating habits on our children, as they could then eat well without effort. Both the parents and schools have a duty to promote healty eating and part of the school curriculum should include the education in this area of utmost importance.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

An intriguing take on eating habits in rural Sri Lanka

Each time I look at the food that the rural person in Minneriya eats, I wonder what it is that has led them to such a diet. While one knows that price is an issue, I notice the level of imported food that is consumed there, and begs belief. Thankfully the rice consumed is local, but always white and devoid of nutrients. Even though I grow red rice, the family that live on the land only eat white rice, and Nadu (parboiled long grain rice) is the dish of choice, usually for all three meals. The current retail price is Rs65 a kg of Nadu.

They then may have a fried onion dish, where the Red Onions are imported from India, the retail price of which at present is Rs 100kg (lately we have got consignments of red onions from Jaffna, but the wholesale mafia have not allowed prices to come down) Another favored dish is Dhal, which is imported from Australia and carries a price tag of Rs 225 a kg which I am not certain includes a government tax (I know as I have a retail shop for which I buy this in bulk) Another is a potato curry where the imported potato from Pakistan is about Rs20 less than the Up Country potato of Sri Lanka. The current price of this imported potato is Rs70 and this includes tax too. Tinned fish in SL is referred to as Salmon and is also consumed even though the current price is over Rs200 as it includes a significant government tax. We are also a major consumer of Big Onions that currently are locally produced these last two months only, as the harvests have just come in, and are just once a year, and cannot be stored as well as the Indian varieties. The price is low at present at about Rs60 a kg, where as normally once the local season is over will rise a further Rs20 for the Indian ones that have a tax of about Rs30 a kg.

I just bought a 50kg bag of Sugar for my retail shop, and it cost me Rs 88 a kg. This is from Brazil, the world’s largest Sugar producer, and as the Indian crop has failed the Sugar prices are on their way up with little stopping the sweet tooth of the locals, who still drink their plain tea with oodles of sugar. I retail the sugar at Rs95 a kg and I believe even this carries a tax. SL only produces 10% of its Sugar requirement and I am told we are one of the highest per capita consumers of sugar in the world. (Remember kasippu/moonshine and arrack production requires a phenomenal amount of sugar too)

As a dairy farmer, I still find it hard to convince the buyers of imported powdered milk from New Zealand, that my milk is healthier and more nutritious. A 400gram pack now retails around Rs225 and carries with it another hefty tax of about Rs80 a pack. I would appreciate any comments from one who knows the breakdown of the yield from all the taxes from each of the food-stuffs I have mentioned above.

Last but not least, is the wheat flour, which is made from imported wheat by two producers, with Prima being by far the largest from their factory in Trincomalee. I purchase it wholesale at Rs70 a kg and retail at Rs80 a kg and I am told that carries a high tax too. The bread I sell in the shop, which is delivered fresh to me twice a day is at Rs40 a loaf.

Therefore, I am convinced that our rural dweller, eats imported food, on which he pays high indirect taxes, which is a higher proportion of income than a wealthy urbanite’s.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

My absence of an age from blogging

I have had to field many upset and annoyed avid readers of my blog and explain my absence and to them I all I can say is I am sorry and will make my best effort to resume.

It has been a very trying couple of months, with the general principle of everything not going my way or as I had hoped and I have spent the past few months trying to get back into a system of normalcy having had to cope with many a trying circumstance, especially as it relates to produce and yield in all my farming activities, and made worse by the ever increasing costs of labor in farming and the corresponding decline in their productivity which only another farmer in SL can understand the meaning of.

The last straw was when we had to leave a third of our land fallow. All the farmers around me and myself were left with costs that exceeded the revenue from their paddy this season. It was so intense that there was a long line of people wanting to borrow money from me at rates in excess of 50% per annum. Needless to say I may lose the principle forgetting the interest, as they just had no real methodology in rational thinking to pay back.

This has now convinced me that rural farming as it is encouraged in Sri Lanka is just to keep the farmers impoverished, and another system of allocation of land and farming economical scales with less of the internecine warfare that takes place now is the only answer to higher yields and more productivity with actually a lower cost than is currently incurred and hence wasted due to the present system.

I have had to resort to a part time job to supplement my agricultural loss, and all this job does is to subsidize the loss. I have therefore to seek a more viable method of agriculture with the use of more intensive mechanization than what I have done so far along with the cultivation of a larger extent of land, along with the minimization of some of the risk factors such as water, and weather in the approach I take.

I have had problems in all the aspects of agriculture from problems with the dairy herd, to low yields in coconuts added to the unexpectedly dormant season for King Coconuts, added to the lower paddy crop, and the complete destruction of my banana cultivation by monkeys and the papaya cultivation by the mealy bug infestation took all the wind from my sails, and I went into reverse gear. The high staff turnover with the resulting training curve added to the fall in productivity. The economy is in a bad state, and with lower incomes and less money, people increased the level of stealing and the non payment of goods and services purchased. My neighbors were robbing my coconuts and selling them cheap to their other neighbors resulting in a lower turnover at my shop, as my customers bought the same coconuts, this time stolen at lower prices, which I could not possibly match.

It is not something that one likes to read, so I recoiled from relating the day to day misery on my blogs as it does not make a good story. I was waiting for some good news and it never came, and does not seem like coming for a long time.