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Agriculture sector braces for impact

The islandwide lockdowns and curfews in Sri Lanka due to the Covid-19 outbreak will have an adverse effect on the agriculture sector as the situation has hampered the entire economic system, agriculture experts claimed.

The sector is facing major issues with regard to labourers and the movement of goods. Many subject matter experts have raised concerns over the lack of a proper government mechanism to link farmers and retailers; as alleged by agriculture unions, farmers around the country are destroying large amounts of freshly harvested vegetables as they are unable to get in touch with retailers.

They stressed that there would be a shortage of vegetables by May if the Government does not take immediate action to purchase these vegetables from farmlands and store them for future use.

All Island Farmers’ Federation (AIFF) National Organiser Namal Karunaratne told The Sunday Morning that many farmers had left the harvest in their farmlands as they couldn’t sell them.

“There are lots of political movements happening at the Dambulla Dedicated Economic Centre and therefore farmers did not like to go there. They (retailers at the economic centre) purchase vegetables at very low prices and resell at much higher prices. The vegetable bags purchased by consumers in Colombo at Rs. 500 are purchased by retailers at Rs. 100. This is a mafia and many new players have come to the game due to the coronavirus outbreak. All these new players are linked to politicians and they are earning huge profits. They are taking advantage of the situation,” he stressed.

Most farmers had targeted the Sinhala and Tamil New Year season in April and vegetables had been grown for the market but they are now in a dire situation as they can’t sell them at a good rate. Some farmers are even struggling to transport the harvest to the economic centres.

“We have proposed to the Government to establish mini economic centres in schools so that farmers could come and sell them while the retailers could also come and purchase. In such a setup, there would be no threat. But none of the ministers responded,” Karunaratne stressed, adding that farmers are stuck at home without proper income.

“Most of these farmers don’t like to go through comprehensive processes and that’s why the Government should be involved in it and accelerate the purchasing process,” he noted.

Another issue faced by these farmers is the shortage of seeds, fertiliser, and water. Many farmers had not yet started cultivation, which would ultimately impact the overall outcome in the next few months. Usually, the farmers complete their harvest by this time and restart cultivation. However, in most areas, farmers had not been able to find seeds.

As a measure to face any future food shortage, the Cabinet approved a special cultivation programme titled “Saubagya”, proposed by Minister of Agriculture Chamal Rajapaksa, to ensure the country’s food security in the future. The purpose of the programme is to make the country self-sufficient in order to face any possible food crisis in the future. According to Co-cabinet Spokesperson Dr. Ramesh Pathirana, the Saubagya programme is scheduled to be inaugurated on 9 April and is expected to provide islandwide assistance to implement both small and large-scale cultivation projects including home gardening. Seeds, raw materials, and fertiliser are also to be distributed under the programme.

As noted by Dr. Pathirana, the Cabinet last week had decided to purchase agricultural produce at a certified price and implement a crop insurance scheme through the Presidential Fund on Covid-19. Furthermore, the decision has also been taken to cultivate maize, green gram, undu, sesame, kollu, big onion, chilli, potato, and ground nut in a large extent of lands.

Meanwhile, the Government imposed a maximum wholesale price for vegetables with effect from 26 March. The Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) said only a maximum of Rs. 40 can be added to the wholesale price of 1 kg of vegetables when selling in the retail market.

Dambulla Dedicated Economic Centre

The AIFF urged the Government to disinfect the Dambulla Dedicated Economic Centre and take necessary measures to open it for farmers and businesses in a proper manner without completely closing it down.

The entire country depends mostly on the Dambulla Dedicated Economic Centre as the vegetables and fruits are distributed to all other economic centres from Dambulla.

“If the farmers were trained to use sanitary facilities and obey health regulations, the work could be continued without any hindrance,” Karunaratne added.