By Upali S.Wickramasinghe
The Paddy Lands Act was promulgated by the Government after 1956 with late Philip Gunawardena as the Minister. It provided a form of security to the tenant cultivator and established a formal boundary between the owner of the Paddy Land and the tenant cultivator.
When this Act was promulgated the country had a problem of meeting the demand for the stable food item of the people – Rice. This vacuity, the Act was expected to fill and ensure the country was self sufficient in the main food item of the people.
That objective was never met for very long, and the country remained a net importer of rice, and the supply to each household was rationed. It became so bad that during the period 1970 – 1977 the movement of paddy within the country was nearly banned.
Since 1977, with the opening of the market and free import of food items, the supply of rice became stabilized and over the years, more tenant cultivators have moved out of that occupation, as seen in the Western and the Southern Provinces.
One factor that contributed to this is improvement of the economic outlook of the people of the areas- more and more have become members of the employed lower middle class. All over the country, the majority of those cultivating paddy are the owners themselves, as seen by the frequent protests organized by the farmers with their harvest.
In the South there are many lands that have gone fallow and not utilized for any economic purpose. The registered tenant cultivator is no longer interested in the cultivation of paddy.There is a valid reason for this –with rice available in the open market at very low prices,cultivating paddy had become a useless occupation.
Adding to this is the lack of interest and lack of technological expertise in the organization meant to oversee implementation of the Paddy Lands Act and stimulate the cultivation of more profitable crops, the Agrarian Services Department (ASD).
The tenant farmer commenting on the production of average types of paddy where the guaranteed price is Rs 40.00 per kg., complains he is unable to dispose of it even at Rs 25.00 per kg.
There are many solutions to this problem, one of which is for a group of farmers joining to process their produce, brand it and market it under their label. The second is to cultivate varieties, which will yield higher prices. Some of the varieties sell at prices varying from Rs 150 to Rs 200 per kg. The ASD should help farmers to seek one of these solutions.
A third alternative is to convert the rice so produced to bio-fuel – bio-ethanol, which can be easily be used in diesel engines. Again, it is the duty of the ASD to formulate such a scheme, seeking help from one of the Chemical Engineering Departments of a university, and get the Government to implement such a scheme. The ASD seems benumbed to all such solutions.
Worse, they took one step further and helped to destroy nearly 100 acres of paddy in and around the Ruhunu University. The drainage canal to these paddy fields lie in front of the Ruhunu University, running close and parallel to the University and the Matara –Hambantota Road. When the construction started in 1980, the contractor dumped the excavated earth on the drainage canal and blocked it till 2004, and was cleaned only during the tenure of Anura Kumara Dissanayake as the Minister of Agriculture. Since the canal was opened the farmers produced two crops and it stopped once again. The reason given was that a rival political group had blocked the feeder canal. After a few years that block too was cleared and cultivation resumed, but only for another two seasons. Then came the question of prices indicated above.
In short, during a span of 35 years 1980 – 2015, landowners had received only 4-5 crops. The blame for this should be borne by the sloppy service provided by the ASD.
In the first instance, when dumping earth on the drainage canal in 1980, the ASD should have instructed the contractor to clean the canal and lay pipes below so that the water could move freely. The next opportunity arose when the contractor handed over the buildings in 1984. He should have been ordered to clean the canal before he left the premises. The third opportunity arose when the contractor left, the ASD should have ensured that the canal was cleaned – as was done during the ministry of Anura Kumara Dissanayake. The next failure was in not helping the cultivator process and market the produce. Further failure was in not encouraging the cultivator to grow the local varieties which fetch a higher price and in not formulating a scheme to convert the rice to bio-fuels.
Meanwhile, many a land owner had requested the ASD to allow them to fill the land and use it for a more economical purpose; this is also refused on the basis of the Paddy Lands Act. There is a report that one person who attempted to fill his land was prosecuted.
The best and the only solution I foresee is to abrogate the Paddy Lands Act and allow the landowner to exploit the land for the benefit of the country and oneself. If in the rush the ASD becomes redundant – so be it, it is their failure which should not be hoisted on society at large.