With the monsoon failing, the fisheries sector not showing much promise, and disputes over water sharing, northern Sri Lanka seems to be heading toward a food crisis

Ketheeswaran’s crops have never failed this way.

Walking along his field which sprouts harvest-ready paddy and some rough-edged weeds, he directs his workers who are operating the harvest machines for the season’s paddy yield that, he says, has fallen drastically. “I usually get 450 bags after Mahabogam [the main harvest season of Sri Lanka] but have barely managed 140 this time.”

It is around noon and the sun is right on top. “It is going to be very difficult this year,” says the middle-aged farmer in Akkarayan, a village in Kilinochchi.

His fear is shared by hundreds of farmers in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. With far less rainfall than expected last year, the total harvest this season has fallen by over 50 per cent.

The Kilinochchi fields — from where the entire Northern Province gets much of its paddy — have yielded 38,979 metric tonnes this season, far less than the targeted 79,212 metric tonnes, according to S. Sivakumar, Director of Agriculture, Northern Province. The yield in Mannar, he says, has also dropped to a mere 18,530 metric tonnes, while farmers had expected to cultivate 77,875 metric tonnes.

Hardships

With the monsoon — which help irrigate crops for Mahabogam — failing last year, and tanks that serve as primary sources of irrigation for the Yala season (smaller harvest season) every summer drying up, a drought has hit the region.

The problem faced by farmers in the north points to a particularly worrisome situation for the people there who bore much of the brunt of the brutal ethnic war and who depend entirely on agriculture and fisheries as their primary means of livelihood. The fisheries sector has not looked promising in a while because of Indian trawlers poaching in Sri Lankan waters — an issue that has been repeatedly proven and taken up for bilateral discussion by both the countries. A fresh round of dialogue is on, but fishermen in the region remain sceptical.

If landowning farmers like Mr. Ketheeswaran are faced with heavy losses, landless wage labourers have an even harder time finding jobs. “We pay the labourers about [LKR] 1,000 per day, but very soon we might run out of work for them,” he says. While farmers who own land are often from Kilinochchi or are those who were displaced from Jaffna during the war, those working as labourers are plantation Tamils of Indian origin inhabiting the island’s Central Province, displaced to the north in the 1980s.

“There are no jobs now. We have no other option but to borrow if we have to feed our children,” says a middle-aged woman, waiting at a bus stop right outside a cooperative society selling grains. Women like her, who are the sole breadwinners after losing family members during the war, take up odd jobs or engage in daily wage labour without an assured source of income. Many people, she says, are in heavy debt.

“Oh look, they are one of the culprits,” she says, pointing to a truck carrying a wardrobe with a mirror. The wardrobe is tied to the wooden planks in the truck’s rear, and dust rises from the reddish, muddy road running beneath the vehicle’s wheels. “That’s the leasing company van. They come to our colonies and lure us into buying one of those wardrobes or a gadget, paying monthly instalments. My neighbour paid for a few months and missed paying one month. They promptly came back and took the wardrobe away,” she says, explaining the now-familiar trap.

The woman was injured in a shelling encounter and it takes tremendous grit for people like her to pull through. An agriculture crisis is the last thing people like her expected.

That is perhaps why farmers say it is important that both the central government and the provincial administration (agriculture is a concurrent subject in Sri Lanka, a subject dealt with at the central and provincial levels) see the drought within the framework of post-war recovery. The problems of farmers are linked to the larger set of challenges they are facing after the war, according to M. Bhuvanendiran, secretary of the Kilinochchi Farmers’ Association. “Some of the farmers lost family members, many were displaced and their homes and fields were destroyed in the shelling,” he says.

Decline of a rice bowl

Speaking of current challenges, Mr. Bhuvanendiran says the absence of a streamlined mechanism to market the grains is forcing farmers to sell their produce at low rates. The Northern Provincial Council had promised farmers that it would explore ways of procuring grains for a good price from the farmers’ cooperatives, but farmers say this is yet to materialise.

A crop failure of this magnitude is not something they are used to. “There was a time when Kilinochchi was known for its fertile soil and unfailing yields. But the situation is quite the opposite now,” S. Kanagasabapathy, president of an agriculture committee in Kilinochchi, says.

The drastic drop in harvest, the uncertainty over the coming monsoon and the exploitative market scenario — all against an economic backdrop that points to rising costs in Sri Lanka — together foretell a possible food crisis, something that the Northern Provincial Council is dreading.

“We are very concerned that there could be a food crisis in the north,” says a senior official, requesting anonymity.

Even as it grapples with crop failure, quite aberrant from the last few years that saw even a surplus, the Council is facing a dispute over water sharing in the province, with farmers in Kilinochchi objecting to diverting some of the water to Jaffna. Discussions are on to work out a way of sharing water in the Iranamadu tank in Kilinochchi with select localities in Jaffna through a project coming up at an estimated cost of U.S.$165 million. This will be funded by different agencies including the Asian Development Bank.

Despite the complex scenario, Colombo seems confident that the agriculture crisis will pass without much damage. Last year’s bumper harvest has helped the Ministry of Agriculture stock enough grain for the coming year, says Central Minister for Agriculture, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena.

“Places like Ampara [in the east] and Kurunegala [in the North Western Province] have been badly hit, but we should be able to manage,” he says. While officials in the Northern Province think there could be a supply scarcity, Mr. Abeywardena denies it. But he does not rule out a price rise. An overall 35 per cent drop in paddy harvest expected in the current season has begun impacting the price of rice which is now seeing a steady increase, Sri Lanka’s The Sunday Times recently reported. Many farmers in the main paddy growing districts areas such as Anuradhapura, Kurunegala and Ampara are even considering alternative crops, the report said.

The central government and the Northern Provincial Council should equip themselves now, activists emphasise. “At a policy level, we have to think about ways of ensuring that food security levels don’t fall, and maintain income levels,” says S.C.C. Elankovan, a social worker involved with communities in Kilinochchi. “We clearly need food relief now and better water management. And it is important we act fast.”

meera.srinivasan@thehindu.co.in

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