Prof. N.A. De S Amaratunga in his piece “Is government in self-destructive mode? in The Island of 22 Jan. said more than 60% of people who voted for this government were poor rural people and he has emphasized the need to focus on these people. The livelihood of nearly 70% of those living in rural areas is farming. As per the policy manifesto of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ (‘Rata Hadana Saubhagyaye Dekma’), one of the main objectives of the government is creating a people-centered economy through rural development. The Finance Minister in his budget speech presented recently, too, emphasized the importance of improving the Rural Economy. Thus, the government has emphasized the need to improve the rural economy.
The previous governments launched various programmes, such as “Api Wawamu-Rata Nagamu” and Divineguma “to increase rural economy by promoting national food production. But the fact that we spend around Rs. 300 billion annually to import food indicate that these programmes have not been effectively implemented. According to some newspapers a National Agriculture Policy would be formulated within the next three months. In 2007 a National Agriculture Policy was formulated by a team of experts. The publication titled “National Agricultural Policy for food and export agricultural crops and floriculture” by the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Agrarian Services covered 20 policy statements with the aim of solving many problems in the farmimg/agriculture sector which have a negative effect on the rural economy. We are not short of agriculture policies but what is lacking is their effective implementation. If the recommendations in these agricultural policies were effectively implemented we would not be spending around Rs. 300 billion annually, to import food, including crops, such as green gram.
Around 30% of land is used for cultivation of food crops and plantation crops. About 2 million smallholder farmers living in rural areas cultivating nearly 900,000 ha. under food crops such as cereals, legumes etc., contribute a substantial fraction of the country’s food requirement. Approximately, 800,000 ha are under planation crops such as tea, rubber and coconut, and about 20% of exports is the result of those working in these estates. Thus, those in rural areas including estates contribute to the economy of the country to a great extent.
Sri Lanka is a land of villages and there are around 14,000 of them. A majority of the population, nearly 80 percent, live in villages and estates. According to recent estimates, about 30 percent of the total households in rural districts of Sri Lanka live below the poverty line. Headcount Index reported for Badulla and Moneragala districts is around 37%, and the values reported for Matale, Puttalam, Hambantota, Kegalle and Ratnapura were 30, 31, 32, 32 and 34 percent respectively. . Nutrition surveys conducted in the recent past indicate high prevalence of malnutrition among those in rural areas which may have been caused by chronic poverty. A socio-economic survey conducted in the recent past indicates that although the rural sector has the ability to engage in productive activities, there are many constraints.
Wild elephants roaming in the rural villages causing death to many and destroying property aggravate the socio-economic hardships the rural sector has to face affecting the health, education and many other aspects of the rural population.
Around 70,000 people in many districts of the country are affected by a chronic kidney disease (CKDu). They are mostly in the rural areas of the country and are affected socially and economically. The patients in the final stages of CKDu have to go for dialysis which again affects the economy of rural people . In some families both parents have died and their children are helpless.
Pest attacks which destroyed large extents of cultivated crops cause considerable problems to farmers. According to press reports, the sena caterpillar called “Fall Armyworm” (Spodopteria Frugipedera) is destroying thousands of acres of maize in Ampara, causing severe difficulties to the farmers. In addition Brown Plant Hopper attacks are reported in some areas during some months. Paddy crop in Siyabalanduwa is affected by an unidentified disease.
In spite of the country receiving around 100 billion cubic meters of water annually, there are frequent water shortages, mostly in the rural areas where there are around 12,000 tanks. Most of them are silted reducing the water holding capacity of these tanks causing rural communities to face a shortage of water which seriously affects crop production and various domestic activities.
Those farmers, who manage to get a good crop of rice/vegetables are unable to sell it for a reasonable price. Very often farmers are forced to destroy their produce due to the inability to market their produce at reasonable prices. Marketing of agricultural products at a profit to the farmer is an issue which the authorities need to take cognizance of.
Unemployment is rampant in rural areas. Current data is not available but youth unemployment rate (age 15 – 24 years) corresponding to the first quarter 2020 is 26.8 percent. With the COVID-19, thousands of people who were employed abroad have come back to Sri Lanka increasing the percentage of unemployment, mainly in rural areas.
All these issues cause untold hardships to thousands of farmers and have a negative impact on the rural economy. No effective actions appear to have been taken by the relevant authorities to find appropriate solutions to these problems. Those representing the farming community in Parliament appear to be not concerned about the plight of our farming population who have voted them to power.
There is no centralized planning in farming in the country which sometimes leads farmers to cultivating the same crop/s, ultimately resulting in gluts. Previous governments attempted to solve this problem but they appear to have failed miserably.
If the authorities are genuinely keen to improve the rural economy, they need to address these issues. The villagers must be assisted to improve their economic activities and make them more productive. Research need to focus on these issues and all technological knowledge generated by researchers must reach the villagers. There has been rhetoric on rural economic development during the last few years. It is meaningful and effective actions that are necessary.