IMF lifeline and everyone’s duty



The pros and cons of seeking IMF intervention to help us out of the current crisis will take a while to subside. Meanwhile, it may do no harm to ponder how we could position ourselves to draw maximum benefits from the IMF intervention.

The IMF is neither Santa Claus, nor Beelzebub. It is more like a Headmaster, dictating what his errant wards should have done, but have not.

To try to paint a picture of wizardry, particularly as personal genius is ridiculous and will only invite foot- dragging and sabotage. Attempting to ascribe development as due to anyone’s personal genius, is tempting but clearly false. I might mention, in passing, that true leadership is when the “I” part is very seldom used, and ‘we” the commoner. A good General, they say, seldom commands “Go”, but more often. “Follow me”. Most of our Politicians observe this in the breach. Examples are not uncommon! The analogy with the separation of elephants into those who parade in the Perahera, and them that haul logs, is apt. If credit is ascribed to President Ranil Wickremesinghe (or anyone else), it is wrong and could only deepen our misery.

If one desires wide participation, all pretensions of credit to individuals, must be resolutely avoided. Otherwise all presumptions, prejudices and partisanship will surface, and diminish progress.

We are historically an Agrarian society. It has been and will continue as such into the foreseeable future. This need not deter efforts to simultaneously and sincerely, develop key industrial fronts (unlike the “Hoaxwagen Assembly” in Kuliyapitiya, or the wondrous project at Yatiyantota, to turn Plastics into Petrol). Leave these fictions aside and let us look at less “Airy-Fairy” nonsense and move on to feasible programmes based on our resources in the Agricultural sector.

Lacking the resources or technology attempts to replicate a historical Industrial revolution, may be futile. One fears that the grandiose dreams for The Port City may join a long queue of projects, suggestive of inadequate planning and poor hopes. The hasty cancellation of the “Colombo Project” is proof. All it achieved is probably a massive financial waste and soured the feelings of Japan, who has been one of our most generous donors and supporters. Do we care?

 While dreamers and “planners “amuse themselves, we should aim at less bombastic, and more real possibilities. I guess that the “proper” term is “Comparative Advantage” We have considerable resources (please avoid cheating ourselves by claiming we are “The Best in the World”).

Even a cursory look would suggest that our effort should focus on three resources where borrowed money may be gainfully applied. To my mind, they would include (a) processing of Agricultural surpluses/wastes. (b) harnessing the enormous Ocean extent that our country is entitled to as its “Exclusive Economic Zone “, designated under the UN, Law of the Seas Convention. (c) Such of our mineral resources (now exported “raw”), be refined as far as possible, to add value. This would apply to Ilmenite, rutile and possibly Apatite in the future. The same would apply also for our famed gemstones and pearls, more of which could leave as finished jewellery.

Any innovations selected should keep our “Food Security” needs as a main motivator. We may well be inspired by what a Canadian farmer is supposed to have said to his British counterpart, “We eat what we can, and can what we can’t.”

A virile export sector should perhaps ideally grow out of an effort to primarily meet local needs. “Two Tier” systems are doomed to fail. In agriculture it is rare that production exactly matches demand. Any surpluses should feed processing facilities designed to receive and process any excesses.

 It is said that the Portuguese were attracted by our being first place (justifiably) in the World for Cinnamon, accounting at that time, for 100% of World Trade. The colonial powers would understandably have focused on export potentials. Tea and rubber took precedence, while cheap rice could be got from Burma. This motivation needs to be re-examined and justifiable changes be made, to bring local needs to the forefront. The Covid epidemic, if it did any good, led to a reminder that self-sufficiency in basic food needs is an imperative.

The existing agricultural scene displays a historical dichotomy. This manifests as differences in financing, staffing, equipment and resource allocations. This shows most in the research and extension services. Any attempt to iron out existing differences will admittedly present difficulties, which could ignite resistance. Carefully considered modalities might even include a “rotational system”, to optimise resource use and possibly accommodate officers’ work preferences as well. Clearly, any such change will require very careful consideration, as many barriers exist.

Under existing realities, resource use is sub-optimal, and the twin evils of neglect or of duplication. are inevitable.

 The value of pooling available resources was shown, when in the early seventies, the Coconut Leaf Miner, (Promecotheca Cumingi) threatened and could well have doomed our coconut industry. A collaborative effort was swiftly mounted, bringing together Entomologists from the Crop Protection services of the CRI, RRI, TRI, Department of Agriculture and the Universities who, assisted by FAO, were able to quickly bring the pest under control. The invaluable interest and intervention by Dr Colvin. R. de Silva, then Minister of Plantation Industries has to be remembered.

I will take this opportunity to illustrate how logical pursuit of simple observations could lead to implications for more purposeful utilisation of existing resources and hopefully, even provide some possible clues on how our education systems too may also be refined. The example is based on what any reasonably observant person would have noticed.

(i) Periodic climatic perturbations necessitate drought and flood relief measures, not infrequently, closely following each other. One may (flippantly) notice that we have institutes for “Disaster Management”, and not as “Prevention”, (suggestive of some element of “Planning” of such travails). “Drought relief” may often be succeeded a few weeks later by “Flood relief”

(ii) Many of our major rivers generally run brown. Why so, one may reasonably ask? Logic would suggest that there are serious deficiencies in how we manage our land and water resources.

Regarding (ii) above, suspended silt imparts the brown colour. Most buildings require very large quantities of sand. Much of this is river sand. How does this virtually limitless sand gethere? It has to be mainly from eroded soil from the uplands. The sand contents of soil are highly variable, ranging from near zero (in clays and bogs), to nearly 100% (in sand dunes and beach sands. Sand is extracted for urban construction largely from river beds

Quantities involved are massively mind-boggling. We may assume that a normal upland loamy soil would have about a 10% sand fraction Thus the thousands of tons removed (mainly from the priceless topsoil) being eroded is very serious.

It is reckoned that some 400 years of weathering of rock is required to produce 1.0 cm of topsoil. Efforts have been made to ascribe this erosion to potato, tobacco, or vegetable growers (of course, not to 100 + years of tea – much of it above the upper limits of elevation, ordained by Soil Conservation Acts).

This example indicates a need for Irrigation, Forestry, Wildlife, Environment, Agriculture and Plantation Crops, Land Use, Development and Planning (at the least), to act in concert, much more so than they now do. Clearly all this adds up to serious deficiencies in our water- management sector. Perhaps even a separate Ministry for “Water Management and Land Use” should be accorded priority, if thought useful.

As a “footnote”, my original intent was to toss some ideas for future prospects, but as this piece has exceeded expectations (and possibly strained Editorial Indulgence), this will have to await a separate piece.

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda