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Saturday May 25th, 2024

Sri Lanka fertilizer ban too sudden, fraught with uncertainty, farmers unprepared

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s plan to move into organic fertilizer was a good move in principle but the sudden shift has left farmers fearful and the agriculture sector unprepared, private sector officials closely involved in agriculture have warned.

“It is a noble objective. It is an objective we have to pursue but there is a certain pathway,” Dilhan Fernando, Chief Executive of Dilmah Tea Company told a forum hosted by Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

“It involves re-generation of soils, multiple adaptations including the infrastructural knowledge, the systems, and processes that will, first of all, establish the parameters.”

“None of these have been done. So, a lot of the discussions that are happening now should have happened a few years ago.”

Analysts have said one of the problems for Sri Lanka’s economic problems along with monetary instability (money printing and currency collapses) is regime uncertainty, which involves policy uncertainty and expropriation and nationalism, which triggers ethnic strife.

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Sri Lanka has banned fertilizer imports from the upcoming main Maha cultivation to save 400 million US dollars in import costs after money printing triggered foreign exchange shortages.

Sri Lanka Government Medical Officers Association an influential policy driver had said agrochemicals caused non-communicable diseases and Sri Lanka’s ancestors lived for 140 years in Roman times according to Pliny the Elder’s encyclopedia when there were no agrochemicals.

Muddy Mandates

After self-determination from British rule and the breaking of the permanent civil service, Sri Lanka has lost the ability to do evidence-based policy making, using green papers, white papers followed by expert and public consultation, critics have said.

Instead, policy upheavals are done by in ‘policy by manifesto’, a deadly process done in political backrooms by people with special interests and poor technical knowledge, experts with experience in evidenced-based policy-making have said.

They are then carried out on the basis of a ‘mandate’.

Sri Lanka’s misguided state priorities and how to reset them

“But this is a muddy mandate. Each manifesto contains a multiplicity of promises. Was the vote a considered approval for each of those promises?,” Rohan Samarajiva, founder of LIRNEasia, a regional think tank who was involved in Sri Lanka’s telecom and South Asian aviation liberalization questions.

“Manifesto making is political. Experts or those who are perceived as experts may be called in to contribute, but the principal criterion is not expertise, but trust.

“Those who have been involved in manifesto making will testify to the opacity of the process, wherein what is accepted one day can disappear in the next and new clauses and conditions can mysteriously appear even after “finalization.”

Meanwhile, Fernando said Bhutan, a South Asian neighbor that adopted similar methods but their consumer prices increased. Switzerland recently dropped a plan to ban agrochemicals.

In Sri Lanka, organic foods are already priced higher than ordinary products in supermarkets.

Government spokesmen themselves have claimed that organic foods fetch premiums in export markets while trying to convert a country where children of poor families already face malnutrition and stunting.

No Strategy

Rohan Fernando, Managing Director, Aitken Spence Plantation Managements said a practical strategy was needed to transform an entire agricultural sector.

“Like anything, you have to build a strategy and this is something long-term,” he said. “If we build a good strategy, it can be implemented but not something that could be done overnight. We could face unwanted problems.”

Dilhan Fernando, CEO of Dilmah Tea Company said the objective has to be reached incrementally and care should be taken not to generate greater risks.

“First we have to reduce artificial inputs,” Fernando said. “That is an absolute no-brainer because we cannot continue on this present trajectory but to be done step by step.

“If you have a population that has been depending on certain agricultural methods over centuries, suddenly to change over can introduce other use of chemicals that may have not been approved, that can create a far greater danger.”

Sri Lanka has banned fertilizer from the next season Maha or main cultivation season. Sri Lanka is also planning to import some organic fertilizers, which could also have various unknown impurities.

Fraught with Uncertainty

There have been widespread farmer protests. Farmers are also apprehensive due to uncertainty and lack of expertise.

“It is a situation of unknowns,” Charitha Subasinghe, President – Retail, John Keells Holdings, which works with farmers and sells fruits and vegetables through an island-wide chain said.

“When we talk with the farmers and work with them, the unknown is what is worrying the farmer. The question is that can we do it overnight or should it be phased out is the question that is working in the minds of the farmers.”

He said there seemed to be too many unknowns to predict how everything will pan out.

Shea Wickramasingha, Group Managing Director, Ceylon Biscuits Limited, the group had been involved in exporting organic spices, fruits, and coconut.

“The idea and thinking are very good but it can’t be done overnight,” she said.

“When we stopped using chemical fertilizers in soya cultivation, we did a lot of trials and research.

“And also you need to ensure farmers income does not come down. So when you are converting to organic fertilizers you need to do it in a way your output is not reduced.”

“There’s a lot of work, you cannot just say that from today you are going to use organic fertilizers, there is a lot of challenge but we need to have a strategy.” (Colombo/Aug26/2021)

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Sri Lanka to find investors by ‘competitive system’ after revoking plantations privatizations

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka will revoke the privatization of plantation companies that do not pay government dictated wages, by cancelling land leases and find new investors under a ‘competitive system’, State Minister for Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said.

Sri Lanka privatized the ownership of 22 plantations companies in the 1990s through long term leases after initially giving only management to private firms.

Management companies that made profits (mostly those with more rubber) were given the firms under a valuation and those that made losses (mostly ones with more tea) were sold on the stock market.

The privatized firms then made annual lease payments and paid taxes when profits were made.

In 2024 the government decreed a wage hike announced a mandated wage after President Ranil Wickremesinghe made the announcement in the presence of several politicians representing plantations workers.

The land leases of privatized plantations, which do not pay the mandated wages would be cancelled, Minister Siyambalapitiya was quoted as saying at a ceremony in Deraniyagala.

The re-expropriated plantations would be given to new investors through “special transparency”

The new ‘privatization’ will be done in a ‘competitive process’ taking into account export orientation, worker welfare, infrastructure, new technology, Minister Siyambalapitiya said.

It is not clear whether paying government-dictated wages was a clause in the privatization agreement.

Then President J R Jayewardene put constitutional guarantee against expropriation as the original nationalization of foreign and domestic owned companies were blamed for Sri Lanka becoming a backward nation after getting independence with indicators ‘only behind Japan’ according to many commentators.

However, in 2011 a series of companies were expropriation without recourse to judicial review, again delivering a blow to the country’s investment framework.

Ironically plantations that were privatized in the 1990s were in the original wave of nationalizations.

Minister Bandula Gunawardana said the cabinet approval had been given to set up a committee to examine wage and cancel the leases of plantations that were unable to pay the dictated wages.

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From the time the firms were privatized unions and the companies had bargained through collective agreements, striking in some cases as macro-economists printed money and triggered high inflation.

Under President Gotabaya, mandating wages through gazettes began in January 2020, and the wage bargaining process was put aside.

Sri Lanka’s macro-economists advising President Rajapaksa the printed money and triggered a collapse of the rupee from 184 to 370 to the US dollar from 2020 to 2020 in the course of targeting ‘potential output’ which was taught by the International Monetary Fund.

In 2024, the current central bank governor had allowed the exchange rate to appreciate to 300 to the US dollar, amid deflationary policy, recouping some of the lost wages of plantations workers.

The plantations have not given an official increase to account for what macro-economists did to the unit of account of their wages. With salaries under ‘wages boards’ from the 2020 through gazettes, neither employees not workers have engaged in the traditional wage negotiations.

The threat to re-exproriate plantations is coming as the government is trying to privatize several state enterprises, including SriLankan Airlines.

It is not clear now the impending reversal of plantations privatization will affect the prices of bids by investors for upcoming privatizations.

The firms were privatized to stop monthly transfers from the Treasury to pay salaries under state ownership. (Colombo/May25/2024)

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300 out of 1,200 Sri Lanka central bank staff works on EPF: CB Governor

ECONOMYNEXT – About 300 central bank staff out of 1,200 are employed in the Employees Provident Fund and related work, Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said, with the function due to be transferred to a separate agency after a revamp of its governing law.

“When it comes to the EPF there is an obvious conflict of interest. We are very happy to take that function out,” Governor Weerasinghe told a forum organized by Colombo-based Advocata Institute.

“We have about 300 staff out of 1,200 including contract staff, almost 150 of permanent staff is employed to run this huge operation. I don’t think the central bank should be doing this business,”

The EPF had come under fire in the past over questionable investments in stocks and also bonds.

In addition, the central bank also faced a conflict of interest because it had another agency function to sell bonds for the Treasury at the lowest possible price, not to mention its monetary policy functions.

“There has been a lot of allegations on the management of this fund. This is the biggest fund of the private sector; about 2.6 million active, I think about 10 million accounts.

“When it comes to EPF, obviously there’s another thing. We obviously have, in terms of resources, on the Central Bank, that has a clear conflict because we are responsible for the members.

“We have to give them a, as a custodian of the fund, we have to give them a maximum return for the members.

“For us to get the maximum return, on one hand, we determine the interest rates as multi-policy. On the other hand, we are managing public debt as a, raising funds for the government.

“And on the third hand, this EPF is investing 90 percent in government securities. And also, interest rates we determine, and they want to get the maximum interest. That’s a clear conflict, obviously, there’s no question.”

A separate agency is to be set up, he said.

“It’s up to the government or the members to determine to establish a new institution that has a trust and credibility and confidence of the members that this institution will be able to manage and secure an interest and give them a reasonable return, good return for their lifetime savings,” Governor Weerasinghe said.

“The question is that how whether we have whether we can develop that institution, whether we have the strong institution with accountability and the proper governance for this thing.

“I don’t think it should be given completely to a private sector business to run that. Because one is that here we have no regulatory institution. Pension funds are not a regulated business.

“First one is we need to establish, government should establish a regulatory agency to regulate not only the EPF business fund, there are several other similar funds are not properly regulated.

“Once we have proper regulations like we regulate banks, then we can have a can ensure proper practices are basically adopted by all these institutions.

“Then you can develop an institution that we who can run this and can be taken back by the Labour Department. I’m not sure Labour Department has the capacity to do all these things.”

While some EPF managers had come under scrutiny during the bondscam and for questionable stock investments, in recent years, it had earned better returns under the central bank management than some private funds that underwent debt restructuring according to capital market analysts with knowledge of he matter. (Colombo/May24/2024)

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Desperate Sri Lankans seek risky foreign jobs amid tough IMF reforms

ECONOMYNEXT – After working 11 years in Saudi Arabia as a driver, Sanath returned to Sri Lanka with dreams of starting a transport service company, buoyed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 presidential victory.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and an unprecedented economic crisis in 2022 shattered his dreams. Once an aspiring entrepreneur, he became a bank defaulter.

Facing hyperinflation, an unbearable cost of living, and his family’s daily struggles, Sanath sought greener pastures again—this time in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“I had to pay 900,000 rupees ($3,000) to secure a driving job here,” Sanath (45), a father of two, told EconomyNext while having a cup of tea and a parotta for dinner near Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

Working for a reputed taxi company in the UAE, Sanath’s modest meal cost only 3 UAE dirhams (243 Sri Lankan rupees). Despite a monthly salary of around 3,000 dirhams, he limits his spending to save as much as possible.

Sanath has been in Abu Dhabi for 13 months but had to wait six months before driving a taxi and receiving no salary.

TOUGH REALITIES

“I had to get my UAE driving license. I failed the first trial, and the company paid 6,500 dirhams on my behalf, agreeing to deduct 500 dirhams monthly from my salary,” he explained.

“So far, I have repaid only 3,000 dirhams.”

To raise the 900,000 rupees for the job, Sanath borrowed money from friends and pawned jewelry.

“I don’t know if I was cheated by the agent, but I must repay that money and also send money for my family’s expenses,” he said, glancing at a photograph of his family in a Colombo suburb.

Working night shifts in busy Abu Dhabi, Sanath said, “If I can secure 9,000 dirhams monthly through taxi driving, I will earn 3,000 dirhams in the month after deductions for the license fee and any traffic fines.”

Sanath came to Abu Dhabi with seven other Sri Lankan men through an employment agency in the Northwestern town of Kurunegala.

“Only two of us have withstood the tough traffic rules and payment deductions for offenses,” he said. Some of his colleagues are still job-hunting, while others have returned to Sri Lanka.

Sanath is one of around 700,000 Sri Lankans who have left the island in the last two years due to the economic crisis that forced the country to adopt difficult fiscal and monetary policies, including higher taxes and costly borrowing, exacerbating the cost of living.

FOREIGN EXCHANGE EARNERS

From January 2022 to the end of March 2024, at least 683,118 Sri Lankans migrated for foreign employment through legal channels, according to the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau.

They have sent $11.31 billion in remittances through official banking channels during the same period, central bank data shows.

Many Sri Lankans leave on visit visas, hoping to find jobs later, often guided by friends already working abroad. The economic crisis has pushed them to seek better opportunities abroad, despite the risks.

Sri Lankan authorities struggle to stop such risk-takers, who sometimes resort to illegal migration, despite warnings about human trafficking.

In Myanmar, 56 Sri Lankans caught in an IT job scam were detained earlier this year, and the government is still repatriating them.

At least 16 retired Sri Lankan military personnel have been killed in the Russia-Ukraine war after being misled by unscrupulous recruiters. Officials estimate that over 400 retired military officers may have left for similar reasons.

DISPERATE TO LEAVE

In March, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry warned against visiting any nation on open visas, urging Sri Lankans to emigrate only through registered agencies.

Despite the risks, many Sri Lankans are desperate to leave.

Abu Salim, a 32-year-old former rugby player, came to Dubai on a visit visa hoping for a banking job, which he never got.

Now freelancing in an insurance firm, he said, “I survive, and my relatives don’t see my struggle. It’s stressful, but still better than Sri Lanka right now.”

Suneth, a former top garment merchandiser, is also job-hunting in Sharjah after quitting his initial job in Sharjah.

“My worry is the visa. I must find a new job before it expires,” he said.

Many Sri Lankans in the UAE work multiple jobs, compromising their sleep and health to make ends meet. (Abu Dhabi/May 24/2024)

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