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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Friday, April 29, 2005

Rice researchers reaping a harvest of constraints

Daily News: "27/04/2005 BY AFREEHA Jawad

REGRETFULLY, researchers continue to remain in the backwoods and the shoddy treatment meted out to them needs arresting.

This writer's first hand experience at the Rice Research and Development Institute in Bathalagoda, Sri Lanka's prime research station pertaining to this country's staple food, revealed the trying conditions under which these researchers work, from the institutional head down to the clerical staff.

Executive Director Dr. Sumith Abeysiriwardena sits in a small rectangular room hardly enough even to stretch his legs. Any visitor seated opposite him must surely be mindful of not making him the recipient of a kick or two.

Both visitor and he therefore share mutual caution in leg-stretching lest one accidentally kicks the other from under the table while engrossed in conversation.

A tour of this 128 acre sprawling premises on which sits 50 acres experimental paddy - the rest being highland - brought me to the staff canteen which I understood to be the locality for what is called 'taking meals by turn'.

As I excused myself into this small, dingy, stuffy enclosure there were around 50 staffers - some preparing to eat, earnestly looking for a 'good soul' to vacate and others that hurriedly went through their morsel to make way for hungry colleagues.

Noted as we are in importing vehicles for politicos' travelling comfort, which according to them is "in the people's service," this writer wondered why higher authorities got their wires crossed in need prioritization - significantly of political extravaganza over facilities for researchers with better remuneration and all.

I saw some of Sri Lanka's finest researchers silently getting about their work in ill spaced yet neatly laid out laboratories that was anything but international standards.

In a country where the annual rice production cost is Rupees 50 billion, only 15 million is spent on research and development - all this is minus researchers' salaries.

According to the institute's chief Dr. Sumith Abeysiriwardena and his deputy Dr. Nimal Dissanayake - two energetic, hardworking men - at least if Rs. 50 million is given for research, exciting results could be got considering Bathalagoda's performance upto now - a little over five decades.

"We do not want a red cent into our hands. What we ask is the infrastructure, equipment and chemicals. Our experimental fields lack maintenance. We also need improved irrigational canals," they informed.

Bathalagoda is not without its fine intellectual capital but of what use is all that knowledge when one cannot realize still better results, thought this writer.

This status quo even brought to Dr. Abeysiriwardena's mind that well known Sinhala saying, "Aliya Innawa Henduwa Nehe". Making matters worse is all the red tape of financial and administrative constraints in getting what the institute needs.

Elaborating on the need for more and more research and its importance which in public eye is 'wasteful', Dr. Dissanayake informed of how research success is always not assured - something like 50-50.

There is both success and failure but still it has got to be done for crop development, high yields, plant growth and so on. For instance, he pointed out the paddy plants' nursery period of 14 days prior to planting proper.

"But if I decide otherwise like shifting it off the nursery after 30 days to see what kind of results I would get - this then has to be researched. May be it will succeed, perhaps not but still it has got to be done. It may sound silly but that's what research is all about for crop development," said Dr. Dissanayake signalling the importance of funds for research work.

Bathalagoda also needs funds for its upkeep as well. Certainly, maintaining 128 acres is no joke what, with those long and winding canals that meander through unending stretches of greenery - all of which are experimental fields where I saw researchers standing knee deep in mud exposed to Wayamba's ferocious heat working alongside agricultural labourers farmers and other para agro personnel.

This is certainly a place of scenic elegance and is sure to please and attract any tranquil and serene thirsty visitor. A well maintained circuit bungalow - abode to many international researchers as well - seemingly a facade to all of the institute's already stated numerous ills.

According to these two men Sri Lanka's rice yields have now hit an all time high record level of 80 bushels per acre - a distant laugh from the 13 bushels that was per acre - a six fold increase of 600 per cent starting 1940s.

The main contributor to this rise was this institute's technological innovation at which point brought to these staff officers' minds the contributions of the institution's staff along with past notables that sat amidst the greenery of Bathalagoda namely - Dr. Hector Weeraratne, Dr. D. Senadeera, Dr. M. C. A. Sandanayake, Dr. M. P. Dhanapala, Dr. Paul E. Peiris and Dr. Vignarajah.

Dr. Abeysiriwardena also recalled the 1940s decade bearing a six million population when rice imports were 60 percent. After several years in 2000 there were no imports at all despite a 19 million population.

Strikingly, rice production figures have kept abreast of population growth. Over the years thus we see rice production having had a ten fold increase over a three fold population rise - indeed an unparallelled achievement on the institution's part over 50 years that has kept Sri Lanka's teeming millions well fed.

All other factors apart, the giant technological strides on the part of Bathalagoda, justifies its claims to a production increase in rice. This may not have been so if not for its dedicated staff.

The institution has every moral right to be a major stakeholder inSri Lanka's present self-sufficiency in rice even surpassing Burma, Philippines and Indonesia - all of which were once rice exporters now become importers.

Drs. Dissanayake and Abeysiriwardena believe time has now come to think of nutritional quality as a follow up to bumper yields.

This then is where the State's concern should come in to fund the much needed research that these experts have in mind.

Despite hurdles and all other constraints if Bathalagoda could come this far one could imagine what its achievements would be given its growth essentials.

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