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Organic Toxicity in Sri Lanka

Out of all the Nations in the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka is the most prosperous, with the best social indicators, and yet, is muddling in the middle of a self inflicted economic crisis. At face value, this crisis has two primary causes.

First, the Sri Lankan rupee is free falling. A nation that imports most essential commodities, Sri Lanka cannot afford to have its currency plummeting. Suddenly, importers are unable to complete payments, and the population has resorted to hoarding. A new "Commissioner General of Essential Services" is unlikely to stop Sri Lankan citizens desperate enough to form breathtakingly long queues outside shops, while covid ravages the nation. This is a self perpetuating cycle of inflation, made extremely dangerous by the country's dependence on imports on essential items like kerosene, rice and cooking oil.

The second is the collapse in the tourism industry, perpetuated by coronavirus. Sri Lanka is adding almost 6,000 new patients per day. For context, when put in proportion with their population, a similar caseload would amount to 4,000,00 (four lakh) new Indians getting infected per day. Tourists are understandably staying away.

In part due to the central bank's confusing policies, there is almost no trust in the Sri Lankan Rupee. The lack of foreign currency that tourists bring with them has made a bad situation worse. Sri Lanka's foreign exchange is now a third of its previous value from a few years ago, and the government is resorting to disastrous protectionist measures to save itself, reminiscent of pre 1991 India.

But the root of the problem is probably deeper. Sri Lanka's prime minister, Mr Rajapaksa, fresh from selling off his family's home town of Hambantota to the Chinese, recently made a flash decision to transform his country into a fully organic nation. To this effect, he immediately banned all pesticides and manure in Sri Lanka. His cabinet members, most of whom are also family members probably busy adjusting into their new homes, did not protest. While Mr Rajapaksa was bragging to the United Nations about this "achievement", ministers at home were dealing with the "transitory shock" by promising to magically procure organic manure for the entire nation soon.

Some compare this policy, which was created after no consultation with scientists and urging from ideologues, to Mao's decision to eradicate sparrows from China, which ultimately lead to the deaths of 40 million Chinese. While the comparison may be overblown, the rhymes in the tune of history are evident.

After this disastrous decision, the tea industry is expected to suffer a 50% loss in production. Since it consists of 10% off all exports, almost 1.5 billion dollars of exports are now in jeopardy (The nation's foreign reserves in the month of July: 2.3 billion USD). Similar effects are expected on a variety of other agricultural industries, including cinnamon, 85% of which originates from Sri Lanka. Vegetable sellers are already protesting these policies while openly displaying their rotten produce.

While the effects might be eventually mitigated using better organic technology as well as negotiating higher prices for purer products, the crisis is imminent and the losses are unexpectedly sudden. A former Central Bank governor has commented on how this decision threatens the food security of Sri Lanka. This is a lone voice dissent, standing against scores of Sri Lankan media whose owners are big business houses. These media houses blamed fear mongering and hoarding for the situation.

Furthermore, due to the policy being constructed entirely without consultation with experts, it seems to have little scientific backing. Other regulatory regimes have stated that "organic farming is much more of an ideology that has the least science and is largely irrational". The government is yet to explain why some overuse of chemicals warrants banning them entirely, and why the decision was taken in such a flawed manner.

If nothing else, this serves as a lesson to the rest of the world. It is a reminder that while checks and balances might be slow, they are necessary, and a reaffirmation of the democratic decision making process. Leaders must be forced to prove the validity of their policies, and answer questions about the implementation as well as the idea. A democratic dictatorship to India's south will, sadly, remain just one of many examples that prove this.

Meanwhile, we can only wish Sri Lankans the best of luck from here in the north. (Updated as of December 2021)


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