15 November 2017

The soft wind over paddy fields gathers ancient songs...

Everyone has a folder full of images that are labelled ‘Sacred’. Each has his or her preferred colours, preferred blend of form and space, precious mountains and trees, heart shaped leaves and breath-taking transparencies. In my Sacred Folder is a special locket: paddy fields.

Like most people in this country I have seen their full wardrobe of seasonality, from the dry, cracked and thinly grassed pre-season, through the rich brown of preparation, blue-green promise into light green and gold. I have seen the full moon move from liyadda to liyadda on certain nights from the window of a speeding bus. 

These images are not un-peopled. Say ‘rice’ and I see ‘labour,’ I see ‘buffaloes,’ ploughing, transplanting, weeding, harvesting, threshing and also the skewed exchanges at all phases of production which leaves the tiller impoverished and the entrepreneur fat. 

This is not all I see. I see a temple, a way of life, certain reverences, a sense of being, dignity, identity, history and civilisation. Rice, to me at least, is all this. Not because I ever worked in a paddy field, but perhaps because my father has, as has many of my ancestors and more than this because certain things are in the blood of one’s sensibilities, subdued and forgotten but nevertheless present. Forget me, just peruse a random selection of our rich tradition of folk poetry. Think of dance and other forms of art. It is about rice if it is about anything. 

We are what we eat, someone said. Rice, then, is arguably who we are. It makes us as it made our ancestors. As it is transformed so too do we change and if it were to die, then we die too. 

For these reasons ‘paddy fields’ is not a locket that sits above and safe from the political. My locket persuades me to be alert when ‘rice’ is mentioned, when ‘high yielding varieties’ are mentioned, and when someone talks about ‘irrigation management’ or celebrates ‘high value crops.’ I look closely at such things because I heard two things many years ago that I will never forget. 

A World Bank ‘expert’ once said ‘Your food security lies in the wheat fields of North America’ and before that, in the heady days of the Green Revolution, an FAO ‘expert’ intimated that his project will end only when the last buffalo in the country ends up in the Dehiwala Zoo. 
Rice is not a landscape beautifying, wholesome grain, but is ingrained in the cultural history of this country and inextricably tied to politics in general. This is why an attack on rice should be seen as a far more serious proposition than a terrorist threat, because it is an attack on the collective heart of our peoples. 

And attacks there have always been, although never more concerted than in the process that began towards the end of the ‘80s when the subversion took the form of structural adjustment ‘imperatives.’ The research infrastructure was to be decentralised into oblivion, the Paddy Marketing Board dismantled, agricultural extension virtually handed over to regional outlets selling chemical inputs, attempts at gene piracy and water resources privatised in the name of ‘participatory irrigation management.’ There was more. Policy guidelines were introduced to push the farmer out of rice and out of the land in favour of multinational agricultural enterprises and commercial crops such as gherkin, baby corn and tobacco, none of which are staples which we can consume should markets that are always prone to failure fail. 

This is not the place for an analysis of all this. The relevant data and analysis is available at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (formerly ARTI), the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform, the Movement for the Protection of Indigenous Seeds, the Green Movement of Sri Lanka and other organisations and individuals who work on such issues. Forget it all. Just go ask an ordinary farmer about what rice is to him or her and what goes in and goes out in a season and rest assured the relevant political economy will emerge in the simplest language.

About 10 years ago, I walked into a village called Kelegama a few miles from Galgamuwa. This was a village I had worked in earlier and therefore I knew most of the villagers. I met several villagers on the road and after the initial exchange of greetings they all said without exception ‘aarthikaya nam binduwai’ (the economy of course is zero). 

Inquiries at the village boutique revealed that people enjoyed considerable purchasing power. They had other sources of income. Many men were in the armed forces, the young girls in garment factories, some worked as agricultural labour in Rajangane, some made and sold pots. I found later that ‘binduwai’ (zero) meant just one thing: they were not eating rice they themselves had grown. I found also that they would prefer to cultivate rice over any other crop. And finally my conversations confirmed the findings of a study conducted by the ARTI: rice is a crop that suffered disincentives. 

Is all lost? Not at all. There is resilience. Those who know rice, know who they are and they have time and again demonstrated that they will not be counted out. My wife’s grandfather, she says, used to admonish her if she left any rice on her plate: ‘each grain has 100 beads of my sweat.’ This was a long time ago. Today there are young men and women who have returned to traditional varieties in the full knowledge that our forefathers knew something which although didn’t earn (not by accident) the label ‘science’ was no less scientific. 

Take rice out of the equation and we will not only compromise our food security but national security as well. Erase rice from our sensibilities and we will have erased who we are as a people. Kavantissa didn’t fight Elara. He built tanks, he opened fields for cultivation. His son reaped the fruits of his father’s labour and vision. 

A couple of years ago we had excess stocks of rice, prompting the relevant ministry to commission an advertising campaign encouraging people to consume more rice. ‘Back to Rice’ was the line. Rice, however, is too precious to be limited to a cute pay-off line in a one-off advertising campaign. If governments and officials who are so good at promising but are terrible when it comes to delivery do the needful, things would be easy. If they don’t, do we perish? Not necessarily.

Not necessarily because I am not the only one whose favourite heart folder has something to do with rice. Many others have similar lockets which they don’t wear around their necks and are far more grounded in the elements that nurture than mine are. If you don’t believe me, take a walk. Or a bus. You don’t have to go to Thambuttegama or Hambantota. A few miles out of the city and you are already in the ‘rural.’ You will find a paddy field. You will find people who are clothed in rice and who hold the sacred grain in the palm of their hearts. They will have stories to tell and all you have to do is to listen. They will not talk till the cows come home, for there is work to be done. Both in the field and outside it.

[First published in 'The Nation,' June 26, 2016]