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Sarath, the Prophet of the Farmers


[Sarath Fernando,Vikalpa photo]
EDITORIAL, Daily Mirror-
Agri-culture, as the word implies, has been part of our culture and civilisation down the ages with the hard-working farmers who provide our staple ‘bath patha’ known to be among those fit for the Throne. Tragically during the past few decades, trans-national corporations (TNCs) and their political or business agents here have dragged agriculture into the money pits of agri-business. What we sow-we reap. So we see this year tens of thousands of farmer families being turned into beggars waiting for their food and water from charity groups while we hear lamentations about the destruction of their cultivated land for the past few seasons mainly due to one of the worst–ever droughts in recent years. The destitute, degraded and desolate farmers say they are unable to even find jobs-as hired labourers because most people in the drought–stricken districts don’t have money even to hire labourers.

While politicians continue to promise much, but produce little for the farmers, a prophetic personality who for decades campaigned intensively for the restoration of the rights and status of farmers, passed away on Sunday night.

The soft-spoken veteran Sarath Fernando, founder of the Movement for Land and Agriculture Reforms (MONLAR), did not seek personal gain or glory as most other leaders including politicians do. Sarath Fernando may or may not have known it, but his last major crusade for the farmers was the campaign against the proposed Seed Act. Though tired and weak, he emerged through the storm and the night to lead people in a full-scale campaign against the Seed Act which should have eventually forced our once proud farmers to be the slaves of multi–million-dollar profit making TNCs. What Bala Tampoe was to thousands of workers, Sarath Fernando was to farmers. Sometimes when he thought he was fighting alone, he remembered Ravindranath Tagore’s inspiring words:

If they answer not to thy call walk alone
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,
O thou unlucky one,
open thy mind and speak out alone.
If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness,
O thou unlucky one,
trample the thorns under thy tread,
and along the blood-lined track travel alone.
If they do not hold up the light when the night is troubled with storm,
O thou unlucky one,
with the thunder flame of pain ignite thy own heart,
and let it burn alone.

Government leaders and the Agriculture Ministry apparently hoped they could smuggle the Seed Act through Parliament. It did not seem to be destructive, but it would have compelled farmers to buy genetically–modified or hybrid seeds from TNCs which had patent rights over the seeds. These unnatural seeds do not germinate. They are part of what is called terminator technology where the seeds produce one big harvest and then die. For the next cultivation the farmers would be forced to again buy seeds from the TNCs who might show some dubious generosity by selling the seeds on a credit basis. So the vicious cycle would go on and on until the farmers become debtors and are enslaved in poverty. Worse still, millions of Sri Lankans cannot be sure of the rice they are eating because most people-friendly nutritionists believe such unnatural rice could have side effects which even medical specialists cannot diagnose.

But Sarath Fernando and MONLAR made an early diagnosis of this potential cancer.

They led the campaign to make the farmers, the people and even the urban elite aware of the disaster. Thus, at the recent protest march around the Agriculture Ministry offices in Colombo, we saw farmers from distant village areas marching shoulder to shoulder with the elegantly-dressed Colombo elite. Most of them seem to be awakening to the extent of the threat posed to Sri Lanka by the economic neo-colonialism of the TNCs which today seem to be acting as the drones of the selfish and greedy West. It has more than 85% of the world’s wealth and resources but wants still more to store in bigger barns. Government leaders have said the proposed Seed Act will be withdrawn. Though political promises today are like weeds or pests among the paddy, we hope the rights of farmers will be given priority and great men like Sarath Fernando will not be among the prophets who are honoured everywhere but not in their own country.
Wednesday, 10 September 2014

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