Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Looking back at the origin: Department of Agriculture - One hundred years old

Dhanesh Wisumperuma
The Nation, 27 May 2012

The Agriculture Department of Sri Lanka is one of the key departments when we consider the importance of agriculture to the country. Although agriculture sector’s contribution to the GDP (including the plantation sector, livestock and forestry) is only about 9.9 per cent of the country, about 33 per cent of the total employees are engaged in the sector and supports food security. Hence the vitality of a state sector agency for the development of the sector is obvious. According to the Department website, their objectives include; maintaining and increasing productivity and production of the food crop sector for the purpose of enhancing the income and living condition of the farmer and making food available at affordable prices to the consumer. The major functions of the DOA include research, extension, production of seed and planting material, regulatory services related to plant quarantine, soil conservation and pesticides.

However this article aims to look back at the origin of the department, that took place a century ago – the Department of agriculture was established in May 1912.

Promotion of agriculture

The idea to establish the department seems to be the ultimate result of the growing concern about subsistence agriculture during British administration of the country. For instance a clear interest of repairing ancient irrigation works in view of cultivating paddy and other subsistence crops could be seen since at least the mid 19th Century. There was a Central Irrigation Board concerned with irrigation and a department dedicated for Irrigation was created in 1900. Agricultural experiments of paddy and other crops were also carried out through the Department of Botanic Gardens and through Government Agents and their assistants. However the main interest of the government was on the plantation sector.
It seems that the development of agriculture was promoted in view of increasing consumable crop production the people as well as to reduce the burden of importing rice from India. Some of the tanks were repaired when expected beneficiaries agreed to pay a higher amount of tax for a certain period. The food imports were also heavy, for instance half the quantity of rice required for the local consumption was imported, mainly from India in early 1900s.

School gardens were another action taken to promote agriculture during the time period. This was initiated under the Department of Public Instruction (which was later renamed as Department of Education) in 1901 with five schools. It received the support of the Royal Botanic Gardens and ultimately it was transferred to that department in 1906. The School Gardens program was aimed to promote agriculture among the children, to encourage the students to plant at home and to pass the message to their parents. This is highlighted as a mode of practical learning, which changes the education system hitherto limited to theoretical studies. The program included vegetables, fruits, other useful plants and ornaments. It seems that this program targeted rural schools, and there were 236 schools with school gardens by 1912.

Meanwhile there was a general interest in agriculture in society. The Ceylon Agricultural Society was formed in 1904 which also received considerable support from the government. Its objectives included the promotion and extension of agriculture in Ceylon. In 1907, with all this as the backdrop, Christopher Drieberg, Superintendent of School Gardens stated in his contribution to the Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon, “…it may be expected that before long a central Department of Agriculture will be established.” The seeds sawn were about to blossom by 1911.

Origin of the Department of Agriculture

Addressing the Ceylon Legislative Council on April 24, 1911, the Governor, Sir Henry McCallum said that he had submitted a memorandum to the Secretary of State in Britain with four principal headings related to Agricultural Department and Training. The first item under this list was the establishment of a Department of Agriculture. He also said that the Secretary of State has approved of the scheme.

According to the records available, The Department of Agriculture was officially established in May 1912. It was done so by superseding the Department of Royal Botanic Gardens. All branches that functioned under the latter became a part of the Department of Agriculture. Robert Nunez Lyne was the first director appointed for the Department of Agriculture by the Secretary of State for Colonies in London. He had served as the Director of Agriculture in Zanzibar and was also in the service of Portuguese East Africa (present Mozambique) previously. He was a Fellow of the Linnean Society as well as the Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Lyne published two books, one ‘Mozambique; its agricultural development’ in 1913 and ‘Zanzibar in contemporary times: a short history of the southern East in the nineteenth century’ in 1905.

Lyne was appointed as the Director of the Department of Agriculture of then Ceylon for an annual salary of £ 1,000. However, he also received Rs 3,000 as the editor of the Tropical Agriculturalist and Journal of the Ceylon Agricultural Society which he held from 1912 to 1916. He was also appointed as the Registrar of Co-operative Credit Societies in February 1913 and Principal of the School of Tropical Agriculture in August 1915. He held these responsibilities apart from the Directorship of the Department of Agriculture.
According to his reports, Lyne took up duties as the Director on his arrival in Colombo on May 30, 1912, which date he mentioned as “the date the Department of Agriculture may be said to have superseded the Department of Royal Botanic Gardens.” (It is important to note that some other documents mention the date of assuming duties as May 20).

RN Lyne in 1914 (with kind permission of Don Just, Melbourne, Australia. 
RN Lyne in 1914 (with kind permission of Don Just, Melbourne, Australia.

Organization of the new department

Lyne’s main task was to prepare an organization plan for the new department. He commenced on this soon after assuming duties and it took about seven months to finalize the proposals. He submitted it in January 1913 and submitting the proposals he thanked the other officials of various sections that were now under him and functioned previously under the Royal Botanic Gardens.

The new department was incomplete until the new scheme comes out. A committee report on the public service prepared in September 1912 mentioned that Agricultural Department: “As this is a new Department, the final organization of which is still incomplete, it is not desirable to deal with the salaries of its members in this Report.”

McCallum, the then governor, who was about to leave the country accepted Lyne’s proposals and published as a Session Paper. These proposals or the scheme of organization contained a somewhat detailed plan for the Department; The title proposed was “Department of Agriculture, Ceylon” and Peradeniya was the proposed based for a variety of reasons – including the fact that many of the staff and offices are there, suitability of climate, availability of rail transport, and “there is no part of the island, leaving out the uninhabitable jungles, that cannot be reached from Peradeniya in one day.”

Lyne proposed to organize the department into seven divisions, all of which were under the Botanic Gardens previously. These included – Mycology and Botany, Entomology, Horticulture (including Botanic Gardens), Experimental Stations, Low Country Products and School Gardens, Chemistry and Rubber Research and Agricultural Education. The proposals included brief accounts of these divisions. Governor McCallum has mentioned these proposals “lucid and practical” in his review of the administration, published in February 1913. These were considered at a meeting of the Executive Council in April same year for at which Lyne was also present. These proposals were also published in a Session Paper.

With these proposals the Reginald E Stubbs, Acting Governor of Ceylon started a series of communications with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lewis Harcourt. There are suggestions as well as re-recommendations and Stubbs on June 4, 1913 requested secretary’s approval of the above general scheme of organizations stating, “Which sees to me to be well conceived and carefully thought out. Executive Council discusses the proposals and unanimously recommended that they should be approved at the earliest possible moment.”

Harcourt replied positively on July 16, 1913 after consulting the Director of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. Although the organizational structure was approved, the firm establishment of the department took some time. In April 1914, Lyne mentions that, “The department is not yet in complete working order, as there were three offices still vacant at the close of the year,” but he also mentioned that “at the same time, the Department as a whole has maintained a high level of activity.”With the new system the Department of Botanic Gardens, previously headed by a director, became a Division of the Department of Agriculture. The head of the Division of Botanic Gardens was a superintendent, with a lower salary. This division was to look after the four botanic gardens (including Peradeniya, Hakgala, Heneratgoda and Nuwara Eliya) and three Governors gardens at Colombo, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. (This system continued until 2005, when the Botanic Gardens unit was transferred to a separate ministry and then made a department in 2006.)

Role of the Department

What was the early role of the Department of Agriculture in this early period? Did it only facilitate the promotion of plantation crops? The department was working on plantation crops and tobacco as well as on subsistence agriculture or crops cultivated for food, an area where facilitation had already begun. For instance, Maha Illuppallama experimental station mainly conducted research on rice and coconuts by 1914, and there are other such stations. Vegetable cultivation was encouraged through the school garden program and research was done on fruits and vegetables as well as their pests during this time.

That was the beginning. The role played by the Department during the rest of the century changed with time. There are criticisms about the role of the Department, although it is one of the best government sector agencies in the country. However the role of the department is further important at present as agriculture is facing serious debacles. Although there is a boom of subsistence agriculture in the country, which is partly subsidized by the state, there are serious challenges ahead – such as climate change.


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