Need to form farmer cooperatives to boost development drive in North

The Cooperative Movement had been tried successfully in many countries, including Germany, to solve the problems of small farmers and artisans and in 1911 elite leaders introduced the Ceylon cooperative Credit Societies Ordinance and passed it in the Legislative Council. From the beginning the people in Jaffna took to cooperation more readily and enthusiastically than the rest of the Island, and the Societies in Jaffna maintained a generally high level of excellence, although in other districts also there were examples of good societies. The Northern Provincial Council (NPC) should utilize this valuable resource and build its capacity to benefit the people; as time is ripe for a holistic approach with formation of appropriate new farmer cooperatives to diversify the activities of the cooperative movement to enhance the agriculture production in the North.

In the past Jaffna Tamils geographically separated from the rest of the country were more conservative in their approach to life and more forward looking in their ideas than the rest of the population. What was typical of the Tamil, then, and is perhaps true even at the present time, was the moral industriousness which comes from a life of constant effort. Furthermore, the Jaffna Tamils did profit from secondary schooling in English, because Hinduism as practised in Jaffna, did not prove a barrier to “Westernisation” and with those who were converted to Christianity did adapt their cultural frontiers to assimilate western ideas and values without having to give up their traditional norms and values. The introduction of the Cooperative Credit Movement in 1911 came as a boon to the subsistence farmers of Jaffna who had been exploited for generations as the feudal system was upset by the colonial rule. The cooperative credit societies, in addition to their contribution to the economic life of the community, also served as schools of democracy, as well as the training ground for leadership at the village level. The inevitable consequence was the availability of an educated work force to assume roles of leadership, be it agitation for political and constitutional changes, or economic and social development, or educational reform. Under the leadership of the English educated, that included a large community of Malayan pensioners, many supervisory institutions were established at an early stage to foster the development of the Cooperative Movement, in particular the Jaffna Cooperative Provincial Bank. This cooperative system played an active role during the war years with its rural banks serving its farmer members as a source to obtain loans to meet the labour costs to prepare the land for sowing paddy, that was repaid on harvest and played a key role to distribute provisions to the people through its network of multipurpose cooperative stores at village level all of which did survive very much and are still functioning well; these facilities are not properly exploited at present, but should be utilized to play an active role in developing the Northern Province.

A holistic approach is required from the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) to come up with a plan to optimise the available resources of the cooperative movements in the North to play a vital role; develop it further to provide incentives to encourage educated youth in all parts of the province to develop entrepreneurial skills and undertake sustainable, market-driven income-generating agriculture related activities. These needs to be identified, given the chronically high unemployment rates among this group and providing for income-generation through productive self-employment to the other high unemployed group, who are women leading the Women Headed Families (WHF), the largest community impacted by the civil war, estimated around 69,000 in the Northern Province of which 34,000 are from Jaffna district These could involve such components as credit or group credit for micro, small and medium enterprises; in providing training for skills development, business management, marketing strategies, and technology transfer and in competitive marketing. The cooperative movement should also expand their services to cover the third group of unemployed persons from marginal social and economic backgrounds, that includes the differently able and rehabilitated people both directly impacted by the war. This is a highly volatile group and their problem needs to be resolved through special schemes, such as vocational training linked to productive self-employment, targeted at this group. A proper study of the current situation is needed first to evaluate the shortcomings to come up with a development plan; thereafter invite investments necessary to execute the plan. To achieve this NPC needs to work utilizing the devolved powers together with other sectors and the limited private sector including the NGOs in the province by designing and implementing such schemes that lead to the creation of sustainable and broad-based self-employment opportunities within the framework of provincial specialization in the production of goods and services related to agriculture. There are plenty of opportunities in the agricultural sector in the province to have large production factories to produce value added products for export; the long-term objective of this exercise should be to improve productivity through technological and institutional changes and create much needed employment opportunities that would lift the province back as a net contributor to the national income a position lost due to the civil war of 30-40 years.

Today, there are many agriculturalists that includes growers, poultry farmers, milk producers and others supporting the agriculture industry in the North with their subsistence methods are in need of assistance. A plan to improve the yield by adopting to large scale cooperative production methods and able to sell their produce at a reasonable price free from exploitation by middlemen and money lenders; it is here the cooperative movement could play an important role to form farmer cooperatives and introduce modern methods that exist elsewhere and practiced by farmers in many other countries. That would increase the quality and quantity of production, optimise the use of human resources, conserve water resources and utilize considerable amount of barren land for use in the agricultural sector. Time is ripe for the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) to get in an play a facilitator role to enable the cooperative authorities to take up the development of these and other post-harvest related activities with these newly formed farmers’ cooperatives to go beyond breakeven point and then with existing chain of cooperative outlets to uplift this most important sector in the north to commence exporting their products to markets in other provinces and overseas.