Giving up Gourmet Rice for a dis-functional Air Port in Kundasale?
by Chandre Dharmawardana, Canada
News reports say that there is a move to build an airport in the region now known as `Kundasale`. This has been the most cherished rice-growing region of the Kingdom of Kandy, with land bestowed to the temples providing the backbone of the terrain. In fact, even the name `Kunda-sale` may have originated from `Sundra-Sahala, ස ු න ් ද ර ස හ ල `, i.e., `beautiful riceland`. Nevertheless, I have heard Lankan entrepreneurs claiming that `rice cultivation` is no longer profitable, and alternative `cash crops`, as well as the rapid access to business provided by an airport would help to `develop` and `open up` this area. Both these views are, in my view completely wrong.
I have maintained a website on Sri Lankan plants, herbs, agricultural crops etc., (see dh-web.org/place.names/bot2sinhala.html#rice) for many years, and view science as an essential tool for our economic development and well being. Within that perspective, the proposal is neither scientifically sound, nor economically advantageous to the country.
Do we need an airport in Sundara-Sahala?
Airports are expensive, produce pollution and take up large amounts of land. Hence most airports are located some distance from urban centers. A traveler has to go to Katunayake and then arrive in Heathrow (London) or Roissy (in Paris). Thus an extra three or more hours at each end are added to the travel time. Even local air travel needs an hour each at both ends of the trip. Thus a traveler leaving Ratmalana and arriving in Kundasale would need at least two hours for his trip.
Air ransport can compete with ground transport only for distances in excess of 300 kilometers. Kandy, and indeed most of Sri Lanka do not fit in.
In contrast, if a fast electric train were built, connecting Colombo with Kandy, we have ecologically sound transport for many tourists as well as local customers. Given current technology, electric trains moving at 300km/h is standard fare available from, e.g., Germany, France, China or Canada. (I have discussed the topic of `sensible mass transport` in the Island Newspaper, 27 Nov. 2011. See also: thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/cheap-mass-rail-transport-not-expressways-is-the-way-for-the-future-espressways-carmageddon/). Such a train would take a passenger from the center of Colombo to Kandy in about 20 minutes. There are politcal pluses in that the current provincial power-devolution plans would become irrelevant. In the end, air transport would be found to be at least ten times LESS cost-effective than electric ground transport, whether we consider speed, number of people moved, safety or ecological sustainability.
So how can ANY RATIONAL policy maker propose an airport for Kundasale if the objective is to move people rapidly from Colombo or Katunayake to Kandy? The only thing that is justifiable is a small military landing-pad (perhaps on top of an existing garrison or police area for landing helicopters or small planes).
Need for a `Gourmet-Rice` marketing board
Some 40% of the world`s oxygen is provided by the ever-endangered rain forests in the Amazon. However, Lanka is lucky to have a lot of green growth within its shores, although increasingly threatened by its growing population density and traffic pollution. Sundara- Sahala (Kundasale) is an extremely valuable respirator supplying oxygen to the hill country with its high level of pollution due to intense agriculture in plantation crops. Kundasale has also been the repository of Kandyan rice cultivation. There are vast unexploited possibilities in this old traditional crop.
The focus of agricultural policy in the past has been to `feed the fast-growing populace` by creating river-valley irrigation projects. While this was a fundamentally correct policy, it has become questionable in view of its ecological irreconcilability, as well as the challenge from highly automated large-area farming of thousands of hectares, as is possible in USA or Canada. This then is the basis for the claim that `growing rice` is no longer profitable for us.
Here we have to take a leaf from 19th century France. She decided to emphasize quality products designed for the rich aristocratic market with perfumes, fashion and style, gourmet food, wine and `joi de vivre`. The mass market was largely in the hands of the British empire with its capacity for colonial exploitation.
In marketing tea we do not sell low-quality bulk tea, but go for quality teas, and exploit the mystique of `high-grown tea`. The case for `gourmet rice` is identical. From 1920 onwards, new `hardy` rice varieties (e.g., HR4) that give better yields, need less water, and respond `better` to fertilizer were introduced. This led to a near abandoning of traditional rice varieties. Varieties of `Heenati`, `Kahata-wee`, `Gonabaru`, `Suvandael`, `Rathdael`, `Maa-wee`, `Kurulu-thuda`, `Haetadaa-wee` etc., are said to have various special flavors and possible health benefits (e.g., for diabetes). The validity of such health claims may be on the same footings as claims made for red wine, green tea etc., and clearly provides a good marketing advantage as for `organic health foods`. Already there are entrepreneurs who market such rice varieties via the Rural Enterprise Network. However, the product needs to reach the rich consumers in Western capitals. What is needed is a `Gourmet rice marketing board` with trained `rice tasters` promoting the products internationally, as in tea marketing. Chemistry can add its clout with chromatography and aroma analysis. Genetics and plant breeding methods targeting the gourmet customet need to focus on aroma, taste and texture rather than big bulk harvests. Hundred gram packets specialty rice at five dollars is within the market range!
Then it would be seen that growing rice in the Sundara-Sahala is an excellent business proposition. Of course, it need not be confined to rice alone, since multi-cropping is ecologically far more sound than mono-crop agriculture.I believe that this approach has been suggested by other writers as well as our agricultural scientists. However, as far as I know, no adequate official backing has been given. This market niche has to be secured before some other rice-growing country captures it.