Back to the nursery | Daily News


In Passing...

Back to the nursery

Sometime in the year 2004 there was a bumper paddy harvest in Sri Lanka. Prices dropped. The rice farmers were hit, then, by surplus. The then Government commissioned an advertising agency, Phoenix O&M, to design a campaign encouraging people to consume more rice. That, incidentally, was my first formal introduction to advertising.

‘Come up with a line,’ Irvin Weerackody told me. ‘Yali Sahalata,’ I suggested and said the English version could be ‘Back to Rice.’ The creative people at Phoenix went ahead with the execution and secured a SLIM Award for their efforts.

That exercise made me realize that even when doing justice to an advertising brief, we can be political. In this case it was easy. It was about rice, after all. ‘Back to rice,’ however, had a strong political and ideological message in a context where the then Government was committed to taking policy directives from the World Bank, IMF and of course officials of the US Embassy in Colombo; all agencies which insisted directly or indirectly that Sri Lanka’s food security lay in the wheat fields of North America. ‘Grow high value crops,’ they said. ‘Get out of rice,’ they insisted.

Back to rice, then, would be antithetical to these policy prerogatives. The then Government was conscious of political fallout, probably. Hit the farmers and the farmers could hit back come election time, they may have reasoned.

It’s not about getting ‘back to rice,’ alone, obviously. It’s probably about getting back to traditional varieties of rice. Varieties that were more nutritious, less dependent on chemical inputs and genetically engineered over millennia to thrive in a wide range of climatic and soil conditions.

The tag line of the then policy regime was ‘Regaining Sri Lanka.’ Re-graining Sri Lanka, however, seems to have been the policy driver that politicians, then and thereafter, couldn’t quite understand or, more likely, weren’t excited about simply because they were clueless or were playing their comfortable role as adjuncts in the implementation of sinister designs.  ‘Back to Rice,’ moreover was not just about rice and food. It was going back to a lot of things discarded and/or vilified not because they were necessarily bad or outdated but whose existence or affirmation posed a threat to other and, as historically evidenced, pernicious designs the bitter fruits of which we have been forced to consume. 

Covid-19 has messed up all the theories of growth-led development, the primacy of trade and of course fairytales essentially defining Sri Lanka’s food security as something that helps North American wheat farmers. The pundits have learned that when things go sour we can’t really survive on gherkin or baby corn.

We’ve had to go back to basics, happily or unhappily. Food. That’s it. Not branded sunglasses, not mouth-watering dinners dished out in a fancy restaurant, not even window-shopping in mixed-development complexes. People are growing. Growing out of received ‘wisdom’ on a lot of things including theories of learning, quality of life and even the meaning of life. And we have had to go back to the beginning.

We were born with stomachs and mouths, but as my father told me many decades ago, we also have hands and brains. And everything around us is indicating that we have to learn all over again. Learning all over again means we have to un-learn much. Best to get back to the nursery, so to speak.

Indeed many people have gone right there, literally. They are planting. They are learning about seeds. They are learning about toil, sweat, the play of elements, creatures small and big, patience, solidarity, community and household.

Covid-19 has sent us all to a nursery. Well, nurseries. Nurseries of all kinds. We’ve gone back to rice — that’s another way of putting it.

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