The drought and depleted tanks in Nuwarakalaviya
Posted on July 3rd, 2012
Garvin Karunaratne, Ph.D. Former SLAS (Government Agent, Matara District 1971-73)
It is reported that there is hardly any water for Yala cultivation in the Anuradhapura District and that even under Kalaweva, 50,000 acres will have no water.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Farmers under Kalaweva & Polonnaruwa are up in arms complaining against the haphazard distribution of water.
I was the Assistant Commissioner of Agrarian Services that took over minor irrigation functions from the Government Agent in 1962. It was a very difficult task to attend to the needs of the farmers of over 2,500 small tanks and some of the issues I experienced form the nucleus of my novel, ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€¦Ã¢â‚¬Å“Vidanege DiyaniyaÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â (Godages)ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â I worked with able colleagues, Assistant Commissioners T.G. Peiris and Sappie Peiris and a staff of ten Divisional Officers, 2 Cultivation Superintendents, a Technical Assistant from the Irrigation Department, 29 Village Cultivation Officers and some fifty Overseers; we ran in circlesÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â in an effort to provide water to the innumerable peasants and organize paddy cultivation.
Perhaps my comments may help the Assistant Commissioners of today. Some of my ideas and recommendations are already included in my book, ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€¦Ã¢â‚¬Å“ How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka & Alternate Programmes of SuccessÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â (Godages). Though this book mainly deals with how the economy of our country suffered under IMF tutelage from 1977onwards, it also includes Papers on agricultural development and employment creation- an attempt to make a positive contribution to our beloved Motherland.
ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â The ancient tank civilization
Minor irrigation is the life blood for agricultural development in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka. In other words if not for irrigation water there will be no life in Nuwarakalaviya.
These tanks had been built by our ancestors to preserve rain water for paddy cultivation and to sustain human habitation. The ancestors also provided an intricate administrative infrastructure for the proper utilization of the tank water. It is sad to note that we in this age of sophisticated technology and modernization have miserably failed both to maintain the tanks as well as in irrigation administration.
Since I left the Administrative Service in 1973, in my innumerable visits to Anuradhapura and the South almost every year, I have observed how the tanks have become shallow, compared to the time I spent in Tissamaharama in 1958 and in Anuradhapura in 1962-64. Then I always carried my towel and extra clothes and enjoyed a swim in the deep dark waters at many tanks. Today, looking at the spots where I did have a bath I find that there is hardly two to three feet of water when in the Fifties and Sixties there was a depth of ten to twelve feet. The tanks have got silted and carry far less water.
ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Tankbed Cultivation
This was mainly due toÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â tank bed cultivation done by certain influential farmers. The tank bed is very fertileÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â and yields a bumper crop. As the rains commence some people get the upper sections of the tank bed ploughed with a tractor and sow paddy.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â They even go to the extent of damaging the tank bund in case the water level in the tank inundates their crop. This has been a common situation and with the onset of the rains a good part of the earth get washed into the tank. Though the Government Agent had the authority to take action against the tank bed cultivators by destroying the crop, he never authorized me to take action. That was inÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â 1962-64. The result today is that most tanks are silted up and hold little water.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â This is a failure in tank administration.
Encroachments onto the Tank bed
Further I have observed on my visits that there are many encroachments by influential people on to the upper reaches of the tank beds. A walk on the bund of most tanks near towns will show homes and buildings on the far edge of the tank. These are encroachments that happened in the last few decades when the tank administration failed. This is a malaiseÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â that has to be arrested immediately.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â
Repairs to tanks
Added to all this is what I noticed in another of my visits. InÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â building up the tank bunds, instead of getting a earth moving tractor, a D8 or a D4 to dig into the tank bed and pile up the earth on to the tank bed which I did in a number of tanks during my days, earth was moved from miles away in lorries to build up the bund. When earth from the tank bed is used the tank gets deeper and holds more water. When earth is moved from outside the tank the depth of the tank is not increased. It is also more costly due to transport costs.
Once I saw lorry after lorry bringing earth from far to build up the Basawakkulama in Anuradhapura.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â The best method lies in insisting that earth should be moved from the tank bed to build the bund.
Tile and Brick Making on Tankbeds during the Dry Season
Another method I used was to authorize people to make bricks using the earth in the tank beds during the dry season. Today bricks and tiles are made with the top soil of paddy lands, which is detrimental for paddy cultivation. Though this is not approved this is the method resorted to by brick and tile factories. If bricks and tiles are made on tank beds during the dry season it will deepen the tank beds, bring employment and incomes to the peasants as well as save the top soil of paddy lands elsewhere. During the dry months people in the Dry Zone have no income whatsoever. This idea deserves immediate consideration.
My administration caused concern among former contractors and cultivation committees doing work directly was not in their interest. I had initiated investigations against a number of officers for bogus work. In two yearsÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¾Ã‚Â¢ time, it all ended with my being given an immediate transfer and Soma Jayawardena, theÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Technical Assistant from the Irrigation Department who was associated with me in investigations, being given a ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€¦Ã¢â‚¬Å“punishmentÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â transfer. He even faced physical threats.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â With that the initiative that Agrarian Services took to build up the neglected tanks died a death.
Desilting Tanks in Ancient Days
In ancient days it is said that during the dry months of August to October elephants are led to mix up the mud and this is let out of the lower sluice gate. This was the method used against the build up of silt. However this is not practicable today. We hardly use elephants for work on tanks. A Cultivation Superintendent who worked under me told me that his father who had worked in tank building in Mannar had told him that elephants were used to place rocks on the tank bunds and the elephant would place the rock, walk back a distance to see whether the rock was well placed and would walk back to move the rock into place.
The Administrative Infrastructure for Tank maintenance
To get back to the administrative infrastructure that was in place to maintain the tanks,ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â in ancient times there was no differentiation between the judiciary and the executive and also no division of work into departments.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â The Dissava of each Province was all powerful and under him were petty chiefs and then village administration came under the gamsabhava, a group of village elders. They were in charge of everything- administrative, the tanks and development. There was effective action against miscreants. The people knew what would happen to them if they damaged a tank bund. If they evoke the wrath of the Dissawa they were really done for. Today under cover of lawyers,ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â cases go on for years..ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â A clear land encroachment case known to me took ten years to get solved! That was a civil case but even in criminal cases decisions take years. Government officers are forced to look away due to the fact that the legal system is ineffective. Damage to tanks, tank bed cultivation, illicit encroachments on tank beds have to be dealt with immediately and punishments should be very severe.
The Colonial Governors did away with the Gamsabhava. The Traditional Chief the Dissawa was done away withÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â and a Government Agent was appointed. At the Divisional level under the Government Agent there were Divisional Revenue Officers.Their task was the collection of revenue and administration. With the abolition of the GamsabhawaÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â village level democracy died a natural death. For village administration a Village Headman and for irrigation administration a Vel Vidane, were appointed by the Government Agent from among the people in the village.
Tank Administration at the village level
A village always was based upon a tank. The Vel Vidane held the Kanna Meetings, summoning all the farmers and at this meeting decisions were made depending on the availability of water in the tank as to what extent should be cultivated, and the dates for commencing clearing the canals, penning the cattle and fencing, completing ploughing, sowing and harvestingÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â etc. were fixed. Penalties for non adherence were also decided andÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â those that did not adhere were severely punished. The Vel Vidane had only to report those thatÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â did not adhere and they were immediately punished in the Rural Courts. The Vel Vidane was also selected from people who had a commanding status in the village and there was hardly anyone that disputed him.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Further the Vel Vidane functioned under the Government AgentÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â and the Divisional Revenue Officers and they were held in high respect by the Rural Courts President.
The Paddy Lands Act
Into this situation marched the Paddy Lands Act and the irrigation work was taken over from the Vel Vidanes andÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â handed over to the Cultivation Committees, a group of farmers who were elected by the farmers.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Though the cultivation committees got down to address the problems the farmers faced in cultivation, specially in irrigation matters, oneÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â snag was that an outsider was appointed as the Administrative Secretary of the Cultivation Committee. This wasÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â a GCE qualified youth who at times did not have a farmerÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¾Ã‚Â¢s back ground. The Vel Vidane was entitled to a small percentage of the crop which he hardly collected. On the other hand the Ad. Secretary had to be paid a wage and the Cultivation Committee was authorized to collect payment from the farmers. In many districts farmers did not pay their dues and had to be hauled before the Courts. This discredited the cultivation committees. Though in manyÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Districts like Anuradhapura in 1962 andÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Hambantota, the cultivation committees did handle irrigation work well and even did major repairs to tanks, in some districts the cultivation committees did not function properly. Action taken by the Cultivation Committees in the Courts to deal with irrigation offences did not have the same response compared to when the Vel Vidane took the miscreants to Courts. The Vel Vidane worked under the seal of the Government Agent who was widely respected. Party politics too crept into the cultivation committees and at times the elections were on party political lines. In Anuradhapura in electing the committees I insisted that the election should be by consensus and not by election and this paid heavy dividends.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â The United National Party under President Jayawardena did not favour the Paddy Lands Act and instead of cutting off the dead wood and developing on the cultivation committees, disbanded them and with that there was a lacuna in irrigation administration at the village level. The farmers were left to work as they wished.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Agricultural developmentÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â took a serious turn for the worse when President Premadasa in one of his unguarded moments promoted Agricultural Overseers to the rank of Grama Sevaka. Years later, during the days of President Kumaranatunge, GCE qualified youths were appointed as Niyamakas to attend to agricultural work. They did not have any training in agriculture and even today there is no systematic irrigation administration.
The importance of the Kanna Meetings
Paddy cultivation is guided by the rains and the Kanna MeetingsÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â attended to by the Vel Vidane and later by the Cultivation Committees form the basis of cultivation to utilize the rains to the maximum. Today the Kanna Meetings are held in some areas but never adhered to. This is evident everywhere in the country because one can see farmers preparing fields alongside lands where the crop is flowering. Recently looking out of my window at theÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Devon Hotel in Kandy,ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â I saw farmers preparing paddy fields alongside a two month old crop. Last year when I made inquiries from a farmer in Dambadeniya I was told that late cultivation is quite common. Farmers under Kalaweva have complained that they have no water and that this was due to the haphazard manner in which water was distributed.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â In the Dry Zone tank area, the Kanna Meetings were always attended to by irrigation officers in the case of all major tanks and the extent of cultivation agreed upon depended on the availability of water in the tank. The current agitation by farmers in Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura tells me that perhaps larger areas were cultivated than could have been cultivated by the water in the tanks. If that is true it is due to the fact that the Kanna Meetings are not properly held. In my days in 1962-1964 the Kanna Meetings were of great importance. The water from KalawevaÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â was distributed at a Kanna Meeting attended by the Divisional Irrigation Engineer himself and that meeting took a few hours and it was one of the most difficult and exacting meetings I ever presided. It is time that the Government conducts an immediate investigation into the holding of Kanna Meetings as this will alone enable organized cultivation in the Dry Zone.
The farmers who cultivate late will have pest attack due to the crop that is already in an advanced stage of cultivation. Furthermore the late cultivators will find that their harvest is damaged by the rains. The importance of the KannaÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Meetings has to be realized and its decisionsÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â adhered to. This has to be done by the Niyamakas. Unfortunately the Niyamakas know little agriculture and irrigation practices and they have to be trained. This is not their fault. The former Agricultural Overseers had a yearsÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¾Ã‚Â¢ training. The Vel Vidane was selected from among farmers and thereby had a knowledge of irrigation practices. It would augur well for at least a three monthÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¾Ã‚Â¢s training programme to be commenced immediately for all Niyamakas.
The Importance of a FarmerÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¾Ã‚Â¢s Organization
In the ancient times the Gamsabha- the organization of the village elders enabled orderly development.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â With its abeyance during the colonial days, officialdom came to rule agriculture. In 1958 to 1977 we tried with an institution, the Cultivation Committees. The green revolution and the increases it brought about in paddy harvests is mainly due to the working of the cultivation committees under the tutelage of the various Departments led by the Government Agents. Today there is a lacuna in farmer organization at the base level and it would augur well if the Government were to consider a farmerÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¾Ã‚Â¢s organization at the village level to handle agriculture and irrigation. It is my opinion that this is along felt need.
The Participation of Farmers
The participation of the farmers is essential to enable them to use high yielding varieties and fertilizers in the appropriate manner so that they can get the maximum harvest.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â The farmers have to be consulted; their participation evoked and working with them is an art in itself. Many village level workers handle their work in a directive manner and they prefer to instruct farmers rather than work with their participation. The Training and Visit System of Agricultural ExtensionÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â of the World Bank which was imposed on our countries from the Seventies also encourages direct action by village level workers. According to the World Bank, farmerÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¾Ã‚Â¢s organizations like cooperatives and cultivation committees need not be used by workers. It has beenÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â my experience that working with the full participation of the farmers through their own institutions, though at times is slow and painstaking, brings the best results in the long run. In the Comilla Programme of Rural Development in Bangladesh, the only success that one can talk of in peasant cultivation, doubling the yields was possible through cooperatives. The disciplinesÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â concerned to enable farmer participation areÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â community development and non formal education.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Though these disciplines were taught in certain Universities to train administrators, they are long forgotten today. There is not a single University in the world today that teaches these two subjects! It will be good for these disciplines to be used at least in training administrators. If one ofÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â our Universities takes on the mantle of teaching community development and non formal education,ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â it will immediately gain international recognition.
The irrigation tanks are a national asset and due care has to be taken to maintain the tanks. Perhaps the Sri Lankan ArmyÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¾Ã‚Â¢s Engineering Division may consider to undertake the restoration of tanks in Nuwarakalaviya. Having been in charge of tank maintenance and irrigation administration in Anuradhapura for two years I could repair only a few tanks. It is only a massive programme by a force like the Army that can attend to this matter of national urgency. It is to be noted that in the USA, the Army Corps is called upon to attend to national tasks of importance.ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â
King Nissanka MallaÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¾Ã‚Â¢s inscriptions tell us of three crops being cultivatedÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â a year on the same land. Leaving three crops a year beside,ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â we have failed even to double crop. We have to bow our heads to our forefathers for having left us the nucleus of irrigation tanks that form the life blood in Nuwarakalaviya. The details I have provided of the infrastructure that was then in place for the proper administration of paddy cultivation, the use of water for irrigation and the maintenance ofÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â tanks and the recommendations made may please pave the way for Nuwarakalaviya to be the Granary of Sri Lanka.
Garvin Karunaratne, Ph.D.
Former SLAS (Government Agent, Matara District 1971-73)
July 3, 2012