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.  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, “Vidanege Diyaniya“ (Godages)  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 circles  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, ” How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka & Alternate Programmes of Success” (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.

 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.

 Tankbed Cultivation

This was mainly due to  tank bed cultivation done by certain influential farmers. The tank bed is very fertile  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.  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 in  1962-64. The result today is that most tanks are silted up and hold little water.  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 malaise  that has to be arrested immediately.  

Repairs to tanks

Added to all this is what I noticed in another of my visits. In  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.  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 years’ time, it all ended with my being given an immediate transfer and Soma Jayawardena, the  Technical Assistant from the Irrigation Department who was associated with me in investigations, being given a “punishment” transfer. He even faced physical threats.  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,  in ancient times there was no differentiation between the judiciary and the executive and also no division of work into departments.  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,  cases go on for years..  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 with  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 Gamsabhawa  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 harvesting  etc. were fixed. Penalties for non adherence were also decided and  those that did not adhere were severely punished. The Vel Vidane had only to report those that  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.  Further the Vel Vidane functioned under the Government Agent  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 and  handed over to the Cultivation Committees, a group of farmers who were elected by the farmers.  Though the cultivation committees got down to address the problems the farmers faced in cultivation, specially in irrigation matters, one  snag was that an outsider was appointed as the Administrative Secretary of the Cultivation Committee. This was  a GCE qualified youth who at times did not have a farmer’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 many  Districts like Anuradhapura in 1962 and  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.  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.  Agricultural development  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 Meetings  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 the  Devon Hotel in Kandy,  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.  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 Kalaweva  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 Kanna  Meetings has to be realized and its decisions  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 years’ 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 month’s training programme to be commenced immediately for all Niyamakas.

The Importance of a Farmer’s Organization

In the ancient times the Gamsabha- the organization of the village elders enabled orderly development.  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 farmer’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.  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 Extension  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, farmer’s organizations like cooperatives and cultivation committees need not be used by workers. It has been  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 disciplines  concerned to enable farmer participation are   community development and non formal education.  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 of  our Universities takes on the mantle of teaching community development and non formal education,  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 Army’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. 


King Nissanka Malla’s inscriptions tell us of three crops being cultivated  a year on the same land. Leaving three crops a year beside,  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 of  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

10 Responses to “The drought and depleted tanks in Nuwarakalaviya”

  1. AnuD Says:

    None of the developed countries depend on imports for their staple food. what ever the cost, they cultivate it there. On the other hand, World bank etc., had screwed up small countries. If you google you can find how World Bank screwed up the staple food (rice, I think) the African country MALi. Phillipines is also the same. IT had IRRI, yet they were dependent on imports for rice.

    Mr. Karunarathne may remember checking old maps, some of the urban areas (cities) in NCP are built on filled paddy fields. So, some feeding Tanks became redundant. Once the Mahaweli water came to that region, Govt did not think about anything else and they flattened some small Tanks. they never thought of any droughts in the upcountry areas.

    Then, deforestation continued and it happened in an accelerated phase during the war because they want to eliminate any hiding places for terrorists.

    So, some how now we are at the present.

    Yala was always from rains. But, those days, they always used old vareities and maha varieties were six months gorwth life a=while the yala varities were short four months duration. Some times, they used, I remember when I was young, three crops. Those varieties were very tall because of that it did not want any weed control.

    Now, improved varieties are short Three and Half months duration. Yet they don’t have water.

    There may be another problem of water management too. There is no one to ask or teach greedy farmers who turn water 24/7 to their field and not let others take water.

  2. nandimitra Says:

    Its all very well to talk about the administrative deficiencies but the primary problem is thoughtless deforestation in the name of development/ commission earning projects of the govt. Forbidden forests the life blood of our irrigation system is being destroyed . This is the price you pay for appointing idiots to rule the country.

  3. herman Says:

    When will our politicians ever learn that IMF is up to NO good for our country or poor nations in particular? The previous PM of Malaysia had the courage to reject IMF offers and advises and did recover from a bad recession their way!

  4. Dilrook Says:

    Before anything else the Paddy Marketing Board must be re-established and commercially managed. Until then farmers will not get a fair price and consumers will pay a very heavy price which is set arbitrarily by a group of vendors and millers.

    Agree with the suggestion armed forces should be deployed for these tasks that require discipline, equipment and manpower. Powerful cartels cannot be handled any other way.

    In addition the Army was into cultivation, selling crops (a bit too further from their objectives) and now buying paddy in the East. However, it must be done commercially for profit.

  5. Lorenzo Says:

    UNOFFICIAL 2011 census details.

    Buddhism – 62% (down from 70% in 1981)
    Islam – 13% (up from 7% in 1981)
    Christianity – 9% (up from 8% in 1981)
    Hinduism – 16% (up from 15% in 1981)

    The census report is DELAYED for this reason!!

    Looks like the govt will COOK UP the numbers before release to HIDE the reality.

    How come Hinduism has increased when 1,000,000 Tamils left the country? Only explanation is illegal immigration.

    Anyway the only good news – it is unofficial. UNOFFICIAL, so don’t quote me.

  6. Dham Says:

    Hinduism is up because Sinhala Buddhist started to practice Sai Baba and naadi vaakkyam ?

    Yes, I too am very surpriced at Hindusim up by 1 % What I belived was a lot of Hindus converted to Christiyanity thanks to kassipu Josheph and parayakaran.

    7% up of Islam is due to Mareenas working very hard day and night to produce marakkala patiyaas where as Sinhalaya lived in Preethie.
    I also cannot belive Christianity up bu only 1%.
    Something wrong here.

  7. AnuD Says:


    There is heavy competition by Islam to increase their numbers and to islamize the world as well as the Christians make the world christian by introducing democracy and for them the Asia is the 21st century’s battle ground. In Tamilnadu, christians are dalits and not accepted socially. That is why, it is important to convert SL Tamils to christianity which eventually turn the TN Tamils too.

    Tamils complain that over one lakh of Tamils are missing. Yet, Hindus have increased. That should be by illegal immigration.

    Sinhala people who are vigilant about what others doing are complaining then they and even Sinhala-buddhists say extremism.

    During the last decade or so, there are many web sites, newspapers all of whom supported by the church.

  8. Fran Diaz Says:

    Dr Karunaratne has written a great article, a very knowledgeable and valuable article. The very life blood of the Nation, RICE, is dependent on the tanks. Sri Lanka was known as the Granary of the East. What has happened now ? Various failed experiments with the maintenance of the irrigation systems, crop timing, pest control methods, etc. have left a depleted crop. The downgrading of the irrigation systems due to experiments with inept leaders who have no knowledge of paddy cultivation, water management, crops or the people of an area, have led to poor results.

    We hope the authorities will take note of the Recommendations made by Dr Karunaratne and implement them forthwith.
    Dr Karunaratne’s wealth of experience, know how, and caring for welfare of Sri Lanka should never be wasted.

    On the other topic under discussion here, the Census of 2012 :

    Sinhala Buddhists are too complacent about their numbers here, but should not be so any more as numbers are dwindling. Lanka held together through both language and religion in the old days. Now it has become more difficult to hold the country together due to over diversity of ethnicity and religions.
    Also, there are various changes within the country resulting from some 500 yrs of Colonial rule. Sinhala Buddhists are taking up the challenges they face, but rather slowly and uncoordinated. With rapid Globalisation and a rather inimical global fiscal system in place, we need to be more aware of our basic needs for survival and take matters into our own hands and try to be as Self Sufficient as possible.

  9. Naram Says:

    TEnderloving care Dr Karunaratne took over the folks otf the dry zone hines through here.

    Nice to hear people wring in thinking of the fols in North Central Province.

    I recall the stench of many waterways due to dying fish in the dry season. Digging up the tank bed to build the earth if it is of the right sort for the tank bund will increase the dead storage. Earth bunds are designed with a core of clayey soil of low permeability and outer sides are filles with more gravelly soils for stability. Digging up the tank bed will provide few more weeks of life for fish in the driest period, but that would not help irrigation as only water above the level of the bottom of the sluice will flow out.

  10. Fran Diaz Says:

    I am no expert of tank preservation. However, if I use my imagination a bit, I can visualise that the smaller tanks which run dry during a drought, will retain more water for even irrigation purposes when rains do come, if they are dug deeper, as opposed to simply widening the tank with shallow levels. That is, the water level will reach the outlets to cultivations for a longer time, even though it will not do so for the whole of the drought period.

    This means a longer period of water being available to the farmer. Therefore, it is worthwhile de-silting the tanks. Please do correct me if I am wrong in this assumption.

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