Thoughts on Anuradhapura
Posted on September 10th, 2011

By Garvin Karunaratne, formerly of the Administrative Service

 Anuradhapura has happened to be my pet District, in the eighteen years I served in the Administrative Service. In 1957 I covered Anuradhapura and Trincomalee Districts for all paddy purchase and vegetable and fruit marketing work. Later in 1962, I happened to be appointed as Assistant Commissioner of Agrarian Services, covering all agrarian services functions. That included planning the production of paddy, providing loans to farmers, distribution of fertilizer on subsidy, crop insurance and most important of all, Minor Irrigation.
The Department of Agrarian Services was formed by the late Minister Philip Gunawardena to implement the Paddy Lands Act- an Act to provide security of tenancy to tenants, a system of democratically elected farmers’ committees, called cultivation committees to manage the development  of paddy cultivation. There were  another two Assistant Commissioners T.G.Peris and Sappie Peiris and we shared the work. I had ten smart and able Divisional Officers-  and each of them had a few Overseers to supervise the cultivation committees.
We were all totally immersed in the patriotic  task of serving the peasantry and knew no office hours- it was always a twelve hour day including week-end work. In both the Marketing Department and the Agrarian Services, we Assistant Commissioners worked like mad dogs trying the implement the policy decisions of the Government to bring up the incomes of the peasants of Nuwarakalaviya.
In the Sixties the IMF had not come up with their draconian policy- the Structural Adjustment Programme and the Governments in power were all intent on giving a helping hand to the peasant farmers to increase their incomes. The wants, tears and tribulations of the peasants were also ours and we did not spare any effort to allay them of their suffering. Truly the Peasants need help in both farming as well as marketing and their wants- the problems they face happen to be the nexus on which I have written two novels. In 1970, my first novel was in Sinhala: “Mukulita Piyumo Ayi Vana Meda Me”. This is due for a reprint sometime now at Godages. Here it is more my life among the Dry Zone peasants at Hambantota. But the wants and problems of peasants in Nuwarakalaviya and Magam Pattuwa are identical. My second novel is really based on the problems faced by the Nuwarakalaviya peasantry: “The Vidanes Daughter” in English published by Sarasavi and published by Godages in Sinhala, under the caption: “Vidanege Diyaniya”.
The peasant farmers in all the Districts I worked happen to be a part and parcel of my life and while in my Administrative Service life I served them to the best of my ability, in later life after leaving the shores of Sri Lanka I have devoted my entire life to study  the problems of peasants and the unemployed, finding strategies and development models to  bring about development. That was in three Universities bagging a Master’s Degree in Manchester, the M.Phil from Edinburgh and the Ph.D. from Michigan State.  My empathy with the peasantry means that whenever I step into Sri Lanka I spend my time never in Five Star Hotels, but amongst the people, trying to yet find their problems and at least write about what can be done in a sheer attempt to sway the Government as well as international organizations, to get their act together to ensure that the peasants will be served well. In fact George Axinn, my professor at Michigan State University wrote in his introduction to my book:”How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka”(Godages): “It is hoped that this timely book will enable international organizations to arrest the trend of failures”
In early 2011 I visited Anuradhapura. That was immediately after the disastrous  floods. The Malwatu Oya was in spate and it did run amock causing ruin and destruction everywhere.  I contacted Ven Polgahawela Abeyseeha, the Chief Priest at Vajiraramaya, Anuradhapura- a temple that was established by Ven Madihe Pannaseha, when I served in Anuradhapura in 1962. We were personally  involved in establishing the temple. Ven Abedyseeha located temples where the flood waters had swept away all moveables. Their wants were food supplies.,  I was not certain whether I could obtain supplies from Anuradhapura. In fact the newspapers had portrayed that there was a shortage of food in Sri Lanka and I even thought of sending some dhall, greengram, rice etc from the UK. . A few telephone calls to Sri Lanka established that there was no shortage of goods either in Colombo or in Anuradhapura. The shortage was in cash- the monks had no funds and the peasants were poor-had no money to buy: poverty caused not by the lack of food but by the lack of money, but to make a sensation the media puts the blame on the Government for short supply! Ven Abeyseeha is a dedicated monk who refused food for his temple, telling us that the other temples should get what we had taken for Vajiraramaya. (Tel.0252222439)
I had rented a car from Kings Rent a Car at Battaramulla(Tel. 0772716191) and the charges were very reasonable. It was a roadworthy car and took to the roads in Anuradhapura, Matara, Deniyaya, Hayes, Rakwana and Ratnapura quite well, I was later told that they even send their cars to be picked up at the Katunayake Airport and can also be handed back at the Airport. I am used to take Avis cars at the Airports in many countries I have visited and it is a great scheme.  
We dropped in one evening at about six when the doors of Lak Satosa were about to close and met the manageress in charge. There was plenty of food for sale. The rates were well below the prices at other shops in Anuradhapura. We gave a big list of items, to be separately packed   and she promised to have all ready to be picked up at eight the next morning.  The next day we turned up at eight in the morning and finding the manageress missing thought for a moment that things had gone terribly wrong, but we found all the items packed and ready in the manageress’ room. She too turned up.  A great job done, Thanks are due to the manageress, the staff and more to the present Government for establishing the LakSathosa units to provide goods to the consumers at reasonable rates. It was the United National Party under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and Minister Ravi Karunanayake that abolished the CWE. Woe be unto them for what they did to take away the CWE, the small man’s shop. Both Ranil and Ravi make a lot of noise about inflation now after they themselves are responsible for this because they did sell off the CWE lock stock and barrel.
The income of the Dry Zone peasant comes from two sources- from paddy cultivation and chena cultivation.  The chena crop is based on rain fed cultivation. A patch of shrub is set on fire just before the rains and seeds are planted.  In a normal year there is a host of vegetables like tomatoes, brinjals etc. and in my days the Marketing Department did purchase vegetables at the main fairs.  The peasants did get a fair price because the Marketing Department was on the scene with a board indicating their purchase price, which always was above the prices that the traders offered at the Fairs. The Marketing Department at its main center in Colombo closely studied the wholesale prices in Colombo and offered a high price to the producers  because the Department kept a low margin of only ten to fifteen  percent to meet the cost of transport. Comparatively traders keep a margin from fifty to a hundred percent.
The United National Party under President Jayawardena abolished the Marketing Department in the Early Eighties and since then  the peasants are at the mercy of the traders. The manner in which the traders function is well known to  those at home in the rural economy. The peasants bring their produce to the Fairs and exhibit their stocks from morning. They can be seen seated on a mat sitting bedside some vegetables exposed for buyers to see, with more packed in bags. Some have heaps of green gram and other cereals like meneri, kurakkan. The traders go round inspecting the cereals for extraneous matter- stones, sand and for chaff- dud grains and offering their price. The traders though they go offering prices separately always function in collusion and offer almost the same price. The peasants argue for more but the traders do not accede to their request. This scene is repeated till dusk approaches. The traders have purchased some stocks from a few producers but the majority of peasant producers have not sold their stocks and they keep arguing for a higher price. Dusk does set in  fast in  the Dry Zone and the traders too visit the peasants more often repeating the same price. They do not increase the price. The producers are now faced with a major problem. If they do not sell they have take the produce back home and incur cart or lorry hire  On the next fairday they have to again incurr cart or lorry hire and bring back the produce to be offered to the same traders. In the case of vegetables the goods will perish if not sold on that day itself. Finally the producers give in and sell all goods to the traders I have observed this same phenomenon at work in Sri Lanka, in Bangladesh and India.
It was the Marketing Department that interfered with this marketing mechanism by offering higher prices to the producer. While the expansion of Lak Satosa is a great feat of the Rajapaksa Government it is also necessary to urge the establishment of a full fledged Marketing Department equipped with cold rooms and a canning factory to enable producers to get a fair price. The recent foray of the Army to buy vwegetables in the remote areas and sell in urban areas was very successful and proves that the Marketing Department scheme is feasible. It was a tried out successful scheme from the Fifties. Today the producers cannot get any price for Red Pumpkin and Ash Pumpkin, which comes in a glut during the height of the season. The Marketing Department in its heyday purchased all stocks offered by producers in items like Red Pumpkin, Ash Pumpkin, Pineapple  and what could not be sold to the consumers was turned into Golden Melon Jam, Silver Melon Jam and Pineapple Pieces and Juice.
A few weeks ago the newspapers reported that the price of beetroot in Jaffna was as low as eight rupees a kilo. All this while in Colombo the price would not have been lower than sixty rupees. Imagine the profit that the traders make  after keeping fifteen percent for transport and wastage on this beetroot the traders make a profit of at least six hundred percent! This situation was a No No during the days of the Marketing Department- Commissioner BLW Fernando would have come on me like a ton of bricks if any such thing happened in vegetables in the entire country, when I was in charge of the Tripoli Market, the hub of the Department’s vegetable & fruit scheme. The Assistant Commissioners    in the Districts  have to know the prevalent prices of all vegetables and has to keep Triploi Market informed. It was the duty of the Assistant Commissioner at Tripoli to offer a higher price to the producer, get the stocks overnight, keep a small margin for transport and offer it to the urban consumer.
The aims of the Marketing Department was :                               
      1.   To offer reasonable and high prices to the producers
  1. To offer vegetables and fruits at cheaper rates to the consumers in urban areas,
  2. Save foreign exchange by producing all our requirements of jam and fruit juice for which we spend foreign exchange.. In January 2011, the Colombo Super markets were full of tomatoe sauce, bananas, fruit jam and fruit juice all brought from as far as Australia and the USA. A few months ago at Hanguranketa producers could not sell tomatoes. In my days the entire stock would have been purchased and made into tomatoe sauce at the Cannery.
Hope I have convinced the present  Government to take up the question of establishing the Marketing Department very seriously. That is the only method of controlling inflation. The method of tackling inflation is by controlling inflation and not by increasing the salaries of workers.
To the Nuwara Kalaviya peasants minor irrigation means life or death. Their entire incomes depend on irrigation water- their life blood. On my visits now, forty years after I worked on the tanks- then the tank bunds were fairly well built, today the tank bunds are overgrown and have partly perished. A few years ago I saw many lorries transporting earth onto the bund of Basawakkulama.  The bund was being rebuilt. On inquiries I was told that many contracts for rebuilding tanks are done on the basis of  transporting  earth from outside the tank area. When I was in charge of minor irrigation in Anuradhapura what was done is to build up the bund from earth in the tank itself. If a small section of the bund has to be built then it was piece work for the people to dig inside the tank and pile up the earth on the bund. The people are paid for work done. If a large amount of earth work has to be done an earth moving machine like a D8 was used to dig into the tank bed and pile up the earth on the tank bund. In this method the tank also gets deeper and can hold more water.
It is hoped that the Sri Lankan Army will be called in to attend to this task of rebuilding the tanks. Import a dozen D8 earth moving machines and like in the case of the US Army Corps of Engineers, we will be able to build up the tanks quickly. It is a well known fact that the US Army Corps of Engineers do attend to a great deal of national work in the USA- work which will never be done otherwise. The work of the US Army Corps of Engineers includes some of the largest hydro electricity schemes like those on the River Columbia. The levees that keep the ocean waters from flooding New Orleans are all managed by the Army Corps. I have seen with my own eyes the marvels of engineering that the US Army Corps has been upto on the Columbia River. We have got used to have Hydro power schemes among our hills where tunnels are also required. Watching the mighty waters flowing through the lower reaches on the Kelani and Kalu Rivers I have long wondered why we cannot catch the flow of the water itself in its flow to the sea. That is what I saw on the Columbia River- a massive dam with a mechanism to vary the height of the turbines as required to be adjusted to the level of water. A giant of a construction turning out 1,084 megawatts.  There are as much as 56 dams on the Columbia River Basin. These are areas that the Private Sector will never touch because the benefits accrue over a large number of years. However much we placate the Private Sector it will never never be anything other than a few Supermarkets where an earning can be found immediately. It is time that the Sri Lankan Army has a separate division for the task of restoring our tanks. That will be a feather in the cap of the Rajapaksa Government.
Right or wrong Sri Lanka has to have a strong army if we are to continue as a sovereign nation. The USA and India have recently stated that there is evidence that the LTTE is re grouping and even buying weapons.  We must have an Army that is devoted to attend to national development tasks in peace time. That is a must if we are to survive and this deserves serious consideration.
Lack of Employment. The Nuwarakalaviya peasant has only three to four months of work in a year- in the chena, in the ploughing, weeding and harvesting of paddy. In Yala very little areas are cultivated due to lack of water and then the work is limited to three months. It is necessary that small industries should be set up to involve people mainly during the lean period. Today we import everything that can easily be made in our country and incurr billions to import. Why are we providing employment to people in other countries? It was under IMF advise that we did away with the Small Industries Department’s  Powerlooms and handlooms and abolished the functions of that Department to help weaving. When I was the Government Agent at Matara we had thriving powerlooms providing employment to people and now they are all closed. On my visit to Morocco I saw small craft workers at work everywhere and every tourist is enticed to take away a hand made lamp shade. We have to develop our industries to create employment for our own people. There is no other way ahead.
Once at the Government Agent’s Conference in 1972. when President Sirimavo called for development suggestions I suggested that we should have a per farmer plan for paddy production, with details of problems faced and solutions provided. Up to date we have never had a per farmer plan. The President asked the Secretary for Agriculture as to why the production plans were not working in my District.  They failed to understand what I suggested and I was put on the spot. I got up to explain but someone from behind got up and showed me down. That was the Director of Agriculture- He said that my District had met all the targets and was leading in production. I did not have to argue out to get out of the ditch. Comparatively the only occasion I got to speak out happened to be in Bangladesh. It was Air Vice Marshall Aminul Islam, the Minister for Labour and Manpower in General Ershard’s Cabinet of Ministers. He was skeptical of the Programmes of the Youth Development Ministry where I happened to be the Commonwealth Fund Advisor. I quote from my book, “Success in Development”: “The Minister said he was not fully satisfied with the work done  and asked me to comment on any possible new directions and to specifically indicate the contribution that I could make. I immediately recommended that the Ministry should get down to a programme of employment creation  in order to provide employment for the thousands that get vocationally trained. I was blankly told that in the earlier three years the ILO had tried hard to establish an employment creation programme which had ended in  miserable failure after incurring a massive expenditure”¦. I replied that I have successfully established  many self employment projects and will find no difficulty in establishing a self employment programme in Bangladesh, in a design that will be suitable for the country, developing its resources, involving the trained youths in productive endeavour, increasing national production and simultaneously create gainful employment.”  Serious arguments continued between me and the Secretaries of other Ministries for a long two hours till finally the Hon Minister ruled that there should be a self employment programme. I with Bangladeshi Administrators  commenced work and established the Youth Self Employment Programme, which by 2010 had bagged two million youths to become self employed. This Programme today trains and guides 160,000 youths annually to become self employed, the largest and most successful programme of employment creation ever found.
It is hoped that these rambling thoughts on the plight of the Dry Zone peasant will reach the ears of those that are bestowed with the power to take action.
Garvin Karunaratne, former G.A. Matara District,

September 9, 2011

One Response to “Thoughts on Anuradhapura”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    Dr Garvin Karunaratne is spot on.

    LakSathosa must be expanded to all areas of the country and commercially managed. It should grab opportunities as they arise like a shrewed businessman.

    Some UNP governments sold off government business arms to their relatives. That was the start of uncontrolled inflation, crooked intermediaries and the underworld.

    At the same time the army should be used to do these much needed development/irrigation work. It costs nothing additional for the army.

    You may note that there are irrigation systems such as Yoda Ela, Yoda Wewa, Yodayo Bendi Ela. In this context Yodayo means great soldiers, not huge human beings. In olden days soldiers were effectively used to do irrigation work during peace time.

    I too hope this will be an eyeopener.

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