Dry Zone Drought and empty tanks:A blessing in disguise?
Posted on July 30th, 2017

by Garvin Karunaratne Former Government Agent, Matara District

The plight of the dry zone farmer and the depleted water in the tanks has come to centre stage again. It is July. The dry zone had little rain in April. July and August are the driest months. Once in a decade the rains do fail around this time.

Our forebears tackled this situation with a cascade system of tanks, maintained with great care. The tank was the lifeblood of farmers. The land under each tank was allocated in an ingenious manner. The paddy land was generally divided into three blocks, a small block, a medium block and a large block, and everyone in the village had an equal amount of land in each block. The farmers with their Vel Vidane (Field Headman), depending on the water, decided which block they would cultivate. Those blocks were called Purana Vela.


Ruins of the ‘Seetha Maligaya’ (Cool Palace) have surfaced as water levels of the reservoir decreased following the drought. According to historical sources the palace was built by King Parakramabahu the Great as his summer residence. Pic by Roshan Thushara

That system was not known to modern land administrators and they allocated additional land to some farmers, based on landlessness. The recent allocation, Akkara Vela, led to major problems in deciding which block to cultivate. We in our modern way have messed up the systematic land allocation. We have also neglected the maintenance of the tank administration and the Nuwara Kalaviya peasants have to bear the brunt of it.

The irrigation works in the dry zone have been neglected for long. Since the colonial days, the administration of irrigation has been done by the Government Agent, with a Vel Vidane, an official from among the villagers, appointed by the Government Agent, at the field level. It was the Vel Vidane who held the “kanna’ meetings (meetings that decided when to start cultivation etc.) and ensured the distribution of irrigation water. When the Paddy Lands Act was established (1962 in Anuradhapura) the administration of irrigation works was transferred to the Agrarian Services Department. When I served as Assistant Commissioner of Agrarian Services in Anuradhapura in 1962, I was close to the peasants, organizing them into cultivation committees, working with them to repair and rebuild their tanks. Though the Paddy Lands Act specified that the committees were to be elected by ballot, I decided that they be elected by consensus. That paid great dividends.

The farmers were keen to maintain their tanks. The Committees held the kanna meetings regularly and some committees were even entrusted with the task of rebuilding the tanks – the work had formerly been done by private contractors. The farmers were very enthusiastic and we did wonders in repairing tanks. Farmers loved the dedicated officers helping him; there were three Assistant Commissioners and ten divisional officers, all veterans who worked a twelve hour throughout the week.

However, in two years we had also created many enemies among private contractors who were laid out of work by the committees themselves, hiring D4 and D8 tractors to dig into the tank beds and pile up the earth onto the bunds. Some Irrigation officers, too, who worked more for the contractors were hounded out, and if I remember right, out of 28 village cultivation officers close upon ten were charged with corruption and interdicted. They got together and influenced the Lord of Nuwara Kalaviya, Minister Maithripala Senanayake. One day, I returned home after inspecting tanks. My phone rang. It was Navaratne, the Senior Assistant Commissioner in charge of the administration. He said ‘You have been transferred with immediate effect. Don’t step into your office henceforth. Officers will come tomorrow to investigate your work. Report to work in Colombo.’ I managed to get the transfer changed to Kandy and I left within one week. The officers who probed my work found nothing wrong. The work continued with the committees attending to maintaining the tanks – the officers working half-heartedly. Thus ended my attempt to rebuild the irrigation works in Nuwara Kalaviya!

The rot set in when the Paddy Lands Act was abolished in the late seventies and the cultivation committees ceased to exist. There was a vacuum in irrigation administration and the peasants had to fend for themselves. No kanna meetings were held. The tanks were not maintained; the influential people even encroached on the tanks, tank bed cultivation was common, and as a result the tanks got silted. Last year, looking at the Basawakkulama tank I could spot several permanent structures at the edges of the tank.

This was the scene when I went back to Nuwara Kalaviya in 1999 – a full three decades after I had left the area. In the ancient system of irrigation, it was ‘Rajakariya- the two weeks’ free labour from everyone in the village – that enabled the infrastructure of tanks to be maintained and with the abolition of Rajakariya by the Colebrook Commission the maintenance of the entire irrigation system came to a standstill. ‘The British government proclaimed that no community of labour was required and any headmen who called out the working men of his district for repairing dams of canals would be dismissed (Despatch 31 of Feb 27, 1857, quoted by Galle Punyawardena)’. However, the Vel Vidanes called the kanna meetings where the farmers agreed to maintain the canals. With the abolition of rajakariya any tank development required funding from the Treasury, which was not easily available. Earlier, under annual rajakariya, the proper maintenance of irrigation systems was regularly carried out.

Those who repair tanks bring in earth from far away to build the bunds. In my visit of 1999, at Basawakkulama,’the bund had just been filled with earth brought from outside. It was clear that the method that I had followed—taking the earth from the tank bed for building up the bunds—had been abandoned. In the method that we followed in the 1960s, with every cube of earth that was removed, the capacity of the tank increased.

Today, with the lack of a Vel Vidane or the Cultivation Committees the tank administration is not done properly. This has led to the neglect of the tanks and the canals. The ancients had an intricate system of irrigation works. In the 1960s the Jaya Ganga, the massive canal that brings water from Kala Weva to the tanks in Nuwara Kalaviya was well maintained.

How can the drought be contained?

The depleted tanks and the drought can be turned into a blessing. How?

Every Village Cultivation Officer should be directed to draft plans for the earth to be dug out of the tank bed and pile it up onto the bunds, for which the peasants will be paid. It will be possible for each officer to design such work on for least six to ten tanks. It is necessary that proper designs are done after measuring the heights of the tank bunds, the sluices and the spillways and this precise action requires the expertise of a Village Cultivation Officer. The earth moved has to be calculated both by the extent piled up, as well as the area dug up, with measurement sheets being used. The funds will have to come from the tank development budget.

If I had been working as Senior Assistant Commissioner of Agrarian Services, in charge of the entire island today as had been in 1967, by now several Village Cultivation Officers and Technical Assistants, with the vehicles, their theodolites and drawing equipment would have been ordered to go to Nuwara Kalaviya to survey village tanks and lay out earth work, for the tank beds to be dug and bunds raised and strengthened. Officers would be asked to work in Nuwara Kalaviya for around a month. This will be costly because the officers and jeep drivers will have to be paid subsistence. I would have also secured accommodation for the enlisted officers in circuit bungalows, which would have been turned temporarily into design drawing offices. Though costly, the input in terms of the work done to build the tanks will stand the country in good stead. I would have found funds from savings in budgets.

In my days I even authorised brick building on the tank beds during the drought season.

My voice is that of a petty officer. The situation warrants the attention of our leaders, who ought to direct that the Government Agents and the Divisional Secretaries with the Grama Niladharis to work on the designs that the Village Cultivation Officers will provide. Bringing officers from other districts and even obtaining a few engineers from the Irrigation Department to supervise the designs and the construction would be ideal.

One Response to “Dry Zone Drought and empty tanks:A blessing in disguise?”

  1. AnuD Says:

    I remember you when you were writing during the war. YOu should have gone to the parliament.

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