The Sad Plight of the Dry Zone Irrigation Tanks that were the life blood of our ancient civilization.
Posted on August 31st, 2017

By Dr Garvin Karunaratne

In my paper, ‘Dry Zone Drought and Empty tanks: A Blessing in disguise?’(Lanka Web 28/7/17), I had highlighted the plight of the small tanks in the Dry Zone, the bulwark our ancient forefathers had built up to enable the Dry Zone to become the Granary of the East.

It has so happened that every Winter when I step into my Motherland I take a joy to ride through the land where once I had laboured in a bone shaker, a Toyota Jeep on my eternal irrigation inspections. The rental car delivered to the Airport by Kings Rent a Car at Battaramulla takes to the road like a lark in the sky. On my last visit I rushed from Pulmoddai to Anuradhapura via Padaviya in record time. The roads have been built up but  the tanks the irrigation  works that sustain life have been totally neglected. Great for visitors but what of the farmers, their tanks that sustain their life and provide rice for the people.

My repeated writings have been portraying the ruins of the irrigation tanks.

My above quoted Paper details what happened. To put a long story short- the colonials when they banned Rajakariya did not worry as to how the infrastructure of tanks and canals could be maintained. Even then, under the authority of the Government Agent, the Vel Vidane controlled the irrigation works till they were taken over by the Cultivation Committees under the Paddy lands Act. Then with the abolition of the Paddy lands Act under President Jayawardena, the irrigation works ceased to be administered. It was a free for all. That was my message.

My first writing was in September 1999(Revisiting Anuradhapura(19/9/1999)

Then I wrote,

‘What struck me most in this revisit(after three decades) was that the tanks ,the life blood of agrarian work in Nuwarakalaviya had almost ceased to exist. I had to imagine the small trail of earth jutting out upwards, a few feet at most was the bund of the tank. It was August- there was hardly any water but the tanks had got so silted up that there was hardly a hollow area  that could have contained even a few feet of water….. Looking at the Jaya Ganga, the master piece of indigenous engineering where the gradient in some sections is  less than six inches in a mile, the massive channel that brought the water from Kalaweva to Anuradhapura- it was also neglected with vegetation blocking the smooth flow of  water. (From How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka at Godages)

I wrote again and again.

It was meant to be heard in the portals of authority, but it all fell on deaf ears.

Now the Divayina correspondent,  Ranaweera Manukulasooriya has reported  on 22/8/17 what happened at the North Western Province  Council meeting where no less a person than Jude Tissera, the Minister for Agriculture had raised the fact that the minor irrigation tanks  in the Kurunegala District had been neglected. He says, with no one in authority, the tanks were being encroached upon by people at random. He had asked the irrigation engineers and they had disclaimed responsibility stating that only tanks that cover over 200 acres comes within their purview. It is stated that many people have encroached on the tanks and the farmers who own lands under the tank gaze in wonderment as to what is happening. Their heritage lies lost; their life stands ruined.

Under the normal administration at the beginning of each season a Kanna Meeting is held to decide when and what extent to cultivate etc. This was held by the Vel Vidane during the days when the Government Agents handled minor irrigation and this work was done by the Cultivation Committees when minor irrigation functions were taken over by the Agrarian Services Department.  With the abolition of the Paddy lands Act the cultivation committees ceased to exist and since then the minor irrigation tanks belonged to no one. Farmers cultivate as they like, with the thugs and influential people encroaching on the tanks.

I am most thankful to Minister Jude Tissera for highlighting this matter and confirming the eternal message encapsulated in a number of my papers that minor irrigation tanks are neglected. He is right. They have actually ceased to exist.

It is hoped that the Ministry of Agriculture will please contact Minister Tissera and take action to save the minor irrigation tanks which is the life blood of the Dry Zone peasant.

As the Paddy Lands  Act is no more, there cannot be a village level elected organization like the cultivation committee.

Though the irrigation tanks lie in neglect the Village Cultivation Officers  are in charge of the minor irrigation works. In the Sixties in the Anuradhapura District alone I had twenty nine of them and three Cultivation Officers above them to supervise their work. I wonder what they do now. I am certain that they have told their boss the Assistant Commissioners the situation .

The provisions of the Irrigation Ordinance are  yet being implemented by the Divisional Secretaries to administer major irrigation works. In the  absence of anyone to administer the minor irrigation tanks, it is high time that the Irrigation Ordinance provisions for major irrigation are adapted and implemented for the minor irrigation works. At  least like in the days when the Government Agents handled minor irrigation works, a Vel Vidane should be appointed to administer the irrigation tanks and the canals and hold the Kanna Meetings.

Something has to be done to save the irrigation tanks. It is the only source of income for the farmers  and the life blood of the millions of citizens.

It is hoped that my message will be heard in the portals of the National Economic Council . Let me live in hope.

Garvin Karunaratne

Former Government Agent and Assistant Commissioner of Agrarian Services, Anuradhapura.

31 st August 2017

One Response to “The Sad Plight of the Dry Zone Irrigation Tanks that were the life blood of our ancient civilization.”

  1. Asanga Says:

    Dear Garvin,

    Thank you for your continued support and campaign for the irrigation culture that was a main part of our country’s prosperous and sustaining old civilization.

    Even the British, who ruled us for nearly one and half centuries did not want to dismantle the hydro based culture, but the ‘Kalu Suddahs’ as Anagarika Dharmapala said, whom they left to rule us after the independence, did that quite horrendously.

    Livelihoods, Family ties, ancient historical monuments and the pride of the farming folk, who existed in harmony with nature and were self-sufficient was destroyed.

    The sad thing is that many patriotic Engineers even in the current era, are aware of the value of the Ancients’ feats, but are unfortunately powerless to do anything about it.

    Here’s hoping that your call and those of a precious few others, are one day heeded by some leader with the decency and intelligence to understand.

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