By Kusal Perera –
Me with Dr. Udan Fernando were on a long haul to a remote area beyond Kurunegala and on the outskirts of Anuradhapura district, spending time from Friday afternoon, till Saturday afternoon. Roughly about 20 hours in all. A 65 rupee bus ride takes one to this area from Kurunegala town. The ordinary villager there does not often travel to Kurunegala. The closest town and the turn off is Madagalla, beyond Ibbagamuwa, if travelling to the area. The 40 mns drive from Kurunegala, passes through patches of Muslim resident areas seemingly peaceful and co-existing with large and densely populated Sinhala areas for many generations gone by.
This Divisional Secretary’s office of Polpithigama with 82 “Grama Niladhari” divisions, has an exceptional promise for residents on service delivery. Its official website last updated on 30 June, 2011 says, for those who wish to apply for the national identity card, “countersigning of residency certificates” is done within 03 (not 05) minutes. If relevant application is tendered for “dry rations”, the card is issued in 10 minutes. A license to transport animals is issued in 30 minutes and if recommended by the Excise Department, a liquor license is issued in just 02 hours. There are plenty other services that are done, or at least said to be done in 02, 03, 04 hours and some in 01, 02 or 03 days.
That possibly is “virtual life” of Polpithigama. For it is accepted by many in Kurunegala as the worst complicated and degenerated division in whole of their district. That being one major reason for the two of us to roam the area. Just to see what really ails there, more than what we have seen and heard, elsewhere.
Saturday was “Esala poya” holiday and therefore a completely dry day, officially. Esala poya in the area had many “Dan Selas” (free alms giving centres organised by local communities). We passed a “Roti Dansela”, “Ice Cream Dansela”, “Fruit Drink Dansela” and a “Fried Rice Dansela”. On our way we were stopped almost every few kilometres by youth waving “saffron flags” requesting us to patronise their danselas. Some seemed very popular, where people, mostly as whole families, queued long and waited a long time too for a free lunch. The whole Sinhala society was mobilised.
This wasn’t a popular trend during Esala poya, years before. What was most important for the Buddhists in Sri Lanka was Wesak, the poya day that saw the birth of Prince Siddhartha, attainment of enlightenment (Nirvana) and then Lord Buddha’s death (parinirvana). Poson poya becomes significant for the reason that Buddhism was brought to ancient Lanka by monk, Arahath Mahinda on a Poson poya day. These two poya days therefore became important in the Sri Lankan calendar, and were celebrated with national festivals. For Poson poya, the attraction was Anuradhapura. People from most districts flocked to Anuradhapura to worship the most sacred Sri Maha Bodhiya and other Buddhist places of worship.
Esala poya has its significance over many historical events that also relates to ancient Lanka, but were not taken as important as Wesak and Poson in the past, for public celebrations. Yet now, it is. Possibly over the past years, where anti Muslim campaigns and protests were organised on Sinhala Buddhist platforms, Sinhala Buddhist mobilising takes to any event that could be used for asserting authority on society. That perhaps is reason, Esala poya is also taken over by Sinhala Buddhist youth to project a Sinhala Buddhist public identity. Small Buddhist temples in these areas have been playing a catalytic role over the past few years, we were told.
Those who get on the streets with saffron flags are raw youth and most are organised by new rich traders with affiliations to the local or provincial leader of this regime and young army soldiers from those villages. Their tone of request to stop and patronise danselas are not often polite, but one that asserts authority. Over all, the distance from Polpithigama to Kurunegala, with the spread of small and varied “danselas” showed a new wave of Buddhist indulgence in society with an authority that they rule the area. (Udan may have his own interpretation on this.)
The question that remains unanswered is, does this Buddhist indulgence during these events, ever impact positively on their own rural society ? What positive impact do they have, beyond organising these free servings of meals in “danselas” ? There are complications, complexities and contradictions that in every way negate this popular Buddhist indulgence in these societies. Polpithigama is one classic example.
Here is a Sinhala Buddhist society. Here’s where the famous Mahamevuna monastry is, established in 1999 for promotion of Buddhism. There are 03 Pirivenas where novice monks learn. And here is a Sinhala Buddhist society that marks all social evils in a single package. Speaking to teachers, medical staff in the district hospital, Samurdhi staff in the field and some small time grocery shop owners, reveals how pathetic the life is, in Polpithigama. There are over 51 schools in the area, of which one is a national school, 09 Maha Vidyalayas and a Central College. Polpithigama, Wellawa and Gokarella police stations oversee the area.
Of the total population of 88,400 and more in Polpithigama, a record high of over 07 per cent has never been to school, according to the DS Division web site. Over 36 per cent has only been to Grade 05 or below. Only 4.98 per cent has reached G.C.E O/L or year 11 in school. This is a wild elephant roaming area that is marked high with Chronic Kidney Disease unidentified (CKDu), under age marriages, incest and sexual abuse of children, significant high school drop out rate especially among female children, female migrant labour, drug peddling and drug addiction.
Is there any resistant or protest against any of them among school principals, teachers, parents and others in this area, almost totally Buddhist ? There are a few of course, who feel disturbed seeing what’s happening, but are unable to intervene for a new change. Their story is terrifying and scary. Every evil is the product of another and can not ever be singled out as one that needs to be prioritised in finding a solution. Migrant labour of young women if singled out, has no answer. Who can ask them to stay over ? They have no regular livelihood in this rural economy that could ensure at least a minimal quality in life. Rural economy is not being developed to accommodate them with decent incomes, despite what Treasury boss and Central Bank Governor say about economic development. They in fact shamelessly count on remittances totalling over 30 per cent of foreign earnings annually to shore up the economy, from these helpless young women who go out as housemaids for 150 dollars a month.
They leave devastated families back home. Husbands often turn out as “moon shiners” and the little girl turning into her first teen, has to replace the mother in every way. Thereafter most little girls turn to any they see as custodians. They need affection. But most often, they are not aware, where affection ends and pregnancies begin. Some also start enjoying this perverted life. Some get thrown from one relationship to another. A few such skirmishes in borrowed beds, they obviously end out of school and at times in pregnancy.
Then comes the young post war soldier into this wild society. Just over his teens and with no responsibility in life, they are into many vices in the village. Well, they have a permanent income, unlike most others. Don’t blame them. They are from a bloody and a brutal war, knows little of civil life and have never been given an organised, programmed opportunity to re socialise. They fit in perfect into this society that has consensual sex and at a begging. School drop outs wanting partners for their unguided desires and reasons, though under age. And a society where drugs are rarely in short supply as most villagers say, with local politics also stepping in. Drugs is such a menace teachers claim, boys in grades 09, 10, 11 and above, some time come to school partially drugged, sit stiff and silent all through day. Complaints to police is no answer, they say. It is the school boy who would end up in remand, and not the pedlar.
These are not uncommon in most dry zone villages. From CKDu to incest, to sexual abuse, under age marriages and pregnancies, school drop outs and drug peddling, are now common in dry zone rural life. Yet, it is the scale of all the negatives in Polpithigama that makes it terrifying to listen to all the stories one is told. They can not be exaggerations. No, they can not be, for the Divisional Director of Education, Ms. P.M. Seelawathie, in her message to the official website (http://www.mazone.sch.lk/web/index.php/divisions/polpithigama.html) of Maho-Zonal Education office writes, (quote) It is a great draw-back to develop the qualitative education, for the indigence (indifference ?) of the people, increasing number of destroyed family bonds, and also most of parents and students are with a few expectations. We have to work with the students who have been isolated as a result of the parents in abroad. Most of the students have faced different type of health problems and infectious diseases. So it is very difficult to motivate them to get qualitative Education…..Except those things we have to observe and find remedies for the monetary cheating, child abuses , different types of disciplinary problems and quarrelsome occasions. Some times we have to face great problems.(unquote)
But what I need an answer for is, how a local Sinhala Buddhist society that harness all energy for Buddhist events, participate in “alms givings” and “dan selas”, get along with all these illicit and illegal living ? How can they continue to live with morally unjustified and unquestioned illicit life, without any serious objections and protests ? A society that goes about asserting Buddhist authority even in public life, in theory, can not continue to tolerate and accommodate such vices and indecency. Especially when children and young girls fall victim and are not questioned why and how it happens. How would one reconcile the two ? Buddhism and this ever ignored tragedy ?
It seems now, the average Buddhist society is willing to live with anything immoral, unethical and uncivilised. Buddhism and ensuing tragedy, living with comfort and unabated in Polpithigama, amply demonstrates, this is what we would end up with in Sinhala South. Casinos, gaming centres, tourist complexes that bring in cheap sex and drugs, all dotting the landscape along the coast and main cities, as development. They seem to be compatible and profitable to those who decide how we should develop. But where or when would this soup end brimming hot ? Can it ever be cooked again and anew, as something palatable in a decent, civilised society ? I am waiting for answers !