By Emil van der Poorten –
When one of the elements necessary for the very survival of any being is toyed with, it is time to cry halt to corruption at every level, particularly the local one where a simple task becomes a life-threatening one.
I live near a settlement of what can accurately be described as displaced persons and, since that term is going to raise a few hackles among those who believe that Sri Lanka is in fact Nirvana, let me relate some relatively recent history.
When the great Kobbekaduwa, as a Minister of Agriculture who had probably not planted so much as a bean seed unless the tenant farmers who his kind had parasitized did it for him, decided to wreak political vengeance on, among others, the van der Poorten family, his minions took over a swath of land that belonged to several bearing that last name, included it as a part of “Trafford Hill” group so that nothing of that family’s heritage would survive, even in name, and proceeded to run it as one of the State Plantation Corporations’ monuments to the employment of crooked sycophants without an atom of agricultural knowledge. Anyway, the edifice ultimately collapsed under the weight of the corruption of Hector K’s stooges who were widely known to arrive with a simple piece of hand luggage and require several lorries to move their personal possessions if, for any reason, they had to depart for another plantation or other destination.
When the collapse occurred, subsequent to this country having rid itself of the parasitic radala regime, all the workers, including many who had been, literally, born and bred on that land, were summoned to a meeting to be informed that they had no jobs the next day. An interesting concomitant to this fact was the fact that several families would also cease to have a roof over their heads at the same time, because they had estate-provided “lines” or other lodgings on the land that was, to all intents and purposes, being abandoned, except, of course for those politicos and their friends who through goodness-knows-what means acquired chunks of it from which they proceeded to exploit the timber, rubber trees (as firewood) and, ultimately, even the cocoa trees which went to the same “end use!” Pretty near 1500 acres of productive mid-country plantation land has been reduced to the on-going “take-over” of “Guinea A” grass which was originally introduced as cattle fodder and, in the absence of any bovines, has become the most invasive plant species in the mid-country.
One little piece of not-so-bad news was that the MP at the time suggested to all those gathered for the last rites that they get a rope of sufficient length that, if laid square, would constitute one acre of land. He suggested that this could be the beginnings of a future settlement.
That is, in fact, what happened and if you want an appropriate use of the word haphazard to land settlement of any description, take a trip up our hill and you’ll see a living example, in technicolour too!
People have built squatter’s quarters, some quite habitable thanks to remittances from progeny employed in the Middle East. However, roads fit to carry vehicular traffic are conspicuous by their absence, leaving primary school children to walk three miles each way to get an education and anyone knowing anything about the subject will tell you how much tired and hungry children can absorb in the way of education. Emergency medical attention? Forget it because not even a motor bike or a three-wheeler can reach any of the dwellings in the “colony” adjacent to where I live.
Factor in the reality that one of these “clusters” of “colonists” is occupied by members of Sri Lanka’s largest minority community and your picture of something less than heaven on earth will be complete.
Without exception, each home had secured some kind of water supply from some little spring up the hill behind them, making primitive little dams and using ½” PVC pipe to bring the trickle down to some receptacle on their doorstep. One of the less entertaining sights in dry weather is the desperate attempts of these people to prevent the PVC being destroyed by the periodic grass fires that race up the hillside.
About three or four years ago, I happened to be on the road when one of the local bureaucrats, I believe a technical officer of some description, arrived, unannounced, “to solve the water problem.” We were told there were “consultations” of some kind, but nothing appeared to come of all the bureaucratic to-ing and fro-ing.
Then, a few months ago, one of these bureaucrats from the local Pradeshiya Sabha arrived on his (Rajapaksa-delivered?) motor bike to speak with the local “rabble,” as he well might have described them
It was determined that a spring would be dammed, a storage tank installed to take the diverted water and, hey presto, not only would everyone’s thirst be quenched but the settlers would all be enjoying showers at sundown!
The slip twixt cup and lip in this instance leaves me to fall back on a word I probably use too often in these scribblings: “obscene.”
The aggregate for the concrete dam was hauled up the footpath by the “locals” as was the building sand that those same “locals” took out of a stream even farther down the hill. The cement was brought by motorized transport part way up our hill but still required to be carried the rest of the way by those who expected to benefit from this life-giving exercise.
As one might expect, there was excitement and expectation of a truly essential service before too long.
Accompanying this little essay are pictures of the dam and the large storage tank that have been erected at a cost, I am told, to the Tumpane Pradeshiya Sabha of approximately Rs. 200,000.
There is, however, one little snag.
There is a only a small spot of damp sand at the bottom of the space meant to hold a whole community’s water supply!
Even the tiny trickle of water upstream of the dam is not contained by the impressive concrete structure because it is leaking out from around what is supposed to be the “exit pipe.”
This would be a good story line for a “sitcom” if it weren’t for the seriousness of this kind of embezzlement of public funds in the name of providing a primary requirement of life.
Know what? I met the functionary who claimed to have overall responsibility for supervising this “project” on more than one occasion but I certainly wasn’t aware that, if the locals who worked with him were to be believed, he was the contractor as well!
I know, I know, this is Rajapakistan where the public purse exists so that select members of that public can dip into it.
But surely, if you spend an inordinate amount of public money to provide water to a colony of people there should, at least, be enough water at any one time to quench one individual’s thirst?
What is truly tragic about this and I am sure the myriad similar “projects” on which public funds are spent with no tangible outcome is the air of resignation of the victims of all of this.
When the power lines were put in a few years ago, these people, barely able to put food on the table for their dependants, provided the volunteer labour and power saws donated by their owners, without so much as a cup of tea from the Ceylon Electricity Board, for days on end. I’d like to see one scrap of paper that proves that there wasn’t an allocation of (Iranian?) funding for this purpose. They didn’t grumble then and they don’t even bother to phone in protest when they don’t have power for up to half a day at a stretch.
I suppose that when you are used to being treated like the proverbial excrescence by people that owe their positions to you, you are hardly likely to rise in revolt about your money being spent to provide you with water which is conspicuous by its absence!