Colombo Telegraph

Not Rocket Science: Improving Basic Nutrition In Rural Sri Lanka

By Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

What follows has no pretense in the matter of bringing rural Sri Lankans into the First World overnight. However, the few elements of their lives that I intend referring to in this piece can be improved immeasurably without some revolutionary change in local administration or miraculous transformation of corrupt and venal officials who are the epitome of parasites on the helpless.
When I returned some years ago to the land of my birth and that part of Sri Lanka in which I grew up, what struck me most forcibly was the continuing poverty and deprivation that had worsened in the 30+ years I had been away from my home turf.

I kept hearing about and seeing underweight little children and a variety of poverty-related ailments that ended up in some local medic’s clinic where those attending departed with what is now the three-packet response: one packet of an analgesic medication, another antibiotic and the third that did (or did not) relate to whatever ailed the patient. Without exception, the little envelopes did not have the name of the drug on them but simply indicated the dosage and the time of administration. The patient went home and religiously took the medications and after a few days had elapsed, if the ailment had not gone away and the effects of the analgesics had worn off and the pain or discomfort returned, went to another doctor where the same process was repeated. While this sequence of events might not be the case in every instance, it certainly appeared to be in a majority of them. Not right and potentially dangerous? Darned right! The gross underfunding of our medical system is at the root of this problem and the solution obvious enough. When, on one occasion, I accompanied a patient to a hospital and he was sent to a bed in a ward and given some pills to swallow, the nurse in charge expressed surprise that we wanted some water from her to help him get the pills down the hatch and we had to “borrow” some bottled water from another warded patient to get this done! That kind of conduct, I would submit, is the direct result of the callousness that ensues from over-worked staff operating in grossly under-funded circumstances. Neither time nor space permit of the recounting of more instances of this kind of thing.

At the same time, in what might seem like a contradiction of the point made in the previous paragraph, I have seen staff in government hospitals displaying great patience and caring under the most intolerable of working conditions. But let’s not make any mistake: this situation is inexcusable and the fact that anybody who is “somebody” traipses off to Singapore or some other exotic (and expensive) location for so much as an in-growing toe-nail, often at state expense, only serves to further expose the enormity of the injustice perpetrated on the vast majority of our people.

Education for the rural folk of Sri Lanka provides another example of “them that have, get and them that don’t, go without.” Parents have either to come up with cash or provide labour in kind to repair school furniture, build retaining walls to stop buildings from sliding away to goodness knows where and, in general, maintain the physical infrastructure for the education of rural children who, obviously, cannot afford the luxury of being limousine-ferried by paid chauffeurs to euphemistically-titled “International schools.” I know, the new MR2 dispensation has increased funding to the education sector substantially, but that is hardly enough to play “catch-up” for years of what can accurately be described as neglect of criminal proportions of the sector. The short term solution to the straitened circumstances from which this sector has to recover would be at least to stop teachers acting as “education mudalalis” with their tutories and other money-spinning ventures. Unfortunately, the writing on our post-MR1 wall leaves little room for optimism with one of these very “education mudalalis” being recruited into Ministerial rank, of all things!

In terms of basic nutrition, the fact that villagers no longer are able to harvest what they took for granted around their homes puts a very real dent in their grocery budget. No one in our neighbourhood ever had to buy a tender jak (polos), the more mature fruit (Kos) or the ripe fruit in the form of waraka or vela in the market or the Sunday fair even if they didn’t have a tree growing in their home garden. There was enough and to spare for everyone. Today? Short of having a guard under every jak tree, it is an impossibility to protect this “fruit of life” from the hordes of monkeys which are being protected for quasi-religious reasons by the powers-that-be. This state of affairs is particularly interesting given the fact that recent research suggests that the jak tree (Artocarpus heterophyllus) could be the answer to hunger in the tropical regions. Over two years ago the Guardian newspaper ran an article, proving very conclusively the potential for this easily-grown tree providing, in addition, very valuable timber, to make a huge difference in the nutrition of those who were significantly malnourished.

To add to the travails of those living around Kandy, it is a documented fact that some of the hordes of monkeys in the vicinity of the Dalada Maligawa are periodically baited with rotten fruit into the backs of lorries, the gates of those vehicles shut and the live cargo deposited, under cover of darkness, in communities outside that occupied by the (recently-re-elected) custodian of the Tooth Relic. When I first heard this narrative, I had suspicions that it was some kind of “urban fable.” However, the local constabulary disabused me of any such illusion, confirming that there were “city monkeys,” completely devoid of any fear of humans in our neighbourhoods!

Giant squirrels, dandu leynas? I would submit that they do even more damage than monkeys do to King Coconut crops in particular. They seem to love the sweet tender husk adjacent to the stems of the very immature nuts. As they gnaw away at the tender husk adjacent to the stem attaching the nut to the tree, they sever the stem and the tiny, immature coconuts fall to the ground. On they go to the next, and the next and the next…Soon the ground below the tree is littered with this debris and there are, literally, no coconuts to even reach a stage of maturity when their water might be consumed. I am aware of groves of a couple of dozen King Coconut trees from which not one “thambili” has been harvested in better than a year. In case, some coconut-tree owner has a means of “dissuading” this conduct by the Giant Squirrels, the farmer has to remember that they (the squirrels) have blanket protection under the law and cannot be harmed!

On the ground? What the monkeys don’t descend to consume and destroy, the wild pigs and porcupine take care of! One local wag suggested that we should seriously consider a chena-type cultivation of paddy because when the ground is moist after rain, the wild pigs, almost literally, plough it up and one could well sow some seed paddy there! Except that, in such an event, both the monkeys and the pigs themselves would probably devastate the succulent new growth as well!

The extent of wild pig damage is exemplified by the fact that they will even attack and destroy plantain trees and I hope that the staff of this publication will print a photograph that I shall send along with this piece as well as one showing what giant squirrels can do to a potential King Coconut crop.

Plantains? Forget it! Covering the bunches with flour sacks didn’t work so we covered the flour sacks with chicken wire-netting. Still no go because the monkeys ate every plantain on the stalk, ripping off both the chicken wire and the flour sack!

There is no edible substance that is safe from the depredations of the simian and other pests that are taking over the mid-country (at least) of Sri Lanka and while the results thereof seem insidious, at best, to city-dwellers, they are of enormous importance to the majority of Sri Lankans who live outside the urban centres, though even the urban centres, in many instances, are not spared the attention of our simian friends.

As someone receiving a pension from another part of the world, I am not totally dependent on the crops I have described for my survival. However, the produce of their home gardens is extremely important to my neighbours both for their nutrition and that of their families and as a means of supplementing their meagre incomes. The fact that those driving in, out and around urban Sri Lanka in their limos, treat this state of affairs as some form of exotic diversion from their day-to-day pursuit of “the better things in life” is hardly surprising. The challenge for the rest of us is to exert enough pressure on these parasites to at least begin to recognize the problem and, mirabile dictu, begin to start doing something about this state of affairs.

It is only the totally-blinkered who choose not to see what is happening in rural Sri Lanka and their pieties in response to animal damage of “they were here first” hardly deserve anything resembling credibility and need, as a first step, to be challenged with historical fact. That is certainly a fact on which our legions of very vocal conservationists need to pick up and do more than simply “voice concern” from time to time. The destruction being wrought by animal pests can and must be stopped without delay as a significant part of the economic recovery of the poor living in the countryside.

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