10 August, 2022


Rural Realities Notwithstanding “Negumas” Of All Kinds

By Emil van der Poorten –

Emil van der Poorten

I have, over several years past and in a variety of English-language publications, referred to the chaos and hypocrisy that faces anyone attempting to earn anything approaching a living or seeking to supplement one’s daily bread in the mid-country of Sri Lanka.

Recently a classmate from my days at Trinity from nearly sixty years ago, Cecil Dharmasena, wrote, in The Island newspaper, two very lucid descriptions of the chaos that passes for administration in what used to be the Department of Agriculture with reference, specifically to that scourge of the lowlands, Chronic Kidney Disease and another piece on a) the lack of any extension services to the small farmer and b) the hugely detrimental effect of the lack of any rational purchasing system for crops grown in one or both of the cultivation seasons.  I really don’t know whether “chaotic” would be the word to describe what comes out of a vacuum, but I’ll leave that differentiation to someone better versed in such semantics.

While, ideally, this piece should be read alongside those of Mr. Dharmasena, let me attempt to deal with what has been my experience and that of those who live in rural Sri Lanka in this particular neck of the woods, seeking to supplement what Cecil says rather than repeat any of it.

It seems that none of the local “development drives” amount to much more than tamashas to fete local politicians, their acolytes and visiting “dignitaries” and are conducted at significant expense with no return on such efforts except in the matter of boosting the egos of the organizers and their hangers-on.

Not so long ago, all the agricultural workers, both resident on estates in the area and in the informal “colonies” (originally squatter settlements on abandoned state-owned and administered estates), took the day off (without pay).  Why?  Because the local authority, with politicos of varies levels in attendance, were to distribute mosquito nets treated with insect repellent.  To cut a long story short, literally dozens of men and women spent the whole day at a designated location waiting for the nets to arrive, only to be told that the man who had the key to the room in which they were stored wasn’t available to unlock that storage!  In all fairness, a subsequent journey to the location resulted in the man (and key) being available to deliver the nets to those assembled.  What a whole day’s lost earnings mean to people barely eking out an existence can well be imagined.  Ah well, there’s no free lunch (or mosquito nets), for the poor and non-politicians, at least!

A while later, I find a three-wheeler parked at the foot of the Sal tree at our gate.  Three well-dressed individuals are in the process of alighting from it, two females and a male.  The male, it transpires, is an employee of the Pradeshiya Sabhawa or District Administration Office, is the owner-operator of the 3-wheeler and is, with the two dressed-for-office ladies, on a mission to encourage local residents to grow vegetables.  They come armed with a few home-garden size packets of seeds and have had some difficulty finding “the natives” and delivering the seeds and their message of the need for greater productivity.  The reason for this is fairly obvious: the “locals” who are productive are employed away from their homes and those they find at home are the parasitic layabouts who, basically, live off their more productive relations, generally a parent or parents, and have no desire to do anything except, maybe, look for their next drink of kasippu or what can be stolen from a neighbour!

In a pleasant and informal discussion with what could pass for “agricultural extension officers” in the current set-up, it is apparent that they are totally unaware of the fact that residents of the area have given up trying to grow anything considered edible by the monkeys, wild pigs, porcupine, and the giant, flying and palm squirrels in the area.  This means that anything growing above or below ground is subject to the depredations of these vermin, the control of which is not paid the slightest attention by those promoting food production of one description or another.  An illustration would not be out of place here.  When I offered plantain suckers to the locals at no charge, the response was a deafening “Nyet” accompanied by the rhetorical question, “Why would we want to grow things by the sweat of our brow purely to meet the dietary requirements of our simian, rodent and porcine neighbours?”  Given rural economics in the mid-country of Sri Lanka, this is hardly a matter for any measure of jocularity, though, because these peasants and their forbears, long before employment as wage-slaves in the middle east was an option, supplemented whatever wage they earned with produce from their home gardens and their fruit and other trees.  This kind of “supplementation” had a significant impact on their budgets.  Today, they are reduced to buying jak fruit at a vegetable stall in a local town because the monkeys strip the trees in their yards bare and they don’t even bother to grow anything like beans or other garden vegetables because none of that is free from the attention of these and other vermin.

On one occasion, when I spoke to a senior Grama Niladhari who is an avid supporter of the various “Negumas,” he said there were plans to deliver monkey traps to deal with that pest.  However, the logistics of trapping monkeys, having them re-located etc. etc. had not even been considered.  And rightly so, because no one seemed to know where the monkey traps were and how they were to be obtained.  My rural neighbours treated this “solution” with the contempt it deserved.  As a footnote to the “trap project,” a while after the initial excitement, I was told that a monkey trap had been dropped off at an office in a neighbouring jurisdiction, that it was in need of major repairs to be made operational, that those repairs were not affected and that, after sitting around for some months, it was removed by whoever brought it there in the first place!

I have previously referred to the havoc that the so-called “land reform” of the late Hector Kobbekaduwa has wreaked on our neighbourhoods.  Agriculturally-productive land has ended up as vast savannahs of that abomination, guinea grass, which was originally introduced as cattle fodder but has ended up an ecological disaster and an intrusive nuisance of monumental proportions in the absence of ANYTHING that will consume it.  Of course, when I was visiting what used to be (40 years ago) the highest-yielding coconut estate in the Kurunegala district for another purpose, I was informed that they were expecting a herd of high-yielding Australian dairy cows to graze under the coconut trees.  When I inquired where the fodder for these bovines was going to come from since the ground under the coconut trees had nary a blade of grass or other vegetation,  I was told, “Oh! We will grow some grass.”  One would have thought that in the import of exotic, expensive dairy cattle the need for fodder grass would have been factored in.  However, this was obviously not the case in our Paradise Isle where the commission on the purchase of the cows was probably the single most important element of this particular “dairy enterprise.” If I hadn’t hear this story from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, I would have accused them of trying to compete with Baron Munchausen.  However, as they say in dear old Sri Lanka, “I heard it with my own ears!”

As for the “Neguma” related to the supply of electricity, that utility only became a reality in our neighbourhood because the “locals” cleared the entire path for the power line and carried the power poles to their locations beyond the transformer.  Thereafter, the supply has been so erratic that the standard practice is to keep a small flashlight in one’s pocket so that you are not stranded in the dark whenever the lights go out!

Two Sundays before today, the local residents banded together to make a part of our road motorable  again because all those providing transport up the hill were threatening yet another hike in their already astronomically-high rates for transporting people and goods up or down the 2 kilometres of road that are used by the local Pradeshiya Sabhawa and abused six times a day by its tractor hauling garbage to a completely illegal dump situated outside its jurisdiction.  Needless to add that local authority does ABSOLUTELY NO MAINTENANCE on that road, despite promises, spread over ten years, that “soon, we’ll repair the road!”  In most parts of the civilized world, citizens doing anything to public roads would probably be considered targets for criminal prosecution.  In rural Sri Lanka, at least, such “criminal” conduct is a necessary for survival!

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that much of what is being done by volunteer labour is clearly within the responsibility of the various levels of government.  However, as someone once said, “When you are up to your arse in alligators, it’s tough to think of draining the swamp.”  That said, how long do those living in the hinterlands of the country have to perform the tasks for which budgetary allocations exist in the various levels of government, particularly when the money that should be spent to provide ESSENTIAL services to the citizenry is being drained into the pockets of politicians and their acolytes?

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Latest comments

  • 0

    First a very nice place you have out in Holagolla.

    I live out in Eluvamkulam, just by the Wilpattu Border. The land is not very fertile (chalky/clay) and the tube well water is hard. Yes we got monkeys, wild boar and at times elephants too. (A mile or two away, the earth is rich and red like in Jaffna)

    We too got some Divi Neguma seed right about the beginning of the rainy season. Dubai Wattakka (Squash), cucumber, egg plant Divi Neguma seeds did very much better than the seed we normally buy from the agricultural store. We used part of the produce for our own consumption and sold some as well. I think we made about 5K/month from about 1/4 acre we planted. And obviously the monkeys etc too ate and elephants destroyed probably about quarter of the produce and we were still ahead.

    That said I do not know of any villagers who planted the Divi Neguma seeds, even though many are paddy farmer or day laborers on Coconut Estates and paddy fields. I used to at one time live in the south (Pinkanda), lush vegetation and plenty of jak trees. Rarely would anyone pick the jack. The women preferred to buy diced and packet-ed jak from the market because they did not want to get “koholla” the sticky sap on their hands.

    Even though EVK is near forest and scrub the village it self has not enough vegetation for firewood. So the women need to walk a mile or so to get firewood. However the few houses that I have visited I have yet to see the two pot single piece clay stove (about LKR200) being used. We however use two because it uses very little firewood.

    So all the while complaining about high prices of veggie, most dont bother to take a few simple steps to reduce their cost of living. Thats Sri Lanka.

  • 0

    Forgot to comment about roads etc.

    The current chairman of the Wanathawilluwa Pradeshiya Sabha is Indika Senadheera. He is quite a hard working person has done quite a bit for the area, including building access roads (gravel) to Nelum Wewa and Kala Oya and other places. Unhappily not enough funds to do concrete roads.

    Also for an area that has a significant Muslim population he has steered clear of communal partisanship.

    So I guess it also depends on the type of person who is running the Local govt.

  • 0

    Mr Poorten has put his money where the mouth is,by electing to live among the rural poor, unlike our ex Lankans who tell the inhabitants how to run our affairs whilst sitting in their airconditioned lounges and after a few shots of Cask Wine or a Red Label.

    And I salute Mr Poorten for that alone.

    There is nothing we can add to “sabrrkum’s”postings as both seem to be upto speed in what they are talking about.

    • 0

      K.A Sumanasekera:
      I have not “elected” to live among the rural poor. I happen to be the third generation under the same roof and find it distinctly uncomfortable to have anything even faintly resembling “praise” from someone who, allegedly, uses two different pseudonyms as means of trying to distance him/herself personally and geographically from some dubious land deals in Sri Lanka.
      As for “sbarrkum’s” postings,1) I fail to see what they add to the content of what I or Cecil Dharmasena (in The Island newspaper) have had to say except that, perhaps, the obvious exception quoted only goes to prove the rule and 2)I do not EVER recall writing an article about Buddhism and Evangelical Christianity!

      • 0

        Mr Poorten,

        I like to salute you again for not swapping your ancestral homestead for the high life in your original ancestral land or become an economic refugee in Whiteman’s land.

        Unlike your grand and great grand relatives who got the best real estate in juicy locations I didn’t and still don’t own even a blade of grass in my Homeland , although I am a descendent of the Balangoda Man.

        So much for the Southern Sinhalese owning their traditional ancestral land.

        With regards to dubious or otherwise deals in Real Estate, you got the wrong end of the stick for sure.

        • 0

          K.A. Sumanasekera:
          Is “Unlike your grand and great grand relatives who got the best real estate in juicy locations I didn’t and still don’t own even a blade of grass in my Homeland , although I am a descendent of the Balangoda Man” meant to be an intelligent and truthful statement or simply yet another drive-by racist slur? If it is, you fail on both counts. I hardly have to drag out deeds of ownership to prove how my ancestors or I came by the land on which they lived and I continue to.
          I am glad that you have identified yourself with Balangoda Man because it does seem to provide an explanation for a rather primitive thought process.

      • 0

        First my mistake regards Evangelical Christians. I was trying to add some perspective to your articles linked below

        I am not a third generation land owner with probable dismissive feudal squire like relationship with neighbors and government officials.

        The property I have, is bought with wages. I have not been an agriculturist landed or otherwise for the last two generations. As such I have to pick the brains of my neighbors/villagers and agricultural officers.

        I planted on part of the property Papaya at considerable expense. Just a few plants survived. The visiting Agricultural Officer said that Papaya was not suitable (clayey/chalk vs red loam soil) and suggested thibbatu as it was more suitable and an elephant deterrent.

        The thibbatu is doing very well with minimal watering and fertilizer. Checked out the Elephant deterrent aspect on the Internet and that too was correct.

        So good advice on at least two counts by Agricultural Officers.

    • 0

      “Cask Wine or Red Label” yes…no doubt you are talking of the recently rich from rajapaksa ill gotten gains !

      No one who has any idea of either wine or whiskey would drink the aforementioned products …..Sumane you are finally showing your true colours.

      • 0

        Don Quixote,

        Glad to hear that at least you know your Reds and rare Single Malts.

        By the way Arpico in Union place, the heartland of moderate vigilantes, stock even Blue Label.

        And the cheapest plonk from Chile is around LKR 2000 and that is only one quarter of a cask.

  • 0

    Govt is suffering from CED (Chronic Erectile Disorder), judging from the number of negumas going on. However it seems to be only the politicians having negumas, others are going early to the the graves, CDSS (Chronic Death due to Starvation or Suicide). Good that you have a plot of land to plant seeds and survive without going to the supermarket. Maybe a few panthamas will help reduce the electricity bill as well.

  • 0

    So what else is new, Emil? I doubt that flogging a long-dead horse will make any difference to your situation, given your stance on the administration and the resulting threats you have been subjected to. And with regard to the local ‘agricultural advisors’ bearing seeds for distribution – I bet they don’t have a clue about any aspects of agriculture, which is evident from the lack of advice to farmers in general, regarding proper drainage to inhibit soil erosion, the proper use of chemical fertilizer, weedicide, insecticides and fungicides – not to mention giving other ecologically sound advice. Your friend Cecil Dharmasena spelled it out very clearly in his articles, but it amounted to nothing but pouring water on that proverbial duck’s rear end!

    When will they ever learn… (as Dylan sang in the 60s)

  • 0


    This is nothing new , happened every day in SL . When I was with the Tobacco company it was the same story . Govt officials doing something for the show , (or may be even well meaning) Lazy villagers doing nothing with it .

    What exactly is your point ? should the broken up estates be put together ? So that they can be run by estate gentlemen like your self ?


  • 0

    I think “sneering dismissiveness” is more evident in what you write with statements like

    a)I have not “elected” to live among the rural poor. I happen to be the third generation under the same roof

    b)I would suggest that you stick with planting thibbatu….. which those of us who’ve lived on the land and off its bounty – not as hobby-farmers – can speak to with a little bit more authority.

    c) I would also suggest that you embark on a book of “Pel-Kavi” given the attempt to project yourself as some kind of “son of the soil.”

    Sneering is self evident in a) and b). Much worse is you sneering feudal attitude to “Pel-Kavi” and “son of the soil” while referencing to your days at Trinity and third generation property ownership.

  • 0

    Emil, you are one stubborn so-and-so and I salute you for the courage of your convictions. You have lived a full life of honest toil, at home and away, and have chosen to live now in your own, honestly gotten, little haven. You spend what should be halcyon days, keeping the barbarian from the gate. Alas, all around is chaos, thieving, deceit and thuggery. But that is what makes this thrice-blessed isle the Wonder of Asia. What you have written about is not original; the characters and scenery change but the story is the same. Frustrating and infuriating but, perhaps, not important in the grand scheme of things. If it was truly impossible you would long ago have sold up and taken a path of lesser resistance. Just enjoy your good fortune and a don’t let he boo boys get you down. Keep writing though; you couldn’t make this up.

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