By 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?