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.
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!
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!
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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