By Rajan Hoole –
The Dress Rehearsal In Trincomalee – Part II
By the 1970s, and certainly more so by the 80s, serious doubts had begun to be expressed the world over about the viability of agricultural schemes involving the transplantation of huge populations under centralised direction, giant reservoirs, deforestation and the accompanying unplanned migration. Their political and social consequences, whether planned or unplanned, deliberate or accidental, have tended towards causing conflict. The late Mahee Wickremaratne was a civil servant who worked on the Gal Oya scheme and later, on the Mahaveli scheme. In a private conversation, he commented on the fate of some of the Tamil and Muslim villages that were already there in the area of the Gal Oya scheme – called earlier the Pattipalai Aru scheme. He observed that in order to attract settlers, the villages constructed under the scheme were recipients of modern infrastructure and other facilities, while the older villages (including Sinhalese ones) already there were neglected. It is known that they suffered also in terms of representation and the language in which they were served changed from Tamil to Sinhalese.
Further, there were unforeseen environmental changes resulting from drastic topographical transformation. Padaviya reservoir often runs short of water due to adverse changes in rainfall. The Muslim and Tamil farmers in the Kantalai-Thampalakamam area were getting their water from the Kantalai reservoir long before the scheme was implemented in the 1950s. They are now mainly at the lower end of the scheme. They complain of not being given enough water when there is a lack of rain, and being flooded out by water released from the reservoir when there is an excess of rain.
What was perhaps most defective about these schemes was that they came from the vision of an authoritarian ruling class trying to recreate their idea of a feudal past. Instinctively,
it led to distorting their own historical antecedents and adapting to an era of universal franchise a power structure in which they saw themselves as aristocratic benefactors. The legitimisation of this scheme of things was based on the historical reading of Sri Lanka in ancient times as a prosperous unitary state, ruled centrally by benevolent kings who built and maintained reservoirs and fostered Buddhism.
As a corollary, the ruling class developed an uneasiness and even antipathy, towards those who would not, or could not, fit into this scheme of things – particularly the Tamils. The very diverse and involved reasons why the ancient hydraulic system broke down are hardly understood. Yet, ruling class ideology as reflected in school history books provided a simple answer – Tamil invaders from India in the Middle Ages.
Although Sri Lanka at the time of independence had acquired considerable modernity – particularly in health and education – its political vision and direction was feudal. Its massive investment in colonisation schemes was made possible by the labour of Plantation Tamils who then brought in more than 70% of this country’s foreign earnings. Their reward was to be disenfranchised and virtually made serfs.
Even as value for money, these colonisation schemes were dubious. They were carried out at the expense of building infrastructure for a modern nation and, for example, of furthering science education in the Sinhalese South. For the colonists themselves things soured after one generation when with an expanded family, the land had to be split up into smaller plots. In the mid-1990s market conditions did not favour profitability and a number of suicides by farmers were reported in the Polonnaruwa area.
Under Sri Lanka’s centralised administrative system, colonisation activity conferred on a single minister enormous powers over resources and land alienation without local and long-term interests being taken into account. To suppose that the country’s prosperity hinged on building huge reservoirs wherever possible and transplanting populations, simply because there were ruins of large reservoirs, which were in use between 300 AD and 1200 AD and abandoned thereafter, is to say the least, a dubious proposition.
The ambitious Mahaveli River Diversion Scheme which was originally to be of 30 years duration, provided opportunity to correct defects as they became apparent. This was compressed by Jayewardene’s government of 1977 into 5 years at a cost of about USD 2 billion, and Gamini Dissanayake was placed in charge. Now it is done. A recent study by the Ministry of Forestry and Environment and the Mahaveli Development Authority found Victoria, Kotmale, Rantambe, Randenigala and Polgolla reservoirs choking with silt. Rantambe is the worst affected, having silted by 56% in 9 years, followed by Polgolla (47%). The rest, taken together lost more than 2 million cubic metres (1500-acre feet) of capacity. The main cause is said to be an unforeseen level of deforestation in the upper catchment areas. In consequence the hydro-power anticipated is reduced and maintenance (because of silt) becomes costly (Shanika Sriyananda in the Sunday Observer 5.12.1999). Managing the system now requires huge unplanned costs. It is a story resembling the recent political history of Sri Lanka.
Ariya Abeysinghe in his book The Accelerated Mahaveli Programme (Quest 105, Centre for Society & Religion, Colombo, 1990) deals with economic phenomena in colonised areas. A significant feature mentioned is that of hidden tenancy. This results when a farmer is unable to make ends meet or repay his loans and his land is in effect given on rent or ceded unofficially to a provider of capital. The owner thus often becomes a paid labourer in his own land. This was found to be by 1990, 30 to 40% in Mahaveli lands settled in the 70s, and 5 to 10% in recent settlements. The trend is clear.
This trend of a new entrepreneurial class emerging from the peasantry by accumulating land from their pauperised counterparts and consolidating larger holdings, is described by Abeysinghe as ‘Intensification of land use and higher output’. From a point of view that lays emphasis almost wholly on the productivity of land, it is a favourable development. But on the other hand, as a means to social upliftment, it seems almost cynical to give someone land in the knowledge that in a few years he would likely be a pauper, having no control over the land that is nominally his.
The parents may accept pauperisation, but what of sons and daughters who experience only hopelessness and alienation? The colonies thus became principal recruiting grounds for the armed forces and also, for the JVP anti-state rebels. The JVP rebels targetted the local political establishment of the new elite and the land owning classes, who in turn provided the security forces with lists of suspected rebels and other political opponents. The swelling of the security forces with recruits from impoverished youth of the colonies, resulted from the need to fight a Tamil insurgency tied up very much with the violence and fears engendered by these very same colonisation schemes.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” published in Jan. 2001. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here