By Laksiri Fernando –
“No road, no proper housing or way of living. We live like frogs in a well between two rocks. We are born here and destined to die here.” – a villager
What are these two rocks? To me, those are not about Yahangala (siesta rock) or Uthungala (sacred rock), but about poverty and lack of proper education. As admirably reported by Kandaketiya – G. Chaturanga (Divaina, 6 September), the above quote is the lament of the people in this poor and remote village in a far corner of the Central Province. Minipe is the relevant Pradeshiya Saba and the Divisional Secretariat in the Kandy District. The name of the village, Udagala Debokkawa, might translate as ‘upper-rock crevice.’ There is another village called Pallegala Debokkawa or ‘lower-rock crevice,’ with a distance of six kilometres.
To reach this remote village by public transport, one has to go to Hasalaka from Kandy (70 km) passing the famous Daha-ata Wanguwa (18 hair pin bends) and then another bus to Pamunupura, first going north up to Udawela on Hettipola road and then turning and again coming south to Udawaththa-Pamunupura. It is around one-hour journey from Hasalaka. I have travelled on this route up to Diyabeduma and not beyond, during my young days. You can see Yahangala when you reach Pamunupura. From there now, according to Chaturanga, there is a concrete road, and if you are lucky, you may catch a truck or three-wheeler up to Pallegala Debokkawa. No more.
Then how do you reach this remote village? On foot. It is a heavy climb, passing rocky pathways as this is the Knuckles range. I am relating the story also based on an adventurous tour by six Moratuwa University students, Supun, Sandun, Chitral, Udaya, Jeevan and Malaka, in April 2011. Their main destination was Galmuduna village passing Udagala Debokkawa. Malaka has reported their tour with over 50 nice pictures and a detailed map for the whole area.
As reported by Chaturanga, there are around 41 families and 174 persons living in this village today; Chena (or slash and burn) cultivation being their main livelihood. The surroundings are picturesque according to both Chaturanga and Malaka, one of the beautiful and unspoiled places in Sri Lanka. No plastic bags or bottles!
There are two folktales related by Malaka and Chaturanga. First is to say that Yahangala (siesta rock) was where Lakshmana (King Rama’s brother) opted to rest after hit by King Rawana’s arrow! This is about the Rama-Rawana war and Lakshmana retreating to the area when he was assaulted. Lakshmana was treated by the locals, according to the legend related by Malaka. Chaturanga says that the villagers believe that they all hail from an ancient elder named Yahangala Muttha (YM). Obviously, the villagers are not only related to each other, but also have some affinity for this Siesta Rock. This could be the same for other nearby villages.
Chaturanga’s story last Wednesday (6 September) was based on statements given by six villagers, five men and one woman. I was intrigued to note their names: Y. M. Mudiyanse, K. P. G. Heenbanda, U. G. Heenmanika, U. G. Nimalsiri Bandara, Y. M. U. G. Ranbanda and Y. M. Kiribanda. All have long names, as usual at least in Sinhala areas in Sri Lanka, starting with YM, UG or PG and one combining both YM and UG. Although I am not an expert on people’s names, YM most certainly could be Yahangala Mutthalage, while UG and PG denoting Udaha Gedera (upper house) and Pahala Gedera (lower house). Therefore, this appears a typical and traditional Kandyan village, names going by ancestry or location in the village. All given names, Mudiyanse, Heenbanda, Heenmanika, Nimalasiri, Bandara and Kiribanda are also quite typical choices. There are no English names, but they (or Chaturanga) seem to be using English initials. This village might be of socio-anthropological interest to researchers.
All statements referred to by Chaturanga are about genuine village grievances. As Mudiyanse says, “this is an old beautiful village founded by those who had come to cultivate Chena, a long time ago. Unfortunately, there are no proper houses, facilities or even toilets in most of the cases.” Heenbanda gives another angle to the village problems, highlighting the “lack of a roadway being the main one.” If the there is a road, there is a road for development – that is what he means.
There is only a footpath from Pallegala Debokkawa to this village for about six kilometres. Heenbanda claims that this path is not safe before 9 am or after 4 pm, because of roaming elephants. A proper road might avoid this danger, as the foot path takes the shortest route through the jungle. The safest is to travel in groups at present. If someone is ill, that person must be taken in a chair or a bed, carried over shoulders, like in a palanquin (Dolawa). People are rather self-sufficient in their basic food requirements. Beyond that, for them to take their products to the market, there is no roadway.
Heenbanda has highlighted also the drinking water problem and lack of electricity. The village has several natural springs, but their clean maintenance is a requirement. Without electricity, there is no entertainment at all. No record of the availability of TV or radios in the village in the report. Electrical lines are only up to Pallegala Debokkawa.
Heenmanika, the only female interviewee, has importantly focussed on education. As she says, “there is a school in the village, but only up to grade five. There are 16 children and two teachers. After grade five, they also join their fathers and mothers in Chena cultivation, get married (pavlak pansalak wela) and build a house and live. That is life.” It is possible that there are more children not attending school at all. If they want to learn further, they have to go to either Udaththawa (9 km) or to Udawela (12 km) mainly by walking up to Pamunupura (6 km). Most of the time, the bus is not there. “How can these ‘podi ewun’ (little kids) go alone in the thick jungle in early hours?” Heenmanika laments.
Basic Needs of Living
There is no one doing a regular job in the village, according to Nimalsiri Banda. However, the village has produced some educated people in the past who opted to go for studies in towns. They do good jobs, but never come back to the village. Even there are some learned monks. Namalasiri Banda is optimistic about the village. “The village is beautiful and fertile. We have fresh air and clean water. Our food is without poison. There are no epidemics. If we get, it is only a fever, stomach ache or a back ache. Our village doctor (vederala) can cure it through a magic-thread or medicinal pellet (baith guli).” What he says is contradictory to what Heenbanda has said. Some are optimistic while others being obviously critical. Perhaps both contain the village truth.
Ranbanda highlights the land issue. They used to clear the jungle areas for Chena cultivation freely in the past, without any harm. Now, most of the areas are declared as the Knuckles forest reserve. “If we encroach, the Forest Department takes court action against us. Now we are confined to the village and small plots of land. That is not enough for our living. Even we don’t have deeds for them. If we want to find labour work, we must travel a long distance perhaps to Hasalaka, then even without finding work. Therefore, it is good if some settlement is made for our land problem by giving clear demarcations where we can cultivate. Otherwise, our present incomes are not enough.”
“We are not asking for big things,” he emphasized. “It would be a great virtue (loku pinak), if we are given some portions for our Chena cultivation, rights for our land, a road for our village and some system for our children’s education.” It is almost the same thing emphasised by Ranbanda, a road to the village being a common demand or request.
The story related by Chaturanga of Divaina should attract the attention of the Divisional Secretariat, the Pradeshiya Sabha of Minipe, and the Central Provincial Council because of the genuine grievances of the villagers. It is also important for the central government to pay attention in planning and developing these type of village communities. There are such communities both in the South and in the North.
One may argue that given this is a small village with 41 families and around 174 people, it would be best to relocate the people in other areas. This is something that the people themselves should decide and not from above. As the people are cultivators, it would be extremely difficult to find land for them in other areas. Even if relocation is a solution for this particular village, it cannot be a general solution for all similar villages as it would lead to major social dislocations.
Therefore, the best would be to develop this village which even can attract people from outside where population pressure is high. As many villagers have clearly expressed, the first priority is to build a road to the village for the farmers to take their produce to the market and access other facilities in nearby towns. Electricity is also a priority, with a community centre, probably adjacent to the existing school. The land issue also should be addressed. Most important might be to look into the educational status and requirements of the children possibly with a scholarship programme for good children. This is where some philanthropists and/or voluntary organizations (NGOs) could step in.
In this respect, the report of the Moratuwa University students (Lakdasun Trips), visiting this area in 2011, is also important. There has been much discussion recently on how to divert student energies in creative and constructive directions, away from repeated acrimony or fighting. Linking student or university activities to broader social and development issues might be a way forward. Even otherwise, Malaka’s narrative might give inspiration for others to visit the area and bring the grievances of such people to the public attention along with journalists like Chaturanga.
(Pictures are thanks to Malaka and Chaturanga)