23 February, 2024


Wailing Of A Dying Community & What’s The Solution To His Lamentation?

By Vishwamithra

“The awful daring of a moment’s surrender

Which an age of prudence can never retract …” ~T S Eliot, The Waste Land

The desolate landscape stretched as far as the eye could see. The parched foliage was no shade for the tired and weary. The flatness of the land was more akin to a roughly scrubbed surface of a gravel road than a space occupied by a community of farmers, tilling the soil for their daily sustenance. A farmer, visible to the naked eye as a fluttering silhouette bordering on the horizon, was still discharging his labor to make the land more amenable to absorb the seeds of a crop to be reaped when and how, even the tiller knows not.

Amidst a crimson sky at the dusk, the sun is receding and dipping below the a hazy horizon reminding one of an painting created by an amateur artist whose skills are yet much below par. This is the artwork of life in general; lines not enunciated; the macro picture yet blurry and especially in the dry zone. Its unkind treatment of its own occupants, made crueler by a meaner climate has gone unnoticed. But the toiling is yet to take a break, for in the daily chores of a hapless farmer, that cannot happen nor would it be justified lest a family could go hungry and undernourished.

But the stifling apathy of the politicians who came to power after deliberately deceiving these trusting communities of farmers – the grain producers for the nation – is more appalling than the tragic fate that has befallen them. In a very real sense, these farmers are an unsophisticated lot; their preoccupation has never been with the nuanced facets of life; theirs is a very simplistic, mundane living, so to speak. They would rather sacrifice their own comforts for the greater good of their offspring. Sacrifice of one generation to regenerate a successive one, the eternal journey of man throughout history’s long and winding trek, has been poignant, and sometimes, awe-inspiring. Their selfless way of living may have all gone unnoticed, unappreciated and to utter waste.

It was generally the climate of the region and specifically the weather of the day that set the routine for our dry zone farmer. Not the framer himself. Much different to the farming entrepreneurs and the big corporates with their super-paid executives and pukka sahibs who owned more than fifty acres of paddy, our farmer who is tilling his land into the twilight of day possessed no more than one hectare of irrigable land and one half acre of homestead. He could claim ownership to the land if he had not already mortgaged it to the village mudalali.

This pitiful existence of our farming community is being ignored by the very political leaders who originally had pledged that they would be the ultimate rescuers of the country’s economy. However, Sri Lanka has changed. It has changed from an agricultural economy to a more outward-looking, twenty first century-oriented one in which the cattle-drawn plough has been replaced by a more efficient motorized machinery for the preparation of the soil and massive rice mills have come in place of the dilapidated godowns in the past few decades. Material conditions have changed, almost to an unrecognizable degree, yet the subjective circumstances have got bogged down, ironically, in an impenetrable façade of fakeness and falsehood.

Physical infrastructure that sustains the crop of paddy has grown steadily. Massive reservoirs, irrigation canals, tertiaries and field canals providing water up to the farm gate have arrived at the rural hamlets; they have come at an enormous capital costs; the investment via foreign grants and aid were made possible after painstaking and stringent negotiations and bargaining.

More than one hundred and fifty thousand families have been settled in this arid landscape. Uprooted from their place of birth, some maybe for centuries with their kith and kin, they willingly chose to leave behind generations of memories and bonds usually associated with living as equal members of one community of families and friends. Their comfort zone has been shifted; reconciling to a new environment, replacing either the coastline or the middle-of-the-country wet zone with a space that resembled more a vast barren scrub jungle has never been easy, nor heartwarming to any human community. After hearing the stories of physical moving and witnessing the very effects of resettlements, many a journalist and researcher was taken aback by the very placidity and stoicism displayed by these families. The settler families were very aware of the sacrifices that were expected to be made and they willingly participated in that massive national effort.

The country achieved its desired status: self-sufficiency in rice. That was made possible by the hours on end spent on the then parched but now irrigated land by that farmer, while his emaciated spouse spent almost all her waking hours in preparation of meals for her beloved; in the time she was free, if free at all, she was busy preparing their one and only son for the fast approaching time for school admission. They don’t have the luxury of admitting their son to the Central College situated in the town center. They have to be satisfied with the village school which had only one building, irregular electricity and less than one hundred pupils with two teachers. The sweat so willingly and expended with abundance of hope and dreams cannot go waste.

One farmer’s tale is the story of all farmers. The sun that rose with the dawn of day and set at twilight is bright orange or sometimes red in color; the grass is always green; the wood color is brown and the dark night is black. But the color of water and the sweat seeping down the tired shoulders and sunken cheeks of the farmer has no color; two ingredients that nourish the spine of a nation, water and sweat is indeed colorless. What an irony in this vast universe of the visible!

Many a politician and lay and robed-preacher of one religious denomination or other will come to hijack that farmer; they will engage the farmer and his family to gain their own greedy and selfish ends. Driving a farmer to his inglorious end of crop failure and desperation is not so hard a task for these well-oiled swindlers. Swindling and exploitation is their stock in trade. They will make every attempt to foreclose the tireless efforts of the farmer community and portray them as a marginal segment of our population.

Vast reservoirs would run dry; canals would be filled with gravel and dirt by neglect and disrepair; farmland might look more like a barren territory of an exploited community. Yet the nation will demand rice and vegetables for her sustenance.               

Italian Renaissance diplomat, philosopher and writer, Machiavelli wrote thus: ‘For whoever believes that great advancement and new benefits make men forget old injuries is mistaken.’ The advances and achievements of our farmers cannot be understated. If any of us do it, we’re committing a grave and tragic disservice to the rough and noble hands of the farmer. To disregard the service and sacrifice of the farming community is a commission of a sin that should be justifiably met with unmitigated retribution and reckoning.

Yet one must understand that we are not living in the second half of the last century. The dawn of the twenty first century has ushered in a totally new culture; a culture that is shaped and nourished by the internet syndrome; a culture whose nuanced features and validities are measured by Nano seconds, not by years and decades. The farmer who graduated from peasantry to a class and category of fellow men more acceptable to the so-called upper echelons of society now has got completely bogged down in a stagnant rut with no forward movement on the horizon.

A corrupt system has managed to catapult a Grama Niladhari to Presidency but the upward movement of the farmer in society has been frustrated by rice mill owners some of whom are kith and kin of that same guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time to be our President, to be the powers that be. From President downwards to the provincial councilor is a cataclysmic image of societal values and measures that once defined the very character of this great nation.

The sun has set and plunged below the horizon. Darkness is rushing to embrace the gathering night; crickets and other night creatures have begun their nightly sounds reaching a crescendo, generating a riot of echoes. The farmer is back home, exhaling a sigh of relief. His child is already asleep and wife is making the final touches to the meager dinner that consists of rice, dhal and coconut chutney (pol sambol). Tears, those colorless tears find a willing passage along his sunken cheeks.

Another day has come and gone; another meal has been cooked and consumed. A congeniality that is absent and not very visible in high-class society is markedly present in this shack of dwelling the Sri Lankan farmer calls his abode. There is that spiritual illumination in the pitch blackness that surrounds it.

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  • 2

    Vishwamitra’s opening sentences are reminiscent of Leonard Woolf’s Village in the Jungle.
    Every year California’s estimated 2,500 rice growers produce mostly Medium Grain Calrose Japonica rice on around 500,000 acres of land producing around 45 million cwt, or over 2 million metric tons (MMT) of paddy rice.
    Sri Lanka ( with lakhs of farmers) currently produces 2.7 million t of rough rice annually and satisfies around 95 percent of the domestic requirement.
    Even Tamil Nadu , without a 2500 year old irrigation system, produces rice for export, among other things.
    Why is our production so low and unprofitable?
    As in many other things, our people depend far too much on traditional wisdom, not willing to change. They are encouraged in this mindset, as the author seems to imply, by scheming politicians and clergy.

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