17 December 2011

Thrift and credit are blue in colour

A few days ago I wrote about village ‘tanks’.  Some call these ‘ponds’. Considering that there are reservoirs of Parakrama Samudra dimensions there is a certain logic in naming most facilities holding water in villages as ‘ponds’.  Peter Wise believes that ‘wewa’ is not about water and that a fixation with dimensionalities can dilute meaning and de-value function.  I agree.

When I wrote about ‘wewas’ it was in a larger context of ‘developmentalism’.  Today I want to be more specific.  The other day I spoke of ‘wewa’ as symbol of thrift and credit.  I fear I did not elaborate enough.

Today whisper the term ‘microfinance’ and you will hear an echo: ‘Grameen’.  To those who are out of the loop ‘Grameen’ is a system pioneered in Bangladesh by Prof. Muhammad Yunus.  It is based on the assumption that people can save.  The model, crudely put, would be about giving small sums of money to poor people. Prof Yunus believed that people can repay manageable amounts and that in time, when they acquire the saving/repaying habit they can handle larger loans.  That’s one model. 

There is nothing ‘Grameen’ about our traditional ‘wewa’.  The focus is self-help.  There’s no dependency on ‘foreign aid’.  The village tank or weva is typically a larger irrigation facility and built through collective effort.  People pour their labour into the ‘earthwork’, construct the sluices, the spill and the canals.  They divide the dam-length by number and extent of cultivation plots downstream and apportion sections for maintenance to each household.  In times of emergency, the entire village gets together to do whatever is necessary to protect the weva.  There are times when flawed construction and/or unexpected volumes of rain cause rupture. Dams break. People weep. Villages are abandoned. Nature reclaims her traditional homelands. 

There are key elements here.  The first is thrift.  Labour is congealed in the construction.  There are no wages paid, not for construction and not for maintenance.  The entire collective, i.e. the village, benefits.  Apart from there being water for cultivation, the weva helps raise the water table. The wells around the wevas get filled.  There’s a swimming pool for the children and for the adults a place to immerse in liquid flavours that take away the day’s weariness.  There is water for the cattle.  There is fish.  There is aesthetic beauty.  The trees are greener. 

Embedded in the weva is the notion of credit.  One borrows water for the fields, and repays by doing everything possible to ensure that there’s water again the next season.  This includes keeping intact the watershed.  Tree is not seen as timber but a necessary player in an ecological system whose health one’s livelihood is inextricably linked to.  Trees are harvested for firewood. That’s dry branches and not mindless chopping. 

We are talking here about micro ecologies.  Microfinance.  Little things.  Disavowal of greed.  The recognition of the greater worth of the collective. 

We’ve done our little experiment with the lies and poisons of the Green Revolution. We’ve tried state-led and growth-led.  We’ve deferred to the private sector.  Failed.  We rubbished cooperatives. We have come a full circle.  We have come to Little Drops of Water. We are at Little Grains of Sand. We are at a gate called ‘Microfinance’. The way I see it, it is a buzz word and nothing else.  A stolen concept, twisted beyond recognition. 

We have spent our bucks and those of our children too, ecologically speaking. We have come to ‘thrift’ the hard way.  We cannot borrow any longer.  Let us save. Ourselves.  It boils down to water.  A weva.  That’s the microfinance, the thrift and credit if you will, that sustained our ancestors and built a civilization that we gave us some bragging rights. 

And if you think we’ve gone past all this, that this is too idealistic and a city man’s romantic flirtation nothing else, here’s a story that might inspire. 

I know of a man called Dissanayaka Mudiyanselage Punchi Banda (‘PB’ to all who knew him) living in a village called Alutwela situated about 6 kilometres off a place called Veherayaya, a bit north of Kuda Oya on the Thanamalvila-Wellawaya road.  PB’s property is swept by dry winds of the South East Dry Zone and also by a coolness that floats down from the central hills and through the waters of the Kuda Oya, the blending of the two producing a distinct ecology where literally anything can be grown.

PB after serving a prison sentence for involvement in the JVP insurrection of 1971 had been given a 2 acre plot in the area.  He was one of some 70 plus beneficiaries. The others had tried, tired of it and left. PB did not.  He found a small weva, repaired it, and started growing vegetables. He has since acquired more land and constructed two more wevas. 

He knows thift, PB does. He knows microfinance. He knows wevas. He knows that it is all blue in colour.

[First published in the Daily News, September 23, 2010]