15 February 2012

The Iron Lady of Rambodawatte

In comparative terms it was a sprawling estate.  Sixty acres is a lot, especially if you live in Colombo.  Nandana, who runs a retail shop in Maradana and doubles up as a driver when he hires out his van, put things in context: ‘Some people can’t manage 6 perches, but this lady manages a vegetable garden of  60 acres.’
Ease of management is of course not related to territory-size, but running that farm in a remote corner of the Nuwara Eliya district is certainly no picnic, even though Rambodawatte is located just 3 km off Labukele on the Kandy-Nuwara Eliya Road.  Perhaps a snap shot of difficulty might illuminate.
At the far end of the farm, which is tucked against a forest covered mountain that is home to plot-wrecking wild boar as well as other relatively harmless creatures, there was a sizable section planted with radish.  Ready for harvesting, but destined to be composted. 
‘The price has come down to 2 rupees per kilo.  It costs us 5 rupees (per kilo) to transport it to the main road.’
That simple answer came from a simple, friendly woman who is iron-like in her determination and work ethic.  Shyamali Wickramasinghe works hard.  From dawn to dusk.   
Sixty acres is a lot of land and prices are not always so bad that you have to let your crop rot.  A simplistic calculation would make it easy to see Shyamali as someone who rakes in millions.  Counted out of the equation, however, is the investment.  Labourers have to paid and this costs close to one hundred thousand rupees every week; needless to say carrots, beetroot, leeks, radish, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, cabbage etc are not harvested and sold every week.  Seeds and other inputs cost.  Shyamali has to borrow from banks.  She is constantly threatened by crop failure and price fluctuation.  
If it were only that, then it would only require judicious management of finances and options with some form of insurance.  She doesn’t rule the skies though.  She didn’t design the landscape either.  It is a cold district and one frequently covered with mist, but it is often nothing more than a cold desert.  Water has to be conserved.  Water has to be distributed.  Rainfall and the natural pressure offered by gradient help, but pipes burst, taps break and one has to keep constant watch on sprinklers in order to make sure the vegetable beds are watered just right. 
The wars of the 21st Century will be over water, they say, but land still matters.  Shyamali, who hails from a family of vegetable farmers who live in and around Kudaoya, is supported in her enterprise by her husband Kapila, but there are many occasions when she spends the night alone in the temporary shack they’ve constructed on the farm.  There have been numerous occasions when she has had to deal with shady characters who stake claim to her property on the basis of dubious documents.  They drag her to court and as if that weren’t enough, they pump labourers with alcohol and set them on her. 
They come at her with money, political backing and at times in numbers made brave with drink, knife and mammoty.  She takes them on in courthouse and on the good earth, depending for the most part on the power of righteousness and singular determination not to budge an inch.  And of course the steadfast loyalty of some of her staff, many of whom have problems of their own such as alcohol abuse and/or abusive husbands. 

It is beautiful this place and utterly peaceful too, to both occasional visitor and to resident.  Shyamali loves the place.  And yet, loving involves walking many kilometers every day, checking on the work, making sure everything is alright etc.  Her transportation costs would be considerably lowered if only a small bridge was constructed on the narrow but motorable path she has to take in order to transport her vegetables to the main road.  What she hasn’t she has to learn to do without, though.  As of now, vegetables are transported using quite a circuitous route. 

Uncertainty rules Rambodawatta, but Shyamali is not one to be deterred by such things:  ‘This is what I know, what I like and what I will continue to do.’    

From the shack, as evening falls, the lights of vehicles plying the Kandy – Nuwara Eliya road take the appearance of a ring of fire.  It rained that evening and Shyamali and Kapila were happy.  When the rain began, they said ‘not enough’, and as it rained and rained Kapila said ‘it will be so beautiful tomorrow morning.’   It was.  It is an unyielding landscape though and it takes a special kind of courage, skill and resolve to harvest anything that in volume (at least) is bountiful.  Shyamali does exactly that.  She is made of iron, recognizable in the work and so unrecognized in the smile, good heartedness, cheer and hospitality. 
There’s no electricity from the grid, but when there’s been enough rain, a small turbine offers some light.  It’s mostly hurricane lanterns and candles after dusk. 



fayaz said...

India has a method to help farmers; they buy the produce and i believe some of the stuff is dehydrated for use later on , when crops are scarce..

ought to be looked into./

yep its hard work and cultivators ought always to be given a special place..

our lives will depend on home growns and its best we are prepared for world upsets in commodity prices..

Anonymous said...

i didnt know veggies cd still cost as low as Rs 2/-- ; i knew a time abt 15 years ago when that was the price in nuwara eliya dist; but to have the the same price still... thats exploitation..