21 September 2014

The "drought": Its politics, profit, disempowerment and history

Lunugamvehera, Hambantota looked no different in 2001 to this image, taken this year [Pic courtesy Sunday Times.]  

A different drought, a different part of the country, a different time.  This was written thirteen years ago almost to the day.  Some of the issues remain.

People have stories. Places too. If a man’s life is a short story (and it need not necessarily be), then the life of a place is necessarily an epic, for territories have people, trees, winds moving among them, histories, tragedies, celebration and time tested methods of coping with calamity. In streams swirling with flood waters, in the dry river beds of seasonal streams, the flavour of a ripe fruit, weaving through conversations, there are songs that contain the transcripts of struggle, defeat, resignation and in some cases, contentment.

The epic tale of a place is never obtained through random visits. The particular variations of wind and water movement and what these do to the land, the trees, the crops and the people, the subtle maneuvering of political, inter-family feuds, customs, ritual practices, versions of the cosmological etc., don’t appear like starving people on the side of main roads, proclaiming, "Here I am, come write me". 

Still, places do speak to those who are willing to stay awhile. You are not going to get the fully fleshed narrative of people, event and location, the land certainly spins a sketch of things, as they are, as they have been and casts a decent enough shadow on things that are to unfold. This is a story that I heard, as I roamed around Thanamalwila and Lunugamvehera, and those "off-road," "off-grid" villages, too often displaced and misplaced from the memories of officials, aid works and political parties. It is, as I said, an incomplete story. Want a comprehensive picture? Sorry. Even the Sociologist with his/her modern tools of Rapid Rural Appraisal, I am willing to wager, will be way off the mark. But let’s hear what this place has to say.

"I am tempted to ask, ‘why bother?’ Didn’t Swarnavahini and Sirasa name me, define me and defile my name, and didn’t the rest of the stations and newspapers follow suit? According to them, my first name is ‘The Land is Barren’; my second name is ‘The Animals are Dying’; my last name ‘Hunger: Famine Imminent’. Surely, I am something more than all that? I am the South East Dry Zone (let me call it SEDZ since people seem to be fond of acronyms), the heart of Ruhunu Rata. My children have fed this country for centuries, they have fought for freedom in this land, they were slaughtered again and again. Drought? Yes, I have known that condition. Its signature has been carved on my breast in radiating cracks, I have seen my thirsty children walk, weep and die.

"Yes, water is an issue. How can it not be for anyone, even those outside the SEDZ? Want me to put it in a nutshell? Or in a bottle, since that’s the trend now? This is how it was, friend. My children knew all about water conservation, water management. And long before the International Irrigation Management Institute and its latest water-guzzling avatar, International Water Management Institute, turned up and headquartered in our island. At the top end, we had what we call the polkatu weva, then the kulu weva (i.e. in the shape of a winnowing fan), then the gam weva, followed by the maha weva and then of course the mighty ocean. 

"I am also called the Wellassa, the hundred thousand tracts of paddy land. My being was dotted with thousands of village tanks. Sorry, "tank" doesn’t really convey the idea of a weva. A weva is not just a place where water is held. It held together a community, the flora and fauna of a particular area. It provided water for agriculture, for the cattle, for bathing purposes, washing etc. When a weva breached, my children wept, for it signalled the death of a community. With the dam went the village.

"Lunugamvehera is the title of a novel waiting to be written, or a tragedy waiting to go on stage. Seventy five thousand acres of rich farm land went under water. Forty seven wevas were bulldozed (13 of these can still be renovated). Our scientists implored the policy makers to locate the dam at Hurathgamuwa, which would have saved these lands and moreover brought in the waters of the Kalu Ganga, which is fed by both the monsoons. Didn’t happen. What did happen was that the location was decided in order to accommodate a local politician, who wanted to save five acres of ganja.

"You want numbers? The majority of drought effected areas are under the two development schemes, Lunugamvehera and Uda Walawe. There are 60,000 farmers under Uda Walawe and 26,000 under Lunugamvehera. Of these 55,000 are said to be suffering. In Uda Walawe its mostly people on the left bank (about 20,000 families) who have been effected, living in the Kiri-ibban Ara and Suriya Weva areas. In both places, the ancient ela-veli system was destroyed, the pol-kos-del dominated food security system of home gardening was compromised. The sun has to shine only a little bit strongly, and people starve.

"At the beginning the plan in Lunugamvehera was to feed 22,000 acres of ‘new’ land, for the new settlers, and 11,500 for the old villages surrounding the 6 tanks Bandagiriya, Pannegamuwa, Weeravila, Yoda Weva, Debaraweva and Tissa Weva. Later, it was decided to reduce the acreage fed by the reservoir to 25,000 acres, and even this in a rotational system. The ‘new’ farmers have not been able to harvest paddy in 4 years. Instead they have reaped frustration and starvation. Whereas 18% of the children in the Hambantota District are said to be malnourished (govt. and other statistics), the number for the area under the project is a whopping 49.6%! The ADB gave a loan of US $ 99 million, at 1% interest, with a ten year grace period. Even as relief aid flows into the SEDZ, our people are actually paying the ADB for having gifted us this monumental tragedy.

"Culture? I am different from the rest of the island. My people have their own beliefs and practices. They didn’t have to wait for Schumacher to write his essay on Buddhist Economics in ‘Small is Beautiful’ to live their lives in ways that were nurturing, to each other and the environment.

"Drought? As I said, it is not foreign. The month of August is always like this. All the seasonal streams dry up. That is why they are referred to as ‘Ara’. We have coping mechanisms. Like most people. Time was when my people had stocks of rice that would last them for several years. Things have changed. But we have by and large managed. One way or another. Still, it is true that it is a particularly intense sun that has shone on our lands. We are a few weeks from a serious tragedy. Unless it rains soon."

"Putha, the gods have not abandoned us. It is already raining!"

As the beli-thora vessa that usually heralds the monsoon fell on the parched earth of Thanamalwila, it was easy to detect a distinct change in the eyes of the people, their gait speaking volumes about hope and relief. Time to reflect certainly.

What was the real story of the drought, and relief measures? The dry season is ‘normal’ it has to be stressed. This is the time when people clear the land. If the rains come early, the seeds get washed away. This has happened and people have seen their ground nut cultivation get destroyed. What has happened is that the rains have been a little bit late. So there is a water problem. According to some people, the ball that Swarnavahini set rolling with its Helidarawwa programme snowballed into an avalanche. There were both good and bad outcomes.

Calamity always breeds its own leaches. Political parties, regional big-wigs, NGOs and others moved in swiftly, for this is fertile ground to play the game of lakunu da geneema. Racketeers sprouted all over, collecting rations and money for the "poor, drought-stricken brethren in the South". People in these "stricken areas" turned into overnight entrepreneurs. People have been lining up the main roads of the area, putting up signs, waiting for the relief vans and lorries to arrive. Samurdhi Niyamakas and Grama Niladharis are thriving since they are often the distributors, deciding who is deserving and who is not. Political patronage is naturally a signatory to this racket. "Revenge" gets yet another chance to play its vicious game.

I heard of a wedding where the guests were served bottled water, the host probably having an inside track in the relief obtaining race. Apparently, at least in the Thanamalvila Division, the Divisional Secretary is a good man. He is new, so he has to depend on his subordinates, whose intentions are less than benevolent. Relief distribution from the Divisional Secretariat has been done on an ad hoc basis. When a relief vehicle arrives, there are hundreds of lamenting people clamouring for food parcels. It is that random. Sometimes people from the same family get several parcels. It has been reported that there are households which have stocked up over 40 packets of milk.

All this can be brushed off under the easy label "inevitable". But it need not be so. In fact there are places where ordinary people have stepped in to make sure that things are done in a fair manner. Village-level organisations such as Grama Sanvardana Samithi and Govi Sanvidana have played their part, as have village temples and ordinary citizens who have standing in particular communities. There have been people to people mechanisms at work, where good hearted people in other parts of the country have contacted friends and family in these areas and asked them to help direct the relief to the most deserving.

At the same time, there are other negative outcomes of the relief industry. The "good hearted" are not always disciplined nor committed to their task; sometimes the good-hearted stay at home, or just stop at the point of donating a few kilos of rice or dhal. The actual "deliverers" are happy to dump off their bags at their convenience, i.e. to those who line the main roads. It is too much of a chore for them to actually seek out the most effected, typically those with little political power, those off the main roads, living in villages hugging forest reservations, under the threat of elephant attacks, people who have been forced out of poverty to encroach on state land etc.

A case in point would be a cluster of villages on the left bank of Lunugamvehera, in an area known as Seenukkuwa-Beralihela. The villages, named Padikepuhela, Pilimahela, and Thammannava, are home to people who have not received land under the scheme. If the project was actually successful, they would have some income by working as agricultural labour. Right now, their coconut plants are dying, they have nothing to show by way of home gardens. And absolutely no water. The villages are off the Lunugamvehera-Kataragama road that goes through the jungle. Typically relief vehicles by-pass these villages. By the time they hear about the arrival of a van or lorry, and run up to the main road, the dust agitated by the wheels have already settled.

Sometimes, "relief" serves to create divisions within the village or exacerbate those which already exist. Those who "drop off at random" do not know exactly how many families actually live in a given area. If the number of parcels is less than the number of families, some people naturally get nothing. What follows is a further fracturing of a fragile community.

Another problem for these people is that the area is on the boundary between the Hambantota and Monaragala Districts. Since it is just outside of Hambantota, they cannot benefit from the "I will outdo you" game that PA and UNP politicians in that district are playing. They are also at the extreme end of the largest administrative division in the country, Thanamalvila, so whatever comes by way of relief is usually expended with long before the lorries roll into these particularly neglected villages. So they have to drag their mats and sleep by the roadside, hoping that someone will stop by.

Some people were of the view that while there is a water problem that needed attention, the main problem is about the loss of purchasing capacity. I was told that one of the main reasons for this has been the all out assault on the ganja plantations carried out by Narcotics officials recently. "Ganja to Thanamalvila is like kasippu to the Western coast line north of Colombo. It is illegal, sure. But this has, for better or worse, become one of the main sources of income for many people in this area. In many cases, they have been forced into it out of desperation."

The story of ganja is something that needs urgent attention, I believe. It is part of the history of the SEDZ. It has always been used in Ayurvedic concoctions. In fact, according to Rev. Kirielle Gnanavimala who published the ath-veda potha of the Karambagala Aranyaya Senasanaya, kansa leaves with seeds were the main medium of the chemical mixes used by arahats in medicines. They constituted a full two thirds of the preparation, acting as a stimulant for quick-action. Ganja has a long history associated with the Kataragama Devale, and had been used as a palliative in medicines used to treat the wounded in wars against the British. In fact it is argued that this was the main reason for it to be dubbed as an illegal substance. If arahats used it, if it was socially sanctioned, and was widely grown by the people, what is really "wrong" about it, people query. For the record, it has been recognised to be less harmful than tobacco and has been made legal in Europe.

In the midst of political maneuvers, racketeering and the intensification of old rivalries and the opening of new wounds, there are things that stand out, speaking of that which is noble in human beings. In Thanamalvila, some youths did not forget the salient fact that animals too are suffering and that human being need animals for their own survival and sense of ecological balance. These young people had taken barrels out into the jungle and filled the water holes so that the deer, the elephants, the birds and reptiles can slake their thirst. In certain places, people organised themselves to do the sustainable thing-they decided to offer their labour to construct or rehabilitate their village irrigation works. 

Where the state doesn’t do, the people must, is what Peter Wise, who has lived in the area for the past 30 years building wevas and planting trees had to say. While NGOs raise their profiles and politicians fight each other for greater leverage at election time, the SEDZ is a place where humanity continues to fight back. Much like the children of an earlier era. More power to such people! And may all those altruistic people in other parts of the country do their homework before latching on to the Sirasa bandwagon. Let them buy an inch map of the areas affected by the drought and do the hard thing of walking the less walked byroads. Let them read the face of the truly thirsty and let them not judge by the appearance of a house the condition of its inhabitants.

And let them not forget that this drought is not something that is burning the soils of just the SEDZ. For it hasn’t rained in Kegalle, Kurunegala, Colombo, Anuradhapura and other places too. And since the unfolding of tragedy is the ideal point for reflection, let them think about the cutting down of trees, development paradigms that play pandu with the environment, politicians who flout laws and not least of all, all that USAID and the ADB are doing to ruin our rain forests, flora and fauna.
Whatever happens, let’s make sure that human dignity is not bruised.

 (I am indebted to my friends Wasantha of Parakaduwa and P.B. of Veherayaya for indicating the fault lines of official stories about the SEDZ, the drought and the relief industry).