28 July 2016

Moragahakanda: where devolutionists will drown

A mild and entertaining debate was sparked when President Maithripala Sirisena took part in a ceremony to enshrine treasures at the site of the Moragahakanda-Kalu Ganga Irrigation Development Project.  The question was one of bragging rights.  In short, the question was whether it Mahinda or Maithri who ‘owns’ the project.  That’s politics in Sri Lanka, good for a bit of banter both ways, but not enough to warrant serious comment.  What turned ‘light’ into ‘heavy’ was a statement by Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran.
It is reported that Wigneswaran has claimed rights (for the Northern Provincial Council, one assumes) to the project since it is to supply water to the Northern Province via the Iranamadu Reservoir.  He doesn’t want the ‘central government’ to have full authority over the project, apparently.  However, he has ‘graciously’ said ‘we are happy that water is from the Mahaweli River is being distributed to the North, we have no objection to that.’

Now this is interesting.  Wigneswaran doesn’t want the ‘central government’ to have full control, but what does all this say about ‘ownership’?  Who owns the water?  Is ownership determined in terms of the proportion of precipitation that falls on the district/province through which the river flows? Do those districts/provinces through which the irrigation waters flow have a claim (in terms of the particular length of the canal-segment that lies in the particular district/province)?  Who should pay those who lose land to irrigation projects, the state or the benefitting district/province and since all sources matter should such payment be paid on the basis of usage or as rent?  These questions need to be asked because Wigneswaran has brought ‘ownership’ into the issue.   

The questions prompt a revisit to the devolution debate.  If people want self-rule (as Wigneswaran does) or some form of devolution, then there’s a serious question that needs to be asked: ‘should a rich province (in terms of resources, wealth-creating capacity etc) subsidize a poo(er) province?’  If we take the devolution argument to its logical conclusion, then it gets drowned in places such as Moragahakanda, metaphorically speaking of course. 

Wigneswaran cannot say ‘hurray’ when he gets something free from outside the Northern Province and at the same time mutter ‘whether you are giving it free or not, you are giving it to me, so I should have some control’.  Take that argument to the World Bank, the IMP, the European Union of GSP Plus fame, or any donor funding any NGO and that will put a full stop to assistance. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe that it is the responsibility of the state to take care of all citizens and that diverting excess water from a water-rich area to a water-scarce region (like the Northern Province) is the correct thing to do, regardless of the communalist utterings of the Wigneswarans.  However, Wigneswaran (and devolutionists) cannot get away from the problem of ‘ownership’; unless of course they are ready to purchase goods and services, which would take us to a discussion on new classical economics. 

Wigneswaran is not talking that language.  For him it’s about eating the cake and having it; wanting self-rule and wanting freebies from other parts of the country (and wanting a slice of the would-be-giver’s decision-making cake as well).  Try topping that for gumption and obnoxiousness!

This brings to mind the statement he made on the occasion when the National Anthem was sung in Tamil (Independence Day 2016).  People went ga-ga over the statement Wigneswaran made during an unscheduled visit to the Naga Vihara: ‘If Sinhalese take one step forward – the Tamils are ready to ten steps.’  Nice line and you really can’t fault people for shedding tears over it, especially since it was Wigneswaran who said it, the same man who often celebrates terrorists and justifies terrorism.  

Now it seems that he was being clever with that statement.  The water equivalent of ‘steps’ would be something like this:  ‘If the Sinhalese give us one drop, we’ll ask for ten’. 

Fortunately this is not about Sinhalese or Tamils, provinces or provincial demarcations; it is about the citizens of the country and the responsibilities of the Government.  It is not about Mahinda, Maithripala or Wigneswaran but the efforts of an entire nation to ensure that each and every citizen has access to water.    It is not about who ‘owns’ Moragahakanda or has bragging rights regarding the project but what Moragahakanda can do to improve the life chances of Sri Lankans, regardless of which district/province north of the dam they happen to live, regardless of which party they vote(d) for, regardless of their land-grabbing aspirations, and most importantly whether or not someone like C.V. Wigneswaran benefits. 

That said, Moragahakanda is certainly a strange body of water.  It’s located in the Matale District.  The waters will be benign and beneficial to farmers all the way up to the Northern Province (depending on water availability and the completion of the 4th Phase of the project) but if devolutionists were to dare take a dip in Moragahakanda, they may drown.  Wigneswaran himself is struggling, it seems. 

In any event, devolutionists (from 13-now and 13-plus advocates to federalists to separatists) would do well to reflect long on this particular trap that C.V. Wigneswaran has fallen into and in falling has accidentally pulled such people into. 

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Blog: malindawords.blogspot.com.  Email: malindasene@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene.