Wayamba 90% Of The Paddy Crop Destroyed
By Niranjala Ariyawansha - Pictures by Asoka Fernando
We are not in a mood to speak in decent language anymore. We are so hurt. There has not been a single President from J. R. Jayewardene onwards who found a solution for the Batalagoda scheme. They came time and again and found temporary solutions. The officials are the same. They too come time to time and spin some yarn and go away”, said R. M. Podibanda Ratnayake, a farmer from Kombavehera, Ibbagamuwa gazing at the mountain range ahead of him.He was in deep thought. A vast paddy field lies between the mountain range and the farmer. The fields are dry and the crop destroyed.
He is 59 years old, and has been a farmer all his life. One of his legs has been amputated due to pesticide entering his blood stream through a cut in his leg. He believes this was the cause. The harvest of the two acres he sowed has totally failed.
Batalagoda is the principal Research Facility where scientific research into paddy cultivation is conducted. This Facility is situated by the banks of the Batalagoda tank. The tank is flanked by the famous Ibbagamuwa Central School on one side and the Research Facility and the picturesque Matale mountain range on the other side.
The paddy fields which extend approximately 30 kilometres adjacent to the Research Facility and surround over 100 villages, have all been destroyed. Podi Banda Ratnayake is heart broken as his only means of income has now been lost.
“It was in the 1800’s when Henry Parker started this project in Batalagoda. Nothing has been done thereafter. They shout out loud about a collective policy for water management. As far as I know none of that has taken place in Batalagoda. Time and again they divert water. Nothing more has been done in Batalagoda,” he claimed.
The villagers from this area say that about 5,500 acres around Batalagoda were brought under paddy cultivation during the 1800’s by Englishman Henry Parker. With the increase in population the acreage under cultivation has increased up to 15,000 acres by now but the irrigation facilities have not kept pace. That is the charge made by the farmers of this area. The farmers charge that the waterways and tributaries have to be cleaned after each harvest, which means that it has to be done twice a year. This is being done by the farmers together with the engineers of the Irrigation Department. Yet the farmers are not happy with the attention of the Irrigation Officers. There has been no rain since April this year in the Kurunegala District or anywhere else in the entire Wayamba Province. Some say that there is no water due to the lack of rains, while others claim that if the tanks and tributaries had been cleaned up the retained water would have been sufficient.
Another farmer Dissanayake Bandara from Ibbagamuwa said that the crop destruction during this harvest was entirely due to the drought.
“The water management was handled properly, but there was no rain. The farmers knowing that there was no rain cultivated hopefully. I cannot recall a drought of this nature ever. 90 percent of the crop is destroyed,” he said.
S. P. Kumara is a 55 year old farmer who claimed that he had never experienced a drought of this nature.
“We have been farmers for generations. True, there was no rainfall. But the officials of the Irrigation Department have an obligation to maintain the tanks and the waterways. That responsibility extends to the farmer organisations too. The officials charge that the government has not passed money for it. But the government has enough money to maintain their family. This is a country that depends on agriculture. There used to be over 4,000 tanks in Wayamaba. If these were maintained this country would have been nearly self-sufficient in rice,” said Kumara.
The farmers complained that the government spends just enough to garner the votes without a long term view. The three districts which contribute a major share of the paddy production namely Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kurunegala have been affected by the drought which has resulted in a 90 percent crop failure.
While travelling through the Kurunegala District The Sunday Leader witnessed acres of young paddy which had been destroyed. Farmers were gazing forlornly at the brown coloured straw like sprouts.
Kurunegala is commonly called the Buth Korale (Rice Bowl) which means that it is the district that provides the bulk of the paddy for the country. But the prospects are gloomy even for those farmers to find rice at least for their consumption. The paddy they stocked from the last harvest will soon be finished, they said. We left Batalagoda for Nikawaratiya. Even the little greenery that was seen in Kurunegala disappeared on the way to Nikawaratiya. The trees had taken a beating from the scorching sun. Hundreds of acres of paddy land had turned brown. Jayatissa a 35-year-old farmer standing by his paddy field was heart broken when he spoke with us.
“I was only 15 years old when I first started paddy cultivation. We are farmers who belong to the Magalla irrigation scheme. I have never experienced a drought of this nature in my life. But the reason for the failure of the crop was not the drought. Magalla tank gets its water from the Rideebandi tank after traversing about 20 kilometres. But they do not clean this tank. If the tank had been cleaned the water would have flown to the Magalla tank and filled it by early April,” he said. Similar to the destruction in Batalagoda, the paddy lands around the Magalla scheme too have been destroyed by as much as 95 percent. The Magalla tank, according to the villagers was built by King Mahasen as written in the Mahavansa and occupies a land mass of 5,200 acres. It is fed by the Rideebandi tank which covers 600 acres. The Magalla scheme encompasses both these tanks and the land that surrounds it.
Around 3,000 to 3,500 farmer families live within this scheme. Even though the water from the Deduru Oya in Anuradapura was diverted into the Rideebandi Ela the Magalla tank filled only up to the halfway mark the farmers said. If they allowed the Magalla tank to fill up to the brim the water would have been enough for this harvest.
Duminda Weerasinghe a farmer from Nikawaratiya said, “There is a millionare called Buddima in Nikawaratiya town. He is building a hotel near the tank. Some say that this hotel belongs to a politician from the area. If the tank was filled the water it would have reached the floor level of the hotel since it is at a lower level to the upper limit of the tank. There is a doubt whether the waters from the Deduru Oya were stopped because the hotel is at a lower level. The drought came and now we do not have water.
Our paddy lands have been destroyed. The hotel is being built at many levels”.
Some farmers who did not wish to be named had another theory. They said that a coir industry had been started on 200 acres of abandoned land near the irrigation scheme a couple of years ago. The farmers say that this factory belongs to a powerful government official close to the ruling family. The trees on this land had been felled to build the factory. They feel that the Agriculture Officers, Forest Department Officials and the Nikawaratiya Irrigation Officers do not take any action in this regard because of the powerful political connections of the owner. This lack of trees could have also contributed to the lack of rainfall.
The farmers said that the Water Resources Board had started a project about two years ago to supply portable water to the Mahawa area from the water in the Magalla tank but the Irrigation Department officials had not followed up by releasing more water from the Deduru Oya into the Magalla tank.
The people of the area said that several government departments too did not have access to water. The Nikawaratiya Government Hospital is a case in point. The Water Resources Board is supplying water to the Hospital from the Deduru Oya.
The main cause for the shortage of water according to farmers was the neglect shown in maintenance of the tanks. With such neglect the tank beds had silted and thereby the volume of water retained was less.
The government has since allocated funds to maintain the tanks but only after the drought had taken its toll. The Magalla tank in Nikawaratiya, Rideebandi Ela and the Batalagoda tank are now being cleaned up. However the farmers are skeptical as they feel that this work will be stopped after the impending Provincial Council elections are concluded. Yet they hope even after the drought the government will take stock of the situation and compensate the farmers.
The farmers from the Magalla scheme expect aid from the government to help them cope with the loss of their harvest, but lament that nothing has been forthcoming as yet. But the Batalagoda and Nikawaratiya Irrigation Officers said that the farmers were warned to cultivate only a land area for which water was available. However the farmers had gone by their past experiences and cultivated a land area as they wished ignoring the advice of the Irrigation officials.
The destruction of the harvest has not just affected a section of the farmers or a single district. It will now have an effect on the whole country.
A social and environmental scientist from Kurunegala who did not wish to be named said, “The rainfall in the Kurunegala District has shrunk by 30 percent in the last hundred years. In Putlam it has reduced by 40 percent. The ground water in Kurunegala has reduced by five metres and ten to twelve metres in Puttalam. So, even if there is rainfall the ground does not have the humus layer needed to retain it. There are several reasons for this. The water that has to be retained at village level has been mismanaged due to the use of a non-scientific process. There are no mountainous retentions around the forests or tanks. There are only rocks, no trees and these mountains are now naked. This is due to the political decisions which have been taken to fill up the land and build roadways. There has been no scientific development in these areas. Wayamba has been reduced to this because of these reasons”.
He added, “Coconut cultivation had been started around the Batalagoda tank. We also saw houses built in this area. The best example of the effects of this mismanagement could be seen through the plight of the farmer families in the Magalla tank scheme. There are no people in this scheme. Many houses remained closed. The remaining farmers said that many have gone to seek manual labour to other areas”.
Thousands of acres of paddy lands in Wayamba are destroyed. The wail of farmers reverberate in these areas. Podi Banda Ratnayake, a farmer from Mahamukalanyaya says, “The government must think that we farmers can be tricked. No. That could be so in the short term. Finally they will fool themselves. We live with nature. No one can fool nature”.The scientist from Kurunegala says that the politicians must share the blame for the drought. The experience of the farmer and the technical and scientific knowledge of the Irrigation officers must be in sync to face a drought of this nature.