Badulla's ancient irrigation system destroyed


The Badulla valley civilisation had the proud distinction of hosting the Buddha on his third visit to Lanka. Muthiyangana temple, though pillaged and burnt by many an invader still stands tall. To have had the extraordinary privilege of hosting such an august person of that era, the local population must have been both prosperous and sufficiently knowledgeable to understand the significance of the Dhamma. Centuries later, shades of this are found in the writings of Captain Jaao Ribeiro, a Portuguese, who wrote of his experiences in 1685, after having spent many a year in Lanka as a soldier (The Historic Tragedy of the Island of Ceilao).

He mentions the loads of precious stones they collected from dealers in Iva and the valour of its Sinhala soldiers, not forgetting to mention they were the bravest of the King's army. The British for their part were taken aback by the well ordered society they found in Iva. So much so, they nearly lost their effort to subjugate a very independent people. In a ferocious bid to put down the uprising of 1818 the invader killed all males over 12yrs on sight, destroyed every means of livelihood the people could possibly retain. This included the unique hill country irrigation system, animals and even fruit trees. To their credit, when they had to sustain their conquest, they repaired what they destroyed. So much so by 1927 R.M.C. Festing, the then GA of Uva, reported the existence of 727 acres of paddy in the Badulla valley. Resuscitation meant the restoration of 10 major channels and a mesh of sub-‘elas’.

Until the creation of the Provincial Councils, the Irrigation Dept. managed the entire irrigation network country wide. Understandably, the PC's which are relatively new have been unable to manage efficiently the numerous 'minor' irrigation channels handed over to them by the 13th amendment. More damaging to the farmers were the strange reasons to allow the Dept. of Agrarian Services to take on some of the smaller irrigation works. This Dept, as the name implies, had not much acquaintance with matters irrigation, neither did they have the all important trained personnel. Badulla unfortunately fell into their clutches and the results after 20 yrs of mismanagement, or lack of management, is the loss of employment to a large number of persons engaged in paddy cultivation in the valley; destruction and complete closure of the once magnificent ‘elas’ of yore, drying up of a number of ‘pihillas’ and other sources of water which were available to the people of Badulla free, and loss of a tonnage of local rice which now has to be brought from outside. Even the city's drains were kept washed with a supply from one of the ‘elas’. The British powered their first Provincial Mechanical workshop with the reliable water supply from the aforesaid channel (Manual of Uva).

Of the experienced paddy field workers, the men have left their homes to far away climes to work at unfamiliar construction sites and, the women reluctantly sacrificed their self respect to join the Samurdi queue. Over the years, approximately at least 400 families have been affected. The buffalo hirer, an integral part of Lankan agriculture has had to surreptitiously dispose of his animals for other purposes. The acreage under cultivation is down to less than 150. With another similar amount lying fallow awaiting the repair of ‘elas’.

With so much to be done to arrest the situation, the local Agrarian Services personnel provide only a measly amounts in their 2016 budget for the partial repair of one channel. A 'line' Ministry entity as it is called, the local bigwig reports directly to his Secretary in Colombo. No authority locally has any control over the Provincial Deputy Commissioner. Amazingly, neither do this worthy’s officials consult the farmers anymore. The Provincial Minister for irrigation washes his hands off the matter, saying it is not his domain!

The other threat in addition to the neglect of paddy land (wet land) is the possibility of them being filled up for buildings. The Badulu Oya which flows through the valley has a catchment area of hilly terrain, from the northern slopes of Namunukula to streams originating in Wewessa, Bindunuwewa, Moretota etc. Due to variations in elevation, it flows rapidly through the city. The exit is at the northern end of the town via a narrow gap of about 50 mts in width. It falls over at Dunhinda where the opening is even narrower. With limited wetland to absorb an ever increasing volume of water, one shudders to think of a catastrophic flood of the nature many countries now experience.

There is a strong feeling among the farming community that the local agrarian services officials are hand in glove property developers, to eliminate paddy farming in the valley by choking off the water supply in stages. Certainly they have succeeded to a point. Rich government servants are some of the most enthusiastic house builders. This is no fantasy; reality gives credence to the matter.

Invaders use water deprivation as a tactic to subdue their enemies. In fact, this is what Prabhakaran tried at Mavil Aru. But for our government to do the same to the Sinhalayas is unforgivable. Resuscitation of the ‘ela’ network is a must for the well being of Badulla and its people. Our elevation and climate are such that even Basmati grows in local fields.

The Island of 9/9/16 reports of the President’s wish to grow an additional 55009 acres of paddy. For all his efforts, with Dept's like the Agrarian Services he needs no enemies. Good luck to you, Sir!

Milroy Ratwatte

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