Monday, October 27, 2008

Village innuendo Sinhala style

When I embarked on this venture to go into two villages in the Polonnaruwa district to build a life for myself, I was very naive as to the social fabric of a village having never lived in one. I have been confronted by many surprises that appear normal for those living there.

One village Raja Ela in Hingurakgoda, where my agricultural land is, was a thick forest a hundred years ago, inhabited by elephants. It was subsequently cleared and colonists from all over the country were settled, whose grand children now live in plots of land as small as 20 perches to a maximum of 5 acres. Excluding the paddy land that is primarily intact, all the other land given for agricultural use is barely cultivated, except for some coconut areas.

The second village Ratmale, in Minneriya, is a Purana Gama, that existed prior to colonization schemes, where 80% of inhabitants claim kinship. I intend to live there once my small one roomed home is finished, which I hope to share with visitors to the area curious to see a fast disappearing way of life. This village, which is only 4km from the Kaudulla National Park entrance, consists of farmers who are increasingly looking for other income.

Due to my necessity to work 7 days a week to earn a living to develop these properties, I have had to resort to employing people to take care of and farm and develop the properties. The first lesson I learnt is not to use local people to take care of the land, as they are most unreliable, working their own properties, while drawing a wage from me, and walking away with produce from my land taking advantage of my inability to oversea their work. Worse, the daily wage expected is Rs600/-, which is the standard wage in the area for casual labor. This is high where an agricultural return is difficult to earn from such wages.

I have had to get staff from outside the area and place them on the property and provide them with accommodation and food where I pay them Rs400/- which they can bank at the end of the month if they don’t go back to their villages for various family functions which invariably involve spending it.

The issue is that the neighbors are not familiar with a paid laborer occupying the land, as the people are owner-occupiers who don’t develop their properties owing to the high cost of labor and live a subsistence life. So when they know what my staff are being paid, are constantly trying to get them to leave saying they should get at least the daily 600/- In actual fact, they don’t like to see people as paid labor living a better lifestyle than them, as few earn that kind of money, except for a day or two here and there, but due to the fact they own some property are not strapped with the urban dwellers costs. The locals are trying to get me to put them in charge, while encouraging my staff to leave by various sorts of innuendo, making them feel uncomfortable in some way.

I have to be firm and clear by my stance of not caving in to a higher wage, or of employing the locals, as both would surely lead to my not being able to carry out this project. I am already a hostage to a lazy workforce in the farm who I am saddled with, and have told to leave, but their living conditions to them seem too good even though their pay is not high, and alternatives are not as attractive.

All this explanation leads to one conclusion, namely that to make paid labor viable, be they with homes and food provided or just casual day labor coming from outside, we cannot operate a small enterprise with minimal supervision. It has to be a larger organization with field officers in the time-honored practice used by the larger plantation companies. There is no discipline and integrity in these people to be left to their own devices because as experience has shown me, no amount of targets, incentive plans, work schedules can motivate and obtain productivity from unskilled labor if they are unsupervised.

On the other hand self-employed small farmers can be productive if they are motivated. Here money is definitely a motivator. The introduction of efficient and productive farming practices is accepted. When it comes to them needing paid labor other than their family members to help out, they shy away from it in most part due to their conviction that it is just not cost effective, and accordingly do not expand their farms because of this limitation. This automatically leads to the inevitable conclusion, that to expand, mechanization on a grand scale is required to give the productive farmers the ability to cultivate larger extents without having to rely on paid labor, who are generally very unproductive in the agricultural sector.

This leads to the conclusion of the initial subject, where people do not like to upset the status quo and are frightened of change even if it is to the good, as they are concerned about their place in the new order of things, especially if the outsider outdoes them in making a hitherto unprofitable place profitable.


George said...

The petty jealousies that you write about are part and parcel of village life. I have a small piece of land in my village north of Negombo, and the couple who live there take good care of it. On visits to Sri Lanka, my family and I enjoy the peace and tranquility of the place, and the catetakers take good care of us, too. I reward them well.

But, some neighbours (including my relatives) frequently complain to me about the caretakers, accusing them of petty thefts, gambling, consuming kasippu, etc. Most accusations are false. At the same time, some of these neighbours are trying to lure the caretakers away, telling them that they are underpaid and offering them higher salaries.

In Hong Kong where I live, the Sri Lankan housemaids also behave in this manner, frequently bad mouthing each other.

american cambodia blogger said...


I'm tentatively planning on coming to Lanka next week from Cambodia.

As an avid reader of your blogs, I hope to check out the farms and Kumbuk Pokuna Lodge.


Anonymous said...

Hope you are doing fine. Worry a bit about your well being with those elephants, travelling etc. Write soon!

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