Thursday, March 26, 2009

A day trip to Kotiyagala near eastern forest at the edge of the Moneragala District

The Village Tank

I had the occasion yesterday of leaving at 4.30am from Godagama, Meegoda and returning around 11.30pm covering a round trip distance of approximately 550km to go to a village in the jungle, at the end of a dirt road, called Kotiyagala.

Recently a pocket of LTTE renegades hiding in the forests, killed villagers, who had gone to the jungle for Chena cultivation, and now no one from the village is permitted to go outside the boundaries. There is a presence of an army camp, home guard and police units in the area for protection from possible sudden attack.

Due to a severe drought in the area the village tank has almost run dry and the villagers do not have anywhere to bathe. Most wells are also dry. As I stepped off the vehicle to our project site where we are assisting farmers in growing papaya, the first rains in 7 months came down in a quick, but severe down pour lasting half hour, which was quite sufficient to drench me through, but more importantly, re-commence, after a hiatus caused by the drought of the more serious business of planting up to 100,000 papaya plants on land that has hitherto not seen any cultivation. I am accordingly hoping that the soil is of high quality, yielding a good harvest of Organic local variety Papaya, which is the raw material for an agribusiness to be set up there.

The route was through Ratnapura, Embilipitiya and Udawalawe to Wellawaya and on through Buttala to Moneragala. The return was through Beragala and Balangoda as the Uda Walawe Tank bund road closes at 6 pm for security reasons. We pass the elephants at the electric fence on the way out and the spectacular Diyaluma Falls on the return.

It was tough business dealing with the villagers, who seemed to have all manner of reasons for why they have hitherto not been able to plant, when there are others who have diligently planted their allotted 1000 papaya holes with 3 plants. They to cull the weaker two including flowering ones, leaving a stock of good plants yielding an average of 2kg per tree per month for which the enterprise will pay an average of Rs45/- giving a villager a gross income of Rs90K a month, ions more than I can ever earn in my current enterprise. All this on just two acres and even if we assume a 50% margin of error, they can earn a monthly gross of Rs50K. with little other expense of the Organic plantation.

Despite this projection it has been a nightmare to get the 160 families to grow this crop on their lands, which cannot be transferred to other villagers not part of the scheme. The land had already been allocated many years ago, and not cultivated due to the lack of infrastructure, which the enterprise has provided by way of access roads, tanks and fencing and now daily transported water to fill a 2000+ liter water reservoir per farmer.

As the saying goes ‘you can bring a horse to water, but cannot force it to drink.’ Getting settlers, more used to growing ganja in the forest, cutting trees, and hunting, to discipline themselves into a traditional role appears to be very tough, despite the general level of poverty prevailing. It is a reflection of what a paradise this country is, when a destitute villager would rather stay home waiting for a hand out and not work to earn ‘real big.’

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It seemed like an eternity but it was worth the wait

I had my paddy fields cut and threshed by a combine harvester a few days ago, for the first time. In the short space of a couple of years that I have been growing rice paddies I have seen a dramatic shift in the way we harvest, as in each of the 5 seasons, I have used different methods to have my paddy fields cut and threshed, with the most sophisticated being this time.

The combine harvester arrived later than promised, pulled along by a tractor on a specially built trailer. It then gets down from the trailer and makes its way into each field and even to small fields and completely clears the field, leaving little wasted paddy on the ground, something that is quite common when cutting very dry paddy by hand. The straw is just returned to the field from which it was cut and we just plough it back in for the next season to maximize on the fertilizer properties of the land, rather than those threshing machines that stack the straw in large mounds sometimes to be burnt for want of a better alternative.

I then drove my pick up into the fields to collect the 90 bags of paddy and then take it to be dried on a large cement floor at my neighborhood mill. That latter fact is the only hitch as paddy needs to be completely dry if a combine is used, as otherwise they cannot be stored for long. These are things I learn as I go along.

Another season complete and we just have to go through all the bureaucracy of forced sales to the state of 100kg of paddy per half acre in order that we get the fertilizer subsidy, another form of jobs for the boys and daylight robbery of the farmer as he can sell his paddy at a higher price in the open market. The state should only intervene when there is need for price stabilization, not to discourage paddy farming. As a rule most things that the government gets involved in leads to corruption and this is a case where the fox is guarding the hen house, with the largest millers being the two ministers of agriculture who stand to benefit, as they can use the state to effectively at state expense to store the paddy that market share determines that they will eventually buy, at a profit or loss to the state.

I wish I was so lucky that the state would buy and store the stock of paddy I need to feed my mill, and I only buy it when I need it knowing full well that I am the only one with the money to bid for it or have an inside track of what quality of paddy is stored and what type as well, so I can create pricing decisions knowing the supply bottlenecks, as the general public will not be privy to such information.

Friday, March 20, 2009

I will help in anyway I can. Lets all put our efforts to act on our consciences

I was walking down to the stream this morning to wash my face and brush my teeth, just like most of the rural population, who do not have access to pipe borne water. I sat by the ‘nana mankada’ or bathing spot, under a massive Kumbuk Tree and I could spot at least 10 species of bird all at that moment. This is a normal occurrence. There was a pond heron in front of me looking for the tasty morsel of fish in the stream. There was the beautifully dressed tiny common kingfisher darting about. The parrots were noisily going in and out of the hollow spaces(bena) in the tree above. The female paradise fly catcher was hopping about while I was looking around for the long tailed male that comes at this hour. The distinctive call of the black headed oriole in its dazzling yellow always as a couple at their favorite tree is one I always look forward to.

Fewer people now experience these sights sounds and locations. Unfortunately the children whose attitudes can be molded at an early age are now hooked on watching cartoons, some having access to computer games and such like. They don’t appreciate the great outdoors anymore as evidenced by some of my nieces and nephews who come to visit. There is not fridge, colas or ice cream.

I then thought of the kids held at the IDP camps, and against their will as human shields in the war zone. How traumatized they may be without proper access to counseling to help them cope. What is normal to them are guns and bullets and people in uniform, some who talk their language, namely the LTTE and others who talk in a strange language to them, that is the Armed Forces personnel. The Sinhala soldiers are guarding their camps, so who are they to believe are their saviours?

It is most important that these children experience freedom from being hemmed in anymore. They must be allowed to run around with only their parents to admonish them, and not guards. Lifelong attitudes are formed at an early age and therefore with that in mind, every effort should be made to integrate these people into normal life, with the object of them becoming productive citizens of Sri Lanka.

I am willing to share this property with a displaced family on a temporary basis, however the best test of mature nationhood would be if my neighbors too accept them and their children in the local schools studying in Sinhala. They will have the added advantage of speaking in Tamil at home with their parents.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the people be uprooted from their homes, however we must also accept some practical facts. They will invariably be in these camps for about three years, until the area is cleared of mines, and explosives that litter the place. Then the infrastructure such as roads, power and water has to be laid. There are international funds for this, but it will still take time. Obviously the family has a choice of how they wish to live. They can chose the camps over being temporarily settled in areas they may be apprehensive about, especially as they may have limited knowledge of who Sinhala people are and the Sinhala people worry about every Tamil being an LTTE. So just think about all alternatives and leave the choice to the civilians.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Verdi’s Requiem at the Anglican Cathedral

It has been a while, but it is never too late to note that on March 7th Western Classical Music aficionados were in for a treat, namely the performance of Verdi’s Requiem by the Symphony Orchestra and a choir of about a 100 held at the Cathedral next to the BMICH. I will not comment on the music or the singing as I am merely a listener and not a critic, but all I can say is I enjoyed it knowing it was not going to be light or easy to concentrate on. There were 4 soloists, two Sri Lankan Ladies and two Gentlemen from India.

It was a free performance, as requested by the Late Earl De Fonseka in his will, and a foreign friend of mine, commented that it would indeed be rare if not never that a performance of such quality would not have a charge in his native Europe.

I had a personal interest in it as three of my cousins, all sisters and their parents were all in the Choir, and there were many of my relatives present to wish them well, making it all the more important to me both to attend by making a special effort to come to Colombo on that day and change my schedule.

It was indeed notable by Sri Lanka standards that even though I got to the 7pm performance at 5.30, we had to sit quite far back, and I am told that the gates were shut before 7pm shutting the typical latecomers as the Cathedral once packed would have been dangerous to house more. I am sure that were many who would have been very disappointed. It was for various reasons not practical to repeat the performance the next day, but it could not be had at a later date, as the visiting Conductor, Geoffrey Rose and other participants had come from overseas and were on a limited time schedule.

I have followed the progress of the rehearsals from my cousins and know it was quite an effort to get so many people in one place for practice of such a difficult masterpiece. The arduous practice and time commitment of all these busy people who performed this on a purely voluntary capacity, was truly admirable and should be commended.

I hope it is not a further 40 years before such a performance takes place again, as then it becomes a once in a life-time event for a lucky few. We must realize one important fact from this performance, namely that we have singers of international caliber. I have also noted that some of our choirs have gone overseas for competitions and returned with awards further verifying my statement.

It is important that the arts, both western and eastern and traditional are encouraged as the level of a civilization and therefore the level of development of a country depends on the state of its arts in all its forms.

There is a considerable amount of latent talent in the country for this sort of thing and one cannot blame the state for the lack or resources to encourage this art form, It is hoped that private enterprise and individuals will step in to assist this just as in the case of Earl De Fonseka who was a physician who pursued this interest and left a bequest to the nation to further encourage its upliftment. Our sincere thanks must go to him and his memory.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

When is a Bribe not a Bribe?

My work as a grower, transporter, deliveryman and retailer means I have to work seven day weeks driving my now battered Tata Pickup laden with produce on the long and tiring journeys at night from Hingurakgoda to Godagama and then to Colombo for delivery. I drive alone and despite knowing the traffic cop hideouts, I invariably get nabbed. The most recent was the other evening just past Habarana, at the Electricity Substation, as I was climbing a hill at 50kmph overtaking a painfully slow laden lorry.

Needless to say this was the first time I had seen cops at the top of the hill, with no straight-line markings, which I explained. If one is a pro at interpreting the highway code, almost any type of driving if construed by the cop as being potentially dangerous entitles him to cite you. Needless to say in Sri Lanka the cops are there not to prevent accidents but to find the spots most likely to trap hapless motorists, and I thought I knew all spots.

I don’t offer a bribe on principal. I have had, over the past four years of this hard slog, to part with thousands of rupees. Though in truth I don’t know where this money goes. In the last incident I told the cop that I just could not make a special trip to pay the fine, and would inconvenience my whole business and that of my employees if I had to make the journey first to the Post Office to pay the Rs550/- fine and then to the Habarana Police to pick up my license. He then said that I could pay him the money and he would do the needful, pay the fine on my behalf and take care of citation, saving me the hassle and said he would do this as a special favor to me only bearing in mind my hardship.

I need not emphasize the fact that speeding passenger buses, Pajeros and Prados with tinted windows are rarely stopped no matter what the misdemeanor, and if done the swiftness of the bribe ensures a clean gateway.

I did not want to tell him that he was not the first to spin this story and in all the police divisions that I have been trapped they have said the same and got my money and not given me a receipt despite my asking for one. I therefore have no evidence of having paid them the money nor anyway to inform or do an audit trail of ensuring the fine was paid on my behalf. I have sent a letter to the DIG Motor Traffic, but either they have not read it or my letter has not reached the intended so I will just have to make a special effort to meet him to explain how they should tackle this rampant problem to ensure accountability. I suspect all this money is just going into the pockets of the cops and not to the state but I have no way to prove this.

So I ask, am I unwittingly paying a bribe? Or is it the rule makers who must tighten the rules to ensure full accountability of such payments into the system? Thereby satisfying both me the inconvenienced motorist as well as the state’s need to raise funds no matter the means within which it is done. I know many who say they don’t pay a bribe, but it is their chauffeurs who do the driving and also engage in the bribe giving saving their consciences. They have gofers, who take care of the needful without them even being aware of how rampant this form of baksheesh is. I look on this as a cost of my trade, as in the scheme of things, my vehicle can hardly go over 60kmph nor do I take silly risks.