Monday, November 2, 2015

In the hands of the Commissioner of Agrarian Services Department

My genial host Mr. Thavarajah confronted me yesterday with the question, "what is your real work in Sri Lanka?" Janet and I had come east to Batticaloa for a break, and just to sniff out what's going on here. I was a bit disarmed by Thavarajah's question but impressed by his sharp eye. It must have been clear to us that we weren't just tourists. 

I told him about my interest in village tanks and that we are here on a Fulbright scholarship. He quickly responded, "Ah, that's the jurisdiction of the Agrarian Services Department. I'll make sure an engineer there takes you into the field tomorrow. Would you like that?" Of course I would I replied, though I reckoned nothing would come of it.  

     Active village tanks in Sri Lanka 

Abandoned tanks. Many tanks in the Batticaloa District were abandoned during the conflict. 

As we finished up breakfast this morning our guesthouse manager came up to the table, apologized, and told me that Mr. Thavarajah would be here at 9:15. Sorry he couldn't be here earlier he said, but the office only opened at 9. Which office, I wondered? As usual, the sensitive web of communications was in force. Of course the manager knew about our host's plan for me. But all I had to know was to be ready for pickup at 9:15. "Shave," Janet told me. "You may be out all day." I also stuck some business cards in my pocket and grabbed the essential "gents' hankie."

At 9:30 Mr. Thavarajah came to pick me up and we drove the five minutes into down. Soft spoken, he told me about his three children, one in Canada, one in Australia, and the oldest here in Batticaloa, running the resort. We chatted about Hilary's chances, opposition politics here and in America, and as I usually proceed, I spoke very little about myself. 

Pulling up to "the office" I admit I was curious what it looked like inside and what would transpire there. I wondered if anything would happen at all , or whether we would be swiftly "processed" and sent politely on our way. We walked into a dingy front hallway, longer than it was wide, and my host gingerly approached the man at the front table. The rest happened in Tamil so I can only guess. I was told to sit in one of the plastic chairs lined up against the wall and Mr. Thavarajah sat down next to me. 

In about five minutes there was a nod and we got up. Without knocking, as I noted was the way things worked the rest of the morning, Mr. Thavarajah opened the door to the office of the Director. 

A large man with a shock of black hair was behind an equally large desk. We shook hands, the two chatted for a few minutes, my host very quiet, and I was asked to state my case. I mentioned my work in the North Central Province and name-dropped Professor Madduma Bandara, whose name was recognized. The word "Fulbright" seemed to ring a bell. I kept my elevator talk short, expressing an interest in comparing tanks "here in the East" with what I'd seen in Rajarata. 

"The problem is," he began, "we can't get into a lot of the tanks because of recent heavy rains." My suspicion that nothing would come of our visit I was prepared to shake hands and retreat, smug in my understanding that a bunch of bureaucrats ran the Agrarian Services Department. "But," he continued, "we have 453 tanks in our jurisdiction and I'm sending out the engineer today. You can join him. Go sit over there and wait about 10 minutes." He pointed to two oversize easy chairs and a sofa, we shook hands and I thanked him, and Thavarajah left quietly, a twinkle in his eye. 

         An early "bed board" sluice

The director presented me with two things to look at, a gigantic color atlas of "Watersheds of Sri Lanka," and a much smaller, dogearred copy of the "Data Book for Village Irrigation Schemes of Sri Lanka Batticaloa District." The second book listed every known village tank in the district (larger tanks fall into "intermediate" and "major" categories and are managed by provincial and federal agencies, respectively), with a range of characteristics like size, depth, number of families served, status of repairs, etc. I hadn't known how much detail was covered and concerned the Agrarian Services Department. Equally impressive is that this hard bound book was a work in progress. In the introduction users were asked to fill in missing data, and pencil jottings filled many of the blank pages, as well as some that were printed. 

In and out of the Director's office in a steady flow, no one knocked. A cup of tea was brought, one for the Director and one for me. Papers were brought in to be examined and signed, a curtain was adjusted. I kept my eyes on the books as I'd been instructed, but my ears were open. I heard "American" spoken a few times and conversations went ahead in Tamil and in English. A group of three came into the office giggling, the same giggling I thought, that I'd heard from the Moratuwa graduate students and before that, in May, from junior lecturers at Rajarata University. Is giggling among young males a kind of social lubricant? Something that lowers barriers? Just a nervous expression?

The group kept giggling after they were seated in front of the Director. I didn't hear him giggle. After what seemed like, well, a lot of giggling, they got down to business. I inferred the seriousness by snippets like, "if you ever run into that situation again," and "we'll need to be notified," and "we can find the money for that."

That was the most serious meeting of the morning as far as I could tell. Suddenly the engineer showed up in the director's office and asked me to take my leave. He introduced me to his assistant and put me in the front seat of the van. So much way of getting around here is being driven. Last week it was the Moratuwa van back and forth. This time the government van, in much worse condition, was taking us to our destination. 

We drove up Trincomalee Highway to our first tank. My immediate and lasting impression is that this tank is much different from the ones I've visited in the North Central Province. Here a long low bund circled around a muddy tank, treeless and utilitarian. Below lie the rice fields smelly with the dung fertilizer provided by the Agrarian Services office. Riyasath Ali, my engineer guide, led me along the bund, which was in moderately poor condition, showing me places where cows cross and rain follows, bringing significant erosion. An eroding bund is a weakening bund, and with the heavy rains this is a major concern for Mr. Ali and his colleagues. His contention is that the villagers they use the Pallukatewatta Kulam are doing a poor job of maintaining the bund (recently rebuilt for them by the local government) and that problems that should be addressed immediately are inevitably left for later, with ensuing damage. An interesting lesson on a quite small tank, with a surface of less than 40 acres. 

        Wide spillway for a small tank

Along the Trincomalee Highway about 40 km north of Batticaloa we came to our second tank, the Mavvanda Kulam. Mavvanda Kulam is quite large with, as I was told, a bund that stretch for 45 km through the jungle. Imagine the exploratory work and subsequent implementation that went into an endeavor of this magnitude. As this is a very dry area, the catchment for this large tank, which serves about 500 families in three villages, would necessarily be quite large. 

     Nearly empty tank due to breach

Unfortunately we were here to examine a huge breach that occurred a week ago during torrential rains that produced almost 20 cm of water. The bund, which was under repair, broke at the deepest point of its arc, flooding roads and fields and burying everything around under a thick later of sand. The road approaching the tank was in such poor tick we had to get out of the van. I volunteered to walk the kilometer or so to the tank but was vetoed by my hosts who insisted I get in the back of a motorbike with one of the farmers who had appeared. 

   Fields flooded by a breached bund

These bikes have amazing suspension because I felt barely a thing on the many bumps and ups and downs. As well in was thankful for the squeezable silicone iphone case I use, which kept my grip intact on a hand that was also clutch in the back of the scooter for dear life. 

         Looking across the breach

The farmer, about my age, took me across the bund to look at the spillway. He explained to me that from here the tank emptied to the Indian Ocean, some 3-5 km to the east. He told me also his father had told him about a large stone bridge just 1km away. So much to see and so little time! Even writing down my most surface thoughts seems to take an unwieldy amount of time and when I read it back I think, how did I get so little on paper compared to the richness of that experience???

By the time we turned back (and the farmer was in constant phone contact with my hosts who had stayed behind to assess the breach), we had walked across lots of marshy terrain that resulted from the flood. The van meanwhile had found another route to the site and was sitting in the cool shade next to a goat pen.

Getting in, we were swarmed with flies. This area specializes in goats and chickens, and the flies were a less than pleasant by-product. I was told as well that people can't visit the tank area between 3 PM and 9 AM. Elephants that stay in the jungle close to the sea come out of the shade during these hours and come to drink at the tank (they also damage the fields). What an amazing world where humans are at the mercy of animals and so many other forces. Yet this is the same world where people in Batticaloa are buying and selling high end cars. And Colombo, seeming worlds away, is part of this scene too. 

         Mr. Ali's roadside mosque

We returned along the Trinco Road. At 1:22 Mr. Ali got out to pray at an unpresupposing mosque. We waited at the side of the road under the shade. Followed by a rice and curry lunch in a very busy, all-male restaurant on the road. My hosts asked sheepishly if I needed a spoon which of course I declined. But I did opt for bottled water. 

Finally, on the way home I was helped to buy a sarong. Ali, his assistant, and the driver all got out and there was much shouting among the three of them and back and forth with the shopkeeper. So much yelling! Feeling the fabric, examining everything, more yelling! They bargained for me so it was just 600 rupees. Then I think they were disappointed when I shoveled over the money so fast. It takes about half an hour for people to read a menu and decide. A huge purchase like this should have taken an hour. 

So many impressions, so much landscape fabric, so much to experience in just a day!

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