Lack of irrigation water for paddy cultivation: A way out



by Garvin Karunaratne
Former Government Agent

August is always a dry month in Sri Lanka. As a former administrative officer who was involved in agriculture for eighteen long years, I know that February and August are dry months and the pattern of paddy cultivation has to be geared to face that reality. If we disagree and try to fight it out, will be the losers. Mother Nature has been kind to us and we receive enough rain during the other months of the year. We even had a crop of cotton before 1958! In August, air was full of cotton pollen in Weerawila; it was a sign of a bumper harvest. Then, for some reason, we gave up cotton cultivation, and I took over the huge cotton warehouses at Weerawila to store paddy.

I was responsible for supplying water to paddy farmers in Anuradhapura in 1963 and 1964 after the Agrarian Services Department took over minor irrigation from the Government Agent in 1962. I worked as the Assistant Commissioner in charge of the Anuradhapura District. We had 296 cultivation committees elected, and they handled paddy cultivation including the distribution of water. I was involved in the process of distributing water to farmers in areas irrigated by small tanks as well as in the larger tract of the Kala Weva- Eppawala-Talawa area. I also handled minor irrigation tanks in the Kegalle, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya Districts, and presided over the Kanna Meetings of the Kalawewa-Eppawala-Talawa Tract involving paddy cultivation under more than one hundred tanks in 1962 and 1963.

At present, a vast extent of 65,000 acres in Udawalawe is said to be in need of water. The Ministry of Agriculture is asking for water but it is said that if this amount of water is released, there will not be enough water for hydropower generation. The Cabinet has decided to release water for cultivation.

There are also reports from the Anuradhapura District that some paddy lands have been left without water. This situation has come about due to late cultivation. Professor Buddhi Marambe has said that farmers should start cultivation with the rains instead of waiting for water from irrigation schemes. This is very true.

A few years ago, I spent a night in a Kandy hotel, and from my window I saw paddy crops at the heenbandi stage, and another farmer had a two weeks’ crop. What I gathered was that paddy cultivation was in utter chaos.

Our forefathers who managed the vast irrigation systems involving major and minor tanks were aware of the need to sync with Nature. They did so under the Gam Sabha system, which was abolished by the British in 1833. Subsequently, the distribution of water for paddy cultivation came under the Government Agents. The system included a Kanna meeting of all cultivators/owners to be held at the beginning of each season, when depending on the availability of water in the tank in the Dry Zone, the extent of land to be cultivated was decided. The Government Agent appointed a Vel Vidane from the area to be in charge of cultivation; the latter held the Kanna meetings and made decisions with the concurrence of the people on when to clear the water canals, plough the land, sow paddy and harvest. Everyone had to abide by those decisions, and there was provision for anyone who did not do so to be punished.

After the minor irrigation functions were taken over by the Agrarian Services Department, where I worked as an Assistant Commissioner, the elected cultivation committees held the Kanna meetings regularly.

The Kanna meetings were also held in the areas where there were no irrigation tanks. They took place before the onset of rains.

Since the abolition of the Paddy Lands Act around 1978, the system of cultivation practices has not been in operation. I have pointed this outinmy book, ‘Nuwara Kalaviya (2021):

“In the system under the Vel Vidanes in the days when the Government Agents handled and later when the cultivation committees elected under the Paddy Lands Act handled paddy cultivation there was a definite system where the farmers met at Kanna Meetings at the beginning of each season and decided when to cultivate, the extent to cultivate, what seed to use, when to harvest etc. Even fines were decided which were strictly enforced by the Courts. After the cultivation committees were disbanded the Yaya Representatives were ineffective. Now Kanna Meetings are not held systematically with the result that late cultivation is common and the harvest gets damaged by the oncoming rains.”

According to newspaper reports, it was decided at a Kanna Meeting in Udawalawa on 31 March 2023 that only 6,047 hectares be cultivated out of a total of 12,094 hectares, but farmers cultivated 9,777 hectares. This shows that the decisions made at the Kanna meeting are ignored. The decision to cultivate only 6,047 acres must have been taken in view of water availability. Increasing the extent of land cultivated is to court trouble.

There are many reasons for late cultivation.

Gone are the days when all the farmers got together and started tilling the entire Yaya from one end to the other. In the 1950s, they tilled thrice – they were called ketum, deketum and teketum. Thereafter they sowed seed. Today, tractors are used for land preparation and it is difficult to find them. In those days, it was manual crop cutting. New harvesting machines are also difficult to hire. This is a major cause of delays. The government has to step in to make tractors and harvesters available.

As the Senior Assistant Commissioner of Agrarian Services from 1965 to 67, covering the entire Sri Lanka and as the Additional Government Agent at Kegalle from 67 to 69, I strove to help achieve self-sufficiency in rice. The then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake visited his electorate every weekend while I was there. It was my task to be with him. I would meet him at the Warakapola Rest House at 9.00 am and accompany him to meetings and paddy fields, speaking to farmers, assessing and making decisions for me to carry out and report back to him personally.

Those days we had many seed farms where late cultivators could find a variety of seeds for a three-month crop rather than a four-month crop. Now, many seed farms have been privatised and the government has lost control over them.

In Anuradhapura, I encouraged the cultivation committees to use the tank beds in August to make bricks, and actually a few of them did so. This increased the capacity of the tanks. In ancient times elephants were led into the tanks and the silt was flushed out through the lower sluice. This is a long-forgotten practice now. The tanks have silted up. In 1958, I used to swim in the Tissa tank regularly and near the bund it was about twelve feet deep. Now it is very shallow.

Cover page of the author’s book on Nuwara Kalaviya

I made the following observations in Nuwara Kalaviya

“The rot set in when the Paddy Lands Act was abolished in the 1970s and the elected cultivation committees ceased to exist. There was a vacuum in irrigation administration and the farmers had to fend for themselves. Later, Yayapalakas were elected. Kanna meetings were not held properly. The tanks were not maintained; influential people even encroached onto the tanks, tank bed cultivation was common and as a result the tanks got silted.”

Irrigation tanks are not properly managed at present. An easy remedy is to revert to the Vel Vidane system under the Government Agents and to ensure that there is orderly maintenance of the irrigation systems and cultivation. The Yayapalaka system is in total chaos.

The late cultivation of 65,000 acres in Udawalawe should alert the authorities concerned to the danger of a similar fate befalling Nuwara Kalaviya, which is our rice bowl. In 2022, Sri Lanka imported 800,000 metric tons of rice. If Kanna meetings are not properly held and decisions made there adhered to, it will be impossible to avoid imports. It may be recalled that in 1970, we became self-sufficient in rice.

The solution to the current problems in the agriculture sector is to revive the effective cultivation administration system we once had under Vel Vidanes under the Government Agents. We have to act fast lest should have to starve.


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