Campaign trail stirs up the dust

Moneragala voters say they are more worried about the drought than the upcoming election
By Leon Berenger in Moneragala, Pix by Saman Kariyawasam

Voters in Moneragala are being wooed by political parties of all hues calling out with various slogans.

The grass has turned a dusty brown and the cultivated fields are of the same dry hue as a severe drought sweeps through Moneragala district, withering crops, draining rivers and irrigation tanks, and threatening thousands with the possibility of a famine. As the citizens of Moneragala wake up each morning to face yet another day of scorching heat and dwindling food and water resources, the last thing they are in the mood to think about is a Provincial Council election.

Meanwhile, dozens of candidates from different political parties are campaigning vigorously in the district for the August 8 election. The campaign wagons are rolling on in every direction, stirring up more dust and dirt in the already haze-filled towns and villages.

Shashindra Rajapaksa, nephew of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) candidate for the Chief Minister’s post. He enjoys a big lead in the electoral race, with the left-leaning Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) coming a distant second. The main opposition United National Party (UNP) is barely in picture, having thrown in the towel even before the first vote was cast.

Meanwhile, the government side is making the most of its advantages, drawing on the state machinery and public sector resources to bolster its campaign, with hardly a sound from the opposition. Meanwhile, the authorities, including the police, are turning a blind eye to all that is happening in the run-up to the Uva polls. In short, the election has turned out to be a one-horse race, and as the campaign enters the home stretch this week, the younger Mr. Rajapaksa is emerging as the clear winner, leaving his closest rivals far behind,M. B. Punchidasa is the caretaker of the Kottihagala Weva. His main concern these days is fast dwindling water resources, not the upcoming election.

Villagers face fast-dwindling reserves of water.

“Before the drought, the water in the tank extended over some 450 acres, but 80 per cent of that water area is now dry land,” Mr. Punchidasa said. “It would be a disaster if the current weather conditions continued. The residents here will be forced to migrate to other parts of the country. They might well become the country’s first environmental refugees.

“It is a frightening situation. Only two wells in the district are left with any water, and these were built 20 years ago by the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa. There has been no water resource development here whatsoever since then. It’s the same story year after year.”

Residents like Mr. Punchidasa say the authorities should be addressing urgent matters such as water, a vital factor in the dry zone, before talking election talk. “We need more tanks to store rainwater for the dry season,” Mr. Punchidasa said. “We have made many requests to the authorities, the situation remains the same, with no help from any direction.”

But there are others who are confident the government will do the needful. S. M. Jayewardene of the Katugaha Colony says he will to vote for the UPFA candidate out of gratitude for what the party has accomplished in the North and the East.

“Today we can sleep without fear because the LTTE has been wiped out. All credit goes to the President. In the past we were frightened to go into the jungles to work in our chenas or to collect firewood because of the LTTE presence. The government has changed all that. I will vote for a Rajapaksa even if I have to do so on an empty stomach.”

The only well supplying water is the one that President Premadasa built 20 years ago.

A. K. Dahayapala, 53, of Rajakandiya has fond memories of the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa. “It was Premadasa who brought the Gam Udawa to Moneragala, and along with that housing, roads and water supply.

“While we are grateful to Mr. Premadasa, we have to move on,” Mr. Dahayapala said. “We think the young Rajapaksa will be able to do something for us because of his close ties with the present administration. The opposition, on the other hand, is so weak. We have lost all confidence in it.”
Y. M. Thusara, 23, of Wattegama runs a sugarcane processing plant that produces honey and jaggery. The election is not high on his agenda. “If I do vote, it will be for the green party, purely because of the late President Premadasa, who did so much for us.

“But the party is in bad shape. The UNP needs new thinking, not bickering. In-fighting in the party will only give the government an advantage. I think Mr. Sajith Premadasa will do a good job. The people here are ready to give him their full support.”

S. A. Sunil Jayasinghe is a trader and farmer in the village of Gonangara, in the Buttala police area. He says he has an issue with the local authorities for neglecting a building that was meant to be an economic trade centre.

“This building was built by the farmer’s society 10 years ago. It’s been allowed to fall into ruin, and no one seems interested in doing anything. What a waste of public money. The building would have been an ideal venue for local farmers to sell their produce. Instead, the place remains shut, and it is falling apart. This is shocking.”

Meanwhile, the local authorities have set up a health task force in the event of an outbreak of disease because of the drought. According to Uva Province secretary for health Sandya Ambanwella, there have been no reports of disease from the province’s two districts, Badulla and Moneragala. She said the regional and provincial directors have instructions to maintain a health alert, adding that the Provincial Council had sufficient resources to tackle a health challenge.

Moneragala Government Agent J. J. Ratnasiri said the big challenge was to provide drinking water for the thousands of residents in the surrounding areas. Bowsers were supplying water in towns and villages.

“We are getting water from neighbouring districts, because 95 per cent of the water reserves in Moneragala have dried up,” he said. “There’s little else we can do except pray that the rains will come soon,” Mr. Ratnasiri said.

Thugs disrupt JVP campaign

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) accuses government candidates in the upcoming election in Moneragala district of using state facilities for their campaign, in violation of election laws.

D. R. Jayewardene says the JVP is being victimised.

The party’s group leader D. R. Jayewardane said the JVP had lodged several complaints with the Elections Commissioner and other authorities, but no action had been taken so far.

Mr. Jayewardene said state vehicles, including public transport buses, were being used by UPFA candidates for their campaigns. He added that a leading school in the district had to suspend classes in order to provide accommodation for security personnel and support staff during the President’s recent visit to the district.He also said that some 300 cardboard cutouts of the UPFA’s main candidate had come up all over the district, while hundreds of smaller cutouts of the candidate had been put up in the villages.

Mr. Jayewardene said the main opposition UNP was running a near-zero campaign, “leaving the government to do as it pleased”. Meanwhile, thugs have attacked JVP activists and destroyed JVP propaganda material, such as posters and buntings. “This is a clear case of intimidation,” Mr. Jayewardene said.

Hospital bothered by sewage seepage

The Moneragala District Hospital faces a health threat from a sewage leak close to the hospital buildings. The problem stems from an incomplete waste recycling plant, where work has ground to halt, said a hospital spokesman.

Rs. 20 million needed to complete waste recycling plant.

Hospital officials fear an outbreak of disease, especially when the rains set in. The toilets are situated in close proximity to the Intensive Care Unit and a special room for the care of prematurely born babies. A senior doctor at the hospital, who spoke on condition his name not be mentioned, told the Sunday Times that the health authorities have maintained “a deafening silence” over the issue, despite the fact the Minister of Health hails from Uva province.

“An initial Rs. 24 million was invested in the sewerage filtering plant, and another Rs. 20 million is needed to complete the project,” the doctor said. “The health authorities, at regional or any level, should give this matter top priority, or they should allow an INGO [international non-governmental organization] to help out in this project, and without further delay.”

The regional Health Secretary Sandya Ambanwella admitted that the project has come to a halt for lack of funds. She said she has appealed to the central authorities to help in this matter.
“I have put the matter to the Health Minister, Nimal Siripala de Silva. He has promised to do something,” Ms. Ambanwella said.

The unfinished building meant to house the public library.

A district without a public library

Moneragala is perhaps the only district in the country that does not have a public library. Opposite the police station is a half-complete building standing on the site occupied by the old library building, which was pulled down five years ago.

According to sources, construction work has ground to a halt because of a lack of funds. Meanwhile, students and the Moneragala reading public are frustrated that the authorities are doing nothing about the library building.

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