Nissanka de Silva recalls his days as an irrigation officer in Migahajandura in the 1950s The TV news recently broadcast a meeting at Temple Trees chaired by the President that discussed the proposed development of a 1800 acre sports complex at Migahajandura. Thereafter, the Sunday Times reported cabinet approval of Rs. 15 billion for a [...]

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Life amidst caring village folk and abundant wildlife

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Nissanka de Silva recalls his days as an irrigation officer in Migahajandura in the 1950s

The TV news recently broadcast a meeting at Temple Trees chaired by the President that discussed the proposed development of a 1800 acre sports complex at Migahajandura. Thereafter, the Sunday Times reported cabinet approval of Rs. 15 billion for a sports complex at Hambantota. This report did not refer to Migahajandura.

I write from memories of 60 years ago, when in 1953, I was transferred to the Irrigation Department (ID) Engineer’s Office at Tissamaharama as a young Technical Assistant (TA). The development of the Malala Ara basin was my responsibility, in addition to other work.

Migahajandura today: Development has come its way. Pic by Tharuka Dissanaike

Migahajandura was a village of about 35 families, 20 miles from Hambantota. The Migahajandura wewa was across a right bank tributary joining Malala Ara about midway in its 40-mile journey from Hambegamuwa area to the Malala Kalupuwa (Lagoon) at Udamalala and into the southern Indian Ocean. There were three abandoned wewas across the main Malala Ara viz Mahagal wewa furthest north, Maharanawarna wewa midway and Badagiriya furthest south about 10 miles from Hambantota.

Migahajandura wewa was a minor tank which was under the Government Agent, Hambantota. The Agrarian Services Law had not been enacted at the time. The ID was responsible for medium and major irrigation works. Accordingly, restoration of Mahagal wewa to asweddumise 500 acres was commenced in 1953 and construction work at Badagiriya to asweddumise, 1000 acres in 1955.

The road from Hambantota passed Badagiriya, (10 miles) Gannoruwa Village (12 miles), Migahajandura (20 miles) Pahalakumbuk wewa (22 miles) and ended at Ihalakumbuk wewa (25 miles). From there, a footpath led to Mahagal wewa a further four miles away.
Travelling to these villages was not easy. Access to Mahagal wewa from Tissamaharama was either through Hambantota or Tanamalwila and the little village of Ahukkangala. From Ahukkangala it was seven miles along a jungle track.

I based myself at Ihala kumbuk wewa village for the preliminary work at Mahagal wewa. The village boutique was owned by a man from Hambantota who kindly consented to give me a small room to stay in during my inspections. The Divisional Irrigation Engineer at Tangalle released a jeep to the IE for Tissa a few days every three months or so. I was allocated this jeep for one inspection of Mahagal wewa. In dry weather I used my car, a CN series Bug Fiat Station wagon or at other times a push bicycle.

On one occasion I had to carry my survey instruments and therefore travelled by car even though there had been some rain.
Leaving Tissa about 5.30 a.m., I passed Hambantota about 6.15 or so. From Hambantota to Gannoruwa village the road was gravelly. After that it was a dirt road. I drove through three or four mud holes and reached an ominous looking patch about three miles before Migahajandura. It was about 7.30 am. I decided to take a chance and drove into it only to be well and truly stuck with the differential grounded.

There was no alternative but to wait for help. I had brought two loaves of bread, a luxury at the time especially in those villages, ate a bit of it and got out to stretch my legs and look around for sticks, stones and logs that would be necessary to get the car out. It was thick forest all around. Elephant, bear and wild buffalos were plentiful. So I would not venture too far. A book by Donald Bradman brought on my last visit home to Colombo was with me. I was playing for the ID in the Inter Departmental Government Service Tournament at that time, having played for Ananda in 1945 and 1946. I read Bradman with bird song in the background!

Every now and then I got out to stretch myself, always alert. At about 11 o clock a man from Migahajandura on his way to Gannoruwa came along on his bicycle. He and I tried to push the car out but failed. Muddied feet added to my misery. The man understood my plight and decided to wait with me for a while. It was afternoon when two more villagers from Migahajandura turned up. By using a log to lever the differential off the ground and sticks and shrubs to help the wheels to grip we managed to get the car out much to my relief. Payment for help was refused. I reached my destination, Ihalakumbuk wewa village later in the afternoon.

The dry zone peasant was poor but very kind, respectful, helpful and hospitable, not exploitative. They would willingly share whatever they had with an unexpected guest. During my work in these areas, I was the recipient of chena produce, bees honey, wild boar and venison as gifts. The land of these villages and surrounding forests was their life and water was their life blood.

The Migahajandura area was dense dry zone forest, full of stately satin, majestic palu, weera and other trees. The ripe berries of the palu tree were used by the villagers to distil illicit liquor. The ripe berries that fell on the ground were also relished by bear that were plentiful as were elephant, wild buffalo, wild boar, sambur, spotted dear and other smaller animals. There were a wide variety of birds too. Green and pompador pigeon, drongo, green barbet, wood pecker, shama, peafowl, wild fowl and many others. The wewas and paddy fields were home to jacana, moorhen, teal, darter, cormorant, pelican, lapwing, heron, egret etc. During the migrant season starting September, many visitors such as sandpiper, stint, plover, painted stork, snipe etc. were seen. Wild duck such as gargeny visited the lagoons, especially.

On another occasion, I had come on inspection thro’ Tanamalwila on a push bicycle, spending a night at Anukkangala, two nights at Mahagal wewa reaching the surveyor’s camp at Pahalakumbuk wewa by afternoon to stay the night before returning to Tissa thro’ Hambantota. It was very cloudy and began to rain. By evening it was a torrential downpour. Due to rain during the previous days the ground was saturated and the wewas were full. The deluge continued into the dark. After a while when the rain had reduced a few villagers from Migahajandura came to inform the surveyor that the wewa was full and would overflow.

Although the surveyor had no responsibility regarding the wewa, he was the only public officer who was directly associated with the land. In this instance I happened to be there and decided to help. The Surveyor very kindly lent me one of his men with a 5 cell torch light. We set off for Migahajandura about 1 miles away, wading knee deep in the muddy water. The villagers led the way followed by me and the surveyor’s man behind lighting the way. I stepped on a “log” that quickly moved under my foot. The log turned out to be a small crocodile. It surfaced a little ahead and swam away!

At Migahajandura, the Vel Vidane was instructed to cut open the “breaching section” if and when the water rose to a certain level, to prevent serious damage to the main bund by overtopping. Fortunately, the rain eased and the necessity did not arise.

Field officers of the ID worked under difficult conditions. Public transport was restricted to main roads. Most village roads were motorable only in the dry weather except by jeep. The abandoned irrigation works that required investigation and survey before restoration were often deep in the jungle. Access tracks had to be cut from the nearest village and survey lines cleared. Apart from wild animals and reptiles, the parasitic “tick” was a menace. Their bite caused much discomfort and even fever. Malaria too was quite common.

The salaries paid were not commensurate considering these conditions and in comparison with their counterparts who worked in offices.

Nevertheless, despite this physical and financial hardship we enjoyed our work in the ID at the time. There was great comradeship among the staff and also with other field officers such as surveyors of the Survey Department and personnel of other departments engaged in the development of the land for settlement and agriculture.

The best reward was derived by serving these poor people whose lives depended on our diligence. Water was their life blood. To be directly responsible for providing it and thereafter guiding them to manage it properly was a privilege. To see people settled and blossoming paddy fields as a result of ones effort is most satisfying.

Another important reason for this satisfaction was the freedom we had to work according to government policy and principles of the ID, conscientiously without interference from politicians or any others. Politicians were met with at the District Agricultural Committee (DAC) which was chaired by the Government Agent at that time from the Civil Service and therefore could not be pushed around. At the DAC progress was reviewed, problems if any discussed and decisions made professionally in the interest of the people we were pledged to serve.

The scarcity of water will undoubtedly be further aggravated by clearing large areas of forest in this dry/semi arid region. After people were settled in the new lands under the Malala Ara projects, I think the ID diverted water from Mau Ara in the Walawe gaga basin to supplement the shortfall especially for the Yala Cultivation.

In the circumstances, large scale multifaceted development such as the Hambantota Harbour, Mattala Airport, Suriyawewa Stadium and the proposed sports complex at Migahajandura will require transbasin diversion from a wet zone river.

The other aspect is the plight of the large numbers of wild animals that lived in these forests. Whilst people can be resettled and provided with alternative forms of livelihood, what would have happened to these animals? What will be the fate of those that remain?
In conclusion, one can only hope that the new generation of men and women of Mahagal wewa, Migahajandura and Mattala will live in peace and harmony in their modernised motherland as did their forefathers with mother nature.

(The writer is a Retired Irrigation Engineer)




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