5th March 2000

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The sanctuary has now become a camping site for bulldozers and pet bottles

Giritale bulldozed

By Rajpal Abeynayake and Udena Attygalle

A signboard that says all felling of trees, excavations, setting of fires etc. strictly prohibitedMigrant birds fly (and probably have thoughts of migrating back) as a bulldozer trashes up the Giritale sanctuary. A football field size swathe of the "sanctuary" is completely desertifed. The bulldozer does its trick, right next to a signboard that says, "All felling of trees, excavations, setting of fires etc. strictly prohibited."

Upwards of the sanctuary, there are small "Panchikawattes" – piles of urban debris — that have been created beneath the lime green forest cover. Large areas of the forest are resting ground for plastic water bottles, beer cans, laundry bags, some of which have come from hotels as far as fifteen miles away because the names on the laundry bags say so.

The Giritale Tank, the deepest reservoir in the country, looks undeterred. Its a placid lake — and there are no visible intrusions by man from any grand vista on the Giritale bund, which offers the most panoramic views of the tank.

Giritale is now a prime tourist area. Container size luxury buses transport tourists dressed in Dockers often lugging binoculars and fashionable accessories for bird watching. The buses hurtle past the Army encampment.

The army checkpoints also look placid and do not disturb Giritale or its environs much. A dockers-dressed blonde girl on a bike is searched, but she is as cheerful as the army officers.

Giritale remained placid, a Tank Town for the last 1990 years or so.

The bulldozer that's ravaging the sanctuary, is determined that the lake or the sanctuary won't remain calm. One of the finest sanctuaries in the country is being denuded, at one of its most scenic and important vistas, and to boot it's just a mile away from the Wildlife Training Centre. Lush forest cover is flattened. The trees are then carted away. And the bulldozers dig up the soil to be removed to stanch a leak on the Giritale tank bund around half-a-mile away.

Director of the Department of Wildlife Conservation A.P.A Gunesekara did not know of the excavation and said "permission has not been granted by me for anyone to excavate within the sanctuary".

But, Irrigation Department officials say that the land immediately around the tank comes under their Department. How a "wildlife sanctuary" comes under the purview of the Irrigation Department, is something only irrigation authorities can tell.

But Irrigation Authorities lay it on thick. "The capacity of the tank too will be increased by the excavation work,'' goes one claim. Like the leaking Giritale tank bund, none of these contentions of the Irrigation officers seem to hold water.

Blatant prevarication doesn't work as there is enough eye witness evidence to assert that Irrigation trucks transport the soil from the sanctuary for repairing the leaking bund. There is no question of expansion here– who needs an odd size expansion anyway for one of the country's largest tanks?

The Wildlife Department is not worried about the sanctuary going to seed; didn't a top officer say he "doesn't even know about it?"

What's going on around what used to be the Giritale camping site (the Ceylon Atlas used to list Giritale as a camping site, but the site doesn't exist anymore ) is symptomatic of the result of a certain gentrification of the wilds.

When the Dockers come, there is "development". Then, there is pollution by plastic bottle, and pollution by human encroachment. "Fisherman's wadiya's'" decorate the outskirts of the Giritale Tank, but these are small time tourist operations . They function as headquarters and officers' mess for boat-ride enterprises and operators of other gimmicks.

Pristine Giritale and it's Lake Placid are poised then at the threshold of the big bad world. Nothing inherently bad with organised tourism, but what's galling is the whole ethos of gentrification and the robber baron rapaciousness that has come with it.

The State in the form of the Irrigation Department takes the lead. That's Giritale now – the Tank Town.


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