Veddahs’ world is a no man’s land

Citizens’ rights continue to elude Lanka’s original inhabitants. Many of them live at poverty level, and do not possess birth or marriage certificates

By Sujiva I. Kumari

The country’s oldest residents, a people whose history goes back a couple of thousand years at least, are in the humiliating position of not being even able to call themselves proper citizens of this country.
The Veddhas, Sri Lanka’s Aborigines, live much as they did generations back, in comparative poverty, and shunned by the rest of society, except for the occasional tourist, or journalist who meets them out of curiosity.

Most Veddahs do not have birth certificates, and few Veddah parents possess marriage certificates.
Meanwhile, little or nothing has been done by the authorities to improve the lot of the Veddahs, or to make them feel a part of Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic community.

Veddahs: a neglected people

Once upon a time, the Veddahs lived largely along the Mahaweli River. Up to around 1945, a community of Veddhas lived in the Bibile area. In more recent times, the Veddahs have moved out to districts such as Moneragala and Ampara, living in remote villages such as Rathugala and Nilgala.Some 78 Veddah families live in Rathugala.

Sudubandiyala Aththo, one of the Rathugala residents, said his father came to the village from the Senanayake Samudraya area. He said the it would take the Veddahs years, even generations, to catch up with the modern world.

Veddah children, he said, face many obstacles in getting an education. They are shunned at school by the other students, and are made to sit at the back of the class. They are called names and taunted. Many Veddah children refuse to go to school because of the unkind treatment they get.Sudubandiyala says he has to travel 50 miles in order to collect get his Samurdhi allowance from the state.

Thalabanda, one of the village elders, said life in the modern world was difficult, and finding the basics a challenge. “I am the leader of the Pollebadda tribe of Veddhas, and it is true that we have a very hard life,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder whether it would not be better to go back to our ancient bow-and-arrow way of life,”

In 1997, Thalabanda’s tribe gave up its traditional habitat and moved into village areas to begin life as farmers. Ten Veddah families were given a 10-acre piece of land by the state. The land was inadequate for the Veddah community. There was only one well for irrigation purposes, and this would run almost dry in the dry season.

Meanwhile, the Veddahs’ movements are strictly restricted to the land they have been allotted. If a Veddah is found to have strayed outside the limits of the reserve, he or she is liable for a fine of between Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 50,000. Veddahs do not have this kind of money to pay penalties, and so errant Veddahs end up in prison.

The Veddahs also have a housing problem. There are only 22 permanent houses, and the other 78 living spaces are mere shacks. The villagers wonder how they will manage with the limited land when the village population expands.

Worst of all, most Veddahas have no birth or marriage certificates. The lack of documentation means they face insurmountable problems when they try to find employment or interact with society at large.
A Veddah youth said it was time the Veddahs were given a better deal and treated like other Sri Lankan citizens.

“The authorities should give us our rights,” the 24-year-old said. “We deserve better. We too are human, like the rest of society.”

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