Memories of Mattala: Where I learnt the true meaning of the word motherland

Following the Sunday Times revelations of the destruction to wildlife and other environmental issues that have cropped up in the face of the Mattala airport project in Hambantota, Retired Irrigation Engineer, Nissanka de Silva, writes of a time gone by

Kumudini Hettiarachchi’s report in the ST Plus of August 22, made me sad, mad, and very ashamed. Sad because I knew these areas intimately 55 years ago. Mad because such vandalism especially by foreigners is tolerated if not permitted and encouraged. Ashamed because Sri Lanka’s heritage and our birthright is sold for the proverbial mess of pottage.

The intimacy with the area and people of its villages began in 1953 when I was transferred to the Irrigation Engineer’s office, Tissamaharama. I had successfully completed three years training and was a fully fledged Technical Assistant. I was pledged to serve these people as their servant. There were no promises as politicians make.

I write from memory. The main area of responsibility entrusted to me was the Malala Ara basin. It is a dry zone river with its source near Hambegamuwa, flowing a length of 40 miles or so into the Malala Kalupuwa (lagoon) and the sea near Pallemalala on the Hambantota-Tissa main road.
There were three abandoned tanks across the main Malala Ara namely Mahagal Wewa, furthest north, about 30 miles for the outfall, Maharanawarna Wewa midway and Badagiriya, the largest about ten miles upstream of the estuary.

Destruction at Mattala

During my stay, the restoration of Mahagal Wewa to asswedumise 500 acres was commenced first in 1954 and thereafter the restoration of Badagiriya in early 1955. The main villages in this basin were Gonnoruwa, where the headman lived, Landejulana, a tiny village of six or seven families (later submerged by the waters of Badagiriya). Migahajandura (20 miles from Hambantota), Pahalakumbuk Wewa and the furthest was Ihalakumbuk Wewa which became my base for preliminary surveys and other works. In addition an extensive area west of the Kirindi Oya, the adjacent river basin, up to Tanamalwila, on the Wellawaya road was also in my charge.

This second area, included the villages of Pannagamuwa, Pahala, and Udamathala, Oya Gawa, Ranawarna Weva, Bodagama, Anukkangala etc, all villages with 15 to 40 families at most.
I got to know the villagers well because every two or three months I inspected ongoing works, on a Hercules push bicycle. The circuit covered about 75 miles and normally took one week or so.
The Bug Fiat, station wagon, CN series which was purchased for Rs 3000, in December 1952 could be used only in the driest weather.

Except the main trunk roads, Hambantota-Tissa, Tissa-Wellawaya, all others were earth roads which turned into veritable quagmires during the rainy season. The Divisional Irrigation Engineer’s office at Thangalla sent us a jeep for one week, every three months or so. This was allocated to me for a single stay visit to Mahagal Wewa, generally an inspection with the Engineer. When returning from one such visit, it was dark as we passed Gonnoruwa. About a mile from the village a lone elephant on the road was disturbed by the lights and sound of the jeep and kept running along the road for more than a mile at a leisurely pace. The jeep kept its distance and let the elephant do as it wished. The horn was not blown. At last the elephant found the track it was looking for and disappeared into the forest- a spectacle vivid in my memory after half a century.

The restoration of Mahagal Weva came in to the District Agricultural Committee’s construction priority list in 1954. The successful bidder was a contractor from Diddenipotha near Deniyaya. The first task was to prepare the access road, a length of four miles from Ihalaumbuk Weva. Work was carried out manually. A few workers were from the contractor’s village. The majority were recruited from the neighbouring villages. They were disciplined workers and the work progressed. The contractor’s lorry was the first motor vehicle to reach Mahagal Weva. My Bug Fiat was the first motor car.

Camp was established at Mahagal Weva. The workers’ camp was some distance away, out of view. Thirty -five-year-old Aranolis from Tissamaharama was my man Jeeves. Usually I spent two or three nights here on my periodic bicycle inspections. On two occasions I was awakened by Aranolis shouting away the elephants feeding on the cadjan cladding of my castle! I stayed silent hoping Aranolis would succeed. He did and I lived to tell the tale.

Clearly the lives of the peasants were the land of their hamlets and the surrounding forest. Stately pallu and satin abounded here, along with elephant, sloth bear, leopard, graceful spotted deer and sambhur, peafowl, wild fowl, green and pompadour pigeons and many other species of animals, birds and insects.

From the years with them the true meaning of motherland was realized—a word we hear frequently particularly from politicians. It is the little plot with our home, be it with cadjan, wattle and daub, wood, or bricks and mortar. It is where we are born with our brothers and sisters. It is where our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers were born, lived and are buried as we too will be someday. It is the soil of this land that has given us our food, rice, vegetable, and fruits that have nourished us. It is also the home of a diversity of flora and fauna, animals, reptiles, birds, and insects. To all of them too, it is a motherland. It is our duty to preserve this land for our children and grandchildren and all the generations to follow.

Our aim should be to keep it clean, free of pollution, and fertile. To these people the concrete cities would not make much sense. How many men of Mattala can hope to be masters of commerce, or even members and ministers of parliament or fly in the international aeroplanes that will soon land where they once cultivated their fields to feed their children? How many indeed?

The benefits of the destruction and devastation of their bit of motherland is already accruing to foreigners. In the future too, will these foreigners whom we wish to attract be the biggest beneficiaries? Perhaps it is too late to turn back. Is it too much to hope that those whom we have empowered will take steps to prevent anymore murder and mayhem at Mattala or elsewhere in this motherland of ours?

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