Ensuring the water rights of Rajanganaya People's
Movement for Land and Agriculture Reform
The memory of the brutal police attack on farmers, who were protesting in Thambuttegama, for their right to water, seems to be slowly fading from public conscience. Especially since a few days later communal violence broke out in Kandy.
The farmers were protesting the decision by the government to direct a substantial amount of water from Rajanganaya tank, built specifically for agriculture, to a drinking water project. Instead of attempting to understand why the farmers were protecting and finding solutions to their issues, the government deployed the police to brutally assault the farmers and disperse them. This was a stark contrast to how they behaved during the communal riots in Digana a few days later. 60 protesting farmers were also arrested and were remanded for five days. Most of those arrested were brutally assaulted while in custody.
The farmers were not demanding the government to scrap the drinking water project, they just wanted a reasonable solution that could benefit all. In fact they had presented several proposals which would have led to a win -win situation. However the current administration showed no interest in dialogue or discussion and the farmers were brutalized.
Five farmers who were assaulted and tortured lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka on March 21 accusing ASP of Thambuttegama, Anura Silva and HQI of Thambuttegama, KMP Saman Priyantha. Rajanganaya lift Irrigation scheme is a unique irrigation scheme. The Rajanganaya Dam is built across the Kala Oya river, at Rajanganaya. 'The main concrete dam measures approximately 350 m (1,150 ft) and creates the Rajanganaya Reservoir, which has a catchment area of 76,863.60 hectares (189,934.1 acres) and a total storage capacity of 100.37 million cubic metres (3,545×106 cu ft).
However the catchment area of 76,863.60 hectares has been cleared to make way for farming and this has had an adverse effect on the water security of the Rajanganaya Tank. Currently the Tank depends on the surplus water issued from Kala Oya and Kala wewa. Without this, the farmers that depend on Rajanganaya Tank would be in serious trouble.
The total amount of farms that depend on Rajanganaya tank is 22500 acres. 35 000 farming families depend on these farms. Out of the total farmlands 17 000 acres are paddy land. Paddy is farmed in both Yala and Maha season but chili, corn and soy are also planted. Animal husbandry and fresh water fishing also take place apart from these farmlands, the tank also supplies water to Neelabamma Irrigation Scheme, Angamuwa, Thumullegama and Eluwankulama tanks. However as the tank's capacity has degraded this has now become almost impossible. This has caused many issues to the farmers and now water is supplied to farm land only three days, once in 10 days, and for daily needs.
Farmers that use the tank have established 41 associations and there are 29 such organizations created by farmers who operate above sea level from the tank, and thus require special irrigation techniques. Moreover those engaged in animal rearing and fresh water fishing has also established a number of unions to protect their rights.
Rajanganaya farming community which was established in 1964 became one of the main agricultural hubs after the Rajanganaya tank started receiving adequate water in 1968. From 1968 the farmers in the area have contributed to the Sri Lankan economy and food security of the country. Moreover the scheme has ensured that thousands of people are meaningfully employed.
Given the context and the utmost importance of protecting our food sovereignty, the attempts made by officials and politicians in 2011 to implement another initiative using the Rajanganaya tank, was a wrong strategic move.
National Water Supply and Drainage Board currently carries out six projects, with foreign funding, to provide drinking water to those who live in areas affected by CKDu. Three such projects are funded by the Chinese while Israel, Japan and Australia fund the other three. The Thambuttegama water project, using water from Rajanganaya tank is one of the six projects. The initiative, which is estimated at Rs 17492 million to build, is to provide water for 91810 families. The planners estimate that the project would require the daily extraction of 16 acre feet from the Rajanganaya tank and residents of 28 grama niladari divisions in Thambuttegama Divisional secretariat area, 04 grama niladari divisions in Galnewa Divisional secretariat area and 12 grama niladari divisions in Thalawa Divisional secretariat area.
The cabinet paper (37/2014) requesting approval for the project was submitted by then minister Dinesh Gunawardane on August 18, 2014 and the Cabinet approved the proposal on September 04, 2014. According to the Cabinet paper Chinese Development bank was to provide US $ 71 million while the remainder, Rs 4182 million was to be borne by Sri Lankan government. China National Aero-technology International Corporation and China geo engineering corporation are the contractors for the project.
Farmers association opposed the impact of this project on their community on August 17, 2017 during a meeting with officials. The associations also handed over their objections to the District Secretary on February 21, 2018. However the project is being implemented, even without a feasibility study and this has caused great inconvenience to farmers but also residents of some parts of Thambuttegama which lacks drinking water. If a proper feasibility study was carried out the authorities could have identified whether there is surplus capacity at Rajanganaya tank to provide water for a drinking water project as well the impact such a project would have on the farmers who depend on the tank.
At a time when farmers hit by a crippling water and a fertilizer shortage, extracting a significant amount of water from the Rajanganaya tank is not acceptable. The government is responsible for assisting those affected by CKDu and its up to them to identify a water source that can be used to supply drinking water to those living in CKDu prone areas. But taking away resources from an already desperate community would only lead to more anger and resentment. On the other hand using water from Rajanganaya tank which is contaminated by agro- chemicals to provide drinking water to those living in areas affected by CKDu is a ridiculous move. The real motive of the government is to discourage people from farming. We must also look at the main reasons why farmers are opposing the Thambuttegama Water Project. The tank was built for agriculture, thus it should remain the priority when making decisions on water use. The Rajanaganaya scheme was built with the intention of making it an agricultural hub and the tank was built to facilitate farming. However the drinking water project will be the main priority area in the future.
When one commences a drinking water project, the government can't stop the water supply when the water levels of the tank drops below a certain level. However the authorities can and already do stop water for agricultural projects after the water level drops to a certain point. The government can use this to promote a less water intensive crop with the assistance of the private sector. This will further increase the hold of corporations on Sri Lankan agriculture. The other factor one should keep in mind is that the quantities necessary for a drinking water project can increase rapidly. The introduction of industrial zones, and tourism can lead to higher demand, necessitating more water. The National Physical Plan 2011- 2030 has already proposed the establishment of large scale cities sin the North Central Province and these settlements with other proposed projects could easily push the farmers out of the equation. Given the circumstances how do we ensure the continuation of the agricultural activities while ensuring a successful water project? The behaviour of the authorities inspire no confidence and it has become our duty to protect the Rajanganaya tank which has been the life blood of thousands of farmers for decades.
We insist that the water from the Rajanganaya tank must not be directed to another major project and the government must take immediate steps to identify a water source which has not been contaminated by agro-chemicals to provide drinking water t those living in areas with CKDu prevalence. the government must also come to a policy decision to not use water from tanks used for irrigation for other major projects as that creates a number of issues. New laws should also be drafted to protect the catchment areas and forests which ensure that these tanks continue to receive adequate water. These steps would ensure the sustainability of our tanks, which are useful for agriculture as well as drinking. Moreover the farmers who were brutally attacked in Thambuttegama on February 28 must be immediately compensated.