Rajanganaya: The farmers’ battle-cry for water | Sunday Observer

Rajanganaya: The farmers’ battle-cry for water

Rajanganaya tank in better times PIx: SUSANTHA WIJEGUNASEKARA
Rajanganaya tank in better times PIx: SUSANTHA WIJEGUNASEKARA

Crop failures, mounting debt and the ever-present scarcity of water have made farmers in Rajanganaya naturally wary of a new drinking water project that will tap into the waters of their precious irrigation tank, fearing further erosion of a precious livelihood resource

RAJANGANAYA: In 1966, when R.K.H Munidasa arrived in rural Rajanganaya he had high hopes of becoming a land-owning farmer. Aged just 18, he was one of 249 youth who moved to the remote area in the Anuradhapura District, accepting an offer made by the government of Dudley Senanayake which was aiming to create an agri-revolution in the country while also providing employment to youth.

Eventually, though many of those who arrived in Rajanganaya packed up their bags and left, unable to cope with the harsh living conditions in the lonely and far-flung region, Munidasa toiled on, cultivating Rajanganaya block 16, clearing forests and going on to cultivate paddy on the land handed over to him by the Government.

Fifty two years later, Munidasa has all but given up. Crestfallen, he says, the hardships he faces now are far worse than those faced initially. “There were good times but paddy cultivation now is tougher than it ever was,” he says adding that the lack of water and fertilizer for paddy cultivation along with irrigation systems that have fallen into disrepair were some of the most serious difficulties faced by them. For the farmers of the Anuradhapura District, especially, for those in Rajanganaya, the past three paddy production seasons have been particularly tough. Drought and severe water and fertiliser shortages made paddy cultivation almost impossible, and the failure of the past three rice seasons has left farmers like Munidasa in dire economic straits.

Given the farmers’ constant battle for water in the dry zone region, a recent proposal to set up a drinking water project based on the Rajanganaya reservoir had the farming community in the region, up in arms, driving the issue into national spotlight a few weeks ago, after violent protests erupted over the move. Farmers like Munidasa fear that the drinking water project will drain the water from their already depleted tank that supplies water to their farms, stealing more of an increasingly precious livelihood resource. For two years, farmers in Rajanganaya have been waging a battle with nature, trying to secure water for cultivation, as the rains failed over and over, resulting in three failed paddy crops.

Over the last two years around 50 per cent of paddy farmers in Rajanganaya have opted to grow other crops, gradually moving away from paddy which is vulnerable to weather patterns and rainfall failure. Some have turned to growing banana along with various other vegetables; while some farmers have opted for soya and corn encouraged by state agriculture authorities, a fact resented by many farmers who believe, it is paddy cultivation that should be better facilitated by the authorities as it once was.

“At times we bought fertilizer for Rs. 3,000 due to the shortage, but finally those stocks ran out as well” Munidasa says, wondering how the government did not foresee the fertilizer demand in the country. “How did they fail to bring an adequate supply?” he asks.

Having somehow secured the necessary fertilizer they were driven to find their own solutions to the shortage of water. Munidasa says, a few farmers dug agri-wells and pumped water to their fields. “But that too cannot be done always, as the cost of fuel for the water pumps, hiring charges and labour costs makes it unsustainable for farmers already facing severe economic hardship,” he says.

“Those unable to do that as well left the village for menial jobs in other towns” says another paddy farmer from Block 16, P.G Wijetunge. Arriving in Rajanganaya along with Munidasa in 1966 Wijetunge says life has been tough for many families in the area in recent times. “Many farmers fell into debt by borrowing not only to cultivate but also provide food for their families, many surviving during the last three seasons merely on one meal a day,” he says. Finally, after the passing of three seasons, the farmers of Rajanganaya were able to cultivate paddy this Maha season bringing a bountiful harvest once again to the area. Even though only 50 per cent of the farmland in Rajanganaya was cultivated during the season, Munidasa says, the harvest has been favourable. “An acre yielded around 150 bushels of rice” he says explaining that usually, the yield would be around 100 bushels.

Miracle bounty

Despite the good harvest, Leslie Gamini, a farmer from Block 4 and President of the Saliyawewa Rajanganaya Farmers’ Association says, the bounty was nothing short of a miracle, because water supply was low during the whole period of cultivation. “Still, no paddy field in Rajanganaya failed,” Gamini says. During the cultivation season, the Department of Irrigation was able to provide water from the Rajanganaya tank for cultivation, once in six days only, due to the low water levels in the tank. “The water supply was not adequate, at times we got water only once in 10 days which was alright for other crops but not for paddy” Munidasa says. For paddy, a crop that requires water at least once in four days, these were tough conditions.

While rains, along with the water supply made cultivation during this Maha season a risk that paid off, farmers claim they faced more hardships due to poor water management by the authorities. Field canals that have fallen into disrepair meant, fields further away from the tank such as, block 16 – where Munidasa cultivates, and blocks 17 and 18 which are around 20km from the Rajanganaya reservoir received less water with some paddy fields being left dry completely.

“I could not cultivate three acres as they were not getting any water even though Irrigation officials were releasing water from the tank” Munidasa says while Wijetunge pointed out that water-watchers who have been entrusted to ensure all areas receive adequate water are not doing their job. “Sometimes if the stipulation is that water must be provided only three days they release it for four,” Wijetunge accuses claiming this was poor water management on the part of the authorities.

But while the Department maintained field canals in the past, an official from the Irrigation Department in the area said a 44 per cent cut in funds for maintenance meant they are not able to carry out these activities anymore. “Unfortunately many farmers have had to repair these canals by themselves” he says.

That is another cost that farmers like Munidasa cannot bear. “Therefore I just left those fields uncultivated” he says.

Gamini says, officials of the Irrigation Department were not giving advice about how to manage water supplies better. Instead, they repeatedly advised farmers to organise “Vehi Pirith’ ceremonies to ask the weather gods to send rain. “Recently yet another meeting with the participation of government officials was held to discuss how to hold a milk boiling ceremony at the reservoir on a grand scale” Gamini scoffs, “how will this maintain water levels?

This paddy season proved fruitful, but most farmers are left to settle accumulated debts, when crops failed for nearly two years.

In this backdrop, the new water supply project by the government, that caused the controversy recently, weighs heavily on the minds of Rajanganaya’s farming community.

“We cultivated paddy this season with much difficulty and now they are trying to take away our only source of water,” Munidasa laments. He feels the project has rung the death knell for paddy cultivation in Rajanganaya and its suffering farmers.

Weather gods

Since the tank has no other source of water, the farmers fear that a water supply project will drain their only reservoir, severely impacting their livelihood and affecting the future of rice production in the region.

These worries saw a massive protest recently by angered farmers which ended in a violent manner leading to many arrests, farmers and Policemen both suffering injuries during the clash. Speaking to the Sunday Observer, Chairman, Water Supply and Drainage Board, K. A Ansar says, these fears were unfounded. The water supply scheme passed by the Cabinet in 2011, once implemented will provide water to 42 Grama Seva Divisions in Thambuttegama, Galnewa and Thalawa in the Anuradhapura District. “The project will provide potable water to people in these areas including Rajanganaya” Ansar says.

According to him the scheme will only draw 13 acre feet daily from the reservoir which has a capacity of 86,000 acre feet. “This is only a small amount,” he points out. Annually, while around 35,000 acre feet will be utilized for the project, Ansar says, the water supply scheme is in line with government policy to provide pipe-borne clean drinking water to the North Central Province by 2020.

Ansar feels, farmers have misunderstood the project. While discussions are ongoing between government authorities on how best to implement the project the chairman says farmers need not worry.

“If water levels are low we assure them, we will not draw water from the reservoir” he says, adding that agriculture will always be given priority. But the farmers are not convinced. Many express fears that the water supply scheme will be given priority during even severe droughts and the amount of water drawn for the project will only increase in time. “What is stopping them from increasing the amount of water utilized for the scheme? What is their assurance to us?” Gamini questions. Others feel the scheme when implemented will not even allow for the current once in six days water supply allowance for cultivation. Almost all farmers appeared to be in the stance that unless a new water source to replenish the reservoir is created any project drawing from Rajanganaya should be temporarily halted.

“We are not against the people getting potable water but it cannot come at the cost of our livelihood” Wijetunge says. This is the reason for their protest, he says. The farmers claim, water for such a scheme can instead be taken from the Neela Bemma area.

But with no plans to move the scheme to another quarter yet, Ansar claims, “The project will continue and it is in design stage now.”

However he wishes to once again stress that farmers need not worry as their concerns will be heeded.

But according to the officials of the Irrigation Department that the Sunday Observer spoke to, the farmers’ fears are just. Having faced an extremely difficult rice production season he says the department too faced many hurdles when distributing and managing water during the severe drought. “This is their only source of water so the people are scared and rightly so” he says.

With a worrying water supply project looming ahead, however, according to Gamini the government’s decision to provide a free agri-insurance scheme for farmers awarding Rs. 40,000 per acre for crops which fail, he says they can now cultivate freely as the government will bear the risk.


Despite the positive move, other past troubles continue to haunt the paddy farmers of Rajanganaya. Once old debts are settled, and after the sale of paddy from this season’s bounty harvest, they would have to borrow once again to cultivate their fields in the next season.

“We have nothing left after settling debts despite a good harvest which means we have to borrow from businessman once again” Munidasa says adding that these woes perhaps contributed for the failure of factions in the government during the recent local government elections in the Anuradhapura district.

As farmers they had believed they would be better understood and served by the government, whose President hails from the agricultural heartland in the North Central region, however, this has proven to be a fallacy.

They say water and fertilizer are needed at the correct time. “Getting it later is pointless,” Gamini says. He says the farmers also desperately need a better process to purchase paddy and at a certified price. Gamini explains that without such a scheme private mill owners continue to make large revenues, purchasing paddy from farmers at low prices.

The constant battle for water and fair-pricing indicates that paddy cultivation is fast becoming an untenable livelihood option in Rajanganaya.

“We came here as youth to farm and cultivate but now we are not able to sustain this life anymore” Munidasa says pointing out that youth in the area despite having no other work, are moving away from agriculture.

According to Gamini youngsters having seen the many struggles faced by their elders feel their efforts would be futile. “The youth are disinterested, and as a result many appear to be leaving Rajanganaya for daily labour jobs in areas such as Colombo,” he says.

Munidasa too has failed to convince his sons to take up paddy cultivation. He runs a grocery shop in the area. His failing strength means he has had to give up some of his land to tenant farmers. The Rajanganaya multipurpose project which was built on the backs of youth and paddy cultivation now appears to be dying a slow death. “If these issues are not resolved it is likely that paddy cultivation will cease in Rajanganaya someday” says Wijetunge who believes it only means a bleak future for the agriculture industry in Sri Lanka which was once hailed as the ‘Granary of the East’.