Showers of blessings

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By 2017-08-13

Text and pix by Priyangwada Perera
Ceylon Today Features

Anthony Marshal and H.E.M. Cyril Sampson stand firm like cacti in a desert. With no rain, no farming is possible. "It is impossible for us to find any work. Farming is possible only if water is available. When farming is done, we get work and find money. We don't even have money to buy 1kg of rice. There is no work in the fields for us to be hired. We have our paddy fields, but for the last three years, for three cultivation seasons we could not harvest one grain of rice. We used to work during both Yala and Maha and 3,500 families of the area are facing the same situation. We are all farmers. If we had work like paid labourers, we could at least convince the Mudalali to lend us goods to pay later. But not anymore. How can we say we will pay tomorrow, when there is no way of getting money tomorrow or the day after? You cannot blame the Mudalali either. The water problem is killing us. There is no water in the wells or the tanks. Look at the soil. It is dried and cracked."

He belongs to the set of farmers who came to this place in 1956, when the lands were given to people under the project Vilachchiya.

From that time to now, farming is in the form of both paddy and chena cultivation. Corn, Kurakkan, Mung beans, Cowpea are what they grow. The drought has lasted three years, but this August has been the height of it all. There's hardly any water to drink. Adding to the sorrows, Kidney disease has affected many. "Luckily we are not affected with Dengue." One feels guilty to hear him focusing probably on the faintest silver line.

It was just before noon and the sky was gloomy. Everybody was hoping for that drop of hope. Coming 39km interior from Anuradhapura, we reached Mahavilachchiya. The tank is the potent creation of King Dutugemunu's son, Prince Saliya, further supported by the extension of the Jaya Ganga canal to be fed by the excess water of Kala Wewa. Mahavilachchiya tank supports the production of 2,500 acres of paddy. Seeing a scrawny strip of water, one tends to wonder how that is possible.

With the thin strip of water in the background, the voices mix with the wind. "Every grain of rice we eat, we have to buy. 99.9% of the people here, even buy the water needed for their consumption. This is because of the kidney disease that is affecting us. It is God that we thank for letting someone get to know our plight," he speaks gratefully of the gods. It is not that Fr. Anthony Lakshman and some teachers of Loyola College, Negombo set off to Mahavilachchiya with gems and gold. Specially made fat little cloth bags of dry rations and plenty of bottles of water filled the vehicles that reached Mahavilachchiya. Fr. Alec Roy, the Parish Priest of St. Joseph's Cathedral spoke of the importance of rising as one. "If you have had a kindness shown, pass it on," was the message. Stressing on the impossibility of repaying someone's kindness, the invitation was clear.

The villagers were keen on sharing their views on the brotherhood that exists among them. "Even when we collected things at a time of drought, it was obvious. Those who helped others were not the ones who had things in abundance. Sometimes those who had two kilos of rice were ready to give away one kilo to help others. Those who had two coconuts, gave one. People did it on their own, using their own tractors. I think it is the word of Jesus where he said, "Give and you will receive." This is what we have to keep in mind.

This is due to environmental change, no doubt. "But people have made more than their share of contribution towards it. Their disking of the earth lessens the depth of the river. So, the soil is eroded and less water can be borne in such a tank. That results in tanks having less water which is the doing of people. The next is both insecticides and pesticides. Natural fertilizers are completely overtaken by the artificial and harmful. So, we have no option but to fertilize the soil. Then we complain of kidney disease. It is one mess that cannot be cleared up. The government asked us not to drink water from our wells. Whatever water that is available is highly contaminated. What we drink is filtered water which is purchased. Luckily this government has completely prohibited pesticides which is a great feat because this is one major reason for kidney disease. As for the drought, we don't know the reason," Marshal further added.

Accepting her bag of goodies with her little child, Dimanthi Dissanayaka added, "Nobody takes notice. There is no rain and the situation is getting sadder. Those who make their daily bread thanks to fishing done in the tank, are doomed. There are those who have no fields, who just work as labourers. They can't earn either.

According to my knowledge, this is the first time that we got something for us here. At least focussing on those in the Catholic community. No State officials have come. There are people in worse condition than us. We manage somewhat. Nobody has given us anything. We have gone to the Grama Niladhari and mentioned our plight. But to no avail. It has been like this for the past one and half years. We were told that we will be given vagaa naya. Nothing happened. They said 50 kg of rice would be given but some only got 25 kg. No agricultural loans were given though we were told they would be given for the new year."

More than a moment of pointing fingers in accusation, it was a moment of doing what could be done. It did rain, just a little, while we were gathered at the tiny assembly hall, with the statue of our very own Saint Joseph Vaz. But they clearly needed more. While we leave the taps with water trickling or overdo our washing with no regret, another set of people wait for a miracle.

(At the time of writing the article, showers were reported in Anuradhapura. The Meteorological Department said more showers were expected. Yet, not sufficient enough to mark the end of the long drought.)

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