Paddy farmers in the Kurunegala district, who lost their cultivation due to the prolonged dry weather conditions, blame irrigation officers for not managing water carefully.
Farmers in Bathalagoda and Nikaweratiya – two badly affected areas in the district – accused their respective Irrigation Engineers and their staff for wasting water in the tanks to please political stooges.
“If not for this wastage, at least we could have saved 10% of the crop,” they said.
Chairman, Thambagalle Farmers’ Organization, Piyathilake says there are many farmer organizations in Bathalagoda that received ample stocks of water through their canals although his organization and few others did not get water for three weeks after ploughing their fields.
“More than 15,000 acres of paddy is cultivated from the water we get from Bathalagoda. There was a time when we had to meet the irrigation officers to ask for water. Although we were told that water level has gone down considerably and water could not be distributed, there were instances, the ruling party supporters were given enough of water,” said Piyathilake.
Not wanting to name these officials and the politicians who pressurize these irrigation officers to carry out their instructions, in fear of his life, Piyathilake said farmers will have to support the ruling party in future to get enough of water to grow paddy during the dry season.
“This is a known secret as to how the irrigation officers released water on the request of those who are connected to ruling political parties. These are paddy farming colonies and we all depend on the water we get from the Bathalagoda tank. All these years there was no issue in water management, but little by little Bathalagoda irrigation office too became politicized and during a crisis situation like now, water was released only to the farmer organizations affiliated to the government and the rest of the organizations that do not back the government could not get enough water for their cultivation,” said Piyathilake .
Piyathilake also levelled accusations against every government that came into power for not developing the Bathalagoda tank which was built 118 years ago by a British Engineer Mr. Parker.
“After the first construction, although this tank was not rehabilitated by any government that came into power, they did not forget to erect a plaque, but nothing beyond that. The same happened under the patronage of President Mahinda Rajapaksa as well,” he added.
Piyathilaka meanwhile queried as to why the government hurriedly wanted to begin dredging in the tank. “Since the entire tank has gone dry, this is the best time for them to mine sand and earn money. In the guise of dredging the tank, not only politicians but also their henchmen are busy mining sand illegally. We have seen as to how this happened in some other small tanks around Bathalagoda earlier. It was said that the tanks would be dredged to hold more water but instead after sand mining, the soil that were dredged was not taken out but made into heaps within the tank. They now form small islands within the tank. We are scared whether the same would happen to Bathalagoda tank as well,” said Piyathilake.
Thilakaratne, another paddy farmer, who too had lost his entire crop said that he had to spend nearly Rs.20,000 for one acre before it was destroyed completely.
“Now we have to buy rice from the boutique. I am in debt to the bank and there is no way to settle the loan and the loan interest is accumulating. No sooner the house in which I live will be auctioned by the bank,” he said.
He further accused the government for the dredging project claiming that the farmers would not benefit by that exercise. “This is being done to land seaplanes to promote inland tourism. Up to now till the water level decreased up to the tank bed, we were still able to fight and get even a little water for our cultivations but in future when this sea plane project is implemented, and once the water level goes down by a few feet, water distribution for paddy lands would be stopped to maintain the water level for the sea plane landing,” said Thilakaratne.
In Nikaweratiya the farmers accused the Irrigation Engineer for not filling the Magalle tank from Deduru Oya when the water level was going down. “In addition, being well aware that the water level is very low, the Irrigation Engineer opened all sluice gates to send out the remaining water. When we inquired as to why this was done as a lot of water was wasted, we were told that on a request from some farmers, they had to open the gates. This was not true. The sluice gates were opened to dry the tank to help Buddhima mudalali – enabling him to lay the foundation to his hotel by the tank,” said E. M. Jayathilake, a JVP member of the Nikaweratiya Pradeshiya Sabha.
According to him, had the Irrigation Engineer maintained the water level, the mudalali wouldn’t have been able to lay the foundation to his hotel.
“Although it is said that the hotel is owned by Buddhima mudalali, we know who the real owner of this project is. It is none other than Minister of Co-operatives and Internal Trade and Kurunegala District parliamentarian Johnston Fernando. Since the foundation cannot be laid when the tank is full, they started work during the dry season as it was easy for them to dry the tank by opening the sluice gates,” alleged the JVP Pradeshiya Sabha member.
Meanwhile, Ranjith Bandara, another farmer said that Minister Johnston Fernando foiled all protests against the hotel by farmer organizations. “When we opposed to this construction we got the support of our Divisional Secretary and he used his powers to stop that. At the end this Divisional Secretary was transferred to Puttalam and now they are carrying out the work to their whims and fancies,” said Bandara. According to Bandara, the government recently called for tenders for a boat service in the Magalle tank, and published a paper advertisement. “The owner of this hotel would have now got the tender and once the hotel is opened he will start the boat service as well to boost tourism. Although Buddhima mudalali claims that he owns the hotel, we know for certain that this is owned by Johnston Fernando,” said Bandara. Thilakawathi too is a paddy farmer who has lost her entire crop and blamed the irrigation engineer for wasting the water unnecessarily which could have helped the people to get at least 25% of the crop. “When the water was released from morning till evening we knew that there would be a reason behind that move. Now we know as to why the sluice gates were opened as if the Magalle Tank was overflowing. We are the losers and have to suffer now. I have spent over Rs. 20,000 but how can I recover the money. How can I settle my debts,” said Thilakawathi.
Sunday Leader Journalist Intimidated
When this reporter and the photographer visited Magalle tank in Nikaweratiya on Wednesday to get a clear idea about the allegations, a group of over 40 people including the said owner of the hotel J. M. Jayathilake alias Buddhima mudalali who is also a Director at the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA), surrounded the vehicle and insisted the reporter’s official identity card.
Shouting at us for taking photographs of his hotel, which is under construction between the Magalle tank and its bund, Jayathilake wanted his group of thugs to be vigilant where the photographer was as he was not in the vehicle at that time but had gone to the middle of the tank to capture photographs of the dry tank bed.
However, in a threatening voice Jayathilake shouted at the reporter to be careful claiming that no one has the authority to photograph his hotel, which is under construction on the request of politicians.
“This is being constructed on the request of our politicians. I am not sacred of anyone as I am working hand in glove with a powerful politician in the district. Where is the man that took photographs of my hotel from the main road side and also from the tank side,” Jayathilake shouted.
This reporter meanwhile overheard Jayathilake calling OIC Nikaweratiya over the phone asking to send a police team to the scene.
Meanwhile Thusitha – our staff photographer who was far away in the middle of the tank, seeing a crowd near our vehicle called and asked what it was all about and whether his presence was needed. Since there was a possibility to grab his camera and the thugs could delete the pictures taken, I pretended that there was no issue but asked him to be where he was until I called him.
Realizing that the vehicle could come under attack, this reporter immediately telephoned Minister of Co-operatives and Internal Trade and Kurunegala District parliamentarian Johnston Fernando to keep him informed of the thuggery that was taking place at his electorate.
Although Minister Fernando wanted the reporter to give the phone to Jayathilake, not realizing that it was Minister Fernando who was on line, Jayathilake once again shouted claiming that he was not scared of any one and that he did not want to answer calls.
“I am not scared of anyone and I don’t want to answer any calls of your contacts. I know how to tackle this,” he said. Realizing that the situation was getting worse, Fernando after getting the description of the trouble maker said that he knew who the man was and promised to call him on his mobile.
No sooner Minister Fernando called, Jayathilake began pleading with the journalist.
“Thousand apologies madam for shouting at you all the time, please forgive me for my misbehavior in such a manner. Had I known that you are known to our minister I wouldn’t have acted like this,” he said.
Jayathilake then wanted his group of thugs to move away from the vehicle. It was then that two police constables rushed to the scene in support of Jayathilake.
Their expressions too changed immediately when Jayathilake said that there was no issue with the reporter, as the Minister knew her.
Construction Is Illegal – Director, Asset
Management, Irrigation Department
Sarath Wijesekera, Director Asset Management, Irrigation Department said that he had not given any approvals for such a construction nor had he received any application for an approval.
“Magalla tank bund is part of the Nikaweratiya- Kurunegala main road. So no one is allowed to do any developments within the small strip of land between the tank and the bund. Although we try to implement the rules and regulations, politicians put the pressure on us for such illegal activities but we cannot heed those instructions. This is an illegal construction. I have not given any approvals to a hotel project,” said Wijesekera.
I Don’t Have Money To
Build A Hotel – Johnston
Minister of Co-operatives and Internal Trade, Johnston Fernando while refuting allegations levelled against him said that the said hotel did not belong to him but to Buddhima mudalali and added that he was not scared to tell if he owned it.
“I am a born and bread businessman in the Kurunegala electorate and still engage in businesses legally. I am not scared to tell that I engage in business. I would be privileged if I can own this hotel but unfortunately I do not have the money to build such a hotel. I had no hand in transferring the former Divisional Secretary. He was transferred on corruption charges. I will not allow anyone in my electorate to engage in corruption. That is why a mud slinging campaign is going against me,” said Fernando.
Irrigation Engineer, Nikaweratiya
Hettiarachchi, the Nikaweratita Irrigation Engineer when contacted to find out as to what action he has taken against this illegal construction was speechless for a while and said he could not make any comments.
“I cannot talk to you over the phone. I have to get permission to talk to the press,” said Hettiarachchi disconnecting the telephone conversation.
I Received The Land From
My Mother- J.M. Jayathilake
Jayathilake said that he got this land from his mother Dingiri Amma and has got Irrigation Department approvals to construct the hotel. “Even I have kept more than 40 perches towards the tank and this is my land and the construction is legal,” said Jayathilake.
I Got A Call From Buddhima
Mudalali – Acting OIC Nikaweratiya
Acting OIC Nikaweratiya S. M. R. Senanayake confirmed that he received an urgent call from Jayathilake and that was why two PCs were sent immediately.
“I was told that a group of people had come and photographing the hotel which is under construction. Since I assumed that there would be an issue at the scene I immediately wanted two PCs to go to the scene,” said Senanayake.