Politics, sea planes and sand mining controls the water as farmers go bankrupt amidst drought

Nirmala Kannangara | Published on October 15, 2012 at 2:03 am

Reporting from Bathalagoda and Nikaweratiya

Paddy farmers in Kurunegala district who have lost their paddy cultivation due to the drought

The illegal Hotel construction by Buddhima Mudalali. Villagers allege the Mudali is merely a proxy for the powerful Minister Johnston Fernando. Photo courtesy The Sunday Leader. Photo credit Thusitha Kumara

blamed irrigation officers for mismanaging the reservoirs and tanks.

Farmers in Bathalagoda and Nikaweratiya – two of the areas worst affected by the dry weather  accused Irrigation engineers and their staff of wasting tank water  to please political stooges.

“If not for this wastage, we could have saved 10% of the crop,” they said.

According to the Chairman Thambagalle farmers organization, Mr.Piyathilake-, there are many farmers organizations in Bathalagoda that received an ample stock of water through their canals although his organization and few others did not get water for three weeks after ploughing their fields.

Politics controls the water

“More than 15, 000 acres of paddy are cultivated from the water we get from Bathalagoda. There were times when we met the irrigation officers to ask for water. Although we were told that the water level has decreased considerably and thus distribution was not possible we saw that the  ruling party supporters were constantly supplied enough water,” said Piyathilake.

Water controls the politics

Not wanting to name these officials and the politicians who pressurize these irrigation officers

Bathing at a well dug in the middle of the Magalle tank. Inset: E.M.Jayathilleke (L) and Piyathilaka(R). Photo courtesy The Sunday Leader. Photo credit Thusitha Kumara

to carry out their instructions, in fear of his life, Piyathilake said farmers will have to support the ruling party if they wanted to get 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 of water for their cultivation,” said Piyathilake .

Piyathilake also leveled accusation against every government that came into power for not developing the Bathalagoda tank which was build 118 years ago by a British Engineer Mr. Parker.

“After the first construction, this tank was not developed by any government that came into power all they did was erect a plaque.”

Illegal sand mining rampant

Piyathilaka meanwhile queried as to why the government hurriedly wanted to dredge the tank.

“Since the entire tank has gone dry, this is the best time for them to mine sands 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 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 was removed is just dumped inside the tank. There are now small islands within the tank. We worry whether the same will happen to Bathalagoda tank as well,” said Piyathilake.

Thilakaratne another paddy farmer who too have 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. Soon my home will be auctioned by the bank,” he said.

Government dredging in vain

He further accused the government for the dredging project claiming that the farmers would not be benefitted.

“This is done to provide for sea planes to promote inland tourism. Up to now till the water level fell to tank bed we were able to fight and get even a little water for our cultivation but in the 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.

Sluice gates opened for laying foundation for private hotel

“In addition to this, knowing the water level is very low still, the Irrigation Engineer opened all sluice gates to release the remaining water. When we inquired as to why this was done as lot of water was wasted, we were told that on request of some farmers they had to open the gates. This was not true. The sluice gates were opened to dry the tank in to help a political stooge Buddhima mudalali to enable him to lay the foundation for his hotel by the tank,” alleged E.M. Jayathilake a JVP member of the Nikaweratiya Pradeshiya Sabha.

According to him, if the water level was maintained by the Irrigation Engineer, Buddhima mudalali wouldn’t have able to lay the foundation to his hotel.

Johnston Fernando own the 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 which made it easy for them to dry the tank by opening the sluice gates,” alleged the JVP Pradeshiya sabha member.

Divisional Secretary transfered

Meanwhile Ranjith Bandara said farmer organizations protested against the construction of this hotel but all their attempts were foiled by Minister Johnston Fernando.

“When we opposed to this construction we got the support of our Divisional Secretary and he used his powers to stop it. This Divisional Secretary was transferred to Puttalam and now they are carrying on the work again,” said Bandara.

According to Bandara, a paper advertisement was published by the government recently calling tenders for boat service in the Magalle tank.

“The owner of this hotel would have 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 a hotel, we know for sure that this is owned by Johnston Fernando,” alleged Bandara.

Thilakawathi too is a paddy farmer who has lost her entire crop and blamed the irrigation engineer for wasting water which could have helped retain 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 why the sluice gates were opened which only hppens usually when the Magalle Tank overflows. We are the losers and have to suffer. I have spent over Rs. 20,000 but how can I recover the money. How can I settle my debts,” said Thilakawathi.

Journalist intimidated – her story

When this reporter and photographer visited Magalle tank in Nikaweratiya on Wednesday October 10, a group of more than 40 people including the said owner of the hotel J.M. Jayathilake 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 capturing 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 by this time but had gone to the middle of the tank to capture photographs of the dried tank.

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 captured my hotel photographs from the main road side and also from the tank side,” Jayathilake shouted.

Jayathilake then called the OIC Nikaweratiya over the phone asking him to send a police team to the scene.

Meanwhile Thusitha –a staff Photographer for The Sunday Leader newspaper who had now proceeded to the mid of the tank, seeing a crowd near our vehicle called me on my mobile and asked what me what the commotion was offering to come back to the vehicle if his presence was needed. Fearing that they would grab his camera and delete the pictures taken, I brushed aside his concerns and asked him to stay where he was until I call him.

Could come under attack

Realizing that the vehicle will come under attack at any moment, I immediately telephoned Minister of Co-operatives and Internal Trade and Kurunegala District parliamentarian Johnston Fernando to inform him of the thuggery in his electorate.

Although Fernando wanted me to hand over the phone to Jayathilake, not realizing that it was Minister Fernando on line, Jayathilake shouted,

“I am not scared of anyone and I don’t want to answer any calls of your contacts. I know how to tackle this.”

Realizing that the situation was getting worse, Fernando asked me to describe the troublemaker which I did at which point The Minister said he knew whom I was talking about and promised to call him on his mobile.

Minister Fernando kept his promise and not two seconds passed before Fernando called him after which his attitude changed.

“Thousand apologies madam for shouting at you all the time, please forgive me for my misbehavior in such a manner. Had I know 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 body expressions too changed immediately when jayathilake said that there is no issue with the reporter as she is known to the Minister.

It surprised me how quick the police was to act to a call from a civilian when the police take hours to come to a scene of crime or accident.

This construction is illegal- Director Asset Management, Irrigation Department

Sarath Wijesekera, Director Asset Managemnt, Irrigation Department said that he has not given any approvals for such a construction nor has he received any application for an approval.

“Nikaweratiya- Kurunegala main road is the Magalle tank bund. 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 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.

Irrigation Engineer Nikaweratiya disconnects the telephone 

Mr. 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 cannot make any comments.

“I cannot talk to you over the phone. I have to get permission to talk to the press,” said Hettiarachchi ringing off abruptly.

This is a land I got 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 and that is why I sent two PCs- 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 have 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.

Refutes allegations – Johnston Fernando

Minister of Co-operatives and Internal Trade, Johnston Fernando while refuting allegations leveled against him said that the said hotel does not belongs to him but to Buddhima mudalali and added that he is not afraid to admit if infact it were owned by him.“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 businesses. I would be privileged if I can own this hotel but unfortunately I do not have 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 any one in my electorate to engage in corruption. That is why a mud slinging campaign is going on against me,” said Fernando

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Bathing at a well dug in the middle of the Magalle tank. Inset: E.M.Jayathilleke (L) and Piyathilaka(R). Photo courtesy The Sunday Leader. Photo credit Thusitha Kumara

Politics, sea planes and sand mining controls the water as farmers go bankrupt amidst drought

Reporting from Bathalagoda and Nikaweratiya Paddy farmers in Kurunegala district who have lost their paddy cultivation due to the drought The illegal Hotel construction by Buddhima Mudalali. ...