Feature Article

The garrisoned rice bowl

[TamilNet, Friday, 29 August 2003, 13:22 GMT]
Thenmaradchi was Jaffna's rice bowl until three years ago. Today most of the region's fertile rice fields are enclosed by the Sri Lanka army's concertina and mine laden defence perimeter. Thenmaradchi’s main farming villages lie derelict inside this vast garrisoned area hemmed in by the A9 and the Jaffna lagoon. Local farmers have been waging, collectively and individually, what increasingly appears to be a hopeless struggle to gain access to their homes and fields since the Liberation Tigers and Colombo signed a ceasefire agreement in February last year.

Five thousand acres of rice fields and three thousand acres of coconut and Palmyra plantations in this region are also occupied by the SLA.

Mr. Kanagasbhai Nadarajah (Photo: Ratnam Thayaparan)
Arable land is scarce in Jaffna. It is so scarce in terms of the peninsula’s farming population, that land is not measured by the acre as in the other parts of the island but by a small traditional unit called ‘Parappu’ which is 1/16 of an acre.

“Eight thousand acres means a lot of valuable land in Jaffna. We have been struggling hard for more than a year to at least to gain access to our lands and homes. Our pleas fell on deaf ears. The secretary to the ministry of defence, Mr. Austin Fernando, visited Chavakachcheri on 21 July last year and promised to let us cultivate at least 2/3 of our lands which lie inside the SLA’s high security zone in Thenmaradchi during a meeting with govt. officials and local civil society representatives at the Chavakachcheri Hindu College. But we are yet to set foot on our homes and fields,” says Mr. Manikkam Leelavinothan, 53, President of the Maravanpulo, Chavakachcheri, Farmers’ Association.

Two months ago the Sri Lankan military’s civil affairs officer in Chavakachcheri took two local farmers’ society officials into a section of the high security zone to show some of the fields and plantations lying within the army’s defence perimeter.

During the visit, the officer promised to allow about 600 farming families to resettle in their villages and lands, which now lie derelict and fallow inside the SLA’s Thenmaradchi HSZ.

“Foreign governments and media seem keen to focus their attention only on certain specific drawbacks of the peace process that patently affect the political/strategic interests of the Sinhala polity; but not our tragic predicament. Their attitude is hypocritical." laments Mr. Leelavinothan.

Mr. Leelavinothan (Photo: Ratnam Thayaparan)
After prolonged agitations and persistent representations by individuals land owners and local farmers’ societies, the SLA eventually agreed earlier this month to permit cultivation in one thousand acres of rice fields inside the high security zone from 8 August, 2003.

But the elation over extracting the army’s consent waned quickly when the army laid down conditions for entering the zone and cultivating the fields.

The thousand acres in the Chavakachcheri HSZ where the military says it will allow farmers to till their lands lie within a triangle defined by the Chavakachcheri-Thanangkilappu Road, the Kerathivu – Navatkuly Road and the old railway track between Chavakachcheri and Navatkuly.

Even within this zone, farmers have to keep hundred metres away from the railway track and the roads.

“If one takes into account the land covered by the hundred meter zone, only about 800 acres would really be available for cultivation. But the fact is glossed over in the publicity for the thousand acres," points out the Agrarian Services officer for Kaithady Mr. S. Thavarajah.

Farmers say that there are mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the fields as the region was heavily fortified by the Sri Lanka army for almost two years. The military has told the farmers they need not fear land mines in the fields.

But it has not guaranteed the area as completely free of mines and UXOs.

“The Agrarian Services Department here cannot take any responsibility for the safety of the cultivators unless the SLA gives an assurance that the paddy fields are free of mines”, Mr. Thavarajah said.

Mr. Thavarajah with SLA officer Lt. Col Dias (Photo: Ratnam Thayaparan)

Mines and UXOs are not the only problem here. More than 5000 head of cattle, from herds that were abandoned by farmers when they fled their homes to escape heavy bombing and shelling three years ago, now roam wild in the high security zone.

“We had herds of goats too. None seem to be left now. The army slaughtered all the goats for meat," a farmer told TamilNet.

The Sri Lanka army soldiers are mainly Sinhala Buddhists and hence shun beef and oppose the slaughter of cattle.

Farmers say that the wild cattle have to be rounded up and corralled to safeguard the crops. The Thenmaradchi Divisional Secretary, Mr. S. Sreenivasan has sought the SLA’s permission to round up the cattle and return the identifiable ones to the owners.

There is only one checkpoint to enter the lands. Many farmers from villages such as Kalvayal and Kaithady who own land in this triangle have to take a detour of more than 10 kilometres to reach the SLA entry point at Kollankiari in Nunavil, a large village on the western outskirts of the Chavakachcheri town.

“The Kollankirai path to the fields cannot be used during the monsoon," says Mr. Leelavinothan.

And the SLA has stipulated that farmers can work in their fields only between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

“Ploughing and harvesting would be well nigh impossible because a lot of work is usually done at night. These lands have to be ploughed before the soil loses its moisture from the seasonal first showers. Hence given the number of tractors available here, ploughing has to be round the clock," explained Mr. Kanagasabhai Nadarajah, President of the Thanangkilappu Farmers’ Association.

“Also until the cattle roaming wild in the HSZ are caught no paddy field would be safe at night," he added.

Farmers who have got approval from the army to cultivate their fields inside the high security zone should obtain security clearance passes to enter permitted area.

This poses a big practical and financial problem when farmers have to hire wage labour for their fields on a daily basis.

“The demand for agricultural labour has gone up since the ceasefire agreement was signed. This is so because workers are finding profitable employment in other sectors of Jaffna’s economy, such as construction and transport. Therefore a farmer cannot ensure that the same group of workers would come to work on his field every day. This means he has to spend about 150 rupees (1.54 USD) to get a fresh army permit for every new worker in the group. This costs money and effort," Mr. Kanagasabhai Nadarajah, 61, said.

Rice fields lying fallow inside the Chavakachcheri high security zone (Photo: Ratnam Thayaparan)

A person’s photos, Xerox copies of his/her identity papers and endorsement by a village official have to be submitted to the army to get a permit to enter the rice fields inside the Chavakachcheri HSZ. The cost of obtaining photos and the stipulated documents is almost equal an agricultural labourer’s daily wage, say farmers.

The farmers’ associations of Mr. Nadarajah and Mr. Leelavinothan were in the forefront of the prolonged negotiations and agitations to have the thousand acres released for cultivation.

“Yet none of our lands - the rice fields of the people of Maravanpulo and Thanangkilappu - are in the area where the army has allowed farming now”, deplores Mr. Nadarajah.

“The paddy fields in the rectangle largely belong to people in Chavakachcheri, Nunavil, Kalvayal and Meesalai”, he said.

Only 324 farmers have registered so far to cultivate 612 acres of paddy in the permitted area. The farmers associations of Maravanpulo and Thanangkilappu are urging the Thenmaradchi Divisional Secretary, Mr. Sreenivasan to allocate the unclaimed fields to needy farmers among their members.

They have had no success so far.


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