Ruminations on Sri Lanka’s Ancient Past – Part VI
By Seneka Abeyratne
The evidence assembled by C.R. Panabokke, in ‘Evolution of the Indigenous Village Irrigation Systems of Sri Lanka’ (2010), shows the transition from rainfed to irrigated agriculture took place mainly in the 3rd century BCE. A study by Rukshan Jayawardena, ‘Ancient Irrigation and Related Settlements of the Early Historic Period’ (1997) yields useful information on the growth of irrigated agriculture during this period. There is no reliable evidence to indicate that rice was grown on the island during the ‘pre-Vijayan’ period. First came the village tank. Then came ‘irrigated’ rice cultivation in the field below the tank. By the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, the village tank had become an integral feature of the undulating terrain of the dry zone (Nicholas, C.W. History of Ceylon, Vol. 1, 1959).
As in the past the soils now used for rice cultivation are mainly the poorly-drained low-humic gleys (LHGs), which occupy the valley bottoms and can be puddled. Since the well-drained reddish brown earths (RBEs), which occupy the mid and upper slopes of the dry zone landscape, cannot be puddled like the LHGs, they are unsuited to rice cultivation. In Sri Lanka the valley bottoms are called lowlands, whereas the mid and upper slopes of the undulating topography are called uplands. There is no hard evidence of rice having been grown under rainfed conditions in the dry zone uplands (RBEs) in the protohistoric period.
The evolution and spread of small village irrigation systems in Sri Lanka could be viewed as an internal development that occurred over a long period of time in response to the distinctive agro-ecological features of the dry zone, which were by no means uniform. As noted above, it was the lack of any form of shallow groundwater that necessitated the surface storage of water in the north-central dry zone – the cradle of civilization in Sri Lanka.
A typical village in the NCP consists of the village tank and a paddy field below it. Many experts, including Panabokke, have stated that without artificial storage of water, human existence in the NCP would have been impossible. The village tank provided water for multiple uses during the prolonged dry season, including agriculture. It enabled farmers to combine cultivation of kurakkan, gingelly and other seasonal food crops in the ‘rainfed’ uplands during the Maha season with rice cultivation in the ‘irrigated’ lowlands during the Yala season. This was a major technological breakthrough that greatly enhanced the food production potential of the north-central dry zone in the 3rd century BCE.
Nuwan Abeywardana, R.L. Brohier, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, R.W. Levers, Rukshan Jayawardena, Madduma Bandara, C.W. Nicholas, C.R. Panabokke, Henry Parker, A.M.P. Senanayake, Sudharshana Seneviratne, M.U.A. Tennakoon, and many others, through their scholarly research, have deepened our understanding of how and why the tank village emerged as the basic unit of settlement in the dry zone in ancient times. Even today, these settlements dotting the hard rock basement terrain of the dry zone continue to play a vital role in preserving its economic integrity and cultural identity. A recent study indicates there are about 10,000 functional village tanks originating from the ancient water-harvesting system in the island (Abeywardana, Nuwan; Bebermeier, Wiebke; and Schutt, Brigitta, Ancient Water Management and Governance until Abandonment, and the Influence of Colonial Politics during Reclamation, 2018).
Tank Cascade System
A tank cascade system could be defined as a chain of small tanks organized within a micro-catchment of the dry zone in Sri Lanka. The tanks in the upper catchment store water from a seasonal stream and convey it to other tanks downstream. The village tank is the lynchpin as it collects water from all the other tanks in the cascade system. The water stored in this manner is used for agriculture as well as other community activities. The proper functioning of the village tank therefore depends critically on the condition of all the other interconnected tanks which drain into it. When they fall into a state of disrepair, the system breaks down.
The number of cascade systems varies significantly from one river basin to another. For example, the Mee Oya river basin has only one associated cascade system. The Malwathu Oya river basin, on the other hand, has 179 associated cascade systems (IUCN Sri Lanka, , 2016). High priority should be given to ensuring the sustainability of the village tank settlements as they have been the backbone of civilization in the dry zone since the 3rd century BCE. Most of the entrenched problems pertaining to management and organization of small tanks identified in a report by Saleha Begum (Minor Tank Water Management in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka, 1987) continue to remain unresolved.
The narrow inland valley systems carved out on the basement rock terrain is a distinctive feature of the areas comprising Sri Lanka’s dry zone, especially the North-central and North-western provinces. The small tank cascade system is found mainly in these regions, where the undulating landscape is crisscrossed by these inland valleys. This is a good example of the skill-level reached by the local ‘scientific’ community in such areas, in the form of irrigation engineering, soil and water management, and agronomy in the 3rd century BCE.
It is important to note that this development did not occur suddenly; rather, it was an ‘evolutionary’ process that occurred over a long period of time. A key feature of this process is that it produced the kinds of innovations that were suited to the various environmental conditions in the dry zone. Clearly, adaptation and sustainable development were concepts that were not only well understood but also practiced by the pioneers of small-scale irrigation and water management in Sri Lanka.
“Due to the sustainable management structure set up within society, the small tank systems existed intact for more than two millennia…Different layers of management strategies were implemented, blending centralized larger irrigation schemes with locally controlled small irrigation systems. Buddhist temporalities were used to link the hinterland with the main settlements…” (Abeywardana et al, 2018).
Tamil Nadu also boasts of a modest small-tank cascade system, but whether it borrowed the technology from Sri Lanka or vice versa is not clear. An overview of this system is provided in a report by Krishnaveni, M.; Sankari, Siva; and Rajeswari A. (Rehabilitation of Irrigation Tank Cascade System Using Remote Sensing GIS and GPS, 2011). The physical and cultural landscape of Sri Lanka differs significantly from that of Tamil Nadu. Hence, in terms of future research, a study that compares the historical evolution and organizational structure of the tank cascade systems in these two regions would be a useful activity to undertake.
Caption Pic 1:
Tank cascade system. (Image courtesy: Paranage, K. . ‘Understanding the Relationship between Water Infrastructure and Socio-Political Configurations: A Case Study from Sri Lanka’)
Navigating challenges of dental education in Sri Lanka
By Udari Abeyasinghe
One of the principles of free education is to provide opportunities in higher education. In 2020, then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued directives to the University Grants Commission (UGC) to increase university admissions by an additional 12,000 students, in line with his election manifesto. Subsequently, student enrollments were increased with inadequate resources allocated for the enhancement of university facilities to accommodate the surge in student enrollments.
Currently, state universities are grappling with managing the increasing number of students in the face of budgetary constraints. Unfortunately, neither physical nor human resources have been expanded in proportion to the increased student enrollment, leading to severe strain on the higher education system. Being an academic in the one and only dental faculty producing dental graduates at present for the entire country, I take this opportunity to shed light on the hardships experienced in dental education owing to financial constraints amplified by the economic crisis in Sri Lanka.
A glimpse into history
The history of dentistry in Sri Lanka is a fascinating journey. On 15 May, 1915, dentistry was recognized as an independent profession in the country. The first qualified dentists were officially registered by the Ceylon Medical Council under the Dentists Registration Ordinance, all of whom were British-trained professionals. These early dentists primarily served the British troops, professionals, and those among the Ceylonese population who could afford their professional services, predominantly in the private sector. It was only in 1925 that the Colonial government recognized the dental health needs of the general public. By the 1930s, several medical graduates from the Ceylon Medical College had embarked on a new educational journey by enrolling in a Licentiate in Dental Surgery programme, a two-year post-graduate course.
By 1943, another pivotal moment in the history of dental education occurred with the launch of the Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS) course at the Ceylon Medical College, University of Ceylon, located in Colombo. The inaugural batch consisted of only four students, followed by six students in the subsequent batch. This marked the official commencement of comprehensive dental education within Ceylon. Recognising the necessity of practical knowledge and skills to complement theoretical dental education, a small Dental Unit (now the site of the nine-storey Dental Hospital in Colombo) was established at the Colombo General Hospital, now known as the National Hospital of Sri Lanka.
In 1953, the Dental School was relocated from Colombo to Peradeniya. Subsequently, with the establishment of the second Medical College at Peradeniya, in 1961, the Dental School became affiliated with it, functioning as a department. Over the years, the dental school gradually expanded, becoming a Faculty of Dental Sciences in 1986. In 1998, under the Japan International Corporation Agency (JICA) project, the Peradeniya Faculty of Dental Sciences and Hospital complex was established. Notably, in 2017, the BDS programme transitioned from a four-year to a five-year curriculum on par with international standards. Eighty years after the commencement of dental education in the country, at present about 80 dentists graduate annually, all trained under the Free Education policy. In December 2021, a second Faculty of Dental Sciences was established at the University of Jayewardenepura set to produce its first graduates in three years.
Dental education in crisis
Sri Lanka’s financial crisis has taken a toll on the education sector, resulting in significant cuts in financial allocations. UNICEF reports that Sri Lanka allocates less than 2% of its GDP to education, falling well below the international benchmark of 4%-6% of GDP and ranking among the lowest in South Asia. In 2020, recurrent costs per student per year for the dental degree stood at Rs 1.72 million. The total recurrent cost for the five-year degree was 8.62 million while the total recurrent cost for the medical degree was 4.18 million. The cost of the dental degree programme would have surely increased since then due to the increased prices of imported dental materials. Given that dental education is the most expensive degree programme in Sri Lanka, the impact of these budget cuts has been particularly harsh. Moreover, the government’s decision to increase student intake in recent years, from 80 to 123 students at Peradeniya, has exacerbated the situation, representing nearly a 50% increase.
Dental education requires close one-on-one supervision during clinical sessions, and maintaining high standards necessitates adequate human resources. According to Sri Lankan standards, the student-to-academic staff ratio should be maintained at 7:1. Due to the increased number of students in the absence of a proportionate increase in the number of academics, this ratio no longer exists. This has placed a heavy burden on academic staff, who struggle to balance their responsibilities, including teaching, supervising postgraduate students, conducting research, and contributing to faculty and university administration. The shortage of human resources is taking a toll on the well-being of these academics and affecting the quality of education they can provide.
As outlined in my last Kuppi article (09/05/2023), attracting and retaining young staff in the field of dentistry has emerged as a significant challenge. For any institution’s effective operation, the collective contributions of academics across all levels, from temporary lecturers to junior lecturers, senior lecturers, and professors, are crucial. Presently, the dental faculty faces a unique situation, functioning without a single dental graduate as a temporary lecturer. This situation has arisen primarily because dental graduates are reluctant to take up temporary academic positions due to the relatively low salaries offered in comparison to the potential earnings from private dental practice, not to mention a series of challenges faced in the university setting.
The government’s recent decision to suspend stipends for probationary lecturers in clinical departments to complete MD foreign training is one such challenge. As paid foreign training positions for dental graduates are hard to come by, completing foreign training without a stipend is unfeasible. Even though lecturers can be confirmed in their position before completion of foreign training and board certification, they are not eligible to become senior lecturers. The inability for junior lecturers to advance their careers has directly affected not only retaining but also attracting young dental graduates into the clinical departments. The situation has been further worsened by the government’s discriminatory decision to provide a stipend for postgraduate MD trainees in the Ministry of Health to pursue foreign training, which has compelled dental graduates to opt for employment with the Ministry of Health instead of universities.
The faculty has not been able to increase physical resources in parallel with the surge in student intake. Inflation has tripled the cost of dental materials needed for patient treatment, making it nearly impossible to procure the necessary supplies for both patient care and educational purposes. At present, the faculty relies upon donations from patients and alumni to bridge the gap. Other resources for clinical training, such as manikins in the skills laboratory, dental chairs, clinic equipment, and other basic facilities, including computers in IT labs, Wi-Fi, space in the cafeteria and student accommodation are inadequate to cater to the increased student intake. The responsibility to secure additional resources has fallen on the shoulders of academics with little support from the UGC.
The bigger picture
Dentistry is undoubtedly a costly degree, and access to free education in Sri Lanka has been a crucial lifeline, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. As committed academics, our dedication lies in safeguarding free education and ensuring that students, regardless of their social backgrounds, have access to dental education while maintaining the high standards of teaching and learning. It is essential to keep in mind the BDS programme has gradually expanded from 4 to 80 students over a period of 80 years. The programme’s sustainability has been maintained by gradual and timely planned expansion with adequate public funding.
Indiscriminate increases in student intake during times of financial crisis will surely compromise the quality of dental education. Discriminatory decision to provide a stipend for postgraduate MD trainees in the Ministry of Health but not the postgraduate MD trainees in dental faculties will further compromise dental education. It is essential for decision-makers and policymakers to consider the long-term sustainability and quality of dental education, while strengthening Free Education in the country, even as they explore options for expansion.
(Udari Abeyasinghe is attached to the Department of Oral Pathology, Faculty of Dental Sciences, University of Peradeniya)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
Full implementation of 13A: Final solution to ‘national problem’ or end of unitary state?
By Kalyananda Tiranagama
Lawyers for Human Rights and Development
It appears that President Ranil Wickremasinghe, all along his political career, has acted in the belief that he can bring about national unity, true national reconciliation among different communities and find a lasting solution to the ethnic problem only by granting more and more concessions to the racist political parties with separatist agendas in the North and the East and complying with their demands.
In 2002, as the Prime Minister, Wickremesinghe signed, without the approval of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, an Oslo-brokered ceasefire agreement with the LTTE, allowing the LTTE to have internal self-administration in the areas under their control in the North-East. In 2005, he supported the move of the Kumaratunga government to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the LTTE for the establishment of a Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS Agreement) under LTTE leadership for carrying out reconstruction work in the six Tsunami affected Districts in the North-East. In 2006, he assured the TNA of support for the re-merger of Northern and Eastern Provinces if a motion was brought for that purpose in Parliament. During the war for the liberation of the North-East from terrorism, instead of supporting the war effort, his party tried to derail the war effort by abstaining from voting for the extension of the Emergency and making derogatory remarks about the victories of the armed forces.
Common Dream of Wickremasinghe and Sampanthan
In his Address to Parliament on February 8, 2023 delivering the Policy Statement of the Government, President Wickremasinghe disclosed a common dream Mr. Sampanthan and he had been trying to realise over the years thus:
‘‘Both Hon. R. Sampanthan and I were elected to Parliament in 1977. We both have a common dream, which is to provide a sustainable solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka while we are both in Parliament. Ever since, we have been discussing that dream and have been making efforts towards its achievement. All previous attempts have failed, but we wish to succeed this time. We expect your support to this end.’’
Before proceeding to examine the dream of the President, let us examine the dream of Sampanthan and the political organisations led by him: the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). This dream remained continuously unchanged since the founding of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (Federal Party) in 1949. The name of the Party – Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) or (Tamil State Party of Ceylon) itself reflects this dream. This dream was reiterated in various resolutions passed at their conferences and public declarations at different times.
Dream of Sampanthan and other Tamil leaders
Trincomalee Resolution of ITAK – April 1957
The Resolution passed at the first National Convention of the ITAK held in Trincomalee in April 1957 elaborates on this dream citing the components this dream consists of:
“Inasmuch as it is the inalienable right of every nation to enjoy full political freedom without which its spiritual, cultural and moral stature must degenerate and inasmuch as the Tamil Speaking People in Ceylon constitute a nation distinct from that of the Sinhalese by every fundamental test of nationhood, firstly that of a separate historical part in this island at least as ancient and as glorious as that of the Sinhalese, secondly by the fact of their being a linguistic entity different from that of the Sinhalese, with an unsurpassed classical heritage and a modern development of language which makes Tamil fully adequate for all present day needs and finally by reason of their traditional habitation of definite areas which constitute one-third of this island, the first National Convention of the I.T.A.K. demands for the Tamil Speaking Nation their inalienable right to political autonomy and calls for a plebiscite to determine the boundaries of the linguistic states in consonance with the fundamental and unchallengeable principle of self-determination.”
The components of this dream are as follows:
. Tamil Speaking People in Ceylon constitute a nation distinct from that of the Sinhalese by every fundamental test of nationhood: i. playing a separate historical part in this island at least as ancient and as glorious as that of the Sinhalese; ii. with an unsurpassed classical heritage and a modern development of language making Tamil fully adequate for all present-day needs; iii. their traditional habitation of definite areas constituting one-third of this island; b. Inalienable right of the Tamil Speaking Nation to political autonomy.
Vaddukoddai Resolution of TULF
The Vaddukoddai Resolution unanimously adopted on 16 May 1976 by the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) consisting of all the Tamil political parties and groups in the North – East narrated in its preamble all the rights denied to or deprived of Tamil people by the successive Sinhala governments and their demands for restoration thereof:
a. The Tamils of Ceylon by virtue of their language, their religions, their separate culture and heritage, their history of independent existence as a separate state over a distinct territory for several centuries and, above all by their will to exist as a separate entity ruling themselves in their own territory, are a nation distinct and apart from Sinhalese;
b. Throughout centuries from the dawn of history, the Sinhalese and Tamil nations have divided between themselves the possession of Ceylon, the Sinhalese inhabiting the interior of the country in its Southern and Western parts and the Tamils possessing the Northern and Eastern districts;
c. Successive Sinhalese governments since independence have encouraged and fostered the aggressive nationalism of the Sinhalese people and have used their political power to the detriment of the Tamils by making serious inroads into the territories of the former Tamil Kingdom by a system of planned and state-aided Sinhalese colonization and large scale regularization of recently encouraged Sinhalese encroachments, calculated to make the Tamils a minority in their own homeland.
d. The proposals submitted to the Constituent Assembly by the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi for maintaining the unity of the country while preserving the integrity of the Tamil people by the establishment of an autonomous Tamil State within the framework of a Federal Republic of Ceylon.
‘‘This convention resolves that restoration and reconstitution of the Free, Sovereign, Secular, Socialist State of TAMIL EELAM, based on the right of self-determination inherent to every nation, has become inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil Nation in this Country.
This Convention directs the Action Committee of the Tamil United Liberation Front to formulate a plan of action and launch without undue delay the struggle for winning the sovereignty and freedom of the Tamil Nation; and
This Convention calls upon the Tamil Nation in general and the Tamil youth in particular to come forward to throw themselves fully into the sacred fight for freedom and to flinch not till the goal of a sovereign state of TAMIL EELAM is reached.’’
· From this it clearly appears that not only the LTTE and the other armed militant groups, but the entire leadership of the TULF was also responsible for aiding and abetting and leading the Tamil youth for the 30-year war against Sri Lanka.
Although the LTTE was defeated and the 30-year war came to an end on May 18, 2009, the ITAK, the TULF or the TNA and the other political parties in the North-East have not abandoned their goal or dream of creating a separate Tamil State in the amalgamated Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka. They have only changed their strategy and tactics in the march for reaching their goal.
Speech made by R. Sampanthan, the leader of the TULF, at the 14th ITAK Convention held in Batticaloa in May 2012
In this speech, Sampanthan clearly explains to their members their new strategy to achieve their goal of a separate state thus:
“We gather here following our victory in the passage of the recent Resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, a condemnation against the SL government by the international community.
“Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi was created by S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, the father of Tamil Nation, for the purpose of establishing self-determination of the Tamil people on this island. This objective is evident in both the name of the party and in the manner in which it operates.
“Tamil United Liberation Front, of which our party was a member, took the historical decision to establish the separate government of Tamil Eelam in 1976. Based on this decision of our party, and the need to place ourselves in a position of strength, Tamil youth decided to oppose violence with violence and began to rise up as armed rebel groups.
“Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, became a great force within the Tamil community.
“We remember the Tamil youth who sacrificed their lives in armed struggle. …. SL government has committed the crime of extermination against our people,
“The intervention of India has clearly taught us the lesson that whatever our aspirations may be, India will never welcome a political solution in Sri Lanka that does not accord with the interests of India.
“Achieving Tamil Eelam was becoming an increasingly unrealistic goal. Thus, instead of sacrificing more lives to this cause, our party with the help of India, began supporting a solution that allowed Tamil people to live within a united Sri Lanka.
“A most important lesson we have learnt from the past 60 years… is that we should act strategically, with the awareness that global powers will act based on their domestic interests.
“Further, a struggle that runs counter to the international community, built only on military might, will not prevail. It is for this reason, that in the new environment created by various global influences, we have, together with the support and assistance of the international community, found new ways of continuing with our struggle.
“Our expectation of a solution to the ethnic problem of the sovereignty of the Tamil people is based on a political structure outside that of a unitary government, in a united Sri Lanka in which Tamil people have all the powers of government needed to live with self-respect and self-sufficiency.
“The position that the North and East of Sri Lanka are the areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking people cannot be compromised in this structure of government…. We must have unrestricted authority to govern our land, protect our own people, and develop our own economy, culture and tradition… Meaningful devolution should go beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1987.
“The above solution is one that is likely to be acceptable to members of the international community including India and the United States.
“Any solution to the ethnic problem concerning the sovereignty of the Tamil people must be acceptable to the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.
“The international practice prevalent during the mid-eighties, when the intervention of India occurred, has now changed. Although the issue at hand is the same, the prevailing conditions are different. The struggle is the same, but the approaches we employ are different. Our aim is the same, but our strategies are different. The players are the same, but the alliances are different. That is the nature of the Tamil people. Although we still have the same aim, the methods we use now are different.
“The current practices of the international community may give us an opportunity to achieve, without the loss of life, the soaring aspirations we were unable to achieve by armed force.’’.’’ www.sangam.org/2012/06/Sampanthan_Speech.php
(To be continued)
Important assignments…Down Under
Ex-Mirage Melantha Perera, who now performs with the band Black Jackets, left last Tuesday (19), on an important assignment, to Australia.
He will be away for about a month, he said, spending about two weeks each, in Sydney and Melbourne.
His first stop is Sydney for the Australian South Asian Forum (ASAF) that commenced on 23rd September.
This South Asian Film Arts and Literature festival is showcasing the rich art, culture and literary heritage of eight nations – India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and the Maldives.
The Performing Arts programme, held on 23rd September, brought into the limelight solo singing, solo dance and musical instrument performance, and Melantha was one of the judges, I’m told.
The big event, to wind up this festival, is the Gala Awards Night, scheduled to be held on 30th September, and will include guest performances, and cultural song and dance performances, presented by eight subcontinent countries.
Once his commitments in Sydney are over, Melantha will head for Melbourne where he plans to promote his Mela Nota project further.
It’s gaining recognition in many countries and Melantha is fully satisfied with the response.
In Melbourne, he will also be seen in action, as a solo singer, at the popular Sundown Regency, on 6th October, along with Noeline Honter, and the band ‘Friends’, and supported by Thirani, Enrico and Lozaine.
In fact, Melantha, made his solo debut, in Melbourne, at the Walawwa, when he was in Australia, early this year, and it turned out to be a memorable occasion for this versatile artiste.
He was, in fact, the centre of attraction at another event, back home, in Moratuwa, before he left for Australia.
Melantha was the President of the Moratuwa Arts Forum, for the previous year, and at the recently held general meeting, to select a new president and committee, Melantha and the previous committee were re-elected, uncontested.
Those present insisted that Melantha and the previous committee continue with the excellent work they have been doing to harness the talent of those in Moratuwa and bring them into the spotlight.
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