Development: Gal Oya scheme - early example of state discrimination against Tamils

By: K. N. Tharmalingam

“Those who govern a country must exercise their power not on behalf of any particular interest, but on behalf of the state as a whole, in such a way to benefit the entire population of the country,” warned the Greek philosopher Plato in the 4th century BC.

But from what I have seen and suffered, I have oft wondered whether our omnipotent rulers after independence have ever used their subtle, charming, and refined sensibilities in governance in the manner Plato desired. Instead, what I have found, by and large, is that political power has seldom been used wisely on behalf of the state; it has only been used for selfish, sectarian and particular interest – as opposed to the interests of the entire population.

The story of the Gal Oya Scheme is one such example where power was abused to benefit one favoured section of the people, as opposed to the welfare of all the people. The tragedies that occurred at Gal Oya arose from favoritism and discrimination. That is, discrimination against the Tamil people on the grounds of race, religion and language.

It was in March 1950 that parliament – in terms of sections 6 and 7 of the Gal Oya Development Board Act – proceeded to define the Area of Authority of the Gal Oya Development Board (GODB). And the whole basin of the Gal Oya river, beginning from its source, west of Bibile, to the sea; together with the adjoining areas extending from Andella Oya in the North, to Komari in the South, was identified as the area that would derive benefit from the Gal Oya Project.

A Board comprising of H. J. Huxham, (Chairman), R. L. Brier, J. A. Amaratunga and W. J. A. Van Langenberg were appointed. The late Dudley Senanayake, the then minister of Agriculture and Lands, as the minister in charge of the Gal Oya Project issued a set of tasks for the newly created Gal Oya Board and urged that these tasks be expeditiously executed.

Some of the tasks so directed were:

1. “To provide water for the cultivation of the maximum acreage of land within the area of authority of the Board through a network of channel systems whereby water is made available to the farthest geographical limit to which it can be carried with the best economic advantage

2. “To regulate water in the Gal Oya reservoir as to reduce the danger of flooding within the area of authority

3. “To carry out a programme of peasant colonization

4. “To encourage the growth of co-operative, agriculture and industrial undertakings among the peasant colonies

5. “To organise a system of planned cultivation of the most suitable crops within the area of operation

6. “To provide electricity for both domestic and industrial use and to promote the use of hydro-electric power in the development of cottage industries

7. “To direct all activities to improve the economic conditions of the inhabitants within the area of authority.”

But, it was found that the activities were directed from the ministry and the board was afforded little power to act independently. Apart from executing the assignments issued to the board, it was found that the board miserably failed to serve the purposes for which it was established. Consequently, the task, “to carry water to the farthest geographical limits towards the southern parts” was never realised, and the people in the southern portion of the area of authority who lost the benefits of the Gal Oya Scheme were mainly Tamils.

Thus the Tamil people in the South were excluded from the benefits of the scheme. They were deprived of gainful employment, income and their livelihoods. Their civil and economic rights were violated. The deprivation of their means of subsistence in the southern parts of the Gal Oya basin is a damaging violation of human rights committed with impunity by politicians directing the affairs of the GODB.

The first blow to the Tamils was the decision to extend the northern limits of the GODB to include Attiya Manmunai Aru and the Navakiri Aru areas together with some portions of an area under the Pulugananwa tank.

The extension of the area of authority of the GODB northwards to include 163 square miles was intended to establish eight new Sinhala villages with settlers drawn from the districts of Badulla, Hambantota, Kurunagale, Kalutara, and Kegalle. And this was taking place when landless peasants in the district were hopefully awaiting the day they would derive the benefits of the Gal Oya scheme. Tamils of the area were relegated to second class citizen status and discriminated against.

The statistics on this page, extracted from census reports, reveal the meteoric rise in the Sinhala population in the District. Table 1, shows the breakdown of population by ethnic groups in the Batticaloa District before it was truncated, while Table 2 shows the population of the Amparai District after it was carved out of original Batticaloa District in 1961.

When it was evident that the southern limits of the Gal Oya basin would be deprived of water for cultivation, Engineer Abraham, an Indian consultant based in Amparai proceeded to carry out preliminary work to assist the unfortunate peasants in the region with alternate sources of water. He identified four locations to construct reservoirs, three locations being Pallang Oya, Ekal Oya and Namal Oya for the Sinhalese, and Panel Oya for the Tamils.

Of the four, Panel Oya was to be the largest and the least expensive to develop. Preliminary reports and Plan No. 102 issued by the chief planning officer, Gal Oya, on 4 December 1954 was approved and work on the three reservoirs, Pallang Oya, Panel Oya and Ekal Oya, were started. The report approving the three reservoirs contained the information in Table 3

As observed from above, the cost of providing irrigation through Panel Oya was comparatively low, i.e. as little as Rs.88 per acre as compared with Rs.111 per acre for Pallang Oya. However, the Panel Oya project, estimated to cost Rs.4,300,000 for providing water to 5600 acres was done away with and the Pallang Oya, estimated at Rs.5,000,000 to benefit 2,200 acres was pursued. This is clear evidence of a policy of discrimination that was exercised against the Tamil people and also exposed the lack of wisdom and the evil intents of those in power.

Table 1 Population of the Batticaloa District Table 1 Year Sinhalese % Tamils % Muslims % Others %

1911 5771 3.75 83948 54.51 60695 39.43 3529 2.29 1946 11850 5.83 102262 50.33 85805 42.23 3267 1.61

Table 2 Population of the Amparai District Year Sinhalese % Tamils % Muslims % Others %

1963 63160 29.34 50480 23.83 98270 46.39 910 0.42 1981 146371 37.64 79725 20.50 161481 41.53 2000 0.31

Table 3 Statistics on developing alternate river resources Item Pallang Oya Ekal Oya Panal Oya Catchment Area (Sq Mls) 41.0 11.7 44.6

Capacity (Ac. Ft) 45000 13000 49000

Bund Top Level Ft. MSL 246.0 222.0 117.0

Maximum Spillway 11200 3500 12600 Spillway Height Ft. 4 6 7 Irrigable Area (acres) 2,200 1,500 5,600

Approximate Costs (Rs.) 5,000,000 2,500,000 4,300,000

Cost Per Acre (Rs.) 111 192 88

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