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The Ellangava Paradigm holistically defined

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  • Revitalising civilisational knowledge roots


Following is text of the talk by Susil Sirivardana at the book launch of ‘Cascade-Based Tank Renovation for Climate Resilience Improvement and its importance in Dry Zone Development’ by Dr. M.U.A. Tennakoon, on 27 March at the Auditorium of the Disaster Management Ministry:


I would like to contextualise the book to start with. Let’s do that by carefully gazing at Sir John Keane’s 1905 map of Lanka showing the distribution of tanks. Would this image of Dry Zone tank distribution not be an ideal for today, when we are fully caught up in the tentacles of the emperor of all maladies, namely Climate Change? And Climate Change is not even raised to the level of a national priority. When floods, landslides and drought occur, we don’t immediately diagnose them as manifestations of the generic cause, Climate Change. What Parakrama Bahu and all tankbuilders said is mirrored in that image. It’s a utopian challenge all right, but don’t countries need to nourish such visions?

The book is a profoundly thought out sourcebook on the Ellangava or Cascade Paradigm, which the author has put together from accumulating facts from all his predecessors and mentors like Dr. C. Panabokke, Ievers, S. Arumugan, Dr. Ernest Abeyratne, Mahinda Silva, Ivan Samarawickrema and S. Kanagaratnam, who are all reputed Dry Zonists. In this process, he has upgraded the inquiry to a new level of critical discourse, into a paradigmatic study of a micro-macro agro-ecological irrigation system indigenously called an ‘Ellangava’. From my layman’s perspective, it is an in-depth and horizontally exhaustive and working study into a desperate, dying and desertifying Dry Zone. I would like to ask all of you who are Dry Zonists, isn’t the Dry Zone in intensive care?

And it is to that hitherto thoroughly neglected national calamity, that Dr. Tennakoon has come out with action perspectives, with a new highly cost effective paradigm.

The Long March

Dr. Tennakoon’s search has entailed a Long March. He started his research with ‘Rural Settlements and Land Use in Sri Lanka’, submitted in 1974 to Syracuse University, USA. Thereafter, the Dry Zone has been his main subject of study up to now. Thereafter, a small group of Dry Zone researchers, led by Dr. Panabokke, discovered the Cascade and did action-research and published the findings in several research papers. Then came a large study of Dr. Panabokke called ‘The Small Tank Cascade System of Rajarata: Their Setting, Distribution Patterns and Hydrography, IWMI – MASL’, Colombo 1999. 

Before this, the author’s doctoral thesis was published as ‘Drought Hazards and Rural Development’, Central Bank, Colombo, 1986. He introduced the discourse of drought and desertification in the Dry Zone in this study. It was later translated into Sinhala by the author himself, under the title ‘Niyangaya Saha Goviya’, CBSL, Colombo. In the current book, he acknowledges the significant contributions of all scholars like Prof. Madduma Bandara, Dr. P.B. Dharmasena, Sakthivadivel and others who have contributed to this school of thought. 

Wrestling with the ground

In the next two chapters, titled Tank Terminology [Ch.4] and Consequences of Environmental Damages [Ch.5], the author systematically and extensively analyses the actual dynamics of the operational paradigm as revealed through scholarly references, but more importantly, it behaves in practice on the ground. They are both exhaustively treated and the reader can perceive the writer’s struggle to get the ‘process’ right and reorder it in terms of the system’s internal logic; hence the coherence and the clarity. The Terminology chapter involves considerable exploration into the archaeology of this civilisational system – which is a part of the Revitalisation of Civilisational Knowledge Roots in the sub-title.

This Chapter 4 involves a holistic recreation of the Ellangava System in its Dry Zone context, a great deal of classifying and ordering the component parts and also testing out how various features work in field conditions. This kind of action-research is obviously done as a collective action learning exercise with creative farmers. The whole chapter is full of very clear drawings and photographs.

Ch. 5 on Consequences of Environmental Damages is also full of very clear expositions of the consequences of Deforestation, Systems Neglects, Soil Misuse and their almost irreversible negative fall-outs. The value is in the excellent orderly presentation and the lucid insights presented.

What is to be done?

The author concludes with a summary of projects actually done on the ground by different agencies. Since ‘process’ is so important, they are all at various stages of functioning. More important perhaps is the chapter on Approaches to Climate Resilience Improvement which must be started immediately, if the Dry Zone is to be given a chance to recuperate. Repairing the damage is a long journey but must be engaged in, if we are to heal the patient.

Revisioning the Dry Zone

Let us end with Revisioning the Dry Zone, with new perspectives and values. Let’s go back to Sir John Keane’s 1905 map and be inspired by gazing at its former achievement.

The author ends with a Clarion Call to start an independent, field and farmer-oriented, Sri Lanka Institute of Cascade Action Research.

All in this auditorium will agree that that is the way to go! The Dry Zone has to have emergency treatment in terms of the new Ellangava Paradigmatic for Sri Lanka to survive as a country.

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