By Anushaya Collure and Buddhima Padmasiri
Uva-Wellasa, in Sri Lanka’s Uva Province is known best for the rebellion initiated by local farmers against the British in 1818. During the next century, it became synonymous with resilient people’s struggles and grassroots activism, where women were at the forefront.
The struggles against imposing a water tax in 1984 by the UNP Government under the leadership of J.R. Jayewardene, affecting the rural farmers and the Pelwatte struggle in the 1980s and the early 1990s are two of the most significant among them. Both these occurred as peasant struggles against the State and the latter also against its international investors.
Chandra Hewagallage, or Chandra akka, as many of us knew her, who passed away on 21 December 2021, personified this irrepressible spirit of Uva-Wellassa. She dedicated her life to the betterment of her birthplace and contributing to the work of civil society organisations across Sri Lanka.
Chandra from her youth was an enthusiastic social worker and activist in her area and influenced her younger siblings to work with her. She with her sister Amara, joined the Community Development Center (CDC) based in Talahena, in 1979. Chandra initially became involved in workers’ struggles with the water tax issue affecting the rural farmers. In 1984, the State had proclaimed it would tax farmers Rs. 100 (in 1984, the average rate for Rs./USD was 25.44) per acre for using water from large irrigations with a 20% annual increase and finally fixed at Rs. 200 per acre. All farmers living in the resettlement schemes were to pay taxes, and tax defaulters were to be prosecuted.
The women’s wing of the CDC in Okkampitiya had started an anti-water tax campaign in Monaragala. Chandra and the team organised public protests in solidarity with the affected farmers on days they were summoned to Court. Further, they mobilised women in the area to fight against this injustice.
Chandra, as a leading member of Okkampitiya women’s wing of the CDC, mobilised women and protested the destruction of the commons and the land dispossession in the 1980s in Monaragala along with others, especially with the establishment of the Pelwatte Sugar Company (PSC). For women, the commons and ownership of land were fundamental to the subsistence economy, ensuring food production for the family needs and an income.
In 1988 she was involved in the establishment of the Uva-Wellasa Women Farmers Association and as one of its leaders was involved in the workers’ struggle initiated by the trade unions affiliated to the PSC in 1992. This included a large-scale public protest in February 1992, and Chandra, one of the women leaders, played a prominent role in fighting for this cause. The struggles against the water tax imposition and the PSC can both be identified as significant turning points in feminist activism in the agricultural sector and against state repression in post-independence Sri Lanka.
Later Chandra co-founded Vikalpani National Women’s Federation in 2001 and began her life-long engagement with women’s activism relating to ecological farming. At the local level, she led numerous awareness programs on gender-based violence and economic empowerment of rural women through ecological farming which benefitted several generations in the remote and under-privileged farming communities in the country. Through her organisation, she guided and supported the local farmers; promoted and facilitated traditional ways of organic food production, which would ensure a supply of nutritious food.
Leading Vikalpani as a partner organisation of the Pesticide Action Network Asia-Pacific (PAN AP) based in Malaysia, Chandra strived to connect local struggles and issues of UVA-Wellasa with global platforms to effect change and influence at a broader level. Attached to Vikalpani Chandra organised large scale public meetings against pesticides, especially against the importation of glyphosate in 2014 despite the numerous death threats she received. Chandra also conducted advocacy programs and research against the spread of the chronic kidney disease of an unknown aetiology (CKDu) and assisted affected persons.
Chandra was an advocate of ecological farming since the early 1990s as opposed to the impacts of the green revolution in Sri Lanka with the state promotion of farming using agrochemicals. She believed that all people should have access to nutritious food, free of pesticide and that food cultivation should not be dominated by the conditions laid down by big agrochemical and biotechnological companies.
Chandra Hewagallage was a person who went out of her way to help and assist others and encouraged the younger generation in every way possible. She persevered to do everything to the best of her capacity in spite of the challenges she faced such as the threats on her life when she led awareness programs against importing of glyphosate and dwindling of funding sources.
The last time we met her in person was in June 2019, when we visited her home filled with musical instruments which belonged to her late father. Chandra shared with us that it was the free and understanding environment in which Chandra and Amara were raised, which led them to get involved in activism. Her association was mainly with the oppressed peasantry and had supported the working class struggles such as the Polytex strike initiated by the free trade zone workers in 1982 in Ja-ela, Western Province.
While being a very humble and unassuming person, she is leaving an inspiring legacy as an activist who was fully committed to the causes she chose to support. At a time when there is a severe crisis in the food production in the country due to the erratic moves by the Government and increasing influence of profit-driven agrobusinesses in agricultural policy making, severely impacting small scale food producers, her loss is immensely felt not only by the people who worked closely with her but also the causes she stood for.
She leaves a significant void in the fight for humanity, to ensure this generation and the next a sustainable development through a healthy lifestyle. We consider it fortunate to have known her. Rest in power, Chandra akka!