Friday, 21  March 2003  
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River basins as administrative divisions

by L. M. Samarasinghe-President Soil and Water Conservation Society of Sri Lanka

There has been welcome news that the Minister of Irrigation and Water Management is taking action to convert the Mahaweli Authority into the River Valley Basin Authority. We do hope that this would be the commencement of a long overdue process of taking full advantage of the river basins with which Sri Lanka has been blessed.

Among the many countries in the world there are not many lands that have been blessed with this unique gift of so many river basins. We have 103 rivers starting from the central hills and flowing down to join the sea at points right round the Island. This is really a unique gift of nature but we have failed to take the full advantage of this uncommon gift.

During the ancient period our ancestors took full advantage of the river basins and created the world renowned hydraulic civilization and this Island was the granary of the East. The country was divided according to river basins and the rivers were fully harnessed to create irrigation networks to develop agriculture.

An unfortunate lapse on the part of all governments during the post-independence period has been the failure to address their minds to re-demarcate the provincial boundaries of this Island. This failure has led to a series of situations which are harmful to the land and the people.

The damage caused to the forest cover, the top soil and water courses could have been avoided if the provincial divisions were based on river basin boundaries. the internationally accepted minimum forest cover needed to maintain the basic climatic and environmental levels is 25%. But our forest cover at present is less than 20%. So we are already in the red with regard to forest cover.Our administrative divisions are still based on a division that Colebrooke made in 1833 for a completely different purpose - and was never intended to cater to the development needs we have in mind for the people of this country. After the experience of the Kandyan rebellion in 1818 the British colonial masters were very keen to put the Kandyan people in a strait jacket that would fix them once and for all without a further chance for any rebellions. The colonial administration decided to divide the country in such a manner that the local people, particularly the people of the Kandyan provinces, could never be able to get together.

In fact in dividing the Island into five provinces Colebrooke ensured that some of these districts that participated in the rebellion in 1818 were adequately punished. He also intended to reduce the cost of administering the Island. He did an excellent job for the colonial rulers and achieved their objectives of keeping local people under permanent control and poverty. The five divisions that Colebrooke created were:

(i) The Northern Province - consisting of the district of Jaffna, Mannar, the Wanni, the island of Delft and Nuwara Kalaviya, with the seat of administration at Jaffna.

(ii) The Western Province -consisting of the districts of Colombo, Kalutara, Chilaw, Puttalam, Seven Korales, Four and three Korales and Lower Bulathgama with the seat of administration in Colombo.

(iii) Southern Province -consisting of the districts of Galle, Matara, Tangalle, Hambantota, Sabaragamuwa, Wellawaya, Buttala, Lower Uva and Wellassa with its administrative capital at Galle.

(iv) Eastern Province - consisting of the district of Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Tamankaduwa, and Bintenna with its seat of administration at Trincomalee.

(v) Central Province - consisting of the districts of Matale, Kandy, Yatinuwara, Udunuwara, Harispattuwa, Tumpane, Dumbara, Hewaheta, Kotmale, Upper Bulathgama, Udapalatha, Walapane, Viyaluwa, UdaKinda and Yatikinda with the seat of administration at Kandy.

Each province was under an Agent of the Colonial government. Under this arrangement the entire Kandyan area which was one region was divided into 5 and except in the Central Province all other Kandyan people had to travel for several days to take a simple complaint to the Government Agent of his province and return home. The process of punishment to the Kandyan peasants was effectively done.

In 1845 the North Western Province was created with the districts of Chilaw, Puttalam and the Seven Korales with Puttalam as the seat of administration.

In 1856 the provincial capital was shifted to Kurunegala.

In 1873 the North Central Province was created out of the Northern Province with Nuwara Kalaviya and Iamankaduwa put together to form one province and with Anuradhapura established as the seat of administration.

In 1886 the province of Uva was established with Bintenna, Viyaluwa, Wellassa, UduKinda, YatiKinda, Wellawaya and Buttala with Badulla as the seat of administration.

In 1889 the Sabaragamuwa Province was established with Kegalle and Ratnapura districts with Ratnapura as the seat of administration.

The expansion of the plantations and the subsequent increase in commercial activity demanded the creation of more districts and today we have 24 districts.

But the basic divisions are based on the divisions created by Colebrooke in 1833, and even after nearly 55 years of independence we have failed to deviate from the strait jacket imposed on us by Colebrooke. Apart from the serious failure to give thought to the need for re-arranging the administrative divisions we have created new problems for ourselves by trying to make deals with the existing provincial boundaries. So long as we stick to the existing basis of provincial and district boundaries we will continue to move from bad to worse in all spheres. The country will become impoverished and our national resources would be wasted. So long as we do not get out of this arbitrary and unreasonable division of the country we will continue to be in trouble and our natural resources will get depleted and the people will remain divided.

The efforts made to set up Provincial Councils, Pradeshiya Sabhas or any other type of authority to administer the country has failed to produce the desired results. The land and the people need to be liberated from these unreasonable and arbitrary divisions of the country. The river basins provide a reasonable and desirable alternative basis for division of the country.

The report of the Land Commission appointed by President J. R. Jayewardene in 1987 (Sessional Paper No. III - 1990) has examined the matter of the provincial boundaries and has strongly recommended that the administrative divisions be based on watershed boundaries. This report states that the evidence placed before the Commission highlighted the need for redefinition of administrative boundaries. They had recommended the early appointment of a Boundaries Commission.

The facility available to divide the country on the basis of natural watershed boundaries is a gift available to our country. We are particularly lucky that we have a gift of nature although we have so far failed to utilize this special and wonderful gift. The 103 rivers divide the land area of our country into different watershed areas and we are particularly lucky that these rivers flow in all directions which make them ideally suited to provide a basis for Administrative divisions. There is a variety of advantages that would result by having the administrative divisions based on watershed areas:

- management of river basins to the highest advantage of the people.

- the harnessing and conservation of the available water resources to bring about the optimum benefit to the land and people.

- the protection and best management of the top soil of the different basins.

- the conservation and preservation of the forest cover.

- the preservation of the wildlife and biodiversity patterns.

- the adoption of the best cropping system suited to the different regions.

- the total development of the agricultural patterns that could give the maximum benefit to the people.

- the maximum generation of hydropower for our needs.

- the development of ancillary industries that are related to agricultural activities.

- the ability to avoid the incidence of damage caused by seasonal flood, earthslips and other natural disasters.

- the protection and management of the environment.

It is already late in not stopping the depletion and destruction of the natural resources of this Island. Let us hope that the Government would give due consideration to re-demarcation of all provinces and make river basins the administrative divisions. The regions as contemplated in the devolution proposals consist of several watershed areas so that the total number of Regions in the state of Sri Lanka would be manageable and not too expensive to maintain. The sub divisions of each Region would consist of a watershed area or part of such area.

New Zealand, which is another country blessed with many rivers like Sri Lanka divided their country into watershed areas under the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Act of 1941, under which Catchment Boards were set up. Local government powers were devolved on these Boards which in fact are councils consisting of elected and appointed members.

The Government has the unique advantage of having the recommendation of a Presidential Commission that functioned not very long ago. The division of the country into watershed areas would satisfy all communities and the administration of the devolution process would definitely be easier under the system of Regions based on these natural divisions.

The devolution of power to the Regions would be more meaningful if the watershed areas are made the Provinces/Regions. If a Boundaries Commission is appointed to demarcate the provinces based on watershed areas as a prelude to the implementation of the devolution proposals it would provide a sense of satisfaction to everyone. The need for the re-demarcation of the provincial boundaries has been felt for a long time.

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