‘Wewa’ and not ‘development’ is who we are and will be
dominant development paradigms and their signature projects can be
easily assessed if one were to trace their tagline-shifts. The best
example is one that my father pointed out almost 20 years ago.
First we were fed ‘structural adjustment’. Then it was called
‘structural adjustment with a human face’. Finally we got ‘structural
adjustment with poverty alleviation’. He observed that these made for a
symptomatic reading of what structural adjustment was all about. He also
observed that we were being asked to adjust our structures to ensure the
sustainable development of economies and profit-making and
resource-extracting ventures of those who designed these projects,
coined these terms.
Development is about word, word-appropriation, word-recycling and
word-sale back to word-creator. Take ‘sustainability’ for example.
Economies that were sustainable were destroyed in the name of
development and once they were developed into ruination, the trappings
of the model that was destroyed were ‘introduced’ as brand-new
inventions of development’s privileged architects not in the manner
warranting a tag ‘returned with thanks’ but a magic formula, hitherto
unknown. Yes, with a price tag too.
A wewa is not just a place where water is held. It held together
a community, the flora and fauna. File photo
Some might think that these terms are mere names that describe
processes designed for the common good after long deliberation. Nothing
could be further from the truth. Buzz words are part and parcel of
re-branding, re-launching product, ensuring freshness, erasing negative
perceptions. This is why we get the development pundits trotting out
different blueprints and catch-all solutions from time to time. Let me
throw some words out here. These are all development-related words the
meaning of which few if any can claim to understand fully and which
don’t necessarily sit well either with other words nor relevant to
improving people’s lives. There’s ‘development’ itself. Green
Revolution. Chemical inputs. Markets. Productivity. Markets. Efficiency.
Markets. Long-term. Markets. Pest-management. Markets. Food security.
Markets. Informal sector. Markets. S&M. Markets. Sustainability.
Markets. Thrift. Markets. Credit. Markets. Microfinance. Markets. This.
Markets. That. Markets. Other things. Markets.
And they all have meanings. Definitions. They are all defined for us.
They are defined in ways that make us believe that either we nor our
ancestors ever knew these things and as such we ought to be grateful to
those who ‘teach’ these things to us. Some of us actually are grateful.
That’s also about markets. The free-market of survival; that of the
push-pull resolution and the demand-supply product of new age slavery.
I was thinking about micro-finance. About thrift and credit. Markets
pertaining to these things. Tills came to mind. Bank accounts. Little
drops of water and little grains of sand making the mighty ocean and the
good earth since poisoned with chemical inputs and an obnoxious mining
for profit. ‘Small groups’ and revolving funds came to mind. Recovery
rates. Grameen slithered by. SANASA stood as witness to the fascination
with the currently-popular, the just-passing-through something or the
other that cannot wait to find out what happens to the children of the
‘beneficiaries’ who were turned into dependents in the name of
And I thought of things that survived these blueprints and grandiose
plans, the NGOs and foreign experts, the investments and
resource-extraction, the lie and deception, the deceit and gullibility.
I thought of the wewa.
I remembered an excursion to areas hit by drought in 2001 in the
South East Dry Zone (SEDZ). I wondered then what the land would say if
it got to relate its own story. I tried to listen. I recorded.
Imperfectly, of course. This is the SEDZ speaking.
“Yes, water is an issue. How can it not be for anyone, even those
outside the SEDZ? Want me to put it in a nutshell? Or in a bottle, since
that’s the trend now? This is how it was, friend. My children knew all
about water conservation, water management. And long before the
International Irrigation Management Institute and its latest
water-guzzling avatar, International Water Management Institute, turned
up and headquartered in our island. At the top end, we had what we call
the polkatu weva, then the kulu wewa (i.e. in the shape of a winnowing
fan), then the gam wewa (village pond), followed by the maha wewa
(reservoir) and then of course the saagaraya (major reservoir). I am
also called the Wellassa, the hundred thousand tracts of paddy land. My
being was dotted with thousands of village tanks.
Sorry, ‘tank’ doesn’t really convey the idea of a wewa. A wewa is not
just a place where water is held. It held together a community, the
flora and fauna of a particular area. It provided water for agriculture,
for the cattle, for bathing purposes, washing etc. When a wewa breached,
my children wept, for it signalled the death of a community. With the
dam went the village.”
What is wewa then, if not a product of the thrift principle? What is
weva if not part of a larger process of credit, of borrowing now, paying
later in terms of specific and deliberate practices that are in concert
with and act to conserve a given ecology? The entire system of cascade
irrigation described above is about meticulous water conservation. It is
about sharing. It is about community. Collective. Togetherness.
Wewa is about sustainability. Biodiversity. Erring on the side of
caution in view of possible climate change. Investment. Food security.
Capital accumulation. Healthy economic conservatism. It’s all the things
that development experts tell us are good for us (in the way THEY
defined and not the way it ought to be, i.e. in terms of original
meaning of word and the substance of practice). It is our past. Present.
Future. It is our nation. Our nationalism. Our sovereignty. Our
territorial integrity. Our way of being. Culture. Civilization.
I cannot think of a single word that is as Sri Lankan as ‘wewa’.
Development, in fact, is an impoverished and misleading synonym, I am