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‘Wewa’ and not ‘development’ is who we are and will be

The 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. Structural adjustment

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

Green revolution

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.

Foreign experts

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 development.

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.

Irrigation management

“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. Philosophy.

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 convinced.

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