(By Akitha Wijayasinghe)
Everybody knows that sugarcane is the major sucrose extracting crop used in the sugar industry in Sri Lanka. Four sugarcane plantations have largely been involved in local sugar production. They are Hingurana, Sevenagala, Kanthale and Pellwatte.
In the beginning, people’s lands were taken over to build these factories on a long term lease. This process left many people helpless, even today, they suffer from the same issues for over decades. Particularly in the case of Pelwatte Sugar Company, there are many problems in the lands taken over by them, and lands given to the people in return.
Pelwatte Sugar was incorporated on 19th February 1981 as Pelwatte Sugar Company Ltd. In 1990, the holding company changed its name to Pelwatte Sugar Industries Ltd., which produced sugar and alcohol.
Deceitful land acquisition
R.R. Jayarathna, a resident of the settlement no.03, Hadapanagala in Wellawaya, said that they had to face many difficulties since the land acquisition by the Pelwatte Sugar Company in 1985.
“I’ve been living here since 1985. Before that, I did chena cultivation in Buttala. Our lands were acquired by Pelawatte industries and we were given half an acre of land here. There are 14 settlements here just like ours.
“Back then, this company was operated by foreigners. When they took over our lands in 1985, they promised that they would provide us with so many facilities. Proper roads, medical facilities, jobs for our children in their factory, transport to our school children, water-electricity lines and so many other things which meant the world to us. Even though they resettled us here, no document was given regarding the right to these lands.
“We believed their fairy tales. In 1987, the company was acquired by the government. Since then, we had to take permission from the company to enroll a child to a school, to get water or electrical line, even to cut down a tree on our own land. That’s when we realized we’ve been owned by them. We never owned these lands. We lacked the knowledge about the law. We didn’t even know if our lease was over.
“It was in 2017, the Uva Wellassa Women’s Organization reached us when we were deep down this problem. They organized programs to spread awareness among us about the legal background regarding this land acquisition. So, after that we wrote to everyone to regain our right to these lands, including the President and the Prime Minister.”
“As a result of their endless efforts, eyes of the responsible have set on this matter.
“Several dwellers in Buttala Division have obtained their right to their lands as a result of our efforts,” Mr. Jayarathna said. But their settlement no.03 in Hadapangala still remains unattended.
“We are confident that this will be over soon. We made it this far thanks to the Right to Information Act. We are getting the right to these lands after 35 years because we used it properly. It’s very important that everyone knows about this and their rights.”
A pile of expenses to cover
Apart from half the acre, they were given four acres each by the Pelwatte Sugar Industries to grow sugarcane. That too of course on long term lease. The right to those lands were kept away from them by the company.
Their bond was to grow sugarcane in those lands and supply the yield to the company. Mr. Jayarathna told Medialk.com that they only make about Rs. 650-700 per day and their expenses can get higher than they make a day.
The company neither prepares the land to cultivate upto the standards nor provides them with fertilizers and weedicides even though they pay expenses for all of them, he added. This has caused many farmers to abandon their farmlands because the yield has never been enough to cover at least their cost.
“A ton of sugarcane seeds cost Rs. 6000. It takes about 20 tons to cultivate in 4 acres. You may calculate the amount that it costs us just to get the seeds. To prepare the land for the first and second times, to plant seeds, to harvest, to the labours and for the transport it cost us about another Rs. 153,000. We take these facilities from the Pelwatte Sugar industries on credit basis. After harvesting, we receive about Rs. 250,000 but we are left with only a little money after paying the debts to the company.”
He further said that they have been prohibited by the company to grow anything else on these lands apart from sugarcane. “We have to wait for 9 months for a sugarcane plantation. They don’t even let us grow anything else in between. It’s such a waste.”
A silent grim-reaper
These innocent people facing all these hardships have to deal with another issue. Famers are getting sick. The cause- kidney disease. The residents suspect that the fertilizers used in the plantations are causing the sickness.
Weerasinghe, a kidney patient said, “At first, I had only a slight pain in my back. As it got worse I got to know that there were stones in my kidney. I went through an operation to remove the stones, but my condition worsened again. Now I’m a kidney patient.”
He said that it cost him about Rs.20000-30000 for his medical tests which was extremely difficult to make and even today it costs him Rs.5000-8000 for his medications.
“There are 10-15 people suffering from kidney illness and I know 6-7 people from the next settlement who are suffering from the same condition. Four or five people have died so far. The company doesn’t even care, even though we gave them all our lives working in their fields.”
What is in store for them?
Expressions on their faces were a fine reflection of what they have been through all these 35 years.
Hadapanagala has only one bus operating. It too is in a dilapidated condition. The nearest hospital is 7km away. The road is full of dirt in the dry season and puddles of mud appears when it starts raining. Access to water is also quite limited. Although the government started a program to continue education for school children via the internet, the settlement no.03 in Handapanagala has almost no network coverage, thus children have no access to the internet, hindering their education during the pandemic.
Being the backbone of sugar production, shedding their sweat in the harsh fields under the sun, their lives are not as sweet as sugar. There’s nobody to look into their needs. But now there’s a Minister of Sugar Industry Development, it is time for the authorities to act.