The inauguration by President Mahinda Rajapaksa of the Weheragala reservoir project on Saturday in the far-flung Uva must have jogged one`s memory of an incident which had occurred nearly three years back in the East. In August 2006, the government forcibly opened the Mavil Aru sluice gates which the LTTE had grabbed and closed denying over 10,000 families access to water even for drinking. Prabhakaran threw down the gauntlet and President Rajapaksa picked it up, nailed his colours to the mast and called for public support for war. People readily rallied to the colours and their resolve to battle terrorism was steeled as never before. The subsequent war led to Prabhakaran`s death in a swamp and the decimation of the LTTE`s fighting force.
On Saturday, the President made a similar call for national mobilisation. But, this time around it was not for war but development. The country has learnt a great deal about its potential during the past three years and is now confident that it is capable of feats that were once thought impossible. It has also realised that its mendicant status involves heavy costs and high risks. Even its national security is at stake owing to its dependency, which has become a licence of sorts for neo-colonial forces to meddle with its internal affairs.
The defeat of terrorism has boosted the nation`s morale and it is for the present-day leaders to harness, for national development, the colossal forces of nationalism the country`s victory has unleashed. President Rajapaksa seems to be making some effort to do so, if his clarion call on Saturday is any indication.
The engineering fraternity of this country may justifiably preen themselves on the fact that local engineers have handled the entire Weheragala project. No wonder they are the proud descendants of ancient Sri Lankans who created engineering marvels like Yodha Ela, Parakrama Samudra, dagobas and Sigiriya. Sri Lankan engineers are forced to play second fiddle to their white counterparts in development projects implemented with foreign funds and expertise in keeping with constricting aid conditions which help donors take back with one hand the Lion`s share of what they grant with the other. Interestingly, the need for the Weheragala reservoir stemmed from the failure of the foreign-funded Lunugamvehera project which has been dubbed a failed political dam. Menik Ganga water is expected to boost the shallow Lunugamvehera reservoir via Weheragala.
President Rajapaksa deserves the credit for having implemented the Weheragala reservoir project against numerous odds. Even some powerful SLFP politicians from the Moneragala District in the UPFA government opposed the project in 2005 on grounds that the Menik Ganga ran through their district but the benefits of the project would accrue to the people of Hambantota. It was a kind of water war, which proponents of devolution should take cognisance of. Ironically, the Chandrika loyalists who opposed the project in 2005 were seen opening sluice gates on Saturday!
The Weheragala reservoir was conceived in the womb of folk wisdom. Some 3,000 villagers desperate for water for their paddy fields tried to build an unauthorised canal about seven years ago under the UNF government only to be stopped. Later the JVP launched a campaign demanding State intervention to construct an irrigation project at Weheragala and the UPFA government responded positively. And the project was launched in June 2005 under auspices of the then Prime Minister Rajapaksa.
But on Saturday President Rajapaksa carefully avoided any reference to the JVP`s contribution to the project, maybe because he did not want Rathu Sahodarayas to gain any mileage in the run-up to the Uva PC polls. Part of the credit for the project should also go to UNP MP Sajith Premadasa, who commissioned a feasibility study and asked for money from the UNF government for launching the project only to be disappointed.
President Rajapaksa had something very inspiring to say in his speech. One day, he said, an army officer who visited the Weheragala project had found chief engineer A. D. S. Gunawardana missing. Worried, he had looked around for some time when he chanced upon the engineer neck deep in water struggling to remove a log stuck in the sluice gates! The country has no need for engineers who try to maintain the look of a tailor`s dummy in air conditioned comfort. We need persons of Gunawardana`s calibre ready to be splattered with mud and water in the process of hoisting this country out of depths of laziness and poverty.
President Rajapaksa on Saturday also promised a massive development drive to eliminate rural poverty. But, he will find some seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his path, the biggest being a chronic lack of funds resulting from waste, fraud and corruption. Last week we pointed out quoting presidential advisor and leftist firebrand Vasudeva Nanayakkara that fraud and corruption that the corporate sector resorted to in acquiring State assets had caused the country to incur a staggering loss of over one thousand billion rupees from 1985 to 2005. We said in a previous comment this amount worked out to about five times the cost of the Hambantota Port project as well as the development of other harbours or five times the amount of the loan sought from the IMF.
Atop all that, last week we reported a sprawling housing scheme was to be built for parliamentarians. Strangely, the Opposition crying blue murder about government waste has chosen to remain silent about this project which cannot be given priority on any grounds. Moreover, the law abiding citizens have had to abandon their houses because of lawmakers turned violent lawbreakers as evident from yesterday`s attack on a local government politician`s house in Kelaniya.
Success of the government`s ambitious development plans hinges on President Rajapaksa`s ability to translate his pronouncement at the Victory Day Parade last month into action. He said: `We took the necessary decisions. What was important was not whether they were popular, but whether they were important and correct. This country cannot be betrayed to drugs, corruption, and fraud and overwhelming laziness.`
President Rajapaksa steered the arduous military campaign he began at Mavil Aru in August 2006 to a stunning victory and now it is up to him to carry out the solemn promises he made at Weheragala in July 2009.