} Lalith Abeysinghe: Bridging the village to the future….

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bridging the village to the future….

Bridging the village to the future….

Kosgolla, a traditional Sinhala village is situated seven kilometers away from Badulla, the main city of the Uva province.. It remained a poor ‘traditional Sinhala village’, with lack of even basic facilities though it situated only seven km away from Badulla, and by the side of the main Badulla- Kandy road, till recently. Kosgolla village consists of four hamlets, namely, Wellayaya, Bulugahapitiya, Kiulwatta, Elwatta and Konehena. The main livelihood of the people is small scale agriculture, mainly paddy and chena cultivation.

Kosgolla (Annex 01) is one of the villages, which UNPD involves with its programs.

“We were very happy that we were able to select Kosgolla as one of the villages for the UNPD program. First, it is a disadvantaged village, which we saw needs an input. Secondly, this village was a ‘socially backward’ village. Even the politicians did not show any interest as the village has only small voter population. We started work there with establishing a ‘Peace committee’. Ms Nayana, the Social Mobilizer laid a solid foundation for this process. Mr. Vajira of REDEF (Rural Economic and development Foundation) one of the UNPD network partner took a keen interest as Kosgolla was one of the five villages that REDEF selected for the program”, Sumith Abeykoon, (Tissa), the District Coordinator for Badulla of the UNPD program explained as how it all stated.

May be that was the time, I really can not remember the exact date. I was in the upper part of the Kosgolla village. After the marriage I put up a little hut and came to live in Dambagahamaditta. That is in the lower part of Kosgolla. One day two youth came to meet me and we had a discussion under the Nelli[1] tree with regard to the ‘development’ of the village. They requested me to take the leadership. Then we called a meeting on a following day with the villages. If I remember correctly, some forty people came from the forty families. So we organized a Funeral Aid Society[2]. During this time, Mr. Vajira and Tissa came to our village. Through this contact we were able to meet Mr. Manel Ratnayake and he was then the President of the Uva Provincial Council”, says Palitharatne, the President of the Funeral Aid Society.

“Yes, I visited Kosgolla. I visited there with the UNPD program. I can imagine that no politician have gone there. There was no proper road way. The villages have to cross the Badulu Oya, but no proper bridge. The villages have made a ‘bridge’ with ropes, wood and with the help of a cable. When we go in to the middle of the bridge, it starts swinging. It is very dangerous. Only one or two can go for a time. I crossed the ‘swing bridge’ and walk through the village. I was wondering, as how to help these people”, says Manel Ratnayake, Head of Uva Community Development Center (UCDC) and UNPD.

“The UNPD program first helped us to ‘understand’ the village and to identify the problems, resources and the basic information of the village. The UNPD taught us the techniques to do this exercise. We learned how to do a Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). After that only, we came to know the very basic information of the village such as the population, number of families, and number of houses with out toilets and also the main problems of the village. Before this we also did not know the exact problems of the village. Different people used to say different things. We also realized through PRA, that our village has many societies[3]. They ranged from Funeral Aid Societies to Women, Farmer, and Temple etc. We formed a Peace Committee in the village with the guidance of UNDP to deal with the wider issues that country and the society face with. This time was a crucial time as the government intensified the war against LTTE. Though in our village, all are Sinhalese and Buddhists, in Badulla and Uva province there is a large Tamil population. We were very happy to see that all the societies and the community leaders in our village came in to one forum. We just felt that we become strong. We had lots of discussions Awareness Programs, Training Programs on the themes related to the problems that country faced including the War and Peace related issues”, says Palitha.

“When we interact with the village, we were bit careful not to ‘help’ these disadvantages ‘target group’ people with dole outs. We were really trying to empower them, make them aware of the government structures, officers and their roles and responsibilities and also the rights of the people. The UNPD, had a different mission, it did not have resources to do ‘development activities’ in these villages. Instead we did lots of awareness raising programs. As far as I remember, during the whole project period, UNPD gave only Rs 5000 to ‘start’ construction of the Community Centre. Later, we reduced the number of our visits to the village also, in order to allow them to grow”. I later rated this village as a ‘grade one’ village which needs very little outside support and the Citizen Committee is strong enough to deal with their problems”, said Vajira, Head of REDEF, the organization responsible for Kosgolla. “Even we visited, we only advised them as how to do things, but never undertook work on behalf of them. We allow them to do their work by themselves, even it takes little more time” added Tissa.

“It is true. We did lots of things by our own, though it was a difficult task. Some time we faced with very difficult situations. But overall we really achieved a lot. We even cannot imagine, we could do all these things, supposing we confined only to the Funeral Aid Society. Most of the things changed with our involvements with the Peace Committee and later in the Citizen Committees. It was a powerful collective. All came together. I think we are a solid case of success. As you know, even we are only seven kilometers away from Badulla; we really lived in the eighteenth century. We used to carry a sick person on a chair as there were no roads. It was very difficult to cross the Badulu Oya. Many people fell down from the ‘Swing Bridge’ to the Badulu Oya and were badly injured. Parents, mostly mothers used to come in the morning and in the afternoon up to this Oya to see off their children to schools and to bring them back. The “bridge” washed away several times during the rainy times as Oya carries lots of water. It was very dangerous to cross the Oya during the rainy season. Even though we grow lots of things for our living, the prices are very low as there is no transportation”. Palitha explained the situation in which they were in.

“UNPD helped the villagers with lots of awareness and training programs. It helped people to understand the problems, the context, and get to know the government institutions and officers and other organizations. We conducted Public Mobile Clinics (PMC) in the village. Some of the government officers came for these PMCs. They, for the first time realized the difficulties that we face. It was a long process. We stated construction of the Community Center with the Rs 5000 got from the UNPD. Mr. Vajira advised us to find a piece of land for this purpose. One of a villager donated a land for this and we laid the foundation. We managed to get some roofing sheets from the Uva Development Bank. We also got Rs 150,000 from Soranathota Pradeshiya Sabha (PS). At least we have now a common place to meet. We also got Rs 200,000 from the Soranathota Pradeshiya Sabha to start a drinking water project for the village. The PS was convinced to donate the funds as they saw us organized. We ‘signed agreements’ with the PS. The ’signing of the agreement’ gave us a tremendous boost in confidence, as we feel that we were recognized. At the end of the project we were able to get pipe born water to our houses”.

“We then, as we learned the roles and responsibilities from the awareness programs conducted by UNPD, went and meet the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) and the Public Health Inspector (PHI) and invited them to the village. They came to our village for the first time in the history. We presented our problems to the MOH and PHI verbally and in written form. We were able to get twenty toilets for the houses which had no toilets, and eighteen mosquito nets to prevent dengue and malaria. The PHI wanted to do a PRA in the village for his official needs and we ourselves did it and gave it to him. He was happy as he got it. We were happy as we were able to ‘help’ him!” Palitha come up with the whole story as how they proceeded.

“Though we got lots of things to the village, our main concern was the road way and constructing of the main bridge over the Badulu Oya, to get easy access to the village. We knew that this is a big task. But we were also equally confident that we could do this. Two things happened. One is with constructing the bridge and the other thing is cutting the road ways inside the village. It was during the Provincial Council election. We approached a Tamil candidate who was contesting for the PC election. We explained our problem to him. He acted promptly and sends a bulldozer to the village and cut and prepared a wide road way in the village. We as the villagers, though all are Sinhalese, discussed and decided to vote for him at the election. This type of thing happened in our village for the first time”. Palitha explained how it happened.

“We knew that constructing of the bridge is a serious affair. We contacted some people in Moratuwa, associated with the “Institute of Engineers Sri Lanka” (IESL) to get some help from them. They came to the village. They promised us to help. They made a plan and made an estimate of Rs 5,600,000. They then sent old Train Chassis to be used for the bridge. They sent them from Colombo to Badulla Railway Station by train and we brought them from there by a lorry. They gave us 12 bags of cement also. We started to build a small bunt, but the work stopped as there were no funds. Then the IESL asked us to get support from a Member of Parliament. We were not that convinced with the suggestion. Then we contacted the CHA, which had some funds through Japanese Embassy. A Japanese lady wanted to have a meeting in the village. We organized a meeting and 47 people attended. We later got the information, that some group in the village has told the villagers not to attend this meeting as this will not happen. Then they made another estimate amounting Rs 9,650.000. They agreed to help. So we were very happy, as the ‘Kosgolla Bridge’ made known to the whole world through their website. But soon, there was another problem that we have to solve. The land situated at the entrance to the bridge belongs to a person and we had to collect money and buy it. We had to collect Rs 50,000 for this from the villagers”.

“We were very happy to see then the construction of the bridge was progressing. The ‘contract’ of the construction was given to THERMOTEC Engineers Pvt. Ltd. The work has to be completed with in 36 weeks and started on 28 November 2008. They built the main bunts and the pillars of the bridge. They have taken more than Rs 7,000,000. However we later learned that they did not have the skills to place the train chassis on the bunt. They abandoned the whole operations and went away! Then again we went and meet the CHA. They said, this is very unfortunate, if the villagers could complete the rest of the work with in three weeks, they are happy to disburse the balance funds! Even though we realized that the former contractor has overspent, and thus it had a small amount, we accept it as a challenge. We came back and talk to some of the villagers. One of our villagers, Somasiri said that he could complete the work with in three weeks, even though the contractors couldn’t do it. With in three weeks Somasiri, an ordinary villager, made the impossible task possible”.

“When we looked back, we feel so happy and proud of ourselves. We realized that we have very talented people like Somasiri. They lack only the opportunity”.

Palitha concludes the whole story, “We have come a long way. From Nelli Tree to the Community Centre, from Funeral Aid Society to the Citizen Committee, from mere passive member to the active participant, from dole out recipient to a go getter, from a villager to a citizen, from a disintegrated village to a connected village, we have come a long way.

All this happened because of establishing the Citizen Committee and through the Citizen Committee. It only brought all of us, all the societies together and exposes all of us to a new arena. We never thought that we could do so much work, influence so many people and institutions and get so many resources. We stated the whole process with the ‘donation’ of Rs 5000 from the UNPD to start work of constructing the Community Center. The Citizen committee was the ‘Trigger event’, which instrumented the whole change. With these Rs 5000, we were able to get or generate more than Rs 20,000,000 to our village in cash, services and in material with in four years. So we feel very happy.

We really “Bridge” our village to the future.

Lalith Abeysinghe

30 March 2010.

Annex 01.

Kosgolla village

The Fact Box (Year 2008)

The Population : 811 ( Female 501/ Male 310)

Number of Families : 247

Ethnicity / Religion : All Sinhala/ Buddhist

Educational status : Primary education - 255 (F 155/M 100)

Grade 06 to 10 - 450 (F 300/M 150)

GCE O/L - 32 (F 15/ M 17)

GCE A/L - 17 (F 07/ M 10)

Diploma - 06 (F 03/ M 03)

Graduates - 06 (F 03/ M 03)

Not gone to school - 45 (F 20/ M 25)

Main Occupation : Agriculture

Land usage : Paddy - H 10

(Out of 78 Hectares ) Chena - H 15

Vegetables - H 05

Tea - H 03

[1] Famous ‘medicinal’ fruit in Sri Lanka

[2] Funeral Aid Societies are very famous among the poorest segments in the villages in Sri Lanka. Its main aim is to help its members in the event of a funeral in their families. This is in a way a ‘symbol of poverty and helplessness’ in the village setup. It indicates that these people have no way other than get help from their fellow villages when they in distress.

[3] This refers to the ‘organization’ in the village set up, but very small, informal, with limited small aims.

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