It was my privilege to have known that exceptionally gifted creative artist, the late Nihal Fernando, from the time he worked in the seven-storey Times Building in Colombo Fort, the tallest building in Ceylon, as we were then. Nihal, who also knew his history, may have permitted himself a typical quiet smile at the thought that a nine-storey Lovamahaprasadaya had existed in ancient Anuradhapura, centuries ago.
Nihal traveled extensively with his camera, to capture nuances of nature in our island’s myriad landscapes. Later, after his workplace, Studio Times, was set up next to his own residence in Skelton Road, Havelock Town, he could better share his talents with a few fortunate assistants. Now, they will miss his guiding genius as they try to continue the tradition of beautiful nature photography that Nihal excelled in, and documented through Studio Times monthly releases, and other publications. He thus created a tradition comparable to the renowned scientist E O Wilson’s studies of ants and other insects in nature.
When President J R Jayewardene set up the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project (AMDP) he appointed Gamini Dissanayake as Mahaweli Minister; Gamini set up the Mahaweli Centre in a purpose built building in Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha, where a model of the AMDP was displayed in the second floor until well before the recent failed attempt to change the name of this road. That foolish idea was fortunately soon corrected, but another stupid gaffe in the AMDP model itself remained: The Jaya Ganga built by King Dhatusena in the fifth century and so named to commemorate a great victory, was renamed Yoda Ela by Mahaweli engineers; how this foolish mistake happened is worth relating.
In ancient times Kalaweva – Balalu weva twin reservoirs with a massive earth embankment, and a comparatively inadequate stone spillway, had been augmented from a small branch of the Mahaweli Ganga, Nalanda Oya, by way of what is now called the Ebbawala cut. In modern times, the Nalanda concrete dam was built where an ancient diversion structure had once existed. Under the AMDP, much more water from the main Mahaweli Ganga was diverted to Kalaweva – Balalu Weva via a new trans-basin diversion system from the new Bowatenne reservoir. Consequently, there was a need to construct a new high level Kalaweva R.B. sluice to release some of the extra water now stored in Kalaweva, for irrigation of new lands.
Surprise, surprise, it was discovered that in ancient times a high level sluice had indeed existed on the right bank of Kalaweva at the very location identified for the proposed new sluice. This was the rationale for the massive earth embankment of Kalaweva, and the apparently inadequate massive dressed stone masonry spill!
Under the AMDP, this new high level sluice was built, but the ancient channel leading from it had been silted up, so that a new high level R.B. channel had to be built. Mahaweli engineers, blithely ignorant of our history, named this new high level R.B. channel, Jaya Ganga to honor President J R Jayewardene, and renamed the historic original Jaya Ganga, Yoda Ela.
This gaffe probably remains to this day in maps and plans prepared in the Mahaweli project. However, it was noticed and remarked on by the late Justice Dr A R B Amarasinghe in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, in a historic judgment in the Eppawala Fundamental Rights case, Bulankulame et al vs. the State, commonly known as the Eppawala Phosphate case. Judge Amerasinghe who had found the necessary references in a book titled Eppawala, Destruction of Cultural Heritage in the name of Development, agreed that the ancient systems were water and soil conservation ecosystems in which irrigation was only the major function. Dr Amerasinghe accordingly said inter alia in his much cited judgment:
“Ignorance of vital facts of historical and cultural significance on the part of persons in authority can lead to serious blunders in current decision making processes that relate to more than rupees and cents. The first respondent, the Secretary to the Ministry of Industrial Development, in paragraph 15 of his affidavit states as follows: ‘The southern part of the Yoda Ela has been abandoned after the construction of Jaya Ganga in the 1980’s under the Mahaweli scheme’. The emphasis is mine. Judicial restraint prevents me from suggesting why he might, perhaps have thought it was called ‘Jaya ganga’ …….
“The Jaya ganga, which the Petitioners, as well as the National Academy of Sciences as well as the National Science Foundation, have drawn attention to, is not merely a water course or transportation canal corridor, or even ‘an amazing technological feat’ as Professor K M de Silva describes it; it is also an integral part of a human made water and soil conservation ecosystem”
Nihal Fernando, who did not have too much respect for the bureaucracy, loved this extract from Judge Ranjith Amerasinghe’s brilliant judgment, especially because it was Nihal who took the first steps in Colombo to help local people to save Eppawala from the depredations of multinational corporations and their Sri Lanka partners. Local people in Eppawala only learned that a project was being negotiated with a U.S. multinational corporation in partnership with a Japanese one, to exploit the rare non-renewable Eppawala phosphate (apatite) deposit to exhaustion, after surveyors arrived to block out the land to be mined.
At this time the deposit was being worked using appropriate technology as a (DDC) Divisional Development Council project in the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, where Professor H A de S Gunasekera was Secretary; and Harold Fernando was Director, and W A Jayasinghe was Deputy Director of Regional Development. It was estimated that the apatite deposit would meet the needs of local agriculture for more than a thousand years; but there was an attempt in the Ministry of Industries to export the raw apatite without any value addition, to raise valuable foreign exchange.
That the historic Jaya ganga that supplied Anuradhapura city tanks from ancient times to the present day, and thousands of acres supplied from it would be destroyed, was of no concern to Industries Ministry bureaucrats. Massive local protests were led by the Ven. Eppawala Mahamankadawala Maha Thera of the Eppawala Purana Vihare, supported by a U.S. scholar Professor Jonathan Walters, who had spent fifteen years studying Theravada Buddhism and Sri Lanka history, and had taught at Peradeniya University in 1991-92.
Very soon a group of concerned persons including these two from Eppawala, were meeting under Nihal Fernando’s roof in Colombo; this writer came to know them, and remains in touch to this day. Jonathan Walters who teaches at Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington, USA, created a web page “Americans for Eppawala”. [All this and more information is available online in this day and age].
Another most distinguished, world renowned Sri Lanka personality who learned about Nihal Fernando’s efforts, and later met him in person, and contributed to the defense of Eppawala was Judge Dr C G Weeramantry, Vice President of the World Court in The Hague. He did this in his Separate Opinion in the Gabcikovo – Nagymaros case, known as the Danube dam case, where he wrote:
“There is always a tension between development and environmental preservation. The concept of sustainable development is the means to the resolution of the potential conflict. Many ancient civilizations embody this concept but the one I know best is that of Sri Lanka which also happens in my view to be the most outstanding. It may be that the comparatively small area that needed to be serviced helped in making the achievement possible. Possibly other helpful factors were climate and topography. But marshalling all these factors into water and soil conservation ecosystems needed far-seeing vision and dynamic planning. There may have been trial and error along the way but out of long experience grew a great achievement, which is a constant reminder to the present of the wisdom of the past”.
To conclude this Obituary Appreciation for Nihal Fernando: there used to be an array of photographs on three high walls at the second floor of the Mahaweli Centre, to highlight and illustrate selected locations in the AMDP model below. Nihal would have set up this display of photographs that have now been removed. One hopes that these pictures were returned safely to Studio Times where they must belong.