Dear Mr. President
I have read from afar that a re-formulation of the National Agricultural Policy is imminent. With this in mind, I encourage a revisit to the Irrigation Management Transfer pilot implemented at Ridi Bendi Ela under the Irrigation Department and the Irrigation Management Division, Ministry of Irrigation and Power (1998-2005).

Building on a previous program of participatory irrigation management, this program progressively mobilized farmers around the cultural capital of the village community. The cultural symbolism of water is central in the trilogy of tank-farm-temple, and the program mobilized this form of capital first as bureaucratic voluntary farmer organizations, thenas body corporate, and finally as an entrepreneurial organization the farmer company.
While income generation was the immediate goal, the long-term goal was to enable the community to assume greater responsibility and costs for operating and maintaining the irrigation system beyond the distributary canal (hitherto managed by the irrigation department). Income diversification in smallholder agriculture was viewed as the path to the success of this policy.

In 2000, under a tripartite agreement between the Irrigation Department representing the GoSL, the farmer organization of the irrigation system, and the farmer company, the Ridi Bendi Ela irrigation system below the reservoir was leased for thirty-six months to the farmer organization. The farmer company was authorized to jointly manage water delivery, canal operation and maintenance jointly with the Irrigation Department and the farmer organizations, and implement programs for agricultural service and income generation under the oversight of the IMD, its project committee, and the district administration .This pilot was abandoned in 2005 amidst political fears of water privatization.

Despite this, farmer shareholders still recall the farmer company’s spectacular success of saving maha 2003; Ridi Bendi Ela was the only irrigation system to have a following yala. This was attributed to superior water management and how well the institutional arrangement in place worked. The institutional arrangement allowed for timely release of water into Magalla vava by the Irrigation Department, with its delivery and distribution among farmers via the company, and coordinated by its management of hired expertise, particularly the Manager of Water and Lands. The arrangement also focused on on-farm management with the cooperation of  the Department of Agriculture, a responsive system of water distributions opposed to standard rotation, farmer contributions above and beyond the norm for system upkeep, and information access. The success of the farmer company was attributed to ‘low tech’ management.

A couple of notable successes of the income generation programs still continue: The farmer company is a regional supplier of seed paddy, in 2007 primarily as a result of this enterprise, the company generated a profit of Rs 2.2 million, the highest in its history. In its heyday, the company produced and marketed traditional varieties of rice such as rathal, suvandal and madavalu, as well as basmati. Farm income diversification through poultry production and marketing is an original program still continued today. Both programs have much potential for expansion.

Ridi Bendi Ela is an example of a major irrigation system with technical, management, and institutional issues typical of similar systems in Sri Lanka. In the context of  climate change it  would be useful  to consider the following lessons learned from Ridi Bendi Ela in the development of a  National Agricultural Policy.

1.    Nowhere is water viewed in purely market terms. Irrigation and water management are ‘institutional’ considerations that are historically derived and values-based, and is viewed as such in the development of similar programs in the West as well. Ridi Bendi Ela was an exercise in socially constructed water rights rather than a purely market-based phenomenon, a cultural and political anathema in Sri Lanka; it is time to recognize it as such.

2.    We have moved beyond Gal Oya and farmer participation, so it is time to recognize the fact that unless we improve farmers’ income they cannot participate in a meaningful way in self-mobilized management. With improved income models, farmers will be free to pursue alternative models of management. Farmer shareholders themselves have evaluated this farmer company, an entrepreneurial organization, as superior to existing community-based organizations, including co-ops. This farmer company is a sustainable organization, which has continued to function since the termination of the tripartite agreement. .

3.    It is time to admit that some organizations do best at certain levels. The bureaucratic structure of the Irrigation Department, for example, does best at complex regulatory and integrative functions, including delivering water to Ridi Bendi Ela from upstream despite many technical and management challenges.

4.    Given soil, water, technical, and social complexities on-farm, community management is the better norm below the reservoir. The enthusiasm of the members for the farmer company  and its income generation programs, particularly  in saving maha with very limited water and doing the following yala, not to mention doing it well below salary and overhead costs as compared to the previous management system is  a testimony to the power of social/cultural capital mobilized to achieve common goals.

5.    Farmers need managers. The contingencies of managing under drought conditions and climate change required timely responses at all levels of management. In Ridi Bendi Ela, the manager, lands and mater hired by the farmer company, and other technical staff filled an intervening role between the bureaucracy and community- based organizations by communicating with both sides in a timely fashion regarding water delivery and distribution in particular, but also with other matters. This vigorous and timely accessing of information is entrepreneurial in style, implemented by mobilizing structures and procedures as well as a sense of ownership of a culturally sanctioned resource. Their response to drought is a lesson in management that goes beyond the standard paradigm of adaptation used in community drought response research, which implies passivity.

6.    Learn from mistakes. The Ridi Bendi Ela farmer company has undergone many a financial crisis. Farmers as board members or shareholders need assistance in financial management and business planning. However, unlike other farmer companies established at this time it has retained its shareholders, continued some of its original programs, and has sued and recovered outstanding loans. This is perhaps a testimony of the sustainability of this company. The Company is currently grappling with an overstock of seed paddy causing financial difficulties.

Given the magnitude of water used in the irrigation sector in the context of climate change, it is indeed a priority to rethink irrigation institutions. Investing in sustainable community-managed irrigation is also an investment in national food security and in poverty alleviation in an impoverished sector with a large out-migration from farming.

Dr. Namika Raby, Professor, Cultural Anthropology, at California State University, Long Beach, Is a PhD. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego. She published a study on Mahaweli System H. She was recruited and trained by the World Bank and worked for the Bank in the Philippines on a number of major irrigation management programs focusing on institutional aspects of join-management between the National Irrigation Administration and the Irrigator Associations in the National and Communal irrigation systems and in 2000 evaluated the Philippines National Program for the World Bank Institute.