Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

TABLE 2.4 Population of the North Central Province (Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa districts), 1931-73

Description Census Year
1931 1946 1953 1963 1973
Total population 97,361 139,524 229,300 393,700 553,065
Percentage increase over 0.9 43.3 63.3 71.6 40.5
the preceding census          
Density per km2 9 12 20 34 48

Source: Central Bank of Ceylon, Survey of Economic Conditionsin the Mahaweli Development Area,Colombo,1975.

Recent Population Increase and Its Impact on Land Use in the Dry Zone

Village expansion and the establishment of colonization schemes are two positive results of government development efforts made in the Dry Zone after the 1930s. In addition, several other official policies have attempted to develop the Dry Zone:

1) The development of several multi-purpose irrigation schemes, to provide irrigation water at very nominal cost.

2) The liberal provision of agricultural credit, through the national banks and a network of co-operative
societies, easy terms and conditions of loan repayment.

3) The adoption of guaranteed price schemes for the paddy and other crops.

4) The successful propagation of a variety of high yielding crops with the main emphasis on paddy.

5) The establishment of a network of purchasing points of paddy and other crops under the Paddy Marketing Board and the Co-operative Department.

6) The restriction or the imposition of total bans on the import of subsidiary food crops that can be locally grown, mostly in the Dry Zone.

7) The development of transport and communications with a nationalized bus service linking many remote parts of the Dry Zone with urban centres, thus
encouraging travel and mobility.

8) The development of health and other community services.

Owing to these policies, there has been a pronounced increase in population in the Dry Zone in recent years. In the North Central Province (Anuradhapura and

Polonnaruwa districts) where the population was almost stagnant from 1871 to 1931, there has been a rapid increase in population in recent years. During the 42 years from 1931 to 1973, the population increased by more than five times (Table 2.4).

Even though there is a network of irrigation tanks, recurrent droughts still cause partial and complete crop losses in the Dry Zone. Because of the relatively low level of technology available to the Dry Zone peasants, they are unable to minimize the drought losses satisfactorily. Their destiny lies in the limited water stored in tanks or received from seasonal rains. Limitation of water in a dry or arid environment essentially means limitation of cropping extent (irrigated paddy mostly). Where cropping extent is limited and the population increase is yet to be effectively checked there is an inevitable increase of population pressure on available irrigated lands.

TABLE 2.5. Rotation of the Right of Cultivation (Tattumaru) in the Kapiriggama Old Field

Size of Holding
No. of Parcels of Land Held by
1/4 16 1 1 1 1
1/2 25 4 2 2 0

Source: M. U. A. Tennakoon, Rural Sertlement and Land Use in North Central Sri Lanka, M,A. thesis (unpublished) Syracuse University, 1974,

TABLE 2.6. Fragmented and Dispersed Land Holdings

Village Paddy
Total Number of Individual Holdingr Each Having an Extent of Total
l 1/16 1/8 1/4 1/2 3/4 1 1-1/2 over 1
Acres "
act act act act act act ace.  
(253m) (506m) (1,012m) (2,023m) (3,035m) (4,047m) (6,070m)  
1. Kepiriggama 25 4 2 5 11 - - - - - 22 7.50 (3.1 )
2. Kapiriggama 158 - - 4 9 - - - - - 1 3 5.5012.2)
3. Kapiriggarna 162 - 2 3 9 - - - - - 14 5.50 12.2)
4. Galewewa 13 - - 1 5 4 1 - - - 11 6.75 (2.7)
5. Gelwewna 14 - - 1 6 1 2 - - - 10 6.00 (2.4)
6. Galawewa 18 - - 3 1 3 1 - - - 8 4.50 (1.8)
7. Katupatwewa 3 - - - 3 1 - - - - 4 2.5011.0)
8. Katupatwewa 11 - - 1 1 - 2 - - - 4 2.7511.1)
9. Katupatwewa 26 - - 1 1 - 3 - - - 5 3.7511.51
10. Katupatwewa 14 - - - 2 1 1 - - - 4 3.7511.5)

Source: M. U. A. Tennakoon, Rural Settlement and Land Use ;in North Central Sri Lanka. M.A. thesis (unpublished)), Syracuse University, 1974. ISee Table 15, p. 113 and Table 16, p. 115).

Note: The names of the ten farmers have been omitted. Instead, the respective Paddy Lands Registers' Serial Numbers assigned to these farmers (in 19731 have been used. These three villages are situated on the transitional region between the Arid Zone and the Dry Zone proper (Fig. 1).

Land Subdivision

In the absence of a strong non-agricultural sector of employment to absorb labour from an increasing agricultural population, land subdivision is unavoidable, particularly in an Asian country such as Sri Lanka where parents divide their lands equally among their children. The three immediate results of such subdivision of holdings are:

1 ) Fragmentation.
2) Reduction of the size of operational holdings.
3) Dispersed location of farm holdings.

Several studies have been made on the problem of land subdivision in the Dry Zone {Water Resource Development Board 1966; Weerawardane and Kollonnege 1972; Tennakoon 1974). Fragmented and dispersed land holdings of ten farmers in three villages as given in Table 2.5 indicate the magnitude of the problem.

Table 2.6 shows that some holdings are as small as one sixteenth of an acre (0.025 ha). Such tiny holdings can no longer be satisfactorily subdivided; they are, therefore,
jointly held by several persons and only the right of cultivation is rotated (tattumaru) according to an agreed upon roster. Co-owned holdings are not only uneconomical to operate but are also the holdings least maintained.

Dispersed holdings of an individual are not always confined to his village of residence. The change of residence from one village to another is implicit in both patrilocal and matrilocal residence systems in the Dry Zone rural community (Leach 1956). It is a factor responsible for the wide dispersion of subdivided holdings of a peasant in his village of origin and his village of residence. If the parents of such an individual are from two different villages other than the village of his residence he is likely to own lands dispersed in several villages (Tennakoon 1972). Thus, in any village, its present settlers own lands in a large number of outside villages, and conversely, many residents of a large number of other villages will own lands in that village. For instance, farmer number 1 in Table 2.6 owned 22 separate holdings totalling 7.5 acres (3.1 ha) in extent under the main tank and a minor tank of his resident village. He also owned 13 other holdings totalling 6 acres (2.4 ha) in three other villages. All in all, he held 35 individual parcels of land totalling 13.5 acres (5.5 ha) in extent under five different tanks in 1973. He had to walk several miles on foot to get to some of his distant land holdings.

Fragmentation and dispersion of holdings often lead to staggered cultivation of irrigated paddy lands. Undoubtedly, staggered cultivation in a subsistence economy has many advantages. It means a spatial spread of the drought risk and is a strategy to obtain a steady food supply during a greater period of the year, spreading demand for scarce inputs, permitting replanting when a crop is lost in the early stage of growth (Chambers 1975), spreading agricultural labour utility, etc. However, it is a major cause of the waste of precious tank storage water. In the 189-acre (76.9 ha) Old Field of Kapiriggama with 484 individual operational holdings during the main cultivation season (October-February) of 1972/73, land preparation commenced in early November 1972 with the collective agreement of the landholders that sowing be completed on or before 30 November. Only a few farmers were able to complete sowing by the end of November and most farmers sowed throughout the month of December. The last batch of farmers completed sowing during the first week of January 1973. In other words, land preparation and sowing took more than twice the time expected (Tennakoon 1974). The paddy sown was of a three-and-a-ha)f month variety. Hence, those who completed sowing by the end of November needed water until February, but those who completed sowing only in January needed water until mid April.

It is also important to note that the high-sun period in

February and March, with maximum day temperatures often near 32 C and no rain, required a large amount of water to be released from the tank to offset excessive evaporation and seepage. Thus, a three-and-a-half month paddy which needed about four months of irrigation, including the land preparation requirements, needed five and-a-half months of irrigation in the Kapiriggama Old Field because of the staggered cultivation. Here, too many hands in too few lands also wasted too much water in field irrigation. There were 917 "openings" from the two main irrigation ditches and their distributory ditches in the Old Fields to release water to the 484 individually operated holdings. This used more water than necessary in the competition to provide individual holdings with as much water as possible. The net result of this wasteful use of water during the main cultivation season was the non-cultivation of paddy lands in the vi)lage during the second season from April to July in 1973.

The peasants who owned paddy holdings in the Old Fields of Kapiriggama owned Paddy holdings in the Field Blocks of the village as well as in paddy lands in outside villages. It was impossible for them to cultivate all such dispersed lands by themselves on time. Many of them have canvassed some landless or near-landless peasants from those outside villages to sharecrop their holdings outside Kapiriggama village, not because they possessed too much land but because they had far too many tiny parcels of highly dispersed land, making the management of all of them often impossible. Both these systems-staggered cultivation and sharecropping-often result in poor yields. The former system does not give the owner a sufficient opportunity to cultivate and manage all the lands efficiently and on time, while in the latter the sharecropper is not interested in any form of improved and efficient cultivation because he is not sure of his tenure next season!

Where the availability of water restricts the further expansion of irrigated paddy lands, subdivision leads the peasants towards landlessness. Their harvests tend to dwindle in accordance with this continuing process. In addition, there is the constant threat of crop losses due to frequent droughts. Hence, the peasant farmers take precautions on the one hand to supplement the dwindling harvests of existing paddy lands and on the other hand to have an insurance against possible crop losses in irrigated lands due to droughts. Two precautionary measures that they often take are:

1) The expansion of paddy cultivation into the marginal lands in the village which could be only partially irrigated with tank water when the tank has a full storage during the main cultivation season from October to February.

2) Chena cultivation which is a source of supplementary food and a form of crop insurance as it
was in the past and which has a recently added objective of growing subsidiary food crops for sale.

The expansion of paddy cultivation into marginal lands in colonization schemes is popularly known as "encroachment cultivation." These encroachments take place in the reserved lands often adjacent to the paddy tracts in the colonization schemes. Though in theory the encroachment cultivation is illegal, in recent years no serious action has been taken against the encroachers. After several appeals made to the Government Agent of the district by such "illegal" cultivators to permit them to possess the lands that they have been cultivating, they are regularized by the government, that is, a leasehold title is granted at a land kochcheri on payment of nominal "fines" by the offenders.

This approach has been adopted by the government to get over the problems arising out of conflicts inherent in the development policy. On the one hand, the government has declared that encroachment on government land is illegal, while on the other hand it follows an avowed policy of increasing food production, partly through expanding the area under cultivation. The two aims are in fact conflicting. Yet, it is said that they are necessary because it is essential that government have absolute control over land in order to undertake development activities as smoothly as possible.

As has been observed in the villages of Etaweeragollewa, Ehetuwagama, and Ralapanewa, some of the paddy holdings in the outer periphery of Field Blocks were once encroached lands but were subsequently regularized. This has happened in most of the villages in the north central Dry Zone. The extent to which the outer periphery of a Field Block could expand onto the side slopes of the ridges that separate the valleys is determined by two major factors:

1) The availability of a gravity-guided flow of tank water to inundate these new expansions at least during a part of the main cultivation season.

2) The extent of the alluvial soils on the side slopes.

The expansion of the outer periphery of the Field Blocks often comes to a halt where allovial soils give way to reddish brown earth. This is because of the excessive irrigation water requirements of the porous reddish brown earth. In areas where this reality has been ignored and parts of Field Blocks have stretched out onto the reddish brown earth, waste of water in irrigation is high. Apart from the water losses within such fields, there are additional losses of irrigation water en route due to seepage from the channel beds on the higher contours, evaporation, and leakage. Thus, the over-expansion of fields in the Field Block, which is the natural outcome of increasing population pressure on land, creates a situation in which the amount of water stored in the tank is inadequate for irrigating all the paddy lands depending on it, even in most years of normal rainfall.

In fact, some of the newer fields in the Field Blocks in the villages under study are on higher side-slopes and the gravity flow of tank water to such fields ceases when there occurs even a slight drop from full storage of water in the tank. As a result these fields have the highest drought risk of all paddy lands.

The emergence of a wide Parkland between the Field Blocks and the Forest Zone is largely due to the repeated but often unsuccessful attempts to expand the outer periphery of the Field Blocks by taking more land under paddy cultivation. Though the initial capital expenditure in opening up such marginal paddy fields is low, frequent crop failures in them incur heavy losses to their developers. Often hit by crop failures due to drought, they are gradually abandoned. These abandonments expand the area of Parkland, which provides some grazing ground for village cattle and increases visibility of wild animals invading the crops in the inner paddy fields. However, these advantages of the expanding Parkland are believed to be more than offset by the way that they seem to encourage the acceleration of dry winds due to the presence of more open land than necessary. These dry winds assist the rapid evaporation of water in the fields, often contributing to the water shortages in the inundated paddy fields.

The Field Blocks in a village also have expanded in recent years down the valley below the Old Fields. Here, though the alluvial soil is favourable for moisture retention, field expansion causes at least three major problems. First is the creation of more paddy fields than can be irrigated by the available storage of water in the tank. This exposes more paddy lands to the threat of drought.

The #coed problem is perhaps more detrimental to the village economy in the long run. In the past, a distinct "waste land" was maintained between the paddy fields of a village above and the water-spread area of a tank down stream. This area acted as an effective filter in transporting and depositing most of the soil eroded during heavy rains and run-off from the paddy fields higher up the valley. It is into this waste land below the Old Field that Field Blocks have expanded. These new paddy fields not only provide a freer flow of sediments from above but also provide expanded areas of Potential erosion, thus adding to the load of silt transported down to the tank immediately below them. Many informants in the study sites - Etaweeragollewa, Ehetuwagama, and Ralapanewa-made varying assessments (from 1 to 2 metres) of silt accumulated in their reservoirs largely due to this new land development. Their assessments were based on the observations of the soil profiles exposed on the side walls of
temporary wells dug in the tank beds during the last drought from 1973 to 1976. Ralapanewa tank, which is the deepest of the three village tanks, is said to have had nearly 4 metres of releasable water storage at its sluice level 20 years ago, but now has merely 2.7 metres. Though the impact of siltation on the storage capacity is not greatly felt in large tanks immediately, the proportionate storage losses due to siltation in small tanks are soon felt.

The third problem is that, while tank storage capacities are lost due to siltation, the high rate of evaporation in the Dry Zone steadily reduces the stored-up water (Fig.2.5). The complete destruction of vegetation in what was once waste land between a stretch of paddy and a tank below, has also removed the natural wind buffer zone (gaspommana, meaning "tree belt"). The dry winds increase evaporation, and the losses due to evaporation may be as high as 1.9 to 2.2 metres of storage depth per year in medium-sized tanks.'

In the foregoing paragraphs it has been shown that given a certain amount of storage water in tanks lateral expansion of field cultivation has almost reached its limits, and that the efforts made to expand cultivation into marginal lands have created many problems in the ecosystem. Faced by this situation most farmers with limited or no irrigated paddy lands began to concentrate heavily on chena cultivation to grow food crops and to sell a part of the produce for cash income.

Chena Cultivation

Chena cultivation is undoubtedly the oldest form of agriculture in the villages. Following the construction or restoration of a tank, the jungle immediately below the tank bund is first cleared for chena cultivation where highland rice is cultivated. After one or two crops the tree stumps rot and the land is divided into a permanent paddy field, which with the passage of time comes to be known as an Old Field (Codrington 1938). Once the Old Field develops as a permanently irrigated field, the chena practice spreads to the adjoining area, where the field development gives way to Field Blocks. Then chena cultivation pushes outwards creating Parkland. In these chenas the main crop had been highland paddy. Thus, while a type of chena practice in this manner expanded from the valley bottoms to the side slopes, which eventually gave way to the development of irrigated paddy lands, there is yet another type of chenas practiced from time immemorial in the unirrigable highlands (crests and upper slopes of ridges) to grow other crops (dry grains). The concern here is with this latter category of chena cultivation which is widely practiced throughout the Dry Zone.

Up to the 1940s areal expansion of chenas was insignificant. The population during that time being low, the pressure on irrigated paddy lands was also low in these subsistence agricultural communities. The neighbouring village forests being large and the contenders for chena cultivation being limited, it was only after 10 to 15 years that a former chena site was reopened.

Even in the past, the limitation of irrigable lands was a cause for at least some peasants to pursue chena cultivation. But the more compelling need was to practice chena cultivation as a form of crop insurance against a possible loss of irrigated paddy crop mostly due to drought.

During the 1950s the areal expansion of chena cultivation was increasing rather slowly and in most Dry Zone villages the fallow period remained between eight and ten years. This was due to several reasons:

1) The concentration of development was on irrigated paddy.

2) Although the population had increased and the demand for cultivable land was high in the villages, there were abandoned or derelict tanks close by where new irrigated paddy lands could be developed. Thus, while the new settlers concentrated on the cultivation of paddy lands in the colonization schemes, those who did not have sufficient extent of irrigated paddy in the villages concentrated mostly on the development of irrigated paddy lands under hitherto abandoned or neglected tanks.

3) The external assets piled up during the "Korean War Boom," due to the high prices that Sri Lanka's plantation crops fetched in the world market, enabled the purchase of necessary subsidiary food crops at reasonable prices from overseas. Hence there was no incentive to grow them in chenas.

However, during the 1960s and 1970s there was a marked increase in the demand for chena cultivation in the Dry Zone due to the combined effect of a number of factors:

1) The reduction of Sri Lanka's foreign exchange reserve, which began in the late 1950s and worsened in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Central Bank Reports 1960-1974). This forced the government to restrict the import of subsidiary food crops and then to impose a complete ban on the importation of many of them in 1972. The inevitable result was the rise in prices of those crops,33 making their cultivation attractive to the chena cultivators.

2) In the 1960s the population pressure on irrigated land became somewhat acute. Those siblings of the settlers of the colonization schemes established during the late 1930s and early 1940s now had family responsibilities of their own, yet still depended on their parents' lands-subdivision of which was legally prohibited. In addition to these second-generation people, there were the landless relatives and friends of the colonists who came from their homes in the Wet Zone seeking to secure some land to cultivate in the colonization schemes.

TABLE 2.7. Extent of Chena Cuitivation, 1972/73

Name of
Number of Families Maximum
Extent of
Paddy Field
in Acres
In the
(hectares) (hectares) (hectares) Ihectares) "hectares)
Galewewa 68 67 5 (2) 0.5 (0.2) 1.8 (0.7) 117 (47.6) 72 (29.3)
Katupatwewa 36 36 3 (1.2) 1.5 (0.6) 2.7 (1.1) 98 (39.9) 103 (41.9)
Kapiriggama 70 50 3 (1.2) 0.5 (0.2) 1.3 (0.5) 65 (26.4) 432 (175.8)

Source: M. U. A. Tennakoon, Rural Settloment and Land Use in North Centra/ Sri Lanka, M.A. thesis (unpublished), Syracuse University, 1974.


Contents - Previous - Next