By Anushaya Collure and
Uva-Wellasa, in Sri Lanka’s Uva province, is best known for the rebellion initiated by local farmers against the British in 1818. Over the next century, it became synonymous with popular struggles and popular activism, where women were in the foreground.
The struggles against the imposition of a water tax in 1984 by the UNP government under the leadership of JR Jayewardene, affecting rural farmers and the Pelwatte struggle in the 1980s and early 1990s are two of the most important of them. These two events took place in the form of peasant struggles against the state and the latter also against its international investors.
Chandra Hewagallage, or Chandra akka, as many of us knew her, who passed away on December 21, 2021, personified this irrepressible spirit of Uva-Wellassa. She has dedicated her life to improving her birthplace and contributing to the work of civil society organizations across Sri Lanka.
Chandra from her youth was an enthusiastic social worker and activist in her area and influenced her younger siblings to work with her. Together with her sister Amara, she joined the Talahena-based Community Development Center (CDC) in 1979. Chandra first became involved in workers’ struggles over the water tax problem affecting rural farmers. . In 1984, the state proclaimed that it would tax farmers at Rs. 100 (in 1984 the average rate for Rs./USD was 25.44) per acre for water use from large irrigations with an annual increase of 20% and ultimately set at Rs. 200 per acre. All farmers living in resettlement programs had to pay taxes and violators were to be prosecuted.
The women’s wing of the CDC in Okkampitiya had launched a campaign against the water tax in Monaragala. Chandra and the team held public protests in solidarity with affected farmers on the days they were called to court. In addition, they mobilized the women of the region to fight against this injustice.
Chandra, as a leading member of the CDC’s Okkampitiya Women’s Wing, mobilized women and protested against the destruction of commons and land dispossession in the 1980s in Monaragala with others, especially with the creation of the Pelwatte Sugar Company (PSC). For women, the commons and land ownership were fundamental to the subsistence economy, ensuring food production for family needs and income.
In 1988, she helped found the Association of Women Farmers of Uva-Wellasa and, as one of its leaders, was involved in the workers’ struggle initiated by unions affiliated to the PSC in 1992. This included a large-scale public demonstration in February 1992, and Chandra, one of the women leaders, played a leading role in the fight for this cause. The struggles against the imposition of the water tax and the PSC can both be identified as important turning points in feminist activism in the agricultural sector and against state repression in post-independence Sri Lanka. .
Later, Chandra co-founded the National Vikalpani Women’s Federation in 2001 and began her lifelong engagement with women’s activism regarding ecological agriculture. At the local level, she has led numerous awareness programs on gender-based violence and the economic empowerment of rural women through ecological agriculture that has benefited generations in the remote and disadvantaged farming communities of the country. Through her organization, she has guided and supported local farmers; promote and facilitate traditional methods of organic food production, which would ensure a supply of nutritious foods.
Leading Vikalpani as a partner organization of the Malaysia-based Pesticide Action Network Asia-Pacific (PAN AP), Chandra has worked to link local struggles and UVA-Wellasa issues with global platforms to effect change and influence at a broader level. Attached to Vikalpani Chandra has organized large-scale public meetings against pesticides, notably against the importation of glyphosate in 2014 despite the numerous death threats she has received. Chandra has also conducted advocacy programs and research against the spread of chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) and assisted those affected.
Chandra had been an advocate of ecological agriculture since the early 1990s, as opposed to the impacts of the Green Revolution in Sri Lanka with the state’s promotion of agriculture using agrochemicals. She believed that everyone should have access to nutritious, pesticide-free food and that food crops should not be dominated by the conditions imposed by large agrochemical and biotechnology companies.
Chandra Hewagallage was a person who went out of her way to help and assist others and encouraged the younger generation in every way possible. She persevered to do everything to the best of her ability despite the challenges she faced such as threats to her life when she conducted awareness programs against importing glyphosate and dwindling funding sources.
The last time we met her in person was in June 2019, when we visited her home filled with musical instruments that belonged to her late father. Chandra shared with us that it was the free and understanding environment that Chandra and Amara grew up in that got them involved in activism. His association was mainly with the oppressed peasantry and had supported working class struggles such as the Polytex strike initiated by workers in the free trade zone in 1982 in Ja-ela, Western Province.
While being a very humble and unpretentious person, she leaves an inspiring legacy as an activist fully committed to the causes she has chosen to support. At a time when there is a serious crisis in food production in the country due to erratic government actions and the growing influence of profit-oriented agro-industries in agricultural policy-making, severely affecting small food producers, her loss is being done immensely not only by the people who worked closely with her but also by the causes she defended.
It leaves an important void in the fight for humanity, to ensure sustainable development for this generation and the next through a healthy lifestyle. We consider him lucky to have known her. Rest in power, Chandra akka!