Life On Mars:
No Water, No Road Makes Sri Lankan Town As Remote As Outer Space
In central Sri Lanka, there is an area called Mars. At first it was named for the distant planet because of its remoteness. But now other reasons make it difficult to inhabit.
One would not think it possible to visit Mars without a spaceship. However there is a part of Sri Lankan that goes by the same name as the red planet.
To get to Mars from Colombo – a distance of 417 kilometres – one must travel by bus to Mahiyanganaya in the centre of the island and take a three-wheeler from there; it is remote and not many people go there.
Half of our problems would be over if we had water and a decent road. We could do everything else ourselves.
How did Mars get its name? One of the residents there, a farmer, H. M. Premaratne, explains the moniker. The farmers working here used to use “chena” – that is, “an area of virgin or secondary timberland in a tropical region cleared and cultivated for only a few years and then abandoned”. They would move from chena to chena, and many of them would hardly leave the area. Because they were so isolated and it was such a different world, somebody came up with the nickname “Mars”. It stuck.
That was back when there was plentiful water here, Premaratne recounts. Today a lack of irrigation has made the place into a real Mars, he continues. “No water and no way of life,” he complains.
A sluice gate nearby broke and was never repaired and the canal built to help bring water to Mars, was poorly planned and built. “Up until today no water has flowed down this canal,” says another local, Wijebanda Walagedara. It should have been built on a slope, Walagedara continues, but was not. “The contractors just dug up the canal as though it was a drain. No water has flowed here but the contractors were still paid,” Walagedara notes. “I wrote to the authorities to complain but I have had no reply. Maybe it is because we are from Mars.”
Today people in Mars cultivate their lands once a year and they must wait for rain to fall. If there is not enough rain for a harvest, they go into the forests and collect honey or medicinal plants, roots and seeds, or they find work mining sand in a nearby river.
The people of Mars have other problems. Wild elephants are both a nuisance and a danger, and fences and wild life rangers cannot prevent them from entering the area.
“The elephant fence exists only in name,” says M. D. Amarasinghe, who has lived in Mars for around 25 years. “The officials from the wild life department come in the day and the elephants come at night. How can we live off our one harvest when the elephants come and eat it all?”
The children of Mars also find it hard to get an education as the schools are far away and the roads leading to Mars are bad.
“We could build a new world here if there was sufficient water and a proper elephant fence,” says another farmer, Dharmadasa.
“We don’t cultivate our crops with any confidence,” adds local man A. D. Weeraratne. “Half of our problems would be over if we had water and a decent road. We could do everything else ourselves. And we could change the name, Mars,” he adds.