Sri Lanka tries to prop up limping economy with power, farm projects

For more than 75 years, Sri Lanka farmer N. M. P. J. Mudiyanse has toiled on 15 acres of hardscrabble land. Even in good year his 12 children barely escaped hunger.

Today, however, Mr. Mudiyanse along with 25,000 other poor farmers is benefiting from an audacious development scheme that the government hopes will eventually change the economic face of this West Virginia-sized island off the coast of southeast India.

The Mahaweli Ganga Development Program calls for boosting the country's total amount of irrigated land 40 percent, to 1.2 million acres. It also calls for tapping more of the country's vast hydroelectric resources, and resettling 140, 000 peasant families. Completion is targeted for the mid-1980s.

The $2 billion program, backed by the World Bank and aid agencies from six Western nations, is considered vital to Sri Lanka's economic well-being. Beset by food shortages the past several years, the country has had to import some 30 percent of its rice. Some 16 percent of its workers are unemployed.

But the development program is already improving conditions in some areas. The arid, scrub-covered region around Anuradhapura -- just four years ago populated more with elephants, cobras, and kraits than people -- is slowly being turned into productive farmland.

The waters of the Mahaweli Ganga, the country's major river, are being diverted and stored in reservoirs, some excavated by kings 2,400 years ago. An estimated 40,000 acres of jungle bush have been cleared. Irrigation canals etch the landscape. A few farmers have been moved into the area to work small plots.

The diversion program has also survived its first test: a drought, lasting from 1976 to 1978, that some feared would undermine the irrigating of 132,000 acres.

To help the resettled farmers, the government has built new health clinics, processing plants, and schools. "After expenses this year, I made enough to send two of my children to the university," Mr. Mudiyanse beams. "And that could never have happened if i hadn't moved here."

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