sri lankan tamils

Sri Lankan Tamils around the world have built an online library to replace one torched in 1981

Among the Noolaham Digital Library’s 16,000 documents are four volumes of one of the oldest Tamil grammar books, and copies of over 24 palm-leaf manuscripts.

Seran Sivananthamoorthy is only 25 years old which is why his knowledge of the Jaffna Public Library is limited to memory and anecdote. The library with some 95,000 volumes including the only original copy of the Yalpana Vaipavamalai or the History of the Kingdom of Jaffna was set alight by a mob in 1981 as tensions rose between the island’s Sinhalese and Tamil communities in the prelude to Sri Lanka’s civil war. Miniature editions of the Ramayana, accounts of early explorers in Ceylon and a trove of ancient palm-leaf manuscripts important to Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking communities were also lost in the fire.

“There are chances it could happen again,” said Seran. This is not a reference to the possibility of renewed conflict or arson, but to the fact that the integrity of such collections are threatened by a host of factors – from pests and mould to censorship imposed by casteism and patriarchy.

This was also on Kopinath Thillainathan’s mind when he, along with a friend Mauran Muralitharan, established the Noolaham Foundation that set up the Noolaham Digital Library in 2005 whose 16,000 documents now make it one of the largest Tamil digital archives available online.

A rare repository

Sri Lanka’s colonisation and subsequent political movements have been particularly effective in marginalising voices that belong to the nation’s minority Tamil-speaking communities. Outsiders perhaps see Sri Lankan Tamils as a homogeneous group but the community comprises not just the Tamils of the north and east of Sri Lanka, but Indian Tamils whose ancestors were brought over by the British from India to work on plantations, Coast Veddas from the island’s indigenous population, and Tamil-speaking Muslim communities.

The archive is funded by the community and driven overwhelmingly by volunteers. Its contents include photographs of 5,000 timeworn pages that make up 24 palm-leaf manuscripts, and books such as Yalpana Samaya Nilai or Religion in Jaffna that date to 1893. The longest documents it has stored on its servers are four volumes of Tolkappiyam, one of the oldest Tamil grammar books.

At present, the archive also collects thirty magazines and eight newspapers. This includes the regional newspaper Valampuri, which continued to report through some of the most violent years of the island nation’s civil war, as well as Paathukavalan, the oldest Catholic weekly to be published from Jaffna, which was first printed in 1876.

Extensive archives

The library gives scholars access to documents they will not find elsewhere including pamphlets produced by Sri Lanka’s Muslim political parties and traditional documents Tamil families produce as a kind of a comprehensive obituary for their deceased loved ones.

The foundation has also started building what its members call a “biographical dictionary.” “So far we have collected details of about 2,500 personalities,” said Kopinath.

He added, “This is the first ever reference resource of this magnitude on Tamil people. We expect to document 5,000 personalities by the end of 2016 and are planning to publish print volumes as well.”

Noolaham hopes to create audio, video and photo archives too.

A passion project

Its core members make time for the foundation from their busy schedules. For instance, Kopinath, who lives in Australia, is a production manager at a factory, while young Seran has just begun to work as an engineer. Seran confesses that in many ways his heart lies with Noolaham: “I don’t want to say this archive is my part-time work. This is my spiritual work. This is what I want to do with my life.”

With three offices in Sri Lanka and working groups in the UK, Canada, Norway, Australia and USA, and more than 200 volunteers and 350 individual donors across the world, the Noolaham Digital Library seems like an extended community project. Nevertheless funding is a constant challenge as is handling copyright permissions.

An engaged community

Kopinath credits the group’s commitment to their passion project with having pulled them through a challenging decade. He judges their success by the importance the archive is seen to have among the people. A majority of visitors to the site come from Sri Lanka itself.

“Our communities are using Noolaham as a repository where they can store, preserve and retrieve their documents and knowledge,” said Kopinath, citing increasing requests for the foundation to archive personal and institutional records.

Kopinath said he feels a deep joy when he looks at the books and manuscripts the digital library has now. Born on a small island off Sri Lanka’s northern coast, he reminisced how keenly he, as a child, felt the loss of his family’s large collection of books because of their multiple displacements. After being displaced for the third time, Kopinath recalled “I had nothing in my hands.” To him and the others involved with this project, Noolaham offers a promise that such losses are not permanent. That somewhere all that lost knowledge is waiting for them to find and preserve it.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.