Momentous Changes in Ceylon instituted by the Donoughmore Commisison

Leelananda de Silva, in Sunday Times, 5 July 2020

The Donoughmore Commission which came to Sri Lanka in the late 1920s made far reaching and far seeing recommendations, which changed the political, economic and social landscape of Ceylon. The present generation is largely unaware of its role and it is time that they refresh their understanding of the tremendous changes brought in by Donoughmore.

The Earl of Donoughmore

It was a commission consisting of three Britons — the Earl of Donoughmore, Drummond Shields and Burrows. They were political personalities well known in Britain at the time and were not colonial civil servants. They had the political and social vision to overcome the objections of both the colonial masters in Sri Lanka and the local dominant political personalities who were also not in favour of radical reforms.

The most outstanding of the Donoughmore reforms which has had a lasting impact, was the recommendation to introduce universal franchise. Men and women over the age of 21 (initially the recommendation was for women over 30 years to get the vote, but this was revised) to be given the franchise, without placing any educational or income hurdles, as had been the case then.

Most politicians, especially those of the Ceylon National Congress, were opposed to universal franchise. One exception was A.E. Goonasinghe, the labour leader, but he also wanted a franchise only for adult men.

Universal franchise has led to a complete redefinition of the democratic agenda in the country. Since then, politicians had to accommodate the increasing demands of the people in drafting policies and manifestos since that time. The free elections that we have now are a consequence of universal franchise, and Sri Lanka owes a great debt of gratitude to the Donoughmore Commissioners. Sri Lanka is the first country in Asia to enjoy universal franchise. It was only a couple of years behind the United Kingdom.

Apart from universal franchise, the other major recommendation of Donoughmore was to establish a system of partial independence for the country, through the establishment of the State Council which was the legislature of the time. The State Council was based on a system of Executive Committees (the idea originated from the systems then prevailed in the London County Council and the League of Nations in Geneva), and this enabled the active participation of those elected to the State Council in the Government affairs.

There was a Board of Ministers consisting of the chairman of each Executive Committee (there were seven of them). Key subjects such as finance, legal affairs, public administration, the police and the army were to continue under the Governor and officers appointed by him. The Donoughmore system was therefore a hybrid system with partial powers devolved on the local politicians. Subjects such as agriculture, education, health, local government, trade and commerce were areas to be administered by the new local ministers.

Ministers of the Second State Council

One could see that this arrangement led to a conservative approach to public finance and balanced budgets.  Although in practice, one can see that there was some generosity on the part of the British to finance the development of some kind of a welfare state. Indeed, the origins of the welfare state in Sri Lanka can be traced back to the 1930s and 1940s. Let us look at some of the major changes brought about by the State Council. The two major changes are in agriculture and education, which were in charge of two strong ministers, D.S. Senanayake and C.W.W. Kannangara.

It was during the time of the State Council (1931-1947) that the Dry Zone was opened up. There was first, the Land Settlement Ordinance (1931) and then one of the most outstanding pieces of legislation the country has ever enacted — the Land Development Ordinance (LDO). The Land Development Ordinance provided the legislative framework for the opening up of the dry zone and the establishment of Colonisation Schemes all over the dry zone.

There was a large transfer of population from the wet zone to the dry zone in the 20 to 30 years from 1931. A whole new system of agriculture, based on irrigation works which had long been neglected, was developed during this time. There was a new system of tenure for the new peasantry that was created by the LDO. These peasants and their families were granted limited tenure and there were restrictions on the sale of their properties. As a result, land transactions in the dry zone were restricted, but the peasants retained their land (in recent years, this appears to be changing).

Another major achievement of the State Council was in the field of education. Apart from the many changes that were instituted, three of them need to be highlighted — the introduction of a system of free education in 1942, the establishment of Central Schools and a higher education system. Free education is arguably the most important lever of political, economic and social change in the country aside from the system of universal franchise, and which has led to a major transformation in Sri Lanka. It is free education that has led to the high levels of welfare and human development for which Sri Lanka is now well known among the developing countries.

The establishment of Central Schools was an innovative approach to bring English education to the rural areas. The Colebrooke-Cameron Commission in 1831 had recommended the establishment of one major educational institution to offer English education to the locals (that was what led to the establishment of Royal College, then the Colombo Academy). Central Schools, as originally envisaged were to have a strong vocational bias, which, however, was not implemented. The Central School system for a brief period of time (about 1950 to 1960) enabled rural children to get into universities with a good standard of English and enabled them to pursue their higher studies in the English medium, which alone gave access to a wider literature in all subjects.

If that system continued, some of the problems of the present day would have been avoided, enabling Sri Lanka to achieve a higher level of development.

Another important step was in higher education. The University of Ceylon Ordinance (1942) established a University for Ceylon. In the next 25 to 30 years, this University provided a continuing supply of graduates for the higher administration and to the medical, engineering and teaching professions. The university was created as an autonomous institution, detached from the day to day politics of the country. The expectation was to have a high quality, prestigious university in Peradeniya.

There are many other interesting aspects of the period of the State Council (1931-1947) which might be noted briefly. During that period, the politicians largely came from the English speaking middle and upper classes. The standards of debate in the State Council were of a high standard. It can be observed from the Hansards of the time, that most members of the Council took a great effort to maintain high standard of debate.

There were hardly any political parties at the time, and most members were elected on the basis of their individual standing, rather than on party lines. (Was that a better system?) The caste factor played an important role both in the delimitation of constituencies, and the election of members. The communal factor also emerged as an important determinant in the local political scene.

In the 1950s, when we were undergraduates at Peradeniya, and studying political science, the State Council was a subject of study, and the Donoughmore Report was alive and well. I.D.S. Weerawardana, a lecturer in politics, had written his postgraduate thesis on the workings of the Donoughmore Constitution.

It is probably opportune now for local university political faculties to examine the Donoughmore system and see whether there are any lessons to be learnt from that experience. It might also be appropriate for the Government Printer to republish the Donoughmore Report for a new generation.

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Leelananda De Silva is a Mahindian who entered the CCS after securing a degree in Economics at Peradeniya University.he has wide experience in administration both in Sri Lanka and abroad


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