Under Fire: Sri Lanka’s Colonization Programmes and Economic Policies 1920s-to-2020

Michael Roberts

An Excursion in Mid-May 2021

In mid-May I received a short note from a Sri Lankan [SR] in Colombo which contained potentially severe criticisms of the colonisation programmes initiated by the colonial and post-colonial government in the course of the 20th century. Insofar as this comment arose from his reading of my interview with the British CCS man Dyson (within the Roberts Oral History Project[1] of the 1960s), it embraced events and processes that commenced in the 1920s and centred on the programmes fostered by DS Senanayake.  His thoughts on the agricultural policies were far-reaching, albeit brief.

SR had impressed me greatly with one of his works;[2] but had no academic background. So, in promoting responses from several scholars and intellectuals with some measure of experience in the fields of economic policy and the place of peasant agriculture in Sri Lanka over the past hundred years, I did not disclose his name. The focus had to be on content, not credentials.

Of the TEN personnel presented with this invitation and challenge, FOUR have responded thus far (22 May 2021).

So, now, I place the SR Critique up-front with HIGHLIGHTS imposed by my hand to mark his central contentions. Thereafter, I present the four responses. Battle has been joined and there is a lot of food for thought.  I have taken the liberty of highlighting some words to mark central contentions; but readers should pursue their own lines of emphasis.

RS’s Memo, circa 14 May 2021

Hi, Michael. Just read the transcript of your interview with E.T. Dyson, which I found very illuminating. Though I’m happy to say it didn’t send me rushing back to my MS to correct it! I notice that at one point you seemed to be leading Dyson to make a criticism of D.S. Senanayake’s Dry Zone colonization schemes. Of course, we see these as a kind of primitive gerrymandering these days. Do you think Lanka would have been better off today if not for the fetishization of rural peasant life and its connexion to the Sinhalese Buddhist nation-myth?

Not a work-related question. I’m just curious. In my own view this mythology is why governments to this day squander money on agricultural subsidies to support an unproductive peasantry.

All the best,

Comment from Mick Moore[3] of the University of Sussex, May 2021 ….

Peasant Fetishization

The colonization of the Dry Zone from the 1930s onwards was perhaps of the most effective set of public policies implemented by any government in Sri Lanka over the last century. It contributed significantly to reducing pressure on land in the Wet Zone and alleviating the impact of the long economic crisis of the 1960s and 1970s, when the plantation export economy was shrinking steadily, population was growing fast, and new sources of livelihoods, like the garment industry and tourism, had not yet emerged.

Dry Zone colonization was part of a broader package of agricultural policies, including a very successful research component. Sri Lankan staff of the Department of Agriculture were being sent abroad for degrees and training from the mid-1920s. Serious, practical research on agricultural soils dates back to the 1930s. The ‘Green Revolution’ did not erupt in Sri Lanka as it did in the Indian Punjab in the 1960s because Sri Lanka started rice breeding earlier, focused on crossing local varieties with high yielding foreign cultivars rather than simply importing exotics, and made more steady progress. The H4 variety, which was a cross between a local Indica rice and an Indonesian Japonica, and bred by Herbert Weeraratne at Bathalagoda, was released in 1957. It fed millions of Sri Lankans over the next two or three decades. It was followed by dozens of other new varieties matched to the wide diversity of local growing conditions. Sri Lanka was at that point close to the forefront in Asia of practical rice breeding research in actual farmers’ field conditions. The Mahailluppallama agricultural research station, near Kekirawa, became part of the Asian tour route for agricultural specialists. The Department of Agriculture was widely recognised for a broad general competence, including in agricultural extension.

Weeraratne was one of a cadre of distinguished professionals, many with overseas degrees, who chose to work in agriculture and out in the Dry Zone rather than take a comfortable job in Colombo because they had a sense of mission. When Ernest Abeyratne, holder of a First Class London BSc., became Director of Mahailluppallama agricultural research station in 1951, he was living right out in the boondocks. He worked closely there with soil scientist Dr Chris Panabokke. Both were impressive public servants who went on later to serve as Directors of Agriculture.

Abeyratne, Panabokke and Weeraratne – and the thousands of other people who worked in very challenging conditions in surveying, public health, irrigation, road construction and agriculture to make Dry Zone resettlement possible – were not just doing a job. They were also helping to take the nation out of poverty and constructing modern versions of the ancient Sinhalese Dry Zone kingdoms. That inspiration came in part from the fetishization of both the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist myth and of the authentic, harmonious Sinhala Buddhist, built around the chaitya (temple), wewa (irrigation tank) and yaya (paddy field). Rice too was fetishized. D.S. Senanayake was not among the most fluent exponents of these nationalist myths, but he was principally responsible for turning them into budgets and resources to develop the Dry Zone. Later Ministers of Agriculture and Lands, including C.P. de Silva and M.D. Banda, shared the vision.

There were downsides and mistakes. The new settlers were principally Sinhalese. They moved into territories previously occupied by Tamil speakers or people of ambiguous linguistic and religious identities. As the Departments of Agriculture and Irrigation were doing their work of physical reconstruction, the Department of Archaeology was reconstructing history, by neglecting, ignoring or displacing evidence of non-Sinhalese and non-Buddhist pasts. There was too much focus on growing rice, in environments where a wide range of more specialist crops would have been more rewarding. Too much of the research budget was focused on rice, and farmers were often forbidden from growing other crops on what were designated as rice fields. Fertiliser-intensive rice growing led to those serious problems of contaminated drinking water and kidney disease that we hear so much of today. But the achievements were considerable.

Would Sri Lanka have been better off today without the fetishization of rural peasant life and its connexion to the Sinhalese Buddhist nation-myth? It is a very pointed and productive question. I am reluctant to answer it directly, because it requires too many historical ‘what-ifs’. But I can suggest an answer to a slightly less ambitious set of questions: when, where and for whom has this fetishization of rural (Sinhalese Buddhist) peasant life proved useful?

If we go back to the period of the 1930s-1970s, the country generally benefitted from the Dry Zone colonization that these myths helped animate. They helped channel significant amounts of public money and a degree of popular enthusiasm into sensible investments that generally benefitted the poorer, rural population. Since the 1970s, that fetishization has come increasingly to look like manipulation that serves no broader public purpose. Governments have focused very largely on urban, manufacturing and large infrastructure activities. Those activities have disproportionately benefitted small numbers of politically-connected people. Actual tax collection (as a %) of GDP, has been cut by more than half since 1990, so that government has much less money to spend on development. The food ration scheme has been gradually abolished. Teachers’ salaries have been heavily cut in real terms. Very little public money is now invested in agriculture of any kind. As with so many government agencies, the calibre of people and of programmes in the ever-increasing number of agriculture-related departments has fallen sharply. The suggestion that one of the purposes of the Sri Lankan state is to nurture the village and village agriculture is no longer credible.

True that governments have been spending money subsidising fertiliser and are now banning imports of various foods to push up prices and, so they claim, promote local agriculture – at of course the expense of the great majority of households who purchase nearly all their food in the market. But, at the same time, the government is promising to make life very hard for food producers by banning the import of chemical fertilisers – in a situation where organic alternatives will not be available for many years. Certainly, if you are a potato farmer, it is great that government is now banning potato imports and ensuring that you get a good price this week. But how much confidence do you have that government will hold the line for the next month? More important, are you so confident that this will be consistent policy in the future that you will start investing in increasing potato production and improving storage and transport for next year and the year after?

True that the Sri Lankan small farm sector is relatively unproductive. But that is in large part because for decades now it has received little serious, intelligent or consistent policy attention, and few public resources. The current government is not consistently promoting or subsidising peasant or small agriculture. The sector is a political plaything. The fetishization of the traditional village is the bat used to whack this particular ball around in all directions. The attention nominally and sporadically directed at the village, at small farm agriculture, and at their place at the historic heart of the Sinhalese Buddhist tradition is a political diversion. We are asked to watch gama, chaitya, yaya and wewa being lauded and venerated while the political energies of the state executive are focused on how big money can be made through large scale construction and cashing in on Sri Lanka’s strategic economic and geo-political location.

True that in the 1930s-1970s, politicians and ideologues were also manipulating and misusing the imagery of the village and the peasant for their own reasons. But that misuse helped drive a productive national mission and gave the peasant something in return.

  ****  ****

Comment from SWR De Samarasinghe, [4] May 2021

Public Policy and National Leadership in Sri Lanka

Public policy in Sri Lanka in respect of almost all major areas from agriculture, manufacturing, services such as IT, trade, education, and health, to physical infrastructure and foreign policy needs a very thorough review to meet the challenges of the post pandemic 21st century in the coming two to three decades. Such a discourse must factor in not only domestic considerations, but also regional and global considerations. The latter is a critical part of the debate because Sri Lanka, being a small island nation, will have to rely on the global economy for future prosperity.

It is obvious that India will loom large in this narrative. China’s rapidly growing relationship with Sri Lanka, the competition between USA and China for global hegemony, and the role that India plays in shaping US-China rivalry in the Asia-Pacific region, will also have a significant bearing on Sri Lanka’s future. Currently about one-third of Sri Lanka’s exports go to EU plus UK. EU/UK trade policy is sensitive to human rights issues. That further complicates our diplomacy and trade relations.

Sector-related policy debate needs to be informed by cross-cutting issues such as the system of governance, nationalism, minority rights, media freedom, independence of the judiciary, corruption, government-private sector balance, regional development, and equity. These provide not only a framework for sector-related policy discussion, but also the ethical basis for public policy.  Political leaders address these issues largely depending on immediate need. Politically engaged religious leaders also do the same. But that debate does not demonstrate a coherent vision for the future that considers not only regional and global factors mentioned above but also the lessons that the country should have learned from three decades of terrorism, civil war, and political instability.  For illustrative purposes one such lesson is worth citing. That is the migration of educated people in large numbers in the past five decades. Many in the baby boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964) left the country in the 1970s and 1980s. Of those who remained, many have sent their children abroad for education and few have returned. There is evidence to believe that middle class parents who belong to Gen X (1965 and 1979/80) are also encouraging their children to leave the country to seek a better life abroad. Only a very bold and creative national leadership will be able to address this and other such issues.

   **** *****

 A Note from Gerald H. Peiris,[5] mid-May 2021

Dear Michael, ………… As you have quite correctly noted, I am unable to devote time to respond to this utterly provocative but unproductive comment made by this “SL scholar …” But reading your brief recollections, I wondered whether your reference to Brayne is a mix up between Brohier and Brayne?

What Brayne did in his passionate defence of the land policy pursued by the British that created Ceylon’s ‘plantation-led economy’, it was Brohier who partnered DS all the way, first, in the Village Expansion’ and ‘Highland Colonisation’ programmes launched in the immediate aftermath of the LDO of 1935, and the strategy of irrigation-based settlement development in the drier parts of the country. There is so much that has been written on this subject that, if this “SL Scholar” is sincerely motivated by intellectual curiosity, he wouldn’t begin his probe with stupid comments on “fetishization (sic) of peasant life” and “Sinhalese-Buddhist national myth”.

This is a bit of hurried gerrymandering.[6]

Comment from Sugath Kulatunge,[7] mid-May 2021

Following excerpts are from sources which I cannot trace just now, but may be of relevance to the theme of Dry Zone colonization.

“A statement made in 1927 by a British Colonial Secretary (Clifford) “the bringing into existence of a prosperous self-supporting and self-respecting multitude or peasant proprietors” was taken up as the principal objective of a new land policy.

‘It is manifest, then that the bare 20 percent, which forms the extent under crops in this island is not something of which this country can boast”, we shall find it necessary to enlarge our area under cultivation at least threefold to maintain our existing population. When we contemplate that of the 20 percent now cultivated, only about a quarter is devoted to the production of food crops, the gravity of our situation may be more justly apprehended.” while on the one hand the British Government endeavored to foster the indigenous agriculture, British unofficial enterprise, aided by British capital, conceived the idea of an expanded agriculture of products for an export market situated abroad, “ Agriculture in Ceylon, hitherto, directed towards utilizing the soil for the production of immediate means of sustenance, received a new bias, and was now organized so as to produce crops that would exchange in the world’s markets for money“. the benefits of this new direction of agricultural activity chiefly accrued to shareholders scattered allover the world, that in the course of the transformation ,… a new class of landless villagers has arisen oblivious to his agricultural traditions and dependent for his very means of sustenance on the prosperity of what in our agricultural economy are called “major products” “. So long as a little Wealth trickled down to them through the organization of these industries, the native population seemed content to swagger in” an air of prosperity.  How fictitious a prosperity founded upon such dependence can be …….. The danger that lurks in an agricultural policy mainly directed towards the preparation of products for an export market over which the country can have no control has been amply demonstrated·”. It is clear that a reconstruction of our agriculture structure must be based upon an enlargement of the scope and extent of the country’s food production. ,.

The strategy was surprisingly articulate even as regards environmental aspects, though stated only in broad terms:

“…. the settlement of peasants on the land has taken the form of village expansion on the one hand, and of colonization on the other … Colonization indeed is fast becoming an economic necessity… We have recognized … that one effective method of dealing with the problems is by making available to the peasantry more land than they have hitherto had opportunities of acquiring. But it is well to recognize that the distribution of population in the various parts of this country is such that migration from the over populous zones to the less crowded areas will soon become not a matter of choice but a grave necessity … We must at no distant date reconcile ourselves to this course or be content to suffer the pinch of poverty … it is of importance to remember the part played in the conservation of water by the forests of this country. With the evidence daily accumulating of the wisdom of our forefathers we need scarcely doubt that it was not merely the idea of making the mountain country difficult to approach by the foreign invader that caused them to preserve unfelled and uncleared the dense vegetation of their mountain slopes. We may readily believe that they deliberately left these untouched in order to provide that abundant supply of water in which they might draw for the benefit of man …

In 1932 Senanayake wrote: “Colonization of the dry zone is the only way out: the distribution of population in the various parts of the country is such that immigration from the over-populous zones to less crowded areas will soon become not a matter of choice, but a grim necessity”. This vision prompted D.S. to launch the Minneriya Scheme which marked the beginning of the rehabilitation of the Polonnaruwa district.

The following is from my FB post, dated 20/6/20, on lost opportunities.

ONE: In 1944, the State Council resolved to launch a “State Project of Industrialization in Ceylon. In the same year there was the Industrial Corporation Bill. The concept of socialist industrialization was keenly advocated by the Marxist parties which believed that full employment could be achieved only through industrialization. In the same year J.R. Jayawardhane (JR) moved a motion in the State Council for the “preparation of a complete plan for industrialization”. There was a firm bipartisan consensus on industrialization with a different emphasis on ownership.

However, as Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake (DS) had a staunch commitment to development of agriculture through colonization and establishing a cadre of peasant farmers who would be a strong base for the UNP. The project had both a nationalistic and political flavour and was vigorously pursued in the face of criticism from the left parties. That was a political decision taken as the UNP was apprehensive of a political advantage possible for left parties in an industrialized society. DS aimed at building a peasantry loyal to the UNP. He could have focused on both agriculture and industry without any adverse on either.

This was the most important opportunity missed by independent Sri Lanka for an early start in a manufacture-based economy.

TWO: DS denied SWRD Bandaranayake (SWRD) who was at the time the leader of the House his due place and maneuvered to get his son Dudley to succeed him as Prime Minister. This maneuver also kept JR, the best brain in the party, out in the cold. If JR succeeded DS, he who believed in planned industrialization could have introduced industries with modern technology with the help of the Japanese who were under obligation to him for his open support to Japan at the war reparation conference at San Francisco in 1951, where he rejected reparations and quoted the Buddhist saying ‘Nahi verena verani’.”


BIBLIOGRAPHY added by Michael Roberts

Brayne, FL 1929 The Remaking of Village India, London, OUP.

Brohier, RL  1951 Lands, Maps and Surveys, Colombo, Govt Printer.

Brow, James 1978 Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura, Seattle, University of Washington Press.

Dharmadasa. KNO & SWR de Samarasinghe (eds) The Vanishing Aborigines: Sri Lanka’s Veddas in Transition,  Delhi, Vikas Publishing.

Farmer, B. H. 1957 Pioneer Peasant Colonization in Ceylon, Oxford University Press.

Kanagasundram, Ajit 2018  “The Gal Oya Project 60 Years On,” 7 July 2018, http://www.ajitkanagasundram.com/2018/09/07/the-gal-oya-project-60-years-on/

Leach, Edmund R. 1961 Pul Eliya, Cambridge University Press.

Moore, Mick P. 1990 “Economic Liberalization versus Political Pluralism in Sri Lanka?” Modern Asian Studies, 1990, vol. 24(02), 341-383.

Moore, Mick P. 2008 The State and Peasant Politics in Sri Lanka, 2008, Cambridge University Press.

Obeyesekera, Gananath 1967 Land Tenure in Village Ceylon, Cambridge University Press.

Peiris, Gerald H. 1981 “Agrarian Transformation in British Sri Lanka,” Sri Lanka Journal of Agrarian Studies, vol 2: 1-26.

Peiris, Gerald H. 1996 Development and Change in Sri Lanka, Geographical Perspectives, Macmillan India for ICES, Kandy.

Roberts, Michael 2020 “Under Scrutiny: Edmund Leach’s PUL ELIYA,” 31 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/31/under-scrutiny-edmund-leachs-pul-eliya/

Samaraweera, Vijaya 1973 “Land Policy and Peasant Colonization, 1914-1948,” in KM De Silva (ed.) History of Ceylon, Vol III, Colombo Apothecaries Co.

Thuppahi 2021 Introducing PUL ELIYA by Edmund R. Leach,” 21 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/21/introducing-pul-eliya-by-edmund-r-leach/

Thuppahi 2021 “Pul Eliya Comments reviewed critically by Ceylon Civil Servants for ROHP,” 21 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/31/pul-eliya-comments-reviewed-critically-by-ceylon-civil-servants-for-rohp/


END NOTES also inserted by The Editor, Thuppahi

[1] This project on my part was based on funds provided by the Asia Foundation and commenced in England in late 1965 and was then extended to Ceylon in the period 1966-69 (embracing politicians as well as public servants). ET Dyson was interviewed at his residence on 17th November 1965. The transcripts of the tapes have now been digitalized and can now be accessed via the measures provided by the Barr Smith Library at Adelaide University:  “Go to the Michael Roberts manuscripts listing http://www.adelaide.edu.au/library/special/mss/roberts/ And click on the link to Adelaide Research and Scholarship under Series 1 – Digital versions.” Note that a few recordings were painstakingly transcribed unto paper by my wife Shona when we were residing in Siebel Place, Kandy in the period 1966-70.

[2] This item and his name will be disclosed in due course (the anonymity insisted on so that the commentary focuses on the content rather than the man.

[3] Mick Moore from the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex has been involved in research for decades. His main field work was within the south-west quadrant and this background is pertinent to the issues at hand because the colonization project was partly directed by the goal of providing scope for the burgeoning populace in these areas to secure alternative avenues of sustenance. Mick was one of those who participated in the Conference on Agricultural development organised by the Ceylon Studies seminar in 1974 and in fact stayed at our house (returning the favour when I was in UK on one occasion). More vitally, Mick Moore had already commented promptly when I raised questions about some of Edmund Leach’s assessments in the book Pul Eliya (see

[4] “Sam” Samarasinghe was one of the key organisational hands in the Ceylon Studies Seminar in the early 1970s and continued to sustain it in the late 70s and early 80s after several of us had left for other pastures. Though he too took up an appointment at Tulane University in Washington, Sam sustained strong links with his hometown of Kandy and with the ICES Kandy branch well into the 2000s.

[5] Resident in Kandy, Gerald Peiris is one of those called upon to advise the present government and thus serves on one or two Committees. I was aware that both Peiris and Madduma Bandara would be swamped by demands on their time at this juncture when I sought their responses to the evaluations here.

[6] Gerald Peiris’ laconic sense of humour is manifest here. Indeed, ….. gerry-mandering.

[7] I have not met Sugath, but I have been impressed by his earnest engagement in serious commentary on internet sites. Once I chanced on the fact that his early service in the Ceylon Civil Service in the late 1950s had been in Polonnaruwa District and the dry zone, I considered it useful to tap his assessments of the issues arising here. He has now sent his career CV and I see that he was born in 1932 and majored in Geography at Peradeniya; while also gaining further postgrad qualifications in administration abroad and then fulfilin consultancy roles in a number of countries.


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