Addressing A Criticism of DS Senanayake’s Dry Zone Colonization Schemes

Chandre Dharmawardana, 28 May 2021, with this title “Criticism of D.S. Senanayake’s Dry Zone colonization schemes”

Would Sri Lanka have been better off if not for the fetishization of rural peasant life and its connexion to the Sinhalese Buddhist nation-myth?

Why do people talk of “colonization schemes” when a government  facing bulging population growth, for one reason or another, opens up land for its people to settle?

When the US West was opened by colonizing (in the proper sense of the term)  the indigenous (“red Indian”) lands by out-right massacre followed by land grab, the word colonization was/is not used by western historians, where as they should indeed use that word. But where Sri Lankan writers use the word colonization, no colonization took place. The incentives given to settlers to move into Galoya or Padaviya were minuscule compared to what pioneers who headed West in the USA got as state sponsorship and land grants.  Europeans were offered very attractive immigration opportunities to go to the Americas  and  conquer the West, both in USA and Canada, and rid the land of “Red Skins”. The slogan was “A good Injun is a Dead Injun.  No  body was killed in settling Padaviya or Gal Oya, and there was no colonization or land grab of alien lands.

All this was not driven by the “Fetish of a Sinhala-Buddhist Myth”. It was driven by the hard reality of demographics, and everything started long before D. S. Senanayake. If there was any “colonization”, that was the capture of the Island by Europeans.  Victorian Europe was agrarian even though industrialization was taking place, and for them Lanka was an agrarian entity to grow cinnamon, tobacco, coffee and later tea. The British who captured the Kandyan Kingdom found the Kandyan Peasant rebellious, and too independent-minded to work “for the foreigner”.  The post 1815 Kandyan rebellions were put down with a genocidal brutality that even shocked British observers.  Having eliminated the Kandyan peasant, the British faced a severe shortage of labour for  their plantation projects.

They wanted to have population figures for their planning.  So the first ‘census’ of Ceylon, done in 1824 gave a  total  of about 852,000 population.  Ten years later, the population was approximately 1,170,000, where the  20% increase was due to the import of indentured Indian labour who had to walk from South India via the Jaffna Peninsula, with significant numbers dying on the way.  The Indian labour pool swelled to over 900,000 by 1859.  The British planners also appreciated the need for feeding the workers, and growing rice (the staple food of the “coolies”) in areas not designated for their plantations.

It was demographics, and not some Sinhala-Buddhist myth, that led to the renovation of dry zone  reservoirs (tanks) and the resumption of dry zone agriculture. That this fitted in with the cultural history of the land was neither a myth nor a fetish.  The dry zone is easier to cultivate than the wet zone if only hand tools,  manual labour and buffaloes are to be used.  The addition of 900,000 Indian laborers to a population which was initially  only 852,000 implies a doubling of the population in a few decades – such an eventuality had rarely happened until then in written history.  It could be achieved because  Europe was passing through the Industrial Revolution, and had the means , machinery and brutal power to carry this out.

By the time D. S. Senanayake appeared in the political arena, in the 1930s, the need to feed the increasing population was still a major factor of state concern.  In 1927 the British Colonial Secretary Clifford recognized the need to increase the cultivated area by at least a factor of two to feed the people, and this was NOT based on a “Sinhala-Buddhist Fetish”.

It was Senanayake who made this possible.Ideologically, the political leaders of the era (even in Europe), were people drawn from the land-owning class.  Senanayake was most at home as a very practical Estate superintendent. He moved into politics after the demise of  his brother F. R. Senanayake. They were Buddhists who had used the Temperance movement and the bid for  dominion status as their political lever.  They were practical men who were collaborationists rather than direct antagonists of the British Raj.  They had seen the futility of direct action as the memories of British genocidal action were still with them.

Meanwhile the more extreme opposing political forces that rolled into Sri Lanka were all borrowed from Europe.  Europe was pushing Nazi Nationalism and violent  Bolshevik revolutionary movements. In Ceylon, in the early 1930s,  both  S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and G. G. Ponnambalam had been glowingly equated to local Hitlers by their respective communal-minded admirers. G. G. Ponnambalam had even visited Nazi Europe and met with some of the ideological leaders. Ponnambalam with his Tamil Nationalism replaced Ramanathan who regarded caste as more important than race.

On the other hand, young Marxists who had returned recently to Sri Lanka had formed revolutionary parties whose avowed aim was to capture power by violent means, and held the Soviet revolution as their model. Much as today’s young Moslems of rich Moslem parents who go to London come back indoctrinated with ISIS Jihad doctrines, the Marxist of the 1930s were the dreaded revolutionaries of the day. Just as Zaharan and others got down fiery Mullahs to teach in revolutionary cells in Ampare, the Marxist leaders of the day invited BraceGirdle and also Indian communist activists to teach and organize cells in the plantation sector for revolution.  The fear of Marxist activity in the estates was one factor for G. G. Ponnambalam and D. S. Senanayake to join together with the Kandyan Radala and enact the Indian Citizenship Act.  Citizenship was limited to Indian workers who had seven years of residence in the country.  It should be noted that this is very generous, even by today’s allegedly “more humanitarian” standards of citizenship [in comparison  with the practices] that Hispanic or Asian migrant workers face in Europe, USA or Australia.

It was within the backdrop of this political battleground that practical men like Senanayake who had no wish to plunge the country in military struggles against the British looked for an alternative political ideology. Senanayake was a land-owning paddy farmer who had right from the beginning approved the British program of tank renovation and the thrust for agriculture. It was natural for Senanayake and  his Buddhist organizations to appeal to the genius of the ancient kings and their irrigation works. It was a home-made political philosophy, [one] that stood in stark contrast with the Bolsheviks and communal Nationalists.

That is, as a political leader, Senanayake was able to provide an alternative vision that could compete with the fiery rhetoric of the Marxists, and compete with more nationalist ideologies of the Sinhala Maha Sabha and the Tamil Congress. Senanayake’s vision  found resonance with the rural voter.

Senanayake correctly rejected the calls for industrialization of the rural sector that had been made by (I) followers of Anagarika Dharmapala (ii) Marxist parties who wanterd an organized worker base for a revolution and (iii) mercantile  interests led by J. R. Jayewardena who had a progressive Western-capitalist world view. If such industrialization had been attempted, the fate that fell upon the Latin American countries (where American capital descended in those years) or, say, Nigeria, would have befallen Sri lanka, with the Marxist parties morphing into harder and harder confrontaional politics, in response to industrial exploitation and national improvisation.

The rural voters during D. S. Senanayake’s time depended on small-holding agriculture that was self limiting because a farmer with five children had no further land to give his children except to divide his acre of land into a fifth.  Unlike in the 19th century when most children of a farmer died from infectious diseases, the public health system of Ceylon had improved immensely, and child  mortality had begun to drop. In consequence, the population of Sri Lanka had begun its inexorable upward course, until it was confronted with the Malaria Epidemic.

The eradication of the Malaria epidemic was integral to the reclamation of the dry zone that Senanayake had envisaged.  Many observers had even noted that the decline of the ancient Rajarata civilizations was due to mosquito invasions which were more formidable than those of the Cholas.

Unlike some modern rulers, Senanayaka, though fired by the vision of the ancient kings, recognized the power of industrialization and modern knowledge. His government was one of the first in the world to control Malaria, while many parts of Africa and India are still struggling with it even today.

Instead of sticking to the hackneyed formula of small-scale projects which involved a resurrection of the “gama-weva-pansala” (village – reservoir – temple) agrarian concept, Senanayaka embraced modern large-scale irrigation schemes even while paying lip service to the use of buffaloes instead of tractors.

Nepotism or not, D. S. Senanayke correctly favoured his son against the politically opportunistic  S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike who was the Sinhala side of the coin of G. G. Ponnmbalam, the king of communalism.  DS knew that his son Dudley would continue his vision of agricultural revival instead of simply handing over the country to Western Capitalist who would insensitively exploit  its minerals and its people to fatten Western industrialists.

Senanayake did not trust JR Jayawardene who was as an efficient operator. But JR was as opportunistic as Bandaranaike and unabashedly pro-American, whereas Senanayake and his lieutenant Oliver Goonetilleke were admirers of the British system.  If Jayawardena had succeeded Senanayake, he would have joined the proposed “SEATO”, an analogue of NATO, and Sri Lanka would have become a decadent and and  exploited US colony similar to the Philippines.

Senanayake allowed local and foreign technocrats to run the projects without political or ideological interference. Dr. Chris Panabokke, a scientific colleague of mine, has told me that during the DS-Dudley period Ceylon was the world leader in important areas of agricultural research.  Galoya was a project which was completed within budget, and within scheduled time!  Its chairman was Mr. Kanagasundaram, a top civil servant of the day who was given a free hand to exercise his authority efficiently.  The top administrators and planners were selected for their competence rather than on the basis of ethnicity or religion.  Nevertheless, modern-day Eelamists have claimed that D. S. Senanayake administered Galoya and other projects so as to “colonize”  the traditional homelands of the Tamils with Sinhalese, displacing the Tamils! Independent scholars reject this claim.

If D. S. Senanayake had followed the ultra-nationalist  formula of resurrecting the old “gama-weva-pansals” concept of national revival, it would have resulted in a much greater ecological tragedy than what resulted from the massive deforestation that took place under the Galoya and subsequent irrigation projects and their associated agricultural developments. There is a legacy of some 30,000 small tanks scattered across the dry zone. They never functioned together simultaneously at any time in history. If they had all been restored and resettled, the whole island would have become a sprawling system of little villages connected by asphalt roads, concrete housing used by large unsustainable populations producing mounds of garbage. Forest cover would have been reduced to zero. There would have been no hydroelectric schemes possible. But Senanayake’s programs gave a central place to hydroelectricity.  His vision was not only linked with the past, but synced with the future.  Subsequent projects like the Uda Walawe and  Mahaweli program were direct corollaries of that vision which was natural to most Ceylonese.

Today, if we had to re-do the Mahaweli or any other large scale irrigation projects, we may use more stringent ecological constraints than those used in the days of Senanayake.  J R Jayawardena relaxed even the constraints used by Senanayake, and his “accelerated Mahaweli Scheme” saw the settlement of farmers in regions where, unknown to the authorities, the ground water contained high levels of fluoride and magnesium. Today, those farmers have become victims of a chronic kidney disease (CKD). Unfortunately, commentators ignorant of the scientific and medical research on the subject uncritically echo the incorrect public belief that CKD has been caused by the use of agrochemicals, when very serious study has debunked that view. For critique of this false public view against the use of agrochemicals, see:

Senanayake was a practical man with a lot of common sense and and an enormous amount of political acumen that fitted well with the needs of his day.  If he had lived beyond his equestrian accident, he may have been elected once more, but that would have been his last round.  The political forces that arose in Sri Lanka subsequently were a part of a post-independent nationalist wave that occurred all over the post colonial world, and the likes of Senanayake or his political strategist Oliver Goonatilleke, as well as the Marxists, had become outdated outsiders to it.

Author’s Note: Due to pressure of time, I am writing this note ad lib, without doing any quantitative data supporting my assertions. However, even if you look at the issue merely qualitatively, we see that even the language that has been used to discuss this topic is unjustifiable and frankly very inapt.

NB:  Chandre Dharmawardana is a Member of the National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa, & University of Montreal, Montreal, Canada … and further bio-data can be seen at

Editorial Note 2: I have refrained from my usual policy of highlighting central statements. However, I will now be adding some bibliogaphical REFERENCES in support of Chandre’s survey.

ADDITIONAL REFERENCES in step with Chandre’s Thrusts:

Clifford, Sir Hugh 1927 “Some Reflections on the Land Question,” Tropical Agriculturist vol LXIV, vol 5: 221-3.

Indrapala, Karthigesu 1971 “The Collapse of the Rajarata Civilization in Ceylon and the Drift to the South-West; A Symposium,” Peradeniya, Ceylon Studies Seminar…

Kanagasundram, Ajit 2018  “The Gal Oya Project 60 Years On,” 7 July 2018,

Kelegama, JB 2020 “A Landmark Trade Pact: Rubber-Rice Deal with Sri Lanka and China,”

Madduma Bandara, CM 1982 “Effect of Drought on the Livelihood of Peasant families in the dry zone of sri Lanka….,” in Yoshino et al Climatological notesi, vol 33, Institute of Geoscience, Japan.

Peiris, Gerald H. 2006 Sri Lanka. Challenges of the New Millennium, Kandy, Creative Printers, ISBN 99644-02-05-2

Roberts, Michael 1973 “Aspects of Ceylon’s Agrarian Economy in the Nineteenth Century” in History of Ceylon, Vol. III, pp. 146-54.

Roberts, Michael 1980 “From Southern India to Lanka: The Traffic in Commodities, Bodies, and Myths from the Thirteenth Century Onwards”, South Asia, n.s. 3: 36-47.

Roberts, Michael 1981 “The Hydraulic Society of Ancient Ceylon: Speculations on the Factors Contributing Towards the Relative Stasis in its Socio-Economic Structure”, Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia, pp. 23-33.

Roberts, Michael 1989 “Indian Plantation Labour in Sri Lanka,” a review essay, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 3: 380-85.

Roberts, Michael 2001g “Dakunen sädi kotiyo, uturen golu muhudai,” [The fierce/vile Tamils to the south, the turbulent/unfathomable sea to the north] Pravāda 6: 17-18.

Roberts, Michael 2004 Firstness, History, Place & Legitimate Claim to Place-as-Homeland in Comparative Focus, Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 44 pages, ISBN: 955-580-099-5

Roberts, Michael 2018 “How it Became. Documenting the Ceylon National Congress,” 22 May 2018,

Samarasinghe, V and SWR de 1984 “Income and Wealth Disparities in a Land Settlement in the Dry Zone,” in T. Bayliss & S. Wanmal (eds) Understanding Green Revolution, CUP, pp. 173-93.

Samaraweera, Vijaya 1973 “Land Policy and Peasant Colonization, 1914-1948,” in KM De Silva (ed.) History of Ceylon, volume 3, Colombo, pp 446-60.

Vandendriesen, Ian 1995 The Long Walk. Early Indian immigration to Sri Lanka, Canberra, Research School of Pacific Studies, ANU

Wesumperuma, Dharmapriya 1986 Indian Immigrant Plantation Workers in Sri Lanka: A historical perspective, 1880-1910,  Kelaniya, Vidyalankara Press.

READERS are referred to the huge Bibliography at the end of Gerald Peiris’s book on Challenges of the New Millennium

THESE are the  REFERENCES in the related THUPPAHI ITEM

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

Brohier, RL & JHO Paulusz 1951 Lands, Maps and Surveys: Descriptive Catalogue of Historical Maps in the Surveyor General’s office, 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.

Leach, Edmund R. 1961 Pul EliyaCambridge 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 CeylonCambridge 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,

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,

Thuppahi 2021 “Pul Eliya Comments reviewed critically by Ceylon Civil Servants for ROHP,” 21 December 2020,


Filed under accountability, ancient civilisations, architects & architecture, British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, charitable outreach, communal relations, cultural transmission, economic processes, ethnicity, governance, growth pole, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, land policies, Left politics, life stories, modernity & modernization, Muslims in Lanka, patriotism, politIcal discourse, population, power politics, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, transport and communications, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes

2 responses to “Addressing A Criticism of DS Senanayake’s Dry Zone Colonization Schemes

  1. Pingback: Sir Hugh Clifford’s “Some Reflections on the Ceylon Land Question” — 1927 | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. Pingback: SR Faces the Wasps around him Foursquare | Thuppahi's Blog

Leave a Reply