Fostering the Peasant Sector of the Economy: Misconceptions

Gerald H Peiris

This whole pretence at applying serious scholarship to a study of land policy in SL since the late 1920s is becoming almost intolerable.[1] The author of this article[2] might well have impressed you with whatever he had done earlier. But this piece does not deserve the attention which you have sought to give,[3] even by way of a kick-off for a scholarly discussion on the subject. That is why I decided to confine my previous comment on just one item in your list of references. This morning I have enough time to send you a longer note – now that an almost total curfew has been imposed throughout SL and all of us are pleasantly home bound.

DS Senanayake, OEG, Dudley et al receiving official inputs

Research, as Ivor Jennings (the VC at Cambridge by the time I got there in 1962) mentioned in the course of his memorable address to a large gathering of new recruits to the graduate programmes of that university, ought to begin with a re-search ⎼ i. e. a thorough search of the research of relevance to the interests being pursued conducted up to that time. This, in fact, is what most of the veteran researchers from Britain (Jennings himself and others like Farmer or Leach or Mick Moore, for instance) did when they conducted research on ‘Ceylon’.

The author of the present article (SR) does not appear to have done that. Instead, having been inspired by what a former British civil servant had said in 1965 in the course of an interview,[4] he tells us that the government of Sri Lanka has “squandered money on agricultural subsidies to support an unproductive peasantry”, in its “fetishization” (sic) of the peasantry and its connections with the Sinhalese-Buddhist myth” thus indicating that he had subsidiary sources of inspiration besides what an old CCS guy had told you about 60 years ago.

DS Senanayake on tour

Since the “Grand Inquest into the agrarian affairs of Ceylon”(as BH Farmer, the trailblazer of our agrarian research referred to the work undertaken by the Land Commission of 1927) government policy pertaining to land has been subject to detailed review at roughly thirty-year intervals (1957 and  1987) making what could in retrospect be regarded as a unique and highly laudable process of official introspection – ‘unique’, in the sense that no other aspect of state policy in Sri Lanka has been subject to comparable expert scrutiny; and ‘laudable’, given the pivotal significance of ‘land’ to governance and, indeed, to all aspects of life in the country.

In the late 1920s the subject of ‘land’ was almost entirely confined to agrarian affairs especially of the peasantry. This is attributable to the fact that well over 90% of the country’s population at that time (and over several decades thereafter) were living in rural areas with their livelihood derived overwhelmingly from agriculture – “peasant” and “plantation”. Their living conditions were featured by intensely exploitative social relations and dire poverty. That apart, the country relied heavily on external sources of food because what the peasantry produced was barely adequate to meet even one-quarter of the basic food requirements of a population of about 5.5 million ⎼ i.e. about one quarter of what it is now. Very little had changed by 1957 when the second Land Commission undertook its review. The ongoing geographical transformations in Sri Lanka did have an impact on the Land Commission of 1987 led by our friend Maddu.[5] But even at that time, despite due attention to ecological perspectives and to urban land, the needs of the peasantry were foremost in its (actually, his) proposals.

From about the early 1930s, at least until the late 1970s, there has been a very definite policy focus on the peasantry in the agrarian affairs of the Sri Lanka. In spite of ‘liberalisation’ of the economy thereafter, even in some of the large multi-purpose projects that were implemented, there has invariably been a distinct prioritisation of peasant needs. In terms of the scale of investment the main exemplification of this policy was the establishment of different types of government-sponsored peasant settlements ⎼ ‘Village Expansion Schemes’, ‘Highland Colonisation Schemes’, ‘Irrigation-based Settlement Schemes’ ⎼ in those parts of the country where physical resources had remained underutilised and/or mismanaged. These have been documented in great detail by researchers, administrators and in the form of parliamentary records. There is thus a great deal of reading which those like your friend SR has to do before he makes the kind of pronouncement referred to above.

I can go on and on but enough is enough – don’t you think? Do you want to have a glimpse (not for publishing) a list of my writings on agrarian issues? I am only one among several other fairly prolific researchers in that field.


A SIDE-SWIPE from recent populist gestures


[1] Note that SR was/is not claiming that his assessments have been built on a body of research. His NOTE was/is just that: an off-the-cuff set of remarks. But they are pithy remarks: so, I took the opportunity to raise a hornet’s nest.

[2] Gerald Peiris is referring here to a short MEMO from a person whom I have identified as “SR” [who will have to remain anonymous]. See for a copy of this Memo.

[3] I disagreed with SR’s pronouncements myself — considering them to be passing remarks from a modernist urbanite working on an urbane plane. But the summary appraisal was (and is) characterized by vivid English. The critical and expanded response provided by Mick Moore to SR’s reading is proof of the benefits arising from my move. Hopefully, SR himself will draw lessons from Moore’s review and from the other responses including that of Gerald Peiris. Indeed, I go further and proclaim to READERS of Thuppahi that both the literature and the bibliographical references that have been presented in this exercise are of far-reaching significance. Let me underline this claim by raising QUESTIONS: (a) How many readers today would be aware of the Land Commission of the 1920s and Sir Hugh Clifford’s Minute? (b) How many readers will be aware that “well over 90% of the country’s population at that time (and over several decades thereafter) were living in rural areas with their livelihood derived overwhelmingly from agriculture – “peasant” and “plantation” (Gerald Peiris, above).

[4] Roberts: Interview [in Britain] with ET Dyson of the Ceylon Civil Service on 17th November 1965. Several of these interviews were typed out by Shona Roberts in the 1960s and all are now available as digitalized records in the stock at (A) the Barr Smith Library, Adelaide University and (B) the National Library Services Board in Colombo.

[5] “Maddu” refers to Professor CM Madduma Bandara, formerly at the Geography Department Peradeniya University (who happens to be a man from the North Central Province). As it happens, he was one of those I approached for reactions to SR’s little MEMO; but he is presently immersed in tasks for the GoSL and apologised ….


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2 responses to “Fostering the Peasant Sector of the Economy: Misconceptions

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

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