Sri Lanka’s Development and Pitfalls


Former Government Agent, Matara

I am prompted to write about what was achieved in development since Sri Lanka achieved independence, because some of our presidential aspirants have said that Sri Lanka had no development whatsoever since gaining independence 71 years ago. It is sad to note that some of our presidential aspirants happen to be that ignorant.

 We made strides in development in increasing agricultural production, poverty alleviation and industry. Of course there were pitfalls due to political interference at times, and finally in 1978 we caved in to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which decimated most development work done by us, by imposing its Structural Adjustment Programme on us.

 I assumed duties as an Assistant Commissioner for Development of Agricultural Marketing in 1955. At that time there were some 400 staff officers and worked in a few departments specially established to deal with development. Above us were members of the Civil Service, about 125 in number, holding senior positions in Departments and also worked as Permanent Secretaries in charge of Ministries. There were some twelve Ministries and a few Departments. We never left a stone unturned. The Ministers decided the policies and it was left to us to implement them. There was no stopping us. We even clashed with local Ministers, Members of Parliament and Trade Unions. The maximum punishment was to transfer us. We were happy to pick up our bag and baggage and move to start working in another district. Though not officially members of leftist parties, we were influenced by savants, leaders like Dr N.M., S. A. Wickremasinghe and Philip Gunawardena. It was to uplift the down trodden masses and alleviate them from the depths of poverty. Of course there were pitfalls, but we knew to surmount them all.

 The main Departments of Irrigation, Agriculture and Survey were already equipped with trained staff. Their work was exceptional. On the first day of my consultancy in Bangladesh I called for the one inch survey sheets of the country, the basic document from which we start work in Sri Lanka. They had no one inch sheets. No surveys were ever done. I knew the Superintendents of Surveys in the Districts I worked in and their work was meticulous.

It is sad that the current Government had to call in the services of a Survey Company from the USA to do some surveys, ignoring our Survey Department. That is a sad saga of the Americanization we are going through in the last few years.

The Department of Agriculture and Irrigation did wonders. Suffice it to state that the Irrigation Department reconstructed the lost tanks in double quick time, and this enabled the development of thousands of acres. In Agriculture we achieved self-sufficiency in paddy by 1970, which no other country could achieve.

One main felt need was the lack of land for residence and development. During the days of the State Council, well before we gained independence, plans were laid for peasant colonization schemes, where lands were brought under cultivation under tanks that were restored by the Irrigation Department. This was a major task done very quickly.

 Land had to be alienated to people and this task fell on the Government Agents in charge of the Districts.  A Land Commissioners Department was established and District Land Officers were posted to the Districts to work under the Government Agents.  There was a full cadre of officers - Supervisors of Land Development and Overseers appointed, and their task was to help the peasant colonists in the newly cultivated colonization schemes.  Each District also had a Surveyor to attend to minor surveying. Major surveying was passed onto the Survey Department.

 The Land Development Department was formed to make roads and buildings in the colonization areas, and each unit had a labour force of hundreds. They were equipped with D8 and D4 land machines, graders and many lorries and theirs was a major task. Colonists were settled in the thousands and the Land Development Department had to attend to all their wants. There were many colonies and the work was so important that certain key areas like Anuradhapura had a member of the Civil Service, specially tasked to ensure that the colonists were cared for.  It is important to note that the officers had to work in malaria infested areas. Once it so happened that the colonists were fleeced by traders in Padaviya, and when this was raised at the District Coordinating Committee meeting, I as the Assistant Commissioner for Marketing undertook to establish a Fair Price Shop. This was done within a week. We worked that fast.

 In Districts where there were no major colonies, crown land if available was apportioned among the landless, and at times estates belonging to private owners were taken over on payment and allocated to landless people.

 In all this land alienation utmost care was taken to ensure that the land will remain with the people. The land could be handed over to children and their kin, but not sold outright. In fact this system was arrived at after careful consideration by Prime Minister DS Senanayake. He appointed a Committee to make recommendations and it is on record that this Committee held deliberations for over a year. The current MCC Compact Proposal has tried to provide full sale rights of this land, and if this had gone through and the land was made freely saleable the main aim of providing land to the landless would have been undermined; with multinationals coming in, and this land could have ended in their lap. 

 The Department of Local Government was established to ensure that the local government institutions elected by the people did function efficiently. Contracts were given for the councils to attend to the construction of roads and public utilities like water supply, and the Assistant Commissioners were very strict to ensure the work was done well. In an instance known to me, an Assistant Commissioner who did not approve the work done was obstructed by placing a tree across the road. Luckily, his car was a Peugeot 203, a hardy car that went over the tree.  He had to fight his way through firing a gun he had. His life was saved.

  If any council was found wanting the Assistant Commissioner took over and functioned as a Special Commissioner in charge. I can remember Sonny Gunawardena the Special Commissioner at Anuradhapura acting like a dictator in serving the people, very efficiently without bending to influence.  The main function of any local council happens to be the collection of garbage and at that time there was never any garbage pile ups to talk of. The current pile ups of garbage commenced with politicians taking over power from officials- a trend from the Seventies.

 Very early after achieving independence it was felt that the rural areas need development. To attend to administrative work there were Village Headmen in every cluster of villages, and they were under a Divisional Revenue Officer (DRO). Initially their tasks were administrative, but gradually they were handling rural development.

 The people in rural areas had to be helped with employment- to create incomes, and with this aim a Rural Development and Cottage Industry Department was established, to function under the Government Agents. A Rural Development Officer was posted to each Divisional Revenue Officer’s area.  In each village area a Rural Development Society was   formed- elected by the people. These RD Societies had to look into the needs of the village. To attend to small infrastructure development tasks like small roads. This was done on a self-help basis where the people also had to contribute their labour. The Rural Development Societies were given in charge of the work. Every District had an allocation of funds for infrastructure development work. Some districts could not spend the full allocation and in the two years I worked as Additional Government Agent at Kegalle I liaised with the Director of Rural Development to obtain the unspent funds from other Districts.  He would scout to find the possible savings and inform me to commence projects at short notice.  

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