Connect with us


A visit to Marga



By Uditha Devapriya

“The ideological direction of the journal will be radical in that it will unremittingly question the values and systems that hinder development. It stands for an equitable and humane social order which will eradicate social and economic privilege and which will leave no room for the concentration and arbitrary exercise of power in any form.”

“About Marga”, Marga Journal, Volume I, 1971

A random jaunt in Borella took me and my research assistant to Marga Institute, in my old hometown at Kotte. Sri Lanka’s oldest development think-tank – and Sri Lanka’s oldest such institution – Marga was formed in 1971 to promote and facilitate research into the island’s socioeconomic problems. That its founding coincided with the first JVP insurrection is not fortuitous: as Gamini Samaranayake would point out, the insurrection proved for the first time that an armed group could threaten the State. Among other commentators, Gamini Keerawella, Gananath Obeyesekere, Fred Halliday, and Hector Abhayavardhana grappled with the JVP’s origins, what it was doing, and where it intended to go. It was in the midst of these often-fiery debates and discussions that Marga came to be.

Marga’s origins were linked to two distinct but interrelated developments: the expansion of the country’s welfare system and social services, and the displacement of the old colonial elite. The turning point, obviously, was 1956: a year which, as I have written before, meant many things to many people. Yet whatever the political repercussions of the nationalist-populist wave that swept across the country in its wake, the 1956 election led to a shift in the country’s economic trajectory. This shift may or may not have completely uprooted the old order: as Regi Siriwardena noted in a response to Kumari Jayawardena, 1956 “diverted the discontent of the ‘underprivileged’ into false channels, and thus helped to preserve the fundamental class structure intact.” But its consequences were profound.

The repercussions of these developments were felt more tangibly in the 1960s. During that decade, the country’s population rose by 2.6 million, more than a quarter. This exerted a significant pressure on productive capacity and social services – or to be more specific, as Gamani Corea observed, on “education, health, and other facilities in the social sphere, and above all employment opportunities.” It did not help that the university system was rapidly expanding as well: from 1950 to 1965 the student population rose from a meagre 2,000 to a massive 10,000. What these figures indicate was that more and more people were entering the education system and benefitting from social services, even as the country’s productive capacity was stagnating: it was in this period that Sri Lanka experienced a severe balance of payments crisis, compelling the IMF to form an Aid Group for the country.

                                                                                                                        LSSP stalwarts 

The country, in other words, was facing a classic developmental cul-de-sac. Its social welfare schemes were growing to unsustainable levels, but the economy was not generating the surpluses needed to maintain them. This was as true of university education as of primary and secondary education: from 1956 to 1963, the number of students enrolled in primary and secondary schools jumped from a little less than 170,000 to almost 250,000. Statistics, however, tell us only part of the story: what is more important are the social groups which benefitted from these developments. Simply put, reforms such as the Sinhala Only Act, the nationalisation of schools, and the introduction of the vernacular as a medium of instruction entrenched a Sinhala petty bourgeoisie. This petty bourgeoisie, as Gamini Keerawella has aptly observed, “educated their children in the firm expectation that it was the best possible investment.” A JVP pamphlet from 1970 underlies these expectations clearly:

“Our poor parents having a thousand and one hopes for us spent the fruits of the sweat of their labour on education instead of spending it on food or clothing or building a house. We studied hard, keeping up in the nights, till our eyes ached. We sat examinations. We passed examinations. We obtained degrees… Finally, as a punishment we were forced to loiter in the streets and face the insults and the laughter of the capitalists.”

The contradiction here was an echo or a microcosm of the contradictions buttressing the economy. It was, broadly, a problem of industrialisation, or the lack thereof. An exporter of primary commodities, Sri Lanka had waded through several booms, busts, and slumps since independence. In fact, contrary to what commentators and writers who should know better argue, the economy was stagnating even before 1948: despite a somewhat impressive array of road and rail networks, the country had been run down to the ground by a century and a half of plantation colonialism. There are several ways of diagnosing this problem, and there were fierce debates over what could resolve it: some felt that the plantation sector needed to be encouraged, in the hope it would spur growth. Yet such a prognosis – a trickle-down theory rehashed for settler states – could not resolve the dilemma of a sector which thrived on the very impoverishment of rest of the economy.

In 1957 a group of economists visited Sri Lanka. The group included Joan Robinson and John K. Galbraith. Keynesian in their outlook, they made a sweeping set of recommendations for the country. In the course of her study, the Cambridge educated Robinson made a remark about the country which economists and historians keep returning to: she bluntly observed that “you Ceylonese had eaten the fruit before you planted the tree.” Those quoting her, however, have failed to place this remark in its proper context: Robinson was writing about trade unions, and she was referring to their demand for a greater share of profits and the absence of “energetic, enterprising, and thrifty capitalists” who could be expected to share those profits. Her statement showed clearly that whatever “native capitalists” that Sri Lanka had were not capable of spurring the kind of growth which the country needed, particularly in the face of an expanding public sector and social welfare system.

The Sri Lankan Left tried to tackle this issue in its own special way. It advocated State intervention and the socialisation of the means of production. Yet the Left was undone by two fundamental contradictions. On the one hand, while it had enjoyed some support among the rural masses through the plantation community, the UNP government, facing a formidable threat to their interests, stripped this community of their citizenship, rendering them stateless overnight. On the other hand, the S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike government’s mobilisation of Sinhala nationalist forces deprived the Left of a rural progressive-populist base, and stunted whatever links it had established between the working class and the rural middle-class, or between nationalist and anti-imperialist forces. This made the Left more amenable to the idea of electoral compromise, paving the way for a rapprochement with the SLFP which would divide, weaken, and eventually cripple it.

In any case, the newly emerging rural middle classes in the 1960s spoke a different language and needed to be pandered to by a different political setup. Despite the breakup of the Communist Party into Russian and Chinese factions, there was a perception, widely shared, that neither the comprador elite nor the mainstream Left could resolve the problems of the     country. The breakup of the Communist Party and the LSSP’s decision to align with the SLFP led to a tenuous debate in the Left, a debate that was temporarily lulled by the formation of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Whatever illusions the old liberal elite and the Old Left – much of which, after all, hailed from the same Westernised and urban background – shared at this point were fundamentally at odds with the aspirations and the anxieties of the classes which these new parties sought to represent. To quote Regi Siriwardena, “the JVP and the LTTE were children of a different political culture.”

The Old Left had its own views of the JVP, which need not concern us here. Suffice it to say that while the LSSP’s main theoretician, Hector Abhayavardhana, castigated the JVP for veering to the right of right-wing governments and the left of left-wing governments, the likes of N. M. Perera and Colvin R. de Silva summoned the bogey of CIA sponsored military coups to tar the party as a right-wing conspiracy against a left-wing government. This was of course the obverse of what was happening: a left-wing government, elected on a popular mandate, had been threatened by a left-wing group. The JVP, for its part and in pursuit of electoral popularity, equated the UNP with the SLFP, drumming up support among sections of the middle-class, or rural petty bourgeoisie, who had felt let down by both parties. It was in light of these developments that the need for a development research institution, which could examine the country’s developmental dilemmas, was first articulated. Marga Institute emerged from these discussions. Given the scale and complexity of the issues it was seeking solutions for, its contribution had to be seminal, significant, substantive.

The very first issue of the Marga Journal outlined these problems and dilemmas. Edited by Godfrey Gunatilleke, the Journal was overseen by a Board of Management which included Regi Siriwardena and Gamani Corea. The first issue contained articles by some of the top intellectual minds of the day, including Ralph Pieris. The introduction set the tone for the rest of the Journal: in its first paragraph, it pointed out that compared to “the intellectual activity in most other developing countries, Ceylon had little to offer in the form of serious writing by Ceylonese on contemporary social and economic problems.” It then went on to point out the need “for a more productive and socially responsive intellectual community”, which could facilitate research into these problems. In this context, Marga set as its aim the promotion of “the conditions for the growth of a more active intellectual community” in the country. The editorial, however, was aware of the financing issues that could beset such an endeavour, and to this end recommended that it “establish a fund which will initially help to maintain the journal till it is established on a sound financial basis.”

Over the next few decades, Marga’s contribution to development research remained, to say the least, substantive. It set the tone and the pace for other institutions, both independent and State-funded, and became something of a landmark in the context of civil society and academia in the country. To say that is not to belittle, still less ignore, the convulsions in civil society and academia which the institute had to wade through: as Vinod Moonesinghe has observed in a research paper, the neoliberalisation of the country’s economy after 1977 led to a fundamental shift in the way civil society outfits, especially NGOs, operated. Many of these outfits developed a “hegemonic identity” that was more political than economic, or more “rights” oriented than “development” oriented. Ahilan Kadirgamar’s point about the evolution of these institutions, that there has been “a shift away from analysing agriculture and food which research centres focused on four decades ago”, can be reiterated here as well. In that light, Marga remains defiantly symbolic of the alternative paths that think-tank outfits, especially those concerned with development, could have traversed.

This country urgently needs a rehaul if not overhaul of the idea of development, research institutions, and think-tanks. The shift to private sector funding and State patronage – the latter, in my view, much less onerous than the former – has led to a few think-tanks and institutions, concentrated in Colombo and limited to the English-speaking elite and middle-classes, dominating civil society discourse in the country. Organisations like Marga showed that it was possible, in the context of their time, to rethink development, and to raise not just the material-economic but also the moral-ethical dimensions of growth in the Global South. But that was a time when economics was dominated by figures like Gamani Corea, S. B. D. de Silva, and G. V. S. de Silva. Godfrey Gunatilleke, the founder of Marga, is very much active, an indefatigable contributor to development debates in this country. Yet such voices are few and far between. To continue their legacy, to add to what they have contributed, it is necessary to rethink development research. That is what Marga once did, what Marga can once again do, and what Marga in fact should be doing.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Pernicious, ubiquitous strikes



Railway strike

Local news on most TV channels is almost wholly about on-going strikes and preparations plus controversy on the to-be-held presidential election come October.

Political news is centered on this election. Chief protagonist, the present Prez, has said the election will be held at the correct time this year. UNP side-kicks and a maverick have countered this by saying it need not be held since at the present juncture it is best to postpone change by two years. The present incumbent has a further one year to serve according to the Constitution said the bright spark, who filed an application in the Supreme Court was roundly dismissed by it, with an implied but unsaid upbraiding for wasting the time of the Apex Court.

People surmised filing a case was with the approval of the Prez or his Secretariat if not actual promotion, but RW dismissed that suspicion; “I firmly believe that the President’s term is five years, and I support the Election Commission’s steps to hold the Presidential Election in 2024.”  So there! Three cheers! The Prez is on the side of the people who want an election. It is correct constitutionally too.

Political platforms are raucous with praise of their chosen candidates, with photographs of VIPs who have recently changed loyalties in the forefront, some giving shocks to viewers. They seem to have turned 180 degrees or even 360, now championing a candidate they tore into with sharp barbs of ridicule and criticism. To serve themselves to continue in the most lucrative job in the island, they will turn cartwheels and leapfrog from one party to another. Such are most visible in the meetings held to promote Ranil W, as our next president.

Karadara kara strikes

Strikes of varied nature and kinds are rampant so much so that half the time news is telecast we see crowds marching or standing around with police facing them. These strikers are three quarter responsible for the chaos the country is in at this juncture when all should be contributing their might to pull the country out of the morass it was pushed into by its leaders. Cass has so many epithets to express her revulsion at these spectacles that are a shame to the country at large. Don’t those sick note presenters, continuously striking non academics, utterly disgraceful and unethical, nay immoral, teachers know the country is still in the economic doldrums and unless everyone pulls his/her weight we will remain down in the sludge of bankruptcy, notwithstanding IMF assistance and nations having shown leniency in our debt restricting process.

The trade unions demand monthly increases of Rs 25,000 and even more. Don’t they have an iota of sensibility in them to know this is no time for strikes whose demands cannot be met and the strikes making worse the parlous state of the country with lost man hours? Many a striker deliberately loses man hours of work when  supposedly working in their jobs: teachers sit chatting in staff rooms, tea breaks are more than an hour long; leave is taken at their whim and fancy, never mind completion of syllabuses or school exams; least of all consideration of the students in their hands.

Cass heard of students who had completed their university degrees not being able to get their certificates due to the prolonged strike of non-academic staff. Thus, employment and even accepting scholarships from overseas universities have been thwarted.

Train strikes came unannounced. Wednesday morning Cass received a call from weekly domestic help: “No trains running and so I cannot come.” She was expecting very urgent financial help. She wakes up on these days of work at 4.00 am; cooks for her family; walks a mile; boards the train and is in my flat at 7.30 am sharp. Now she is never sure whether she will have to turn back with no trains running. When health sector workers strike, and even doctors of the recent past have resorted to this deplorable ruse, it is a matter of life or death to some. A person called Mudalige was seen smilingly distributing leaflets while protest marching, the cause of which Cass could not catch nor fathom. He thinks himself a saviour; he is a destroyer.

A silver lining appeared. Cass watched on TV news Prez Ranil chairing a meeting with financial secretaries. They expressed their opinion strongly and clearly that salary increases were impossible to give and money printing was now taboo with the IMF overseeing matters financially. And the Prez concluded that it was not possible to give in to strikers. That gladdened the heart immensely. We hope he will be of the same opinion regarding MPs’ demand for tax free luxury limos and life-long insurance for them and theirs in addition to the pensions they now receive after just five years of warming comfortable chairs in the Chamber.

The Editor of The Island of Wednesday July 10, has in his style of sharp and spot-on comment, criticism, blame laying and solutions to be taken dealt with this common bane of Sri Lankan existence. (We don’t ‘live’ now, the word connoting security, justified happiness and fairness to all; rather do we merely exist). He writes under the title Strikes, demand and harsh reality and points out the fact that there are about 1.5 million public employees, working out to about one state worker for every 14 citizens. Preposterous! Only possible in SL, a land like no other where politicians and their chits are to be mostly blamed for this imbalance. Culling or weaning of public servants should be started. Then strikers will not go by instigators of strikes who plan to destabilize the country, but cling to their paying jobs.

How the Iron Lady broke the back of strikes

Cass recollected how newly appointed Conservative PM, Margaret Thatcher, manoeuvered to stop strikes of coal miners and earned the hypocoristic of ‘Iron Lady’.

Cass surfed the Internet to refresh her memory. In 1884 –85, UK coal miners’ strike was a major industrial action in an attempt to stop closure of pits that the government deemed uneconomic; the coal industry having been nationalised in 1947. Arthur Scargill was a name remembered as instigator and leader of strike action. Some minors worked and so, starting in Yorkshire and Midland, the back of the year long strike was shaken and the Conservative government went to work and allowed closure of most British collieries.  Margaret Thatcher was credited with breaking up the ‘most bitter industrial dispute in British history.’ The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) strategy was to cause a severe energy shortage that had won victory in the 1972 strike. Thatcher’s strategy was to build ample stocks of coal; to retain as many minors as possible; and to get the police to break up strikes, which were ruled illegal in September 1984; they ended a year later. Miners suffered but the country gained.

It was heartening to hear that the railway has been made an essential service. Station masters said they would go on striking. Drastic measures have to be adopted to stop such anti-national activities.

Continue Reading


Why human capital development is essential for Sri Lanka



by S. D. Gamini Jayasooriya
Wayamba University

The development of human capital is of immense importance for the economic development of Sri Lanka. Thus, investing in education and skills training raises the overall productivity and effectiveness of personnel, spurring innovation and economic growth. Analysing the current situation in Sri Lanka, human capital development can be seen to be of particular importance for creating a competitive economy.

Levels of Human Capital Development

Human capital development in Sri Lanka can be categorised into three main levels: school-leaving level, higher education, and tertiary levels.

School Level: The primary and secondary level of education are indispensable at the basic level. Promoting quality education for children creates a pool of educated human capital in society. Special attention should be paid to raising the level of education, revising curricula, and integrating the use of new technologies in education processes.

Higher Education: In particular, specific skills and knowledge are cultivated at universities and colleges. Improving funding, research and industry linkages in higher education institutions help to produce ready-made graduates to suit the global market demand.

Tertiary Level: Vocational training and technical education are crucial in preparation of people for the job market with relevant skills. Thus, increasing and enhancing vocational training centers would provide solutions for skill deficiencies in different sectors, making the population fit for the actual needs of the economy.

Sri Lankan Labor Market Overview 2023

The Sri Lankan labor market in 2023 has strengths and weaknesses as discussed below. Currently, unemployment trends are still elevated, especially within the youth bracket, while skills supply does not match the skills demand in the market. There is a lack of qualified workers in a number of fields including the IT, healthcare, and manufacturing industries.

A major part of the population is engaged in the informal economy and most of them may be in the low wage employment. This state of affairs requires proper human capital development policies and the enhancement of skill and formalization of the labor market.

Importance of a Skilled Workforce in Economic Development

Skilled workforce is one of the prerequisites for developing the economy of a particular country. Employment of specialized personnel leads to increased output, creativity, and effectiveness in many sectors. They can respond better to innovations in technology and fluctuations in the market thus promoting more economic growth and competition.

Human capital is also an element that enriches the stream of foreign investment. They are likely to be established in places where human capital is readily available to them in terms of skills. This can lead to the generation of employment, technology distribution and enhancement of the economy on a whole.


To enhance human capital development in Sri Lanka, several strategies should be implemented:

1. Improve Educational Infrastructure: Make sure that there is infrastructure development in schools, adequate provision for the needy student, and teachers are in a position to teach.

2. Strengthen Higher Education: Encourage partnerships between universities and industries to ensure the delivered curricula align with the market needs. Contribute towards the improvement of research and development.

3. Expand Vocational Training: Increase the number of vocational training centers and adjust the offered programs to suit the current employment market. Promote the actualization of vocational education as a worthwhile career.

4. Promote Lifelong Learning: Encourage continued learning through offered adult education and online classes.

5. Government and Private Sector Collaboration: Encourage government and private sector to work together and identify the areas that require skills and come up with relevant training needs.


That is why human capital investment must become a priority in Sri Lanka. Investing in education and skills training of the people at all levels will enable the development of a competent and versatile human resource pool. This will help spur economic development, encourage foreign direct investment, and build a stronger and more competitive economy. It is for this reason that the management of human capital should be done strategically to foster the future growth and stability of Sri Lanka.

Continue Reading


Sixty-five years after entry to university of Ceylon, Peradeniya



University of Peradeniya


It was sixty five years ago, and that is very long time ago, on 29 June 1959 that a batch of 378 students from all parts of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) entered the portals of the most beautiful university at that time, the University of Ceylon, situated in the salubrious surroundings in Peradeniya, just four miles from the historic city of Kandy, after having successfully passed the then University Entrance examination conducted by the university itself, to read for our varied degrees in Arts, Oriental Languages, Law, etc.

The atmosphere was filled with excitement and sometimes with dismal and gloomy feelings, varied feelings produced from a sense of uncertainty and new-found freedom. The drive through the campus from the Galaha Road junction through the picturesque setting, well maintained lawns and well-laid out flower beds (Sir Ivor Jennings and Mr. Shirley De Alwis together had done the selection of the trees and shrubs very meticulously to bring out the blending of colours), the imposing architectural marvels of Jayathilaka and Arunachalam Halls, the Arts Theatre, the Senate building, and Hilda Obeysekera Hall and the tree sheltered kissing bend and up the winding road to Marcus Fernando Hall( Mr. Shirley De Alwis had planned out the general scheme, landscaping which was his favourite and all other details), brought thoughts to one’s mind which were mixed with perplexity, bewilderment and abandonment. One was entering a make-believe land, very artificial but, at the same time, very fascinating.

There were two significant things in respect of our batch of 1959. Ours was the last all- English medium batch to enter the university. The second important thing is our batch was the first batch where all the students were admitted directly without a viva voce, as up to the previous batch the students were selected both directly and some after facing a viva voce.

Though sixty-five years have gone by, we have not forgotten the best experience we had during the three or four years we spent in the beautiful campus. It is sad that many of our batch mates are not with us now having left us and moved into another world and not being with us to reminisce the glorious time we spent as residential undergraduates.

To all those who entered the Peradeniya campus before us and to our batch, that university will remain in our minds as the one and only university in then Ceylon as the University of Ceylon, which had been established by the Ordinance No. 20 of 1942 and situated in Colombo. It was in the early nineteen fifties that the campus of the University of Ceylon was established in Peradeniya.

The single university continued until 1959. It was only in 1959 that two other universities were created, namely the Vidyodaya University (now known as the University of Sri Jayewardenepura) and the Vidyalankara University (now known as the University of Kelaniya) which were established by the Vidyodaya University and Vidyalankara University Act No. 45 of 1958.These two universities were created by upgrading the two famous Pirivenas (Vidyodaya and Vidyalanakara) that were functioning at that time.

That period we spent at Peradeniya was one of the most unforgettable periods of our lives. The friendships that we cultivated while in Peradeniya remain and will not be erased from our minds.

It would be of interest to those who followed us much later to read for their degrees how the undergraduates were selected in our time. We sat the University Entrance examination conducted by the University of Ceylon in four centres, namely, Colombo, Kandy, Jaffna and Galle with the Department of Examinations having nothing to do with it. Thank God! However, if any candidate wanted to obtain the Higher School Certificate (HSC) such candidate had to sit the extra paper at the same examination and if successful received the HSC certificate from the Department of Education.

The results of the examination were not sent either to the schools or the candidates’ homes. The results were published in the daily newspapers. As such, the results of our batch were published in the The Ceylon Daily News of Wednesday March 11, 1959. Thereafter, after a lapse of a certain period of time, the successful candidates received letters from the university informing of the date of commencement of sessions of the academic year, the Hall of residence allotted and the date to report at the allotted Hall.

There was also a document indicating what we had to take, such as a raincoat and cape, etc. and the things that should not be done in which there was one item which stated that ceiling walking was prohibited. This was a little puzzling to us, but we understood what it meant later when we were on the campus. All undergraduates who were privileged to be in Peradeniya at the commencement of the campus and may be about four batches after ours had the best of time in a university in Sri Lanka.

During that time all undergraduates resided in the halls of residence throughout their undergraduate carrier, even if a person’s residence was abutting the campus premises. All those who entered from schools in and around Kandy could have easily travelled from home. But the university rules and regulations did not permit us to do so. Anyway, when reminiscing, we think that it was good that all had to be resident within the campus as we would never have got that experience otherwise.

On the occasion of the EFC Ludowyke Centenary at Peradeniya in 2006, Prof. Yasmin Gooneratne, a distinguished alumnus stated thus:

“Of the terms most frequently heard in connection with the life that we experienced there, one is “A Golden Age”’ another is “Arcadia”. 2It was a magical time” says one classmate.” It was idyllic” says another. Our companions-some of them husbands, wives, or children who did not share the Peradeniya experience, and who now have to hear us talk about it ad infinitum, look skeptical. They don’t believe us.”

“Peradeniya? Three years in Paradise” a classmate said once. “And at the end of it, they even gave us a degree”

“It was as if all the intellectual brilliance in our country had been concentrated in one spot. If the university had been a stage, we students would have been witnesses to the performances of a stellar cast”

During our time in Peradeniya the halls of residence for males were Arunachalam, Jayathilaka, Marrs, Ramanathan and Marcus Fernando. The female undergraduates had as their halls, James Peiris, Sangamitta and Hilda Obeysekera (with Mrs. Cooke, Dr. (Mrs.) Ram Aluvihare and Miss Mathiaparanam as the respective Wardens). During our final year in 1961-62(third year in the case of those who had opted to do a special degree course), a new hall was opened, which had been named after D.R. Wijewardena close to the Kandy-Colombo railway line. With this building being opened, there was a change in respect of occupants of some halls. Ramanathan was converted into a women’s hall and James Peris was made a hall for male undergraduates. The newly opened Wijewardena Hall became a men’s hall. With this change, the male undergraduates who were in Ramanathan Hall were transferred to James Peiris and Wijewardena Halls. (To be continued)

Continue Reading