Posted on June 1st, 2012


The Ceylon Agricultural Society, a private society of British colonists, established the first co-operatives around 1904. But it was D. S. Senanayake””‚minister of agriculture and land in the State Council, and prime minister (1947-1952) of independent Ceylon””‚who founded the island’s cooperative-society movement in 1923. After the Japanese attack on Colombo in 1942, Senanayake emphasized the development of cooperatives to handle the monopoly of rationed war goods such as cloth, rice and sugar. The cooperative movement flourished with the onset of food shortages resulting from import restrictions and reduction of local production.

Metaphorically speaking, the lava flow from the top-down eruption of the volcano””‚the co-operative movement””‚reached the village of Pathegama during the last two years of World War II.

I shall narrate the drama of the village co-op campaign with no holds barred because it contains the explanation for the economic morass of many developing societies:

Control shop v Co-op

My grandfather, the Ralahamy (Village Headman), had already set up a control shop at our Maha Gedera (ancestral home) at the time he joined the campaign to establish a village co-operative society. At a meeting of the village bigwigs that grandfather summoned to seek support for the co-op, I can recall the following exchange of opinions:

“Perhaps you don’t know what the co-operative movement is.  Why do you want a consumers’ co-operative when our own control-shop is prospering? It is against your self-interest,” observed the headmaster of the village school, whom the villagers called Palaveni Mahattaya (Head School Teacher).

“My desire is to serve this village.  A co-operative shop can do a lot of good for the poor folk. Damn be self-interest,” said my grandfather.

Grandfather was obsessed with the idea of opening a consumers’ co-operative ever since he received a note from the government directing him to ascertain whether he could induce an adequate number of people to join a co-operative society at village level.  Grandfather had the highest regard for D. S. Senanayake as a national leader. He knew that the idea was consistent with the Buddhist view of the universe/world as a giant co-operative.

He surmised that minister Senanayake was doing the right thing by promoting the co-op movement. Therefore, he went round the village advocating the advantages of co-operation stressing how it would contribute to the welfare of the villagers.

The villagers did not show any particular interest in organizing a co-operative society because of the requirement that a person had to subscribe Rs. 5 to qualify for membership.  They had a genuine fear that they had everything to lose and nothing to gain by joining a nebulous society, the virtues of which were totally unknown to them.

Saga of Control Shop

Grandfather clearly violated the ethical code of Buddhism when he schemed to set up the control shop at our home for profit making. Having used wily tactics to feather his own nest, he probably sought repentance and decided to follow the right path to help people.

 Those were the days when the entire country felt the serious effects of World War II. To meet the shortage of essential commodities and to attack inflation, the authorities started to ration vital commodities.  The imperial government attempted to cushion the effects of inflation by subsidizing essential commodities. It did so by issuing rations at controlled prices. It set up control-shops all over the country to distribute the goods equitably among the peasantry?

Grandfather informed the “government” that the police division of Pathegama required four control-shops. Therefore, he recommended the applications of four eligible villagers, even though none of the putative “applicants” knew they had “applied.”

When the authorities approved the four applications””‚again, with the “applicants” not having the faintest idea of their involvement””‚the Ralahamy decided to reverse his original recommendation in favor of amalgamating the four into a single control-shop to be located at his own residence, viz. our Maha Gedera.

 Thus part of our house was converted into a retail shop as soon as the essential commodities were brought in several bullock carts from the wholesale store in the town.

Goods packed in gunny-bags were stored in the hall, while business was conducted in one of the front rooms.  Siriwardena Iskole Mahattaya was appointed the manager of the shop. The weigher was Ariyasena Maama.

Since ours was an 80-squaremeter house, it was large enough to accommodate the shop without causing too much inconvenience to the residents.  We set up two benches in the verandah for the use of the customers, some of whom came from places like Koswatte and Methrigoda, each about three kilometers away.

Prior to the opening of the control-shop, Grandfather (in his capacity as the Ralahamy) distributed rice-ration books to those folks who did not own rice paddies. We were disqualified from owning ration books because we owned several rice paddies. Yet, I am aware that we were in possession of several ration books, which bore the names of some benign villagers, both male and female, whose mortal remains were crumbling into dust beneath the rich soil of our village! With due respect to those who rest in peace, we used the weekly coupons of these books to purchase rice at the controlled price and sell at a higher price!

Commodities such as flour, Maldive fish, chilies and maize were also given on ration according to a quota system, which ranged from one-half to one ounce per ration book.  So acute was the shortage of food that the people judiciously turned to growing vegetables in their gardens and yams in their chenas (cleared hilly land).  Some people could not find the financial means to buy the quota of essential commodities they were entitled to, but they dutifully handed over their weekly coupons lest they lost their quotas when they could afford to buy them.

The people of our household never felt the shortage of food because everything was available in plenty, thanks to the control-shop.  Those items of food that the people could not afford to buy accrued to us as a matter of course; and we used these liberally for our domestic consumption as well as for distribution among our neighbors and relations at a favorable price!

Undoubtedly, the control-shop was prospering.  Its daily turnover sometimes exceeded Rs. 200.  

Perhaps Grandfather felt somewhat guilty of living in clover at the expense of the dead and the poor when the bright idea of serving the villagers by opening a consumer co-operative society occurred to him.

Shift to Co-op

Once determined to do something, Grandfather was the rare sort of person who would not stop short of achieving it. He was inexorable.  In spite of the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the majority of the peasants, he started a lonely campaign to enlist support to set up a co-operative society. comprised reputed oracles like Hirigal Thattaya and Ghosakaya and eminent intellectuals like Palaveni Mahattaya and Vithanage Iskole Mahattaya.

He persuaded several respected elders of the village to take a greater interest in the matter. They formed an interim committee to make vital decisions.

Every evening the members of the interim committee gathered in solemn conclave at our place. My mother (the daughter of Ralahamy) had to serve them tea or coffee having ascertained their respective proclivities, which mostly depended on the state of their health and weather conditions.  Although my mother was the embodiment of hospitality when she served the beverages to the distinguished members of the committee and assorted hangers-on, she gnashed her teeth in private for having had to use more than a pound of sugar everyday to entertain the guests.

After careful deliberation, the committee decided to hold a public meeting in the village for explaining the co-operative movement to the people.

Accordingly, a meeting was convened in the premises of the village school one afternoon. Among the distinguished speakers who addressed the crowd of more than 300 were the chairman of the local authority, an official from the Co-operative Department and, of course, the village orator, Siriwardena Iskole Mahattaya (manager of the control-shop).

Addressing the gathering, Grandfather said that he considered it the duty of every villager to become a member of the co-operative society by purchasing at least one share at Rs. 5; that they need not have any fears of losing anything because the profits of the co-operative shop would be distributed among the shareholders.  He asseverated that he was ready to transfer all the ration books of the control-shop to the co-operative society right at that moment (whereupon the official from the Co-operative Department interposed to explain that the transfer of ration books could not be effected at once because the department had to be informed of the arrangements).

Following the meeting, the co-operative society was formally set up.  Grandfather and father bought 10 shares each.  The occasion was celebrated by regaling the gathering with traditional pastry and plantains, and soft drinks supplied by our household.

When the co-operative retail shop was opened about a month later, all the ration books except   about 50 were transferred there from our control-shop.  Grandfather was unanimously elected the chairman of the committee of the co-operative society.  Siriwardana Iskole Mahattaya and Ariyasena Mama were also transferred to the co-operative shop as its manager and weigher respectively.  Those ration books that still remained in our control-shop belonged to several staunchly faithful villagers, who vehemently refused to transfer them.  Temporary arrangements were made to serve these loyal customers.

The enthusiasm about co-operation fostered by grandfather augured well for the bourgeoning co-operative shop.  Textiles were added to the stock of goods made available to the consumers.  Everybody talked of sharing the profits.  As a matter of fact attractive profits were made by the co-operative society in the first few months after it commenced business. Our control-shop was facing its decline.

Grandfather spoke loftily about the success of the co-operative shop.  But he was clapping his hands too early.  For even before the lapse of a year, internal bickering among the committee members caused him to resign in a fit of great anger.  When this happened Siriwardena Iskole Mahattaya and Ariyasena Maama also resigned from their respective posts.  The latter reverted to the control-shop assuming duties as manager-cum-weigher.

Soon it became known to the villagers that the co-operative society was belying their expectations.  It was making losses every month.  To add to its troubles, Atha Kota and his sons burgled the co-operative shop on two occasions.  Investigations made by the officials of the Co-operative Department revealed that the secretary, manager and several committee members of the Co-operative Society were engaged in profit-making pursuits of their own, each accruing to himself a fair proportion of the stocks of goods brought for distribution at controlled prices.

The authorities ordered the suspension of the co-operative retail shop.  The shareholders never had the chance of at least recovering the value of their shares not to speak of profits.

Most of the villagers blamed the Ralahamy for the loss of their money, for it was he who was mainly responsible for the setting up of the co-operative society “to serve the village.” It was now clear that it had served only a few racketeers whose greed (tanha) for quick profits blinded them to violate the five precepts and prolong their dukkha (suffering) in samsara. I surmise that non-adherence to the sila (moral code) dimension of the Exalted Eightfold Path is the main explanation of the economic morass of underdevelopment.

Grandfather observed in rueful mood, “If this is the outcome of the co-operative movement, the sooner it disappears the better. Perhaps Palaveni Mahattaya had a better idea of the co-operative movement.”

 [Note: The original version of this Village Sketch by Arcadius appeared in the CDN Saturday Magazine on 6 Nov. 1965. Arcadius revised it in 2012. All 28 articles in this series will be released this year in a book titled VILLAGE LIFE IN THE “ƒ”¹…”FORTIES: MEMORIES OF A LANKAN EXPATRIATE (Bloomington, Ind.: iUniverse).]


  1. Arcadius Says:

    A request from the author to those who have been reading this series of village sketches:

    Please let me know your views on these sketches–the best, the worst, etc., and why you think so.

    The publisher, iUniverse, is currently trying to improve the book through a three-stage developmental editing process. Therefore, this is the ideal time to incorporate your ideas into the final manuscript.

    I am particularly interested in feedback from those readers who were born in the 1940s.

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