Kandyan ‘Peasants’: The Betrayed and the Forgotten-An open letter to sleeping Kandyans
Posted on July 18th, 2014

Dr. Sudath Gunasekara. (SLAS) President Mahanuwara Senior Citizens Movement

 This is a brief note on the pathetic plight of the so-called Kandyans who comprise about 1/3 the country’s population and also spread over 1/3 the area of the Island who are derogatorily called as Peasants. The Westerners used the word Kandyans to differentiate the lowlanders from the mountaineers in this Island. Robert Percival in 1803 (11 Years in Ceylon) called the lowlanders –Sinhalese and those who lived on the hills- Kandyans, which simply meant the people living on the hill country. Thereby they divided the Sinhala nation in to two rivalry camps. The word ‘Kandyan’ was adopted from the word kanda, which simply meant mountain in Sinhala. Prior to this division the people of this Island formed one indivisible united nation called Sinhalayo, which simply meant the people of the Sinhale. However, they were not ‘peasants’ as the western educated elite have labeled them, by just burrowing the term from the west. Unlike the ‘Medieval European peasant’ who was only a slave on the land that belonged to the feudal Lord, the kandyan goviya was an independent, self-asserting and proud landed proprietor who was fit even to rule his kingdom. He owned the means of production, though size may have been small, in contrast to the western peasant. In fact they were the people who ruled this country for the past 2500 years. So in this background, I am using the word peasant here in a new context to denote all descendants of the citizens of the Sinhale Kingdom that was there prior to 1815. South Indian Tamils who were brought later to work on plantations and Muslims migrated later and now domicile within the traditional Kandyan territory are not included within this definition, as some people used to do for political expediency.

 It was these robust Sinhalayo of the udarata Rajadhaniya (the last Kingdom of the Sinhale) who fought with three imperial powers valiantly for 310 years from 1505 to 1815 and defended this nation against three powerful invaders, when the Sitawaka and Yalpanam men meekly submitted to the enemy. In the process tens of thousands of these brave villagers lost their lives. It was the same Kandyan peasants who were in the vanguard in the fight against the British and paid the heavy toll of the 1818 an 1848 freedom struggles. They were brutally murdered by the British and their properties plundered; their farms were set on fire and destroyed and animals were slaughtered and all bearing trees were cut and set on fire on imperial orders.

As John Davy wrote in 1821, The story of English rule in the Kandyan country during 1817 and 1818 cannot be related without shame. In 1819 hardly a member of the leading families, the heads of the people, remained alive; those whom the sword and the gun had spared, cholera and small pox and privations had slain by the hundreds (Lawrie’s Gazetteer Vol.1. 203p). In fact it should be noted here that after the 1818 freedom struggle, all male over 14 years of age were ordered to be executed by the colonial rulers.

 They lost their land; they lost their paddy fields and hen; they lost their forests; they lost their river waters; they lost their institutions; they lost their culture, language and religion and in short they lost virtually everything what they had inherited from their forefathers, which they had zealously guarded for 2500 years. Those who were spared and survived were driven down to valley bottoms and some to the eastern jungles and even today their descendants live in these ravines in abject poverty as destitute and hapless human skeletons, as the evening sun set over the mountains, gazing at the high land, once owned by their forefathers, above their secluded and impoverished villages, now flourishing with carpeted flush tea gardens inhabited by millions of imported indentured Indian labour, The land once belonged to them now virtually belonged to foreigners and the money generated also go to them. Today, these sons of the soil, who were once described by Robert Percival as whose countenance was erect, his looks haughty, his mien lofty and his whole carriage marked by the pride of independence and they are men with war like habits’ and who owned and cultivated these lands from the dawn of history have no water even to work their fields; no grazing lands for their cattle either and many of them do not have even a burial ground to bury their dead. For centuries they drank and bathed in crystal clear mountain water that gush down the mountains but today they have to drink the water polluted by the factories and the human waste flushed in to the streams and rivers, by a million estate labourers who had been planted on the plantations by the British.

 The Kandyan areas constitute almost 1/3 the total area of the Island and nearly 1/3 the total population of the country and today they have over 100 Mpp in a house of 225. But unfortunately, there is not a single MP who has the feeling or the courage to raise a voice on behalf of these people. A cursory glance at he data shows that today they are much worse than they were in 1949. For example landlessness among the Kndyans that was reported as 39,000 families in 1949. Today it has gone over 200,000. In spite of the fact that this country is supposed to have gained political independence from the British in 1948, and was ruled by the natives for almost 66 years since then, today they are the worst neglected lot who has become virtual Refugees” on their own Motherland, since 1815. Their plight is not second to that of the American Red Indians or the Australian Aborigines. They were robbed and exploited by the British nearly for 150 years and thereafter they are, being continued to be robbed and betrayed by their own politicians, who have deplorably failed to restore their birthrights and the historical injustices inflicted upon the Kandyans by the British.

 It was with the noble objective of ‘Ameliorating” their socio-economic conditions, a commission was appointed in January 1949 to inquire in to and report on the social and economic conditions of the Kandyan Peasantry who suffered many a historical injustice during the British colonial rule” The Commission submitted its Report in August 1951. The Commission Report running in to 529 pages and covering the two provinces of Central and Uva was one of the most comprehensive reports ever written as far as Kandyan affairs are concerned. It is indeed a classic and a monumental work.Among many other far-reaching recommendations, this Report recommended the setting up of a powerful Development Board headed by a Permanent Secretary directly answerable to the Prime Minister with similar Development Boards at the District and Divisional levels, to develop the Kandyan areas. This was indeed a super Authority and an excellent institutional framework, but it never saw the light of the day up to date. In 1953 the Cabinet accepted the recommendations of the Commission in principle and thereafter a six year development Programme was prepared under the directions of the then Minister for Home Affairs A. Ratnayaka, incorporating the major recommendations of the Kandyan Peasantry Commission.

Rs. 212 million was provided for this programme. The Minister expected this programme to be implemented through the District Administration and other departments connected with rural welfare. But the majority in the Cabinet was not in favour of special regional development for the Kandyan Provinces. Finally on the recommendations of the then Minister of Finance M.D.H. Jayawardhana the government decided to include the proposed development programme in the 1954/55 – 1956/60 Six Year Programme. This was the first set back suffered by the KPC Report.

In 1958 a sub-department was created to coordinate the work and it was placed under a coordinator. His function was merely to disburse limited funds for haphazardly selected scattered minor infrastructure development within the Central and Uva Provinces. As against the fully pledged and powerful Development Authority proposed by the Kandyan Peasantry Commission, the new department was only a tiny mole and it was the second betrayal that surfaced as the anti-Kandyan forces were gathering momentum in fifties. The coordinator was renamed as Commissioner in 1964 and the department was upgraded to B class. Then it went in to a deep and long slumber for about 25 years. In 1989 a Project Ministry was created under the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and they renamed it as the Ministry of Upcountry Peasantry Development, under the Premadasa Government. But ironically even in that year only Rs. 10 million was made available for development for that year. President Wijetunga appointed another Presidential Commission in 1994 under the chairmanship of A.B. Elkaduwa to assess the work done in terms of the KPC of 1951 and to study and report on the constraints to development in the areas concerned. This report concluded that the region continued to lag behind and the people continue to be poor, backward, disadvantaged, the pace of development has been slow and uneven”, a fact as clear as the day light to every toddler in this country by then, for which a Presidential Commission need not have appointed at all. I the latter part of 1994 when I was secretary to Mrs Bandaranaike, I submitted a draft Cabinet paper seeking Cabinet approval for the establishment of the Development Authority that was proposed earlier by the KPC in 1949. But it never saw the light of the day as Mrs B was reluctant to speak to Chandrika on this matter.

 Meanwhile JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) in 1993 also made a study of the project area that resulted in the preparation of a ten-year Master Plan. The main emphasis of this plan was agriculture and rural development. It estimated the cost of implementation of the ten-year programme at RS 15.4 billion. The plan period ended in 2003 almost with zero results. The conditions in the Kandyan areas remained the unchanged. Meanwhile another Task Force was appointed on 9th Jan 2003 to study, report and guide the implementation of any proposed development activity for the upliftment of the peasantry in the Central Region under the Chairmanship of Professor Madduma Bandara. (Note Upcountry now changed to Central Region- perhaps a new political strategy). The TOR of this Task Force itself appears to be illusive and vague. However, thanks to its Chairman it was better in content than the Elkaduwa Report. Nevertheless instead of suggesting a detailed Action Plan based on the KPC Report, this Task Force also, going by the prevailing Task Force syndrome” proposed the appointment of another Super Task Force of 21 members, apparently for writing another ‘report’ that will provide some perks for its members and with another carrot for the politicians to deceive the people. With the fall of the government of the day this proposal also went in to the back shelf as usual. Meanwhile, a new organization called Sri Lanka Udarata Development Authority (SLUDA) was established on 24th August 2005 under Act No 26 of 2005 again for identifying, formulating and coordinating, the implementation of development projects within the Udarata Area. ” So you see, like a game of musical chairs, for 60 years, all governments have been playing a game of hide and seek policy at the expense of 1/3 of the nations population for whom the entire nation is indebted for defending the country for 350 years against the enemy. The only development that had taken place was report writing and mere lip service to ameliorate” the socio-economic conditions of the Kandyan Peasants.

Although all the previous reports referred to the Report of the Kandyan Peasantry Commission it is rather strange and quite interesting too to note that the Act no 26 of 2005 has not made even a passing reference to the KPC Report of 1951, which is the most authentic and comprehensive study available on this subject. The Act also has not made any reference to the Department of Kandyan Peasantry Development that has been engaged in this job for the last 50 years and also has not stated as to what it proposes to do with the department. In this backdrop one can imagine the width of the knowledge gap of the architects of this Act pertaining to Kandyan affairs. It appears that they were going to start Kandyan development for the first time in history and as a result we are again shifted back in square no 1 on Kandyan Peasantry Development after 60 long years of political deceiving.

 What is still funnier is the latest attempt by the newly appointed Board of the SLUDA to prepare a fresh Cooperate Plan for which they have agreed to pay Rs. 540,000 to a handpicked client, out of a group of more than 60 applicants whose applications were not even acknowledged. It is revealed that Rs 250,000 has already been paid even before the work is started. Apart from the fraudulent and irregular manner in which, this transaction is done what is the justification for preparing another plan at such high cost when there are at least four (5 ) plans already available.

What the SLUDA needs to do now is only to prepare a simple Action Plan based on the recommendations of available studies without wasting any more public funds and time, and then go in to immediate action, as already enough money has gone down the drain on reports, which have never been implemented. The Director General of the Authority should have prepared this plan without any additional cost to government, using the report of the Kandyan Peasantry Commission, which provides the best and the most comprehensive report available on the subject of Kandyan peasantry up to date. He could have got the assistance of the Director of the Department of Kandyan Peasantry Rehabilitation as well, whose office is located on the same compound and who also functioned as the secretary to the Special Task Force of 2003 on Kandyan Rehabilitation. In fact this Task Force has already made its own 7 pronged Strategic Plan for Kandyan peasantry Rehabilitation in 2003. There are also the Reports of the Elkaduwa Presidential Commission of 1993 and the JICA Master Plan Study of 1993 on the same subject, which runs in to 4 volumes and Hewavitharana Report prepared subsequently.

Therefore what is required today for rehabilitating Kandyan peasants and ameliorating their problems is not wasting further time and money on report writing as it had been done for the past 66 years, but to take concrete and effective action at least now, without plunging these peasants in to further destitution and misery.

            Talking about the Act No 26 of 2005, it is neither a legal document nor a practical instrument of achieving the objectives stipulated in the preamble. Its objectives are illusory and unclear; powers too wide and unrealistic and they encroach in to the legal domain of other government statutory boards and departments. It was only a carbon copy of the Southern Area Development Authority hurriedly presented. The new Authority did not have an arm of its own to implement its programmes and expected to depend on other agencies and departments to do that job. Doesn’t this mean that again we were trying to go back to the coordinator’s time of 1958? Section 14 on objectives and 15 on powers is overlapping. The whole document lacks clear thinking and it displays not only their ignorance on administrative procedures on good governance but also their poverty and ignorance on Kandyan affairs. It appears to be a simple transcript of another Act prepared for some other purpose..

             The board of management was also ill constituted. It did not provide for any special qualification to be a member, for example expertise on Kandyan affairs that is crucial for its successful operation. Other than the ex-officio members, Section 4 (b) provides for the appointment of five members and it says that the President will appoint them on the recommendation of the Minister. But it does not say what Minister will make the recommendations either. This situation enables the President to appoint any one with no regard to his ability to deliver the goods. This is why the KPC Report 1951 stipulated that at least two of the members of the Board of five recommended by them should be selected from among persons who have a special knowledge of the Kandyan Provinces and they should not be persons directly involved in active politics. Absence of such specific stipulations as to the qualifications of the members leaves the doors open for appointing unqualified men for political reasons. This affects the quality of the board, which in turn seriously affects the work.

 In this backdrop, if you observe carefully the sequence and the manner in which this subject has been handled for the past 66 years you will note how reluctant and lethargic the successive governments have been in handling it. The meager and ridiculous financial allocation of Rs. 358,691,957 (over a period of 33 years from 1961 to 93) to rehabilitate nearly 1/3 of the total population in the country spread over almost 1/3 the area of the country who fought heroically and paid the biggest penalty for independence further proves this indifference displayed by the then governments towards Kandyans.

 Today, even those who were imported to the Island in the second half of the 19th century, as indentured labour from India, to work on the British tea plantations as slaves, numbering about 1 m, are better looked after by every body, than the Kandyans who were the owners of this land for the past 2500 years. They are given two or more separate Ministries and each one of them have been getting more than Rs. 200 m annually in addition to national and international assistance they receive for the past few decades. The Kandyans who constitute over 1/3 of the countries population do not have a separate Ministry either, in a country where we have nearly 110 ministries at the moment. The tragedy is although there are over 100 MPP who are supposed to have got elected and selected to represent them in Parliament, today there isn’t a single MP even to talk on behalf of these people who have lost all their birthrights,. Unfortunately politicians of the calibre of A Ratnayaka, M.D.Banda or M.B.W.Mediwaka who can stand up on their feet in the House on behalf of these neglected people today are not there in parliament to represent them. In fact none of the present day MPP actually represent the people. They are only puppets of the Colombo hierarchy of the party in power who are placed in their seats only to get their vote to ensure legitimacy to governing. There are also no people’s organizations either, powerful enough to lobby their case and air out the grievances of these hapless underdogs. Both the present Department and the SLUDA did not have wings to fly. They had no legs to run either. The two institutions, although operated from the same building, functioned independently of each other. SLUDA had been always packed with political stooges who knew next to nothing about the problems of the Kadyans or had any idea as to what they should do other than collecting the perks attached to the posts and running after their political masters.

On Jan 1st 2014 both the SLUDA and the Kandyan Peasantry Com’s Department and the Upcountry Development Authority along with the Samurdhi Authority and the Southern Development Authority were amalgamated under a new super Department called Divineguma. Along with this decision the 65 year old subject of Kandyan Peasantry was also buried forever. None of the so-called MPP said to be representing these areas or any other Kandyan leader including the three Mahanayaka Theras who are all Kandyans has spoken a word about this tragedy. All these people have kept mum as if the of people who called Kandyan Peasants are already extinct.

Since at least a dead heroic Kandyan leader like Keppetipola has not risen from the grave to protest against this heinous crime

I thought the best thing to do is to bring this to the notice of the ghosts of the Fathers of Kandyan Peasantry Commission who labored to produce it in 1949.

Even today the KPC Report is the most comprehensive document available on Kandyan areas, though it had to be updated. It had quite correctly identified landlessness as the main problem confronting the Kandyans. Among other problems they have highlighted poverty, malnutrition, unemployment, education, depressing health facilities, roads, irrigation and marketing. So what we have to do today is to make a start there, using it as the guideline and improve on that to meet the present day needs. The present day problems in these regions are at least ten times greater than what they were in 1949.

According to the Task Force of 2003, ‘the Kandyan districts form the poorest areas in the country. Both ‘consumptive poverty’ as well as the abject ‘human poverty’ is most preponderant in the kandyan districts. All the districts where the ‘abject human poverty’ is over 25%’ are all kandyan districts. The lowest human development index of 0 .694 is reported from Kandy district. In terms of life expectance lowest rates are reported from Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Badlla districts. Average per capita gross domestic product (GRDP) for the central region (JICA 1994) was 33% lower than the average figure for the whole sland. The lowest GDP per capita of the whole country are reported from Monaragala and Kandy districts (UNDP 1998). In terms of infrastructure development and social amenities the situation cannot be different.

Landlessness, which was stated as 39,000 families in 1949, has now gone over 200,000. Although the Land reforms of 1972 was intended to solve landlessness among these peasants, not an inch out of some 600.000 acres of land appropriated by the British had been retrieved to the Kandyan peasants up to date. Instead the successive governments have chased out more than another 10,000 families from Dumbara and Kotmale areas and now a vigorous plan to give lands to estate Tamils is being deployed by the governments under the guise of development and meeting socio-political justice. Even the Huxam Report (1947) recommendations for the establishment of peripheral kachcheries highlighted by the KPCR in Naula, Rikillagaskada and Bibile have not being implemented up to date. Most of the irrigation projects and roads programs recommended by the Commission were also never carried out. The Meemure Maha Oya-Heenganga project designed to bring 500 acres under plough and the Meemure- Pallegama road and the Kalugala-Udattawa road are only few examples of such unattended work.

 This scenario shows the seriousness with which successive governments have handled the Kandyan issue. It also shows the calibre of the Members of Parliament who have been representing these areas since 1948.

Whither the Kandyans are going? Where is the thicket: it is gone. Where is the water in the streams; it is also gone. There was at least a Coomaraswamy in 1905 to address ‘An Open Letter to the Kandyan Chiefs at least on one single aspect of their great heritage- that is about their decaying buildings and a dying civilization. Alas! today not only that there is no one to write in that seriousness, but even if some one writes and speak there are no worthy Chiefs among present day Kandyans who have an eye to see and audible years to lend, for such trivial matters. As the say goes even buffaloes have leaders, but the Kandyans appear to have none.

 Why was the Kandyan Peasantry Repot scuttled? It suffered the same fate, rather more adversely, than the Kannagara Report on Education did. Unfortunately we never had the political will and the commitment and the administrative vision and strength to implement these recommendations to their logical conclusion. Had they being at least partially implemented, today, the story of the Kandyans would have been at least partially different.

 Lack of able and committed local political leadership armed with vision and will who could understand the spirit and the substance of the KPC Report and bring pressure on the government of the day, the out dated Kandyan–Low country conflict in the government circles and administrative poverty that failed to comprehend the real issues and advice and guide the politicians and mobilize the people, and absence of dynamic and militant regional apolitical national leaders and peoples organizations who could influence and lobby the governments in power, and the political division of the society in to rivalry groups that obstructs united action for a common cause, I think, are the main reasons that have brought about this pathetic situation.

 A powerful Development Board for the development of Kandyan areas both with advisory and executive power, placed directly under the Head of the State that should be entrusted to a senior and able Kandyan Cabinet Minister who has a true commitment to the cause of these people, with similar institutional set up at District and Divisional levels, on the lines recommended by the KPC Report of 1951 manned by able and knowledgeable men committed to the development and rehabilitation of these forgotten and betrayed people with a view to rectifying the historical injustices inflicted upon them is the crying need of the day. This will certainly make the man who takes the decision immortal, in the annals of Kandyan saga, which has been marred by recurrent betrayals through out history, as the ‘Messiah’ of the 21st century, who resurrected these neglected and betrayed Refugees” who are now standing virtually on the verge of extinction, on their own Motherland. Let us not forget that these are the people who in fact fought the heroic battles against three powerful imperial powers for 310 years and defended the country and also who formed the vanguard in the freedom struggles of 1818 and 1848 and for whose blood that flowed down the streams, the whole nation is heavily indebted. But isn’t it a historical tragedy that these legitimate heirs to freedom are today completely ignored, forgotten and neglected while the sweet fruits of 1948 freedom are being lavishly enjoyed by those who betrayed the nation then and continues to do so even now along with the Indian plantation labour- who were planted by force on our motherland yesterday by the British.

 The degree of indebtedness, the present day Sri Lankans owe to the Kandyans, and how it needs to be retrieved, has to be properly evaluatedand estimated, in this backdrop.

(This is a slightly revised article I wrote in Jan. 2008)

5 Responses to “Kandyan ‘Peasants’: The Betrayed and the Forgotten-An open letter to sleeping Kandyans”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    The curse of Kandyan regions is TEA.

    That deprived SINHALA people in Kandyan areas land to tea plantations and to kallathoi housing, schools, etc.

    TEA industry should be looked at in detail.

    Thondaman has become a KING MAKER thanks to the tea industry. He is ALWAYS a minister!

  2. aloy Says:

    I think this the time the leaders of peasants put forward their demands to GOSL. Laws should be enacted during the life of this government to give back their lost heritage and they (the politicians) should be told in no uncertain terms that they should not come asking fo their votes if this issue is neglected. If not it will be like the case of Red Indians of America or the aborigenes of Australia.
    All unproductive and loss making TEA estates should be distribute among landless Kandian peasants
    It is only a Tamil and a Catholic commenting on this very important issue of Kandian Buddhists rights. Where is Fran?. Where is Nanda?.

  3. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    During the war I read that Sinhalese were hired to pick the tea and it proved to be a mistake. The job done was poor and forced the owners to rehire the Indian tea pickers. If there is any truth to this then the only solution is to mechanize the process of picking tea leaves.

    Just as in the Cotton Gin that replaced the black slaves. I Googled “Mechanized tea picking Wikipedia” and cut and paste this “The Charleston Tea Plantation utilized a converted tobacco harvester to mechanically harvest the tea”. In the 21st century quality harvesting of tea may simply require machines to do that job. If so the Indian Tamil tea pickers could be returned to India and bring some demographic normalcy to the hill country of Sri Lanka. This is but one suggestion. I hope other commenters have more suggestions of making the Sri Lankan tea industry a “Sinhalese tea industry”

  4. Ratanapala Says:

    What nobody seems to talk about is how the Indian Tamils got the land on top of Sri Lankan Citizenship. For a long time they fought to stay back and finally Indian Tamils got citizenship. Now it seems they also have the Tea Plantation land. All the people who got displaced by the Kothmale Hydro Projects couldn’t get land anywhere in the hill country because at that time S Thondaman protested and the traitor JRJ acquiesced. All those people were given land in the Mahaveli C areas – Aralaganwila and Giranduru Kotte in the low lands. In the 1980s the first thing one noticed in these areas were the cemeteries, as most died after being transplanted in an area that was foreign to their habits and well being. Traitor Gamini Dissanayake too should account for this debacle.

    It is time that people took up the cause of the Kandyans who lost land under the Wasteland Ordinance. The problem is nobody including the so called Kandyan Chiefs are not interested. Not even the two Mahanayakes!

  5. Lorenzo Says:

    The curse of the country.


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