Sri Lanka: Its Development and Pitfalls
Posted on October 23rd, 2019

by Garvin Karunaratne, 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.

It is important to note that 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 into 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 the Development of Agricultural Marketing in 1955. At that time we staff officers were some 400 in number and worked in a few departments that were specially established to deal with development. Above us were the members of the Civil Service, about 125 in the number  who held the senior positions in the Departments and also worked as Permanent Secretaries in charge of the Ministries. There were some twelve Ministries and a few Departments and let me assure anyone that we did work. 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 downtrodden 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 surveys 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 have known 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 Americanisation 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.

The 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 MCCCompact 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 that were 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 that 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.

 Then 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 Commissioiner at Anuradhhapura acting like a dictator 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 were 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. (later)

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, the 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 charge of the work and generally, the members of the Rural Development Society organized 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 Kegalla I liaised with the Director of Rural Development my friend,  Mr. Ratnavira to obtain the unspent funds from other Districts.  He would scout to find the possible savings and inform me and I was ready with plans to commence projects at short notice. Those were the non-internet days and on the last day to close accounts I would turn up in Colombo to collect a cheque- the savings from other districts. Back at Kegalla I wrote out the cheques in payment and held them in my safe to be released when the work was completed in a few weeks. This was not in order but we got used to bending rules in the national interest. These details are given to show that we officers were very concerned with development.

Garvin Karunaratne


2 Responses to “Sri Lanka: Its Development and Pitfalls”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    The curse of SL is “soverign bonds” which we started issuing since 2007. They are far worse than the IMF. They carry commercial interest rates and no regulation to guide how it should be invested. They carry variable commercial interest rates. The total soverign bonds have increased to over $15 billion now and are the main reason for the debt trap.

    1. We cannot pay their interest without borrowing again.
    2. We can never repay their principal without borrowing again.
    3. There are no assets that can be shown to relate to the borrowing. Most of it was wasted in corruption and consumption.

  2. Dilrook Says:

    What this young man does alone is amazing. He is mobilizing youth to save farmland.


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