of The Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka: Tribute to late Mr. D.A.Abeysekera
On His 33rd Death Anniversary
Ramani D.Wickramaratne Courtesy Asian Tribune
"Shramadana" or offering ones strengths and commitment
on a voluntary basis to the welfare of lesser fortunate human beings
is an extremely noble endeavour. This concept was purely to give of
ones time, energy and money on a non-profit making voluntary basis
towards the upliftment of lesser privileged communities in this country.
On a national scale & with government patronage this endeavour began
as far back as 1958 when the Dept. of Rural Development under their
programme to help backward communities in Sri Lanka namely the Rodhiyas,
Veddahs & Kinnerayas which were considered social outcasts and neglected.
Under the wholehearted commitment & guidance of a Senior Rural Development
Assistant (SRDA) by the name of Mr. D.A.Abeysekera launched this programme.D.A.Abeysekera
The late Mr. Abeysekera travelled the length and breadth of this country
in search of the above mentioned communities in a bid to uplift their
living standards by finding methods to improve their living, employment,
health and education standards. December 2008 marks the 50th (Golden)
Anniversary of the Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka (it is not the Golden
Jubilee of Sarvodaya as is publicized everywhere!).
As an enthusiastic young university pass out in the late 1940s, he
began his professional life by joining the Department of Rural Development
and Cottage Industries and was put in charge of alleviating the suffering
of the "Backward Communities" in Sri Lanka. The Rodiya, Veddah
and Kinnarya communities in Sri Lanka came under this categorization
of "Backward Communities." He could not have chosen a better
area to work in as this was truly his mission in life- to help the innocent,
the down-trodden and the less fortunate communities in our society.
His entire professional life until retirement in the early 1970s was
spent working silently for the development of backward communities at
the Dept of Rural Development as Senior Rural Development Assistant(SRDA).
During the period of 1952-53 he went on a UN Fellowship to the USA,
Scandinavian Countries and Japan which enhanced and sharpened his insight
into serving this country with still greater commitment. As part of
his work, he was called upon by the governments of the time, to conduct
seminars as well as coordinate on behalf of the Sri Lanka Government
with organizations like Care International and The Peace Corps to conduct
orientation programmes for these expatriates, and to evolve methods
of helping the backward communities. To this day, those foreigners who
worked with him still maintain sincere close ties with his family and
have the highest respect for him as a man of principles, even though
he himself passed away in 1975. During 1961-62 during the time when
the late Mrs.Sirimavo Bandaranaike was Prime Minister, Mr. Abeysekera
also initiated the National Service Scheme through the Dept. of Land
Development -National Service Branch and the Hiniduma and Kalubowitiyana
Road Projects got underway.Abeysekera gives a haircut to a Rodiya Child
The late Mr. D.A.Abeysekera was an embodiment of Metta, Karuna and Muditha
in the true sense of the word and when he visited these villages where
these backward communities lived, he was appalled by the lack of basic
facilities such as toilets, schools and even proper housing facilities.
These people lived in "wattle and daub" huts with cadjan (mats
woven with coconut leaves into the shape of a kind of roofing sheet)
roofs. Their children did not have cots to sleep on but a contraption
similar to a hammock which was tied between two posts inside the huts.
Almost all these communities earned their daily upkeep by begging or
by hunting in the jungles. If we talk of nutrition, these people did
not even know the meaning of it because they just ate whatever was available
which most often happened to be yams and green leaves plucked from the
jungle nearby. They had no interactions whatsoever with the more affluent
residents in the nearby villages or town due to the fact that they happened
to be "social outcasts."
Mr. Abeysekera made laborious notes while on his visits to these villages
and compiled many proposals to the Dept. of Rural Development to obtain
funding to help these communities. He coined the word "Shramadana"
through which he planned to get support from the more affluent citizens
living in big cities to offer their might, time and money where possible
and participate personally at work camps he organised.
In 1957, while Mr. Abeysekera was on one of his field trips to Kuliyapitiya
together with Mr. Seneviratne, he visited Mr. Premachandra Wijesinghe
who was a teacher and also the Scout Master of Kuliyapitiya Central
College in his home, introduced himself and informed Mr. Wijesinghe
that he had heard that Mr. Wijesinghe and the Scouts of Kuliyapitiya
Central were doing good social work and invited him and school to join
the two Rural Development Officers to visit Kalatholuwa and Manawe,
two Rodiya villages in the Kuliyapitiya District with a view of understanding
the problems that the Rodiyas were facing. Next day Mr. Wijesinghe accompanied
Mr. Abeysekera and Mr. Seneviratne to visit these two villages.
This visit became the "preamble" to the first Shramadana
Work Camp in the history of Sri Lanka. The masters and students of Kuliyapitiya
Central spent many weekends thereafter, visiting and helping Kanatholuwa
and Manawe to help the Rodiya community to clear land, and construct
basic facilities necessary.
In December 1958, the Department of Rural Development under the guidance,
organisation and coordination of Mr. D.A. Abeysekera (he always signed
as Co-ordinator, Convenor or Organizer) conducted the First Shramadana
Work Camp at Kanatholuwa. The Dept. of Rural Development also invited
the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka the late Mr. S.W.R.D.Bandaranike
to participate at this historic occasion but since he was unable to
attend, he most graciously sent his wife the late Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike
as his special representative carrying his message of congratulations
and blessings for this historic event.
Joining hands with the Department of Rural Development and Mr. Abeysekera
at this work camp were masters, scouts and students of Kuliyapitiya
Central College under the supervision of Mr. Premachandra Wijesinghe;
under the full patronage of Mr. M.W.Karunanda, Principal Nalanda Vidayalaya
- masters, students of the Social Service League of Nalanda Vidyalaya
under the supervision of Mr. A.T.Ariyaratne; masters, scouts and students
of Hettipola Maha Vidyala under the supervision of Mr.K.B.Rathnayake
and many well wishers like Ms.Somie Meegama (a personal friend of Mr.
Abeysekera) including Mr. Abeysekeras wife Ada and children Ranjan
and Neelangani who were 12 and 11years ; Mr. Abeysekeras sister
Malathie and children Nalin and Ramani (myself) who were 8 and 6 years
at the time.
A Rodiya Village situated in the backwoods of Kuliyapitiya became a
hive of activity with this work camp when a Rodiya children got their
first hair ever cuts from Mr. Abeysekera and his sister, they got wells
to obtain drinking water, toilets, volleyball court, cultivation plots,
clearing of jungle areas, etc-many were the benefits. Improvements of
housing facilities for the Rodiya facilities were priority. The villagers
were taught through a series of lectures the importance of sanitation,
education, self-employment rather than begging which was their only
source of income until then. In the evenings camp fires were organized
and cultural programmes were introduced with everyone joining in with
songs, dances, skits, "raban pada" and the flute (bata nalawe)
which were a special talent of the Rodiyas.
After the successful inaugural shramadana work camp at Kanatholuwa,
many more small scale camps were held at Kanatholuwa and Manawe during
the next years together with Kuliyapitiya Central and Hettipola Maha
Vidyalaya. Nalanda College students also held similar camps. Apart from
these villages, similar work camps were organized by the Department
of Rural Development in Panichchankerni and Akaralle and other villages.
During the school vacation of April 1960, with the full support of
the Department of Rural Development Mr. Abeysekera was able to create
yet another milestone in the history of the "Shramadana Movement
in Sri Lanka" by organizing and conducting the first ever International
Work Camp at Manawe-another Rodiya village in Kuliyapitiya District.
It was he who invited the Service Civil International (SCI) which brought
in volunteers from the USA. Switzerland, India and Malaysia together
with 17 governmental organizations and private companies in Sri Lanka;
The Mahila Samithiya; The Commissioner of Girl Guides Ms S.Rajasuriya,
Ms. Vinetia Gamage and the Girl Guides; the late Ms. Kusala Abhayawardane
and Ubhayartha; students and Cadets from Nalanda Vidyalaya, Dharmapala
Vidyalaya, Kuliyapitiya Central, Hettipola Maha Vidyalaya, Cadets from
Royal College, Teacher Trainees from GTC Maharagama, Christian College-Kotte
and the families of Mr. Abeysekera and his sister.
Mr. Abeysekera was well known both locally and internationally for
his commitment to the Shramadana Movement as well as for his absolute
discipline, immaculate organization & coordination skills, honesty
and sincerity to the cause of enhancing the livelihoods of backward
communities in Sri Lanka.
26th November 2008 marks the 33rd Death Anniversary of the Father
of the Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka - the late Mr. D.A.Abeysekera.
By-Products of The Shramadana Movement In Sri Lanka:
1. As a result of Mr. Abeysekeras successful shramadana movement
in the backward communities, many years later Dr.Lakshman De Silva (whose
father Mr. M.W. De Silva was a personal friend of Mr. Abeysekera) started
the Saukyadhana Movement. Saukyadana was initiated to offer medical
help and first-aid to pilgrims who went to Sri Pada annually and thereafter,
it developed into a national movement where their medical services are
seen at all major events in the country.
2.The original concept of the Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka saw
another development when the concept of voluntarily offering ones
services for the upliftment of lesser fortunate was corrupted &
"hijacked" by Mr. A.T.Ariyaratne and he started to go on his
own by starting the Sarvodaya Movement from the latter part of 1960
onwards. Sarvodaya Movement deviated into a money spinning profit making
NGO and could be termed as more of a family business organization rather
than a voluntary organization. It has now developed into a "business
group of companies" having its own printing press, furniture production
for pre-schools, money lending institutions, vocational training centres,
street childrens projects & multi-purpose community centres(MPCCs)
etc and obtains heavy funding from foreign donor organizations.
Mr. A.T. Ariyaratne got interested and got initiated into the Shramadana
Movement when Mr. D.A.Abeysekera was invited in 1956, by The Government
Teachers Training College, Maharagama to give a lecture on "Backward
Communities and Development of Under-privilaged Villages" and as
a result, a few young Teacher Trainees like Mr. A.T.Ariyaratne got their
first lesson on backward communities got interested in community work
and it was Mr. Daya Akuratiyagama (who was known to Mr. Abeysekera)
who took Mr. Ariyaratne to Mr. Abeysekeras house the following
day to meet him for further discussions on the subject.
Having completed his course at Maharagama Training College and gaining
a teaching appointment at Nalanda College, he became the Teacher-in
Charge of the Social Service Association of the school. By accompanying
Mr. Abeysekera on his field trips, Mr. Ariyaratne was able to understand
the problems of the less fortunate communities in our society. It is
however, sad to note all the distortions he makes about the history
of the Shramadana Movement in his book "Bhava Thanha-Vol.1"
where he insults the late Mr. D.A.Abeysekera who was his friend, philosopher
and guide and the person he addressed as "Guruji" in page
201 where he states: (quote) "It was in the Manawa camp that I
got chicken pox and had to leave. I think I gt the infection from Dr.
Basil Seneviratne at the first Saukyadana (gift of health) camp. During
my recovery at home I heard that discipline in the camp had collapsed.
A group who had been invited by Mr. Abeysekera had been responsible
for the lack of discipline. Immediately, I returned and I sent this
group away, making Mr. Abeysekera also leave. The alienation of the
SCI organization and Mr. Abeysekera from Sarvodaya took place this way.
The Saukyadana Organisation later broke away from Sarvodaya"(end
For those of us who were there and know the truth, what is quoted above
is a total distortion of facts. The Manawa camp was not organized by
Sarvodaya but by the Dept. of Rural Development under the leadership
of Mr. D.A.Abeysekera where the first ever international work was organized.
Sarvodaya had nothing to do with it except be a participant together
with other volunteers. Even the statements made about how the Saukyadana
Movement under Dr. Lakshman De Silva came into being is far from the
truth. Saukyadana was not part of the Sarvodaya Movement but of the
Shramadana Movement. These two organizations worked simultaneously and
complimented each others services where suitable.
Mr. D.A.Abeysekera passed away on 26th November 1975. At the time of
his death he was just a pensioner but with a happy and clear heart for
the numerous self-less services he had rendered to the down-trodden
communities in this country. Mr. Ariyaratne was by then a highly successful
and prosperous businessman operating an NGO.
From his sick bed Mr. Abeysekera wrote one of his last letters dated
14th October 1975 to the writer who was at the time studying overseas
thus: (quote) "Duni Darling
do you think, 2 days ago A.T.Ariyaratne, Nita and their daughter came
to see me as soon as they heard from Amara( Ariyas sister that
I was in hospital). For 3 long hours they offered me anything &
everything I need.Ariya gave me his card to Amma and said "Phone
me if Mr. Abeysekera needs anything. "
seek my advise again for his vast Sarvodaya Movement. For 15 years I
never wished him ill once
he ruined the movement
we began and climbed alone to the top while I lay sprawling in the bottombut
with a clean heart. I am not too enamoured by his plaudits
What more can one say?