The Plight of the Kandyan Peasantry - A Viewpoint

by Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria
I read with interest the excellent and thought provoking article by Mr. S. B. Karaliyadde on Fifty Years of the Kandyan Peasantry in the Island of 1st August. It certainly aroused interest and the next day the Island editorial was on it. I like to add some of my own views especially because Mr. Karaliyadde referred to the Kandyan Peasantry Commission. It was one of the first Royal Commissions established in January 1949 by our first post-Independence Prime Minister Mr. D. S. Senanayake. All the Commission members were Kandyans. My father the late Mr. N. E. Weerasooria QC was its Chairman. The other members were Mr. M. D. Banda, Mr. H. R. U. Premachandra (both MPs), Mr. T. B. Panabokke (later Chairman People’s Bank). It’s Secretary was Mr. Victor Tennakoon (later Attorney-General and Chief Justice). Shortly thereafter, Mr. M. D. Banda became a Cabinet Minister and in his place was appointed Mr. C. E. Attygalle (another MP). The Commission records the invaluable services rendered to it by Mr. D. B. Ellepola, — another Kandyan —— who was then Director Rural Development, (the father of former Vice-Chancellor Professor Savitri Goonesekera).

The Commission Report issued in February 1951, two years after it was established, was well received. Copies of the report are no longer available. Some still ask me even to photocopy it. Although my father was then a successful lawyer living in Kotte, with a busy legal practice, he was selected as Chairman, because his ancestry was Denike a small village in Rikkillagaskada in the Hanguranketha area. He was proud to call himself a grandson of a "Kandyan Peasant".

Although now over fifty years old the Kandyan Peasantry Commission report of 1951 highlighted the real issues that befell the Kandyan peasantry which consisted essentially of the population of the Central Province and the Uva Province which in the 1901 census showed a total population of about one million. The Commission outlined the major issues as follows:

(a) Firstly, the Kandyan peasants are landless and the main problem is landlessness. This was mainly due to the take over of peasants’ lands for the plantation industry (first coffee, then tea) and the British governments Crown Lands Ordinance in 1840 which enacted that all forest, waste unoccupied and uncultivated land belonged automatically to the Crown. By this one stroke of legislation, the "bread" was taken out of the peasant’s month.

(b) Secondly, the absence of road communications. This was the second major problem.

(c) Thirdly, the lack of educational facilities which resulted in a large illiterate adult population. The Commission highlighted a peasant’s response to this issue. "No land, no money; no money, no education; no education, no jobs; no jobs, no money for education or for the purchase of cultivable land"

In my view, on issues two and three above — roads and communications and better educational facilities — there has been considerable development and improvement since the Commission’s Report in 1951. The Free Education scheme and the establishment of Central Colleges and the Mahaweli Projects and its attendant human settlement programmes, has opened up and connected much of the Kandyan areas. The landlessness issue however, remains because the peasantry’s lands taken for the plantations of the British Raj became of no benefit to the peasantry even after nationalization of plantations in the 1970s.

The Soulbury Commission Report of 1945 which resulted in our Independence in 1948, also adverted to the poor economic / social conditions of the Kandyan peasantry. It said "that the establishment of the plantations had reacted very unfavourably on the peasantry because their land had been acquired from them by various means, which to say the least was very prejudicial to them. The backwardness of the Kandyan areas as compared with their Maritime neighbours was also accentuated by the lack of educational and health facilities.

The result is that today (that is in 1945) the Kandyan peasantry labour under serious social and economic disabilities as compared with their more fortunate low-country population".

Indeed it was these findings in the Soulbury Commission Report of 1945 that had prompted the independent Government of Ceylon to appoint the Kandyan Peasantry Commission in January 1949, barely an year after the grant of Independence.

Prior to his death in 1974, my father Mr. N. E. Weerasooria wrote a four volume history of Sri Lanka entitled "Ceylon and Her People" In volume two, he refers to his work as the Chairman, Kandyan Peasantry Commission. He said:

"My brother Commissioners and I visited almost every village in Kande Udarata and Uva which consisted of 3887 villages. Though customary now with visits of dignitaries, we insisted that there be no garlands, processions and speeches. We also gave no promises and avoided all red tape. We spoke to the villagers and their elders as friends. Our report contains a valuable record of the social and economic conditions of the Kandyan Provinces. How I survived the stress and strain of these two arduous years now passeth my understanding. A karmic force, so to say, appears to have chosen me, the grandson of Kandyan peasant, to make his little contribution towards the rehabilitation of his brothers and sisters".

Here, I am proud to mention that my father took me (then aged 10) and my brothers on his visits to the Kandyan villages and since then I have visited those areas often.

Both Mr. Karaliyadde and the Island editorial on the subject highlighted the fact that there was no permanent lobby groups to fight for the rights of the Kandyan people. "We have no Thomian or Royal Groups" who will come to our rescue said Mr. Karaliyadde. The Island editorial spoke of kingmakers like the late Mr. Thondaman (Senior) who fought for the Estate Tamil people.

In a manner similar to what Mr. Karaliyadde stated in his Article in 2003, the Kandyan Peasantry Commission was also told over fifty years ago in 1951, that the country’s wealth has been diverted to the more "progressive and vociferous areas" and to districts which had "more powerful representatives", while the Kandyan Peasantry had been left landless and poor. The Commission said that it was not necessary for them to pursue truth or otherwise of those allegations but it could not resist the impression that the more vocal areas of the country which had more powerful representation had secured greater social benefits than others. The Commission recommended that the bias should be in the opposite direction and that backward areas be identified for more and greater development.

The Kandyan Peasantry Commission used the terms "more progressive, vociferous and powerful representatives" that had obtained a better deal for the low-country population. Mr. Karaliyadde however, prefers the terms "powerful lobby groups —— like Thomian groups or Royal groups". (I don’t know why he put Thomians before Royalists. Normally, they are behind!).

I am sure that Mr. Karaliyadde knows that my late father was a Royalist and to his last-days he did what he could to improve the lot of the Kandyan peasants. Sri Lanka has had many Kandyans holding high posts since Independence in 1948. To name only a few we have had several Kandyans as Central Bank Governors, Mr. Herbert Tennakoon, Mr. William Tennakoon, Mr. H. B. Dissanayake (who was also a former Government Agent) and currently Mr A. S. Jajawardena, Mr. D. B. Wijetunga long time Parliamentarian, Cabinet Minister, Prime Minister and President is a — Kandyan — Mr. Karaliyadde also a Kandyan, was his Private Secretary and later a Member of Parliament. I can add to this list. The development of Sri Lanka has, in my view, nothing to do with lack of lobby groups whether they be Royalists or Thomians. Products of Dharmaraja and Poramadulla Central and Mahamaya College (to be gender neutral) are equally good. I say this as a Royalist and a Kandyan.

Mr. Karaliyadde’s laments about the plight of the Kandyan peasantry was emotional but understandable. He had relied and quoted historical records and statistics to prove his point. He had also, welcomed the creation by the Prime Minister of the Five Regional Economic Zones, one of which covers the Kandyan areas.

Here one can refer to more updated modern surveys and studies on the subject. These are used by the "Regaining Sri Lanka" strategy for Poverty Reduction. The first is the Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) by the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS) and the second entitled, the Consumer Finance and Socio-Economic Survey (CFSES), by the Central Bank (CB). Both these studies confirm Mr. Karaliyadde’s plea that the Kandyan Provinces have a significantly higher poverty level than the other Provinces. The studies confirm that the highest Incidence of poverty is in the Uva Province. Among the most impoverished of the 26 districts are Moneragala, Ratnapura, Badulla, Kurunegala and Matale - 5 of which are in the Kandyan areas.

These studies also confirm the following. The more urbanized the Province, the lower the poverty level. Poverty in Sri Lanka is a distinctly rural phenomenon. Most poor households are employed in agriculture and they live in remote, isolated areas which lack basic infrastructure facilities such as access roads for communications and electricity for industrial enterprises. The title to the land on which they normally cultivate low - value crops is also uncertain and fragmented thus preventing any credit for finance. (The Swarnabhoomi land title programme was introduced to alleviate this situation).

The Island editorial of 2 August 2003 in Mr. Karaliyadde’s, article referred to Mr. Thondaman (Senior) and the "very effective CWC" which has canvassed the cause of the estate labour and said that there are no similar power groups to spearhead the plight of the Kandyan peasant. I do not think the Kandyan people want the return of a king to "Regain the Kandyan Region" like the plea of the Buddhist monk Degaldoruwe Unnase (quoted in both Mr. Kariliyadde’s article and the Island editorial). Today "kingmakers" exist because of our multicultural Parliament and the proportional representation system and the inability to cohabitate politically. Also, both the Census study and the Central Bank study referred to earlier confirm that "the incidence of human poverty in Sri Lanka is highest in the Estate Sector. In terms of social indicators such as access to safe sanitation, safe drinking water, safe cooking fuel and electricity, the Estate sector is the least developed of all sectors —despite having reasonably stable employment, free housing and basic health facilities. Thus despite power groups much more needs to be done for the Estate (Plantation) sector who constitute a very high foreign exchange earner for our country.

The Kandyan areas that Mr. Karaliyadde outlined in his recent article falls within two of the fire Economic Zones now created by the Prime Minister. I am confident that those in charge of those two Economic Zones - especially the Central Region Economic Ministry - will give some special recognition to the plight of the Kandyan peasantry which has not improved to the extent envisaged by the Kandyan Peasantry Commission over fifty years ago in 1951.