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Dreams of Change: Land, Labour and Conflict in Sri Lanka

This book is a collection of essays written by Sarath Amunugama over many years on a variety of subjects relating to socio-economic change and political conflict in Sri Lanka.

Jayadeva Uyangoda positions these essays in the following way.
“In this collection of essays, Sarath Amunugama deals with one of the central themes of Sri Lanka’s socio-political transformation during the colonial and post-colonial phases; the land question. Land has provided the material basis for modern Sri Lanka’s development policies, electoral politics, inter-class political alliances, ethnic conflict and civil war, left-wing insurgencies, inter-ethnic relations as well as political and religio-social ideologies.”

The intellectual approach of the book is brought out in its main title: ‘Dreams of Change’.

The cover of the book has a set of pictures – on one side is D.S. Senanayake, independent Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister and the reputed regenerator of the ‘Rajarata’ dressed in an ‘amude’ in the company of several young men, representative of the new generation of the emergent nation (the unsaid interesting story about this picture is that one of the youths in shorts happens to be C.P. de Silva, then a school boy at St. Thomas’ College and destined to be D.S,’ Civil Service lieutenant and later a minister of lands in a rival administration.

The boy behind the camera is Dudley Senanayake, destined to carry forward D.S.’ legacy in agricultural development in later years, and to be Prime Minister himself). If D.S’s dream for the new nation was a sturdy yeoman peasantry, the man in the companion picture, Rohana Wijeweera, arriving for his trial in the Courts, had other dreams; a more violent and revolutionary kind.

Sarath Amunugama is well qualified for the task of providing an analytical narrative. His intellectual equipment was honed in the Sociology Department of the then prestigious University of Ceylon in Peradeniya under the guidance of teachers like Ralph Pieris, Stanley Tambiah and Gananath Obeyesekere – most of whom later adorned the faculties of front rank universities abroad. He obtained his doctorate in anthropology at the Ecole des Haute Etudes en Sciences Sociale in Paris.

As a member of the elite Ceylon Civil Service (CCS), Dr. Amunugama had the good fortune to work in the early years of his public service career (before he ended up as a Ministry Secretary and later as an international civil servant) in rural administration, ending up as a government agent.

These assignments enabled him to work closely with the people at grass roots level, and to be intimately involved in numerous development projects. He was in fact the official in charge of the Chandrikawewa ‘colonisation’ scheme; the subject of one of the essays in this book.

Quite appositely Amunugama raises the important methodological issue of a bureaucrat’s eligibility and competence to comment academically as an independent observer.

He challenges the view held by some anthropologists that administrators do not have access to accurate information from informants with whom they have an official relationship.

Amunugama’s later experience of three decades as a politician and a minister has certainly enhanced his experience in relation to the subjects dealt with in the book, as surely it must have deepened his insights in regard to them. Therefore, one can conclude that he ‘knows what he is talking about’ – whether or not one agrees with his point of view on some matters.

The book provides invaluable background material in respect of several subjects, useful in itself. For instance, there is a very good summary of the genesis of the land problem starting with Sri Lanka’s equivalent of the ‘enclosure movement’ enabled by the abolition of ‘Rajakariya’ by the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms, and the promulgation of Wasteland Ordinances.

Despite the existence of a school of thought that there was no actual dispossession of the Kandyan peasant by colonial land legislation, Amunugama points out that, for instance, Gananath Obeyesekere in his research in Medagama in Hinidumpattu – in which Amunugama was his assistant – had found that the area of the village as claimed by its inhabitants had, in fact, shrunk to one-seventh of that size in the official settlement, graphically demonstrating the validity of the ‘dispossession theory’ and the origin of the problem of rural landlessness.

In the context of several of the essays to follow, the introduction of some elements of the social structure in the southern dry zone, particularly the institution of gambaraya and other patron, client relationships in village life forms a necessary complement to the foregoing analysis of the land problem.

Still, another useful section of the introductory chapter is the account of the social amelioration measures taken by the government, following the grant of universal adult franchise in 1931. We see here that a very significant first step taken was the first ever scientific socio-economic survey carried out in the country – the B.B. Dasgupta Economic and Industrial Survey – commissioned by the state council in 1935 (Dasgupta with his engaging Indian-English pronunciation and the perennial blue jacket was the first Economics professor for many of us at Peradeniya).

This survey, for the first time, had provided the government – and the society at large – with an objective presentation of the contours of the socio-economic problems confronting the country. One of the more significant findings of the survey was the prevalent incidence of rural indebtedness and landlessness. The findings of the survey prompted the initiation of various measures of social amelioration, which resulted in the achievement of high rankings by the country in the Human Development Index, while still remaining a poor country in economic terms. The resulting situation was an essential background to the later violent political upheavals analysed in the book.
The next chapter is on the Chandrikawewa colonisation scheme with which the author had been personally involved as a civil servant. The author draws on the official diaries of the colonial era government agents of Ratnapura – reminiscent of the published diaries of Leonard Woolf in Hambantota – to paint the pathetic situation in which the area that came under the scheme was in earlier times.
The many facets of rural credit constitute the subject matter of the next chapter. A considerable amount of information relating to the subject, drawn from two official socio-economic surveys, is presented by the author. Although this information relates to a past period, it is unlikely that in the slow moving rural sector; the basic contours of the problem would have changed much.
The author quotes with approval the well-known economic historian R.H. Tawney who said: “In all countries where farming is in the hands of small producers, the fundamental problem of rural society is not that of wages, but that of credit”.

The essay titled ‘Media and Ethnic Relations’ is an interesting one, though it only confirms by statistical analysis what intelligent observers of the media scene have always known in this era of ‘fake news’.

Lastly, the author, being the good Sri Lankan, has performed his guru upahaara (veneration of the teacher) by devoting his final chapter to pay tribute to his old teacher at the University of Ceylon (now Peradeniya), the Late Ralph Pieris – the man who “loved an argument, never stifled dissent, and stood for individuality and freedom”.

The author deserves to be congratulated for revising several social science conclusions regarding recent events in the country. This will help in providing a more rounded view of our recent history than those now available through the works of other social scientists.

As always, Amunugama’s writing is simple, lucid and a pleasure to read. “Dreams of Change” is a worthy successor to his award winning book about Anagarika Dharmapala, titled “The Lion’s Roar”.

(Excerpts from review by Dhammika Amarasinghe)