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Thiruni Kelegama

April 10th, 2023

Development Gone Wrong: Sri Lanka at 75

2 comments | 24 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Thiruni Kelegama

April 10th, 2023

Development Gone Wrong: Sri Lanka at 75

2 comments | 24 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

As Sri Lanka marks its 75th year of independence, it is making headlines for several negative reasons — most importantly, the state of its economy. In this post, Thiruni Kelegama looks at Sri Lanka’s long tryst with ‘development’ projects, large scale and otherwise, and reasons why its intended benefits have been marred by underlying politics, instead intensifying ethnic tensions.  

 

Addressing the country on the 75th anniversary of gaining independence from British colonial rule, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe asked: ‘Today, we are facing an unprecedented economic crisis, hitherto never experienced. Why have we to face such a situation? Who is responsible for such?’

This speech, which was given at an extravagant celebration marking independence, only exacerbated the rising anger of millions undergoing harsh austerity measures. On Independence Day (4 February 2023), Colombo resembled a garrison city with thousands of soldiers and police armed with assault rifles and vehicles fitted with water-cannons. The night before, riot police had brutally attacked people protesting against these celebrations. Meanwhile, in Jaffna, a protest march took place with families of the forcibly disappeared and thousands of civilians coming together demanding justice, accountability, and an end to the military occupation of the North and East. Wickremesinghe, whose 7-month tenure as an unelected and unpopular President has been marked by state violence and repression, facetiously acknowledged that this crisis was the result of government policies over several decades: ‘all of us are more or less responsible for this situation … we made mistakes from the beginning.’ He concluded with a questionable — if not farcical — promise by claiming: ‘we can become a developed country by 2048.’

Development is an important, yet highly contentious, word in the history of post-colonial Sri Lanka. Usually taken to refer to economic progress and transformation, development is — and has always been — an inherently political project that is synonymous with, or a conduit for, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka. Serena Tennekoon (1988: 295) writes that it is the ‘chief preoccupation of the postcolonial state’, and instead of growth, development merely opened up ‘new spaces for violence and political manipulation’ (Winslow and Woost, 2004: 203). Benedikt Korf (2006: 50) believes that ‘development’ has always been used to nurture political violence instead of countering it, and that it ‘has often been used to divide and rule’. Writing about post-war Sri Lanka, Rajesh Venugopal (2018: 14) argues that it was used to assert power and ‘consolidate a triumphalist Sinhala nationalist project’.

Seventy-five years after Independence, 14 years since the end of the civil war, and almost one year into declaring bankruptcy, how do we understand this political project which is used as a vehicle for nationalism by examining the oldest development project in the country?  And can we look at this narrative of development as the most important — and oldest — reason for the ongoing economic and political crisis in the country?

Grand Ambitions   

Post-colonial Sri Lanka’s biggest tryst with development was the Mahaweli Development Programme (MDP) — the largest engineering project implemented in the country. Similar to the Gal Oya scheme in eastern Sri Lanka, the ambitious MDP is a large-scale irrigation project that diverted water from the Mahaweli Ganga (the longest river of the country) to the dry zone in the north of the country to provide water for paddy cultivation for settlers who were largely brought in from other areas of Sri Lanka. More importantly, this high-modernist project was the first, and most sustained, effort at development to be infused with a deep Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist significance. On the one hand, the project facilitated the mobilising of the ‘glorious’ Sinhala nation returning to its resplendent past by re-capturing the ancient territory of the Sinhalese civilisation to create a more developed future. Simultaneously, it acted as an instrument to displace, exclude, and attack the ‘other’: ethnic and religious minorities.

Officially launched in the 1960s, the MDP was first conceived by Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake, when he was the minister of agriculture in the State Council during British rule, not just to create a self-sufficient peasantry but also as a strategy to mobilise the imagination of a glorious past when the ‘Mahaweli plain’ was ‘the cradle of Sinhalese civilisation’ . These plans were consolidated and put into effect by his son Dudley, who (as Prime Minister) proposed the Master Plan of the MDP successfully to Parliament. Covering almost 40 per cent of the country and planned over 30 years, the project was presented as ‘the driving force behind the island’s economy, the nerve-centre of village life, the life-blood of its peasantry without which life would wither’ (‘Mahaweli Bill Passed by Senate’, The Times of Ceylon, 20 March 1970). Responding to this plan, Senator Fairlie Wijemanne declared: ‘at no time in the history of this country did we ever have a scheme of this nature which will have such an impact on the economy of this country’ (‘Mahaweli Scheme for Country’s Good’, Daily Mirror, 20 April 1970).

However, these grandiose promises proved controversial and were the subject of much scrutiny. As early as 1949,  S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, the founder of the Federal Party (the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi) declared that such plans were dangerous to Tamils. But this criticism was overlooked. Instead, this massive development project became the main achievement of J.R. Jayawardene’s United National Party (UNP) when it came to power with a landslide victory in 1977. Renamed the ‘Accelerated Mahaweli Development Programme’ (AMDP), the project was fast-tracked and due for completion in six years with Jayawardene claiming that the AMDP would turn the country’s economy around as it was the ‘biggest [development] project in Asia’, and that the ‘National Government had done what even the Sinhalese kings could not do’ (‘Mahaweli Scheme, Biggest in Asia: JR’, Daily Mirror, 19 March 1970). Despite these proclamations and grandiose promises, the World Bank (which had funded the AMDP with six loans) revealed that the project had failed to deliver on the creation of an egalitarian society of small-holder rice farmers. It had only exacerbated existing poverty conditions with the income of resettled farmers falling well below the poverty level (World Bank 2004). Eventually, it declared the development project a ‘failure’.

Successful Failures

But for the Sinhala Buddhist nation, the Mahaweli project was a ‘success.’ What it had successfully managed to do was dramatically reconfigure the ethnic ratio of the northern and eastern districts. Through the Mahaweli Authority, which was established under the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka Act No. 23 in 1979, thousands of Sinhalese settlers were moved to loosely populated areas in the northern and eastern dry zone to expand the settlement frontier to become farmers. In the last of the schemes established under the project in Manal Aru (or ‘Weli Oya’, as it was renamed in Sinhalese in 1988), Sinhalese farmers were clandestinely resettled with the help of the military.

Most of the schemes under the AMDP were established deep in the hinterland of provinces inhabited by Tamils and Muslims, making them minorities in their own territories (Hasbullah and Geiser 2019; Hasbullah 2015). Through a series of reports, the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) documented that development projects and settlement schemes only contributed to the ethnic segmentation of districts and divisions (UTHR 2015, 1993). M.H. Gunaratne (1988) pointed out that the project ‘successfully challenged the Tamil-speaking contiguity between the north and the east, a stated goal of Sinhalese nationalists’. As a result, the ethnic composition and ratios of the north and the east changed dramatically. The resettled farmers not only became ‘frontiersmen’ of the northern and eastern dry zone but ensured the increase of the Sinhalese population, and Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony, in the dry zone.

The end of the Civil War in May 2009 with an outright victory by the Sri Lankan military, and the total annihilation of the LTTE, and the death and disappearance of hundreds of thousands gave a new lease of life to the temporarily halted Mahaweli project. Not long after, the Mahaweli Authority and the military restarted activities to bring a new wave of landless Sinhalese from the south of the country,   mainly from Hambantota (the fiefdom of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa) and neighbouring districts, especially to settle in and around Weli Oya. Most of these settlers were lured with the promise of paddy land, which never materialised upon their arrival. Instead, they were given a plot of land to build a house, and immediately placed on the electoral register. The military made sure they do not leave. Any absence of more than five days had to be accounted for. ‘We are only finishing what was started long ago, the war stopped everything,’ claimed one Mahaweli Authority project officer working in Weli Oya. In 2010, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka further strengthened the already existing extensive and unaccounted power of the Mahaweli Authority in the Environmental Foundation Ltd vs Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka and Others case by not stopping or reversing the project. To date, the Mahaweli Authority, under successive governments since the end of the war, continues to issue land to Sinhalese to resettle as farmers in the very areas where thousands of Tamils remain displaced from their land and homes.

Bankrupt Vistas

Until Sri Lanka defaulted on its loans of US$56 billion and declared bankruptcy in May 2022, it was in the midst of a massive infrastructure boom with new investment directed into development projects like roads, ports, and airports in its fast-tracked attempt to become a regional trading and maritime hub. Following its military victory in 2009, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government promised to bring peace and stability through development and reconstruction, and prioritised security and economic growth over ethnic reconciliation. His brother, former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa — who was elected in 2019 on a platform of technocratic governance, security, and discipline — further ignored the country’s religious and ethnic minorities. His election manifesto ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ guaranteed the acceleration of economic development: ‘This will be the decade of development, of economic revival.’ Determined to make this a reality at the expense of any other ethnic or political consideration, both Rajapakas turned to China as a significant source of investment potential. Since 2000, successive governments have built a series of large development projects constructed with international financing such as the Lotus Tower in Colombo, the Hambantota Mahinda Rajapaksa Harbour, the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, and the Port City Project in Colombo. The goal was to become a regional trading hub in the Indian Ocean.

This long-standing manic prioritising of development, which started with the Mahaweli Development Programme alongside expanding securitisation, increased authoritarianism, and abuse of emergency regulations at the expense of all other ethnic and political considerations, has multiple consequences. One of the most significant repercussions is the unprecedented economic crisis Sri Lanka is facing at the moment. Today, millions of Sri Lankans are suffering, poverty rates have increased to almost 26 per cent, and 3 in 10 households are food insecure. The mass protests of July 2022, which saw the storming of the Presidential Secretariat and official residences and finally forced the Rajapaksas out of power, have amounted to no meaningful democratic reform. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s unpopular appointment in the midst of these protests as President, after a 46-year political career, has only caused more anger as debt-restructuring talks to unlock the meagre IMF bailout of US$ 2.9 billion over 4 years are at a deadlock. His decision to postpone local government elections (which were to be held in March 2023) resulted in a new wave of protests which were immediately met with excessive use of water cannons and tears gas, and resulted in the death of a protestor, Nimal Amarasiri, with more than two dozen injured and hospitalised.

One urgent way to overcome this crisis, as well as the democratic backsliding and the ongoing descent into fascism, is for the violent, racist, and classist Sri Lankan security state to move away from the use of development as a political project, and fundamentally, and radically, rethink and work towards a new inclusive development model. A model that is not centred on growth, but equality.

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

This blogpost may not be reposted by anyone without prior written consent of LSE South Asia Centre; please e-mail southasia@lse.ac.uk for permission.

Banner image © Nalaka Thalagala, ‘Randenigala Dam View Point, Mahaweli Raja Mawatha, Sri Lanka’, 2023, Unsplash.

The ‘Sri Lanka @ 75’ logo is copyrighted by the LSE South Asia Centre, and may not be used by anyone for any purpose. It shows the national flower of Sri Lanka, the Water Lily (Nymphaeaceae), framed in a graphic design of colours derived from the national flag, and sacral architectural motifs. The logo has been designed by Oroon Das.

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About the author

Thiruni Kelegama

Dr Thiruni Kelegama is Lecturer in Modern South Asian Studies at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, and Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, University of Oxford.

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