Colombo Telegraph

Sarvodaya Has Launched A New National Awakening!

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Sarvodaya is celebrating its 60th Anniversary this year with various new activities and strengthening their old ones. One of the important initiatives is the launching of the country wide ‘Deshodaya’ or the ‘national awakening’ programme. Although the name or even the programme is not completely new, it has taken a new focus and direction with a view to resist and overturn the existing corrupt political system, political culture and practices.

The Founder of Sarvodaya, Dr A. T. Ariyaratne, still active and vibrant, identifies the present day rotten political-economy as the main reason for the widespread decline in the country. The key factor in this decline, in his opinion, is the (adversarial) political party system that has even destroyed the sovereignty of the people. One cannot agree more. 

He goes on saying, “Those who believe in political parties as religion, even indulge in crimes such as killings and destroying the environment, for the sake of achieving power, position, fame and money.” I am quoting and paraphrasing from his speech at the Deshodaya convention in June 2018.    

Sarvodaya Activities

Sarvodaya is not an unknown movement to anyone in the country and quite known among humanitarian organizations overseas for its good wok. I first remember its inauguration (in 1958) when it was reported in the newspapers that a teacher at Nalanda College founding a Shramadana (voluntary work or gifting-labour) movement when we were young (13 years in my case) and looking for good deeds to follow or admire. Three of our key icons at that time were E. W. Adikaram, A. T. Ariyaratne and Abraham T. Kovoor (followed by Carlo Fonseka) for different reasons and purposes.

The first act of Sarvodaya has gone into history, Ariyaratne taking forty students and twelve teachers from Nalanda College to the so-called outcaste (Rodiya) village at Kathaluwa, and helping the villagers to construct their dwellings, wells, toilets and roads. More importantly they were motivated and trained for cultivation and self-employment.

During a casual meeting with A. T. Ariyaratne recently he explained to me how he first ventured into ‘gifting his labour’ to others, when he started mathematics/science classes for his former fellow students at Gandara during weekends, where he was born, after he had the fortune to get admitted to the prestigious Mahinda College, Galle. His voice was eternally enthusiastic. Gifting labour is the meaning of Shramadana as he said. He didn’t fail to compliment Merrill J. Fernando (Dilmah company) who had gifted the first headquarters of Sarvodaya at Moratuwa. 

Perhaps the peak of Sarvodaya activities in recent decades had been the aftermath of Tsunami disaster in the country. However in overall, they have covered more than 15, 000 villages out 38,000, throughout the country in their work. The war undoubtedly hampered their work in the North and the East, yet the activities have now restarted. The organization claims the overall beneficiaries to be mora than 10 million. This is one of the prominent people’s organizations  working irrespective of caste, gender, ethnicity, religion, party or other distinctions.

Personal Experiences 

  • When I was living in Sri Lanka at Koswatta, Thalangama, before 2011, the first person I encountered early morning in my walks was an elderly woman selling Kola Kanda (herbal porridge) at a boutique sponsored by Sarvodaya. I used to patronize the business almost daily.
  • During some visits to the North-East during the temporary CFA period (2002-2005) for peace building work, I have met former Sarvodaya workers and seen dilapidated Sarvodaya name boards evidenced of their prominent presence there before the war.
  • This time in Colombo, when I was travelling in a taxi, conversing with the driver-owner, Upul, he told me the following story. His father had died when he was three years and his mother had to take a big economic burden with four children. It was Sarvodaya who had come to their rescue, giving her a job and looking after the family.

In explaining the philosophy of Sarvodaya, its Executive Director Dr Vinya Ariyaratne has given the following explanation.

Sarvodaya is a movement which promotes human development. The uniqueness of Sarvodaya lies in the fact that it promotes inner connections between people and communities which we call spirituality. That is the glue which keeps this holistic approach together.”

Holistic Activities

Sarvodaya programmes are not only about small-scale community and people’s activities. They have a strong propensity to promote enterprises in modern ways. Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) is one such innovative programmes. Along with public sector institutions and initiatives, they have contributed greatly to create enthusiasm and upgrade knowledge about information technology, particularly among the young, both urban and rural. This is one area Sri Lanka has progressed immensely in the last decade or so. A brief list of other activities goes as follows.   

(1) Micro-Finance for Economic Empowerment.

(2) Rural Infrastructure Building for the Poor – water, sanitation and housing.

(3) Counselling and Leal Services for Environment Protection and Governance. 

(4) Rapid Intervention in Disaster Management – looking after the internally displaced.

(5) Community Programmes on health, welfare, women’s issues and early childhood.

(6) Community Education/Training on development, ecology & environment.

(7) Programmes on social/spiritual awareness, meditation, reconciliation and peace.

(8) Community Tourism with benefits to the visitors and the locals.                

Deshodaya (National Awakening)

Deshodaya is a revamped new initiative which might even become politically controversial, yet the Founder, the Executive Director and the Executive Committee appear to be determined and committed. They may keep a division of labour between Sarvodaya and Deshodaya, but both derive from the same source of integrated philosophy. Sarvodaya philosophy is strongly influenced by non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi. A. T. Ariyaratne is often called ‘Gandhi of Sri Lanka.’

Deshodaya in essence intends a ‘peaceful total national revolution’ (ahinsavadi purna jathika viplavayak). The intention is not power, but justice, and to create a political-economy that could serve the people. Deshodaya has to be understood as the fourth stage or step of their social reform process or the series of people’s awakenings. First is called Purushodaya (self-awakening), introducing a value system for individuals about civic conscience, righteousness, non-violence, environmental protection, rights and duties, and national reconciliation. Temperance is not excluded.

Second is Kutumbodaya meaning family awakening. The principles encompass simple and disciplined living, transforming Purushodaya values into family and domestic context, further emphasising cleanliness, health and mindfulness. Third is called Gramodaya (village awakening), the name apparently coinciding with several state initiatives and structures at village level. Sarvodaya objective however has been to mobilize people and local communities at village level for empowerment, self-reliance, human cooperation and conflict resolution, addressing the needs and requirements of the vulnerable communities in particular. The primary objective is to create Self-governing Villages (Grama Swarajya).

Objectives as Presently Declared    

Deshodaya intends to work towards a commonwealth of self-governing villages. The Founder and the President, A. T. Ariyaratne has unveiled 28 point programme for this task, and the merit of this program appears to be its critical analysis and alternative proposals addressing the widespread ailments of the present political system and the economy. Some of the salient features can be summarized as follows.

1. A primary objective of Deshodaya is to change the present corrupt political party system with a more people’s participatory political system. As they say, it is a myth to consider that a democratic political system cannot operate without political parties. Political parties are at the root of the present divisions on caste, ethnicity, religion, class or even gender which prevents unity of people/s as one nation, in addition to corruption, waste, misuse of funds and nepotism.

2. Deshodaya is committed for a new constitution. However, such a constitution requires further discussions and agreements on basic fundamentals. Instead of vertical governance, more emphasis should be given to horizontal democracy and structures, and self-governing institutions  beginning with village and or small units. This is a bottom-up approach akin to many notions of subsidiarity. They insist on a complete review of the provincial council system. The devolution should go further down, they say. Under the benefits of modern information technology, completely decentralized administration is a possibility.

3. Rule of law is of paramount importance. No one should be above the law. All universal human rights should be enshrined and enforced without discrimination. All wrong doers should be punished. The drug dealers and arms dealers should be severely punished. No politician should be allowed for undue privileges. Politics should be a voluntary service and should not be considered a profession or a job. Only expenses of the politicians should be covered by public funds.

4. Environmental protection is crucially important in a people centred economy and good governance. People’s future survival and physical/mental health would depend on the way the environment is protected and maintained. Animals also have rights to survive. The mania for ‘large scale development’ should be do away with. Those projects and schemes have already done a colossal damage to the environment.

5. People should aspire for a society without ‘poverty or affluence.’ Welfare is important. Fulfilling basic needs of all should be the bottom line. This is not about retribution against the rich, but make them understand that they can make good deeds by becoming philanthropists. The traditional wisdom of ‘earning wealth through righteous means; use one quarter for the day to day needs; utilize two quarters for the promotion of the business; and saving the remaining quarter for emergency needs’ might be the best advice to preach.

6. Deshodaya appears to believe in the wisdom of tradition, and national inheritance, while open to absorbing all modern knowledge and science. It is not about one tradition dominating or suppressing other traditions. ‘Open state’ and ‘righteous citizens’ are its cardinal principles. It believes in one universal human family, while at present working on a national awakening in Sri Lanka.

7. Complete non-violence, tolerance, peace, compassion and empathy are its working principles.    


The declared visions and practices of Sarvodaya, including the Deshodaya programme, are worth considering and discussing, particularly under the present crisis situation in Sri Lanka’s polity and the economy. They do not seem to live in an ivory tower, although cultivating and promoting some ‘dreams’ or ideals. Some of the above interpretations are mine, perhaps not theirs.

Deshodaya movement does not limit to their declared policies or educating people on them. They have taken an active part in the constitutional reform process and their local groups have extensively participated at the people’s consultative process in early 2016. Many educational pamphlets had been issued and discussions held. However, they have become disillusioned about the way the process had evolved, with one sided approaches or dogmatic views.

With a view to influencing the decision making of the newly elected Pradeshiya Sabhas on behalf of the people and the citizens, they have also formed what they call the ‘Shadow Pradeshiya Sabhas’ in almost all localities. The progress of the work yet to be seen and evaluated.

Deshodya movement has also been working very closely with other people’s or civil society organizations, independent from major parties or governing groups. On the issues of free and fair elections, on the right to information which has now materialized in the RTI Act, and in the promotion of suitable candidates for local government elections, Deshodaya has worked with PAFFREL and with the ‘March 13 Movement’ and many other organizations. Simply said, Sarvodaya is not sectarian. 

Also see: Craig Mackintosh, ‘Letters from Sri Lanka – Does Sarvodaya Hold the Secrets to Systemic Change? Permaculture Research Institute. 

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