27 May, 2022


Six Weeks Of Travel Observations In Sri Lanka 

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

This year I came to Peradeniya with my wife primarily to attend the 50th Golden Jubilee celebrations of the 1968 batch of students who entered the arts faculty of the University of Ceylon. It was held on October 21st, 2018. We arrived a few weeks earlier in September. In the first week, we had an Indonesian visitor –an academic specialising in tourism. I had to organise some meetings and visits to give her a glimpse of the people, culture and the place -Kandy. Since her departure, I have been using public transport and occasional hire car for my travels. As a visiting research fellow at the department of sociology, University of Peradeniya, I had the opportunity to give a seminar to the staff on academic dependency in social sciences and the importance of indigenous knowledge. The SLAAS organised a similar event in Colombo as was the Faculty of management at Peradeniya. During this period, I not only had the opportunity to speak and interact with a cross section of people –better off as well as struggling- but also experience firsthand the situation in the country. Following observations are based on this experience and my observations.

General Impression

The general impression I got was that the people are thoroughly disgusted about the way things are? Apart from the traffic conditions of the roads, they are complaining about the high cost of living due to the drastic depreciation of the rupee. Life for many has become a constant struggle on a daily basis –whether one goes to shops, attend a doctor, a government office, or try to solve a simple matter relating to property or person. Amidst all the glamourous talk about the progress and development by the leaders, what one experiences on the ground is quite a different story. Yet people have to go through life in its various forms, shapes and intricacies non-stop.  

Rulers and the Ruled 

Even though democracy and Yahapalanaya are supposed to be at work, the divide between rulers and the ruled have grown sharply. Sri Lankans live in a society where decisions are made on behalf of the people by the politicians, bureaucrats and technocrats with very little consultation. Those in authority feel no obligation to consult electors for key decisions including those with a potential to dispossess some. There is a top-down hierarchy, in fact several hierarchies, controlling the lives of people.  At the top are the elites with power, wealth, contacts, resources and status. The middle class survive by aligning with one or another set of such elites at a given time or being neutral in their work and political attitude. So-called representative democracy has delivered us a system of governance where in fact the people are made powerless at each election once they transfer power to politicians. Those who come to power in the name of representative government enjoy the perks of position together with their families and school/college mates with no proper accountability. Layers and layers of governance structures have made life difficult for many –not easy. Maintaining such a ruling class and a governance system is not viable in the long run. More and more taxes have been introduced.

There is no concept of citizenship applicable to administration. However, there are rare examples of good governance at the level of some officials such as Grama Sevekas or Pradesheeya Sabha chairmen. These are the exception rather than rule. 

Hierarchies keep well-oiled and running. Whether they serve the interests of people is the critical question to ask. In the old days, we used to talk about the exploitation of surplus by the capitalist class. Now the issue is appropriation of surplus by the ruling class that has become a capitalist class over the last 70 years.

Legal Process and Slow-Moving Wheels of Justice

People seem to connect and use personal networks for their daily matters more so than expect generalised service from service outlets. Still the wheels of justice move very slowly in the country. It seems that colonialism did not disappear when we gained independence.  In the olden days, we used the tea plantations as an example to show the unequal social, economic and power relations. If one needs a contemporary example one does not need to look beyond the legal system and institutions that are associated with them. We have had law professors holding the minister of justice position for a decade or more.  But the reforms in this sector are minimal. Unless one has close personal relations, the lawyer-client relation is a humiliating and disempowering one if not humiliating. The delays in court processes are endemic in the system. As in the academia and medicos, legal professionals also seem to have made their professions a way of life. All these phenomena with links to colonialist mode of operation rather than a modern economy and society that should be organised on a more humane way indicate the lack of a viable concept of social engineering on the part of policy makers. Improvements in physical infrastructure seems to be the focus even though the government is struggling even on that front.

The Middle Class

The middle class, at least one layer of it- seems to be comfortable with the new economy (import based) and all what comes with it.  They have cars (some micro), houses, income, jobs, networks or connections. A good example is the academia.  Not only they have obtained qualifications from abroad but their children are comfortably domiciled in foreign Western countries with well paid jobs. I could not remember any academic who told me that his/her children are living in Sri Lanka. Some parents do cultural tourism in countries where children live but opt to spend their later years in Sri Lanka. Some spend extended periods abroad to help children and grandchildren. Some academic colleagues with better means have even travelled in Europe, USA, Asia and elsewhere and gained global experience. Those with one or two children living in Sri Lanka are better off emotionally and socially compared to those whose children have all left for greener pastures because the close family links help in old age. They are only complaining about the traffic conditions on roads and occasionally about governance, politics and the debt issue.  Even in this case, the behaviour of three wheel drivers on roads is the hot topic. They don’t follow any rules and exercise absolute control over other road users creating risky situations for all. No wonder the accidents in the country are on the rise. 

Three to four super market chains in the country seem to mushroom everywhere to provide food and other household requirements for the middle class.  These have been constructed with adequate parking.  Within such complexes are eating places, pharmacies, and other services. Following the trend in Western countries, the prices of fruits and vegetables, fish and meat are given for each 100gram. When you add them up to a kilogram, one realises how the prices have gone up. Nonetheless, these places provide customers comfortable shopping experience away from the hustle and bustle of main streets or public markets in air conditioned comfort. Imported food are stacked alongside local food.

Eating places have also mushroomed. For example, bakeries or pastry shops are all around. People who come to the city seems to enjoy a tea with some rolls or pastries. Some enjoy a meal with rice and curry or lump rice (wonder if this was lamb rice in the past?). Most Sri Lankans still eat rice and curry for lunch. It is the younger generation who seem to be attracted to eating places like McDonalds and KFC. Along Kandy-Peradeniya road, such eating places have sprung up close to where offices for foreign education institutions are also operating. One does not make the link between education and eating exotic food immediately.  However, the discerning observer is able to do so with ease. When the new highway to the hills is opened, the expansion of this new economy will accelerate and the local economy will be subsumed further by the foreign enterprises that distinguishes themselves by heavy and attractive advertising.

Sinhala Publications

Sinhala publications such as novels and translations have multiplied. Bookshops are full of creative work. There seem to be a significant reading public even among the adult population. Book launches occur on a regular basis including at weekends.  In one of such events, I had the opportunity to meet the lion of contemporary literature Gunadasa Amarasekera for a brief chat and a picture. It was at the launch of several books by Sudath Gunasekera at the auditorium, Royal Mall, Kandy. The cultured audience included those who exchanged greetings in the typical Sinhalese manner indicating to me that the core of Sinhalese etiquette is still alive among the older generation of literary minded people. How many of such works published in Sinhala are translated to English and other languages is the million-dollar question?

Doctor Cult

If seeking better and expensive education for the children is one disease embracing the whole country, doctor cult is the second epidemic. Cities are full of private specialist consultation places and they are full of patients too.  In some cases, to obtain a ticket with 1-10 numbers one has to go to the place at 4.00am on the previous day.  Such is the demand and competition. In addition to Rs 300 one pays to the joint, the doctor fees range from Rs. 1000-1500. In front of consultation rooms, nurses stand as money collectors in cash. One wonders if the nursing profession or for that matter the medical profession was initiated in the world with such intentions? Many Sri Lankans have the habit of visiting a specialist consultant directly without getting a referral letter from the GP.  For serious cases, the specialist refers the patient to his or her ward in the public hospital or if the patient wishes into a private hospital. For some consultants, there are hundreds of patients.  For others only a handful. The latter type spends more time on a patient compared to the former. The reason that many people prefer to visit such places is because of the bureaucracy, delay, competition, and disappointment one has to experience in the public system. Initially I had a critical view about these specialists. However, after visiting such a place a couple of time with a family member, I realise that they are offering a service to complement what is available or not available from the public system.  However, what bothers me is why these specialists do not charge less from the patients from lower socio-economic backgrounds if they have any medical ethics left in their tool kit? The current practice is to charge everyone the same amount (misguided sense of equality)!

In an accident prone public space like the roads full of traffic, however, doctors and specialists seem to have a field day. So are the pharmacies dishing out tablets of various colour and shape in bundles.

Less Fortunate People/Masses

They are the ones who travel by buses and three wheelers, attend public hospitals, send children to public schools, and face daily difficulties in living and providing a future for children with no networks with power figures. They are also in the majority.  They don’t seem to have a voice either.  Instead they follow rules, obey superiors, bend this way and that way even at the command of the conductor of buses.  Some mothers accompany their daughters to the private tuition classes for personal safety. Struggling buses bring these people from the suburbs and villages to the city for work and other matters daily including to see lawyers, medical specialists and return the same way in the evening. When sick members of family go to hospital also they visit them. Getting children through the pre-school, primary and secondary schools plus tuition classes is no easy task especially when struggling with mounting living costs.  If members of the middle class (richer segment) pull out a Rs.5000 note to pay for tea or lunch, members of this class can barely manage to pull out a Rs. 500 note. Their faces tell the story.

These are the people targeted by politicians for their vote, Government officials for exercising authority and control, law enforcement agencies such as the police for intimidation and perhaps bribery, NGOs for selective programs, and the religious establishments for preaching and cultivating ritual. The interests of these masses are not well articulated politically by the left oriented parties.  If they did, no viable political program is advocated in a language understood by the people beyond the cities. Thus, they live in a helpless situation not being looked after by the mainstream political parties or providing a future vision and program of action by parties who are supposed to speak on their behalf. Some intermediary personalities (e.g. Nagananda Kodituwakku) and organisations (e.g. Ravaya seminars) have sprung up to fill the vacuum. However, their effectiveness and appeal to the masses is highly questionable.

Progress and Primitiveness

We embrace modernity with both arms. We as a country keep spending enormous amount of borrowed money under various ministries for a plethora of modernisation projects including learning English, buying modern equipment, obtaining training overseas, and more. We build roads, highways, ports, water projects etc. to facilitate foreign investors. The private sector also keeps expanding. Yet the facilities for so-called modern life are missing in action in many places of public use. For example, when you visit an eating place, not at least a piece of soap is there to wash hands? From outside, the cafes, eateries look glamourous decorated with tall glass doors and windows, and so on. In a town where the road is being re-built, the dirty water from the public toilet flows across the road to the drainage. People walking have to jump over or walk on it unknowingly. Anagarika Dharmapala tried to teach us new habits in the 19th century Ceylon.  Now it is 21st century, yet we tend to miss the most important public safety and hygienic aspects. In the universities and other government offices, the story is the same. We seem to be changing and not changing at the same time?

Botanical Gardens and the Peradeniya Campus

Botanical gardens at Peradeniya is a popular place with many young people of both sexes and families entering it daily.  Among the visitors are tourists from all over the world. The atmosphere provides a break to everyone from their busy schedules. The river, trees, flowers, parks, the bridge, open space all combine in a well-knit manner to provide the visitor a unique cultural, emotional, romantic and environmental experience.  No one is disappointed.

The university campus, though less used as part of cultural tourism, is another unique place in the hill country. Irrespective of the large banners and posters put up by radicalised students at the entrances, young students go through their lectures and classes in an orderly manner.  The professors continue to impart knowledge –though based on imported concepts, theories and methods- in an equally orderly manner. The buildings constructed during the late colonial period and opened at the beginning of 1950s stand tall as a monument to the vision and mission of the leaders – both academic and political –who established such a concept and place for the future generations to engage in scholarly and professional learning. Parks are well maintained and they have a range of colours when the flowers bloom in the spring.  Instead of the chaos, fume, dust and discomfort on the outside roads, the University campus provides a place of recluse for those with an eye for mental advancement.  The monkeys who inhabit the place live side by side with the staff and students. They show better signs of leisure.  A Chinese funded project team is constructing a water research facility near the Akbar Hall next to the Akbar bridge. One wonders what will come next?

Kandyan Sinhalese Organisation and Way of Life

Amidst all the changes and arrival of new economic, educational forces and players, Kandy remains a place of mystery, glamour, tradition, modernity and beauty.  At least the ceremonial culture maintained by key institutions such as Maligava, and temples continue in its spender.  Worship in Buddhist temples continue with the additions of new rituals.  I witnessed how weddings take place at the Peradeniya rest house complex.  Kandyan dancers employed there seem to have a very good demand from the middle-class families. The gentlemen and ladies come well dressed and groomed for these events exhibiting the ceremonial aspect of Sri Lankan culture.  The financial difficulties in organising such events are kept within close family circles. In such events it becomes clear how people are connected to those domiciled in countries like Australia, England, Canada or USA?

Traditional social organisation has undergone much change during the British colonial period and after. We need another Ralph Peiris to quietly study these and tell us the contemporary story. We cannot detect the true Kandyan lifestyle from those young people who hire Mul Anduma at their weddings.  One has to talk to middle aged and elderly ladies wearing Kandyan saree to detect threads that bind people, place and such life style.  We also need our anthropologists and sociologists to come out of their comfortable chairs, defer heavily paid consultancies etc. to discover the structural changes and challenges in Kandyan life which once was indigenous to us. They should tell us whether we are all moving in the direction of globalism and new economy without laying the foundation for an indigenous (desheeya) economy based on our core values as the bed rock of our existence.  Yet again time has come for cultural scholars like Martin Wickramasinghe, Ediriweera Sarachchandra, W S de Silva, Piyadasa Sirisena and Kumarathunga Munidasa to articulate to us in creative language the core features of our own culture and way of life.  To me, what we are losing is more than what we are gaining in this whole exercise of so called development and progress. Yet it is the glamour of the new that is keeping the youths motivated, excited and aspiring. Businesses flourish on this sentiment.

Concluding Remarks

Sri Lanka is an Island but highly connected with the world, in particular with the diaspora, in numerous ways. People have a tendency to look outward when things get tough and rough on home ground.  There is a class of people who are well placed either in the formal structures and hierarchies by virtue of power and position or through personal networks.  They seem to milk the system to their best advantage at every opportunity. Patriotism (Deshapremaya) is a concept utilised to bind them together at the discourse level. This class is highly connected –internally and externally-and powerful. Established political parties, formal governance structures and traditional establishments e.g. religious, provide avenues for the sustenance of this system. 

The class of people at the middle is coping with the new economy, changes in society and living costs by accessing opportunities provided by NGOs, and government agencies if not the private sector. Some of my former colleagues from the 1968 batch still work as consultants for various projects that give them additional handy income. Maintaining their status and appearances is thus possible in the face of new economic challenges.

Those at the lower middle class (e.g. teachers, nurses, policemen, soldiers) and working class including peasants face an uphill struggle to maintain living standards while coping with issues such as transport to work, ever increasing costs of services and food, education costs of the children and so on. Perhaps the labouring class is benefiting from the high wages in domestic and construction sector etc.  Tourism is providing only a living wage for the young people who work as cleaners and restaurant workers. In terms of political ideology, this class of people are at a loss to grasp what’s happening around them.  Buddhism provides only one interpretation of reality.

It seems that once again Sri Lanka is at the cross roads. Effects of the neoliberal open economic model are starting to bite both at system level and people level. People are starting to open their eyes to the reality around them. However, a general tendency to criticise rather than take action to counter the situation as a collective is apparent. This is because the body and mind are so controlled by the well-entrenched hierarchical systems.  People are expecting solutions from the existing system alone.  Not thinking beyond the box and look for like-minded people to connect with each other and develop a network or movement for change.

In this context, there is a likelihood that the country will move further in the same direction of more debts, more difficulties, high cost of living, higher class divide, more control by the existing hierarchies. It is a miracle if a credible leader emerges out of the current mess to take charge and lead the nation in the right direction by introducing structural changes in the economic policy, political and governance system, and law enforcement agencies.

(This article was written before the change of government in late October, 2018)

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Has Dr., Gamage ignored the elephant in the room by design. President Sirisena and
    Mahinda Rajapakse both missed their chance to hold Sri Lanka to ransom again –
    because the Tamils and Muslims made it clear they are not ready to be taken for a ride again. Dr. Gamage might excuse himself by stating he did not visit the North-East areas and therefore did not comment in the subject. But the ignoring of the Tamil issue is the very cause of most of the ills of the country – so far ruled for over 30 years by rogues masquerading as politicians – that includes rogues in army uniform as well. The Sinhala Nation is forced to realise unless the Tamil issue is resolved early and to some satisfaction of the Tamils Sri Lanka will continue to be in serious political and economic trouble.

    Using physical force on the Tamils by an highly inflated army is not the answer.
    Tamil resistance will continue – with or without Prabakaran. It is time the politically influential Mahanayakas in Kandy wake up to their responsibility before the SL Rupee hits a pain Rs.200 for the US$. I say the Mahanayakas because all those rogues who prostitute in Parliament and totally devalued in the eyes of most people.


  • 1

    I am from the private sector. Most companies are ruthless and results oriented and face stiff competition.
    Top CEOs and senior executives are paid Rs 2 million plus per month with a Mercedes and other perks. But you need to work 12 hours a day minimum and need to deliver results. This is applicable to large private bank employees as well.
    Young people join GOVT service due to many reasons but two factors are lack of English knowledge and IT skills. Most of them cannot find suitable work in the private sector.They know the pay scales before they join and most emoluments are in the form of non cash when you reach the top in the GOVT service such as housing, vehicles, foreign scholarships etc. The Auditor General as a head of a department is paid Rs 65,000 per month and it is public knowledge. A retired Attorney General until recently received Rs 50,000 per month as the pension. Don’t join the public service and then grumble stating that the pay is low since you know in advance what the pay scales are. It is the same with the forces.
    Most Uni lecturers are involved in external degrees & post grad programs during weekends and teachers do tuition and all of them are well off. Also they hardly pay taxes on additional income. At Visakha they have about 300+ teachers and about 100 come in cars to school which are parked all over the school. Surely they cannot afford a car with a Rs 30,000 + monthly salary if not for other income.
    The people who are struggling are the lower level fixed income earners in the private sector working in Colombo since they don’t have other income from a small plot of a paddy field or income from a few coconut trees. They need help.

  • 2

    It is not lump rice but lamprais, a Dutch rice preparation.

  • 1

    Travel observations in and around Kandy is most appropriate title. Srilanka has so many other cities and Kandy is one of them only.

    Again you are wrong to call Gunadasa Amarasekera as a ” Lion of contemporary literature”. He is fit to be called as a lion of contemporary Sinhala chauvinists and I am sure no literary student will compare him with the literary giants like late Martin Wickramasingha and Ediriweera Sarachchandra.

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