21 May, 2022


The ‘Other’ Hambantota Story

By Charitha Ratwatte –

Charitha Ratwatte

Charitha Ratwatte

Alternative human development

The city of Hambantota in the arid zone of the dry zone in southern Sri Lanka is the presently, for well-known reasons which do not require repetition in these columns, the cynosure of all eyes.

Development with a capital D. That’s the only word which describes the current situation! A harbour, through which all motor vehicle imports into Sri Lanka are routed by administrative fiat; an international airport which averages, reportedly, three flights a day, mainly from Sri Lankan and Mihin; highways, flyovers, roundabouts, international conference centres, an international sports stadium and many, many other things, provincial, regional, national and international.

The list is never static, and updates happen on a regular basis, developments take place, like the proverbial ‘mushrooms appearing after a shower of rain’. These developments complement, if that is the correct word, historical buildings like the ancient dagobas and viharas of the Ruhunu Kingdom and the Martello Tower of the British days.

The Martello story

The Martello story will reverberate with today’s developments. During the Napoleonic wars, Napoleon was on the shores of France, about to invade England across the English Channel, That sliver of water that has meant so much to the sovereignty of Great Britain, similar to our Palk Strait; this is especially poignant at a time when the Merry Men of Scotland (and women) have by a 10% margin rejected independence, in favour of enhanced devolution. But that is another story.

The English were worried, having advance intelligence of Napoleon’s plans, and had deployed a whole host of spies to be on the French coast to keep an eye and report. One of these spies was an Italian called Martello. On receiving information that his cover in Normandy, where he was operating, was about to be blown, the spy Martello fled to England. When he landed there, he was terminated from service by the English, and had no way of surviving.

It was at this time that Martello came up with the innovative idea of building a series of towers on the coast of the English Channel from which lookouts would be maintained to monitor the movement of French vessels, to spot preparations for an imminent invasion. In the context of today’s ‘ lingua franca’ of development, I guess this would be one of those notorious ‘unsolicited proposals’ put up by developers, which are so common in this ‘Wonder of Asia’.

Martello convinced some sponsors and a series of such Martello Towers were built, on the English coast on the Channel. Without doubt , as with such ‘unsolicited proposals,’ good and bad money would have been made in spades, up and down the line, by promoters, designers, contractors, builders, landowners, suppliers, brokers and good old Martello himself, not to mention the soldiers manning the towers and harassing the poor local inhabitants.

For some reason that research has not been able to yet divulge, a British colonial administrator, decided to build such a Martello Tower, on the Hambantota Bay. May be the need was felt to be able spot naval threats to Hambantota in advance – shades of the sea going sampans of Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho of the 1400s, operating under the orders of the Sung Emperors of China. Or, probably, the local administrator, in collaboration with some local Muhandirams, wanted to undertake just another ‘unsolicited proposal’ to build some useless infrastructure to make some pocket money and keep the natives busy!

These are not new phenomena; they have existed from the beginning of time! This Martello Tower is fast becoming a tourist attraction, together with the other white (and there is actually a photo of an albino elephant) and black elephants, leopards, bears, etc, of Ruhunu Rata. So, the long and short of the story is that Hambantota is well on the way to be one of the iconic wonders of the ‘Wonder of Asia’.

Another wonder in Hambantota

But there is another wonder in Hambantota, over which we should ponder. When in 1989, the Poverty Alleviation Project of the Government of Sri Lanka , the Janasaviya program, was launched, a number of donor organisations, included the World Bank, the UNDP, JAICA and Germany’s KFW, supported a project to work with civil society organisations, involved in social development activities to strengthen and support the Government’s Poverty Alleviation Program.

A Social Fund called the Janasaviya Trust Fund was launched for this purpose. To implement the various programs of the Janasaviya Trust Fund (JTF), the trust required partner organisations among established civil society entities. The JTF was able to identify some partner organisations with capacity to make the required interventions in social mobilisation, nutrition, micro finance and community projects. One of the established partners, which had over time developed the necessary capacity, was the Women’s Development Federation of Hambantota and the Janashakthi Banku Sangam, its micro finance subsidiary.

In 2010 the WDF had 754 branches with 40,468 members. Today it has expanded to 1,272 branches with 69,676 members. The Janashakthi Banku Sangam had 99 branches in 2010; today it has expanded to 158 branches. The WDF operates in 12 divisions of the Hambantota District and five divisions of the Monaragala District. The Janashakthi Banku Sangam branches operate mostly out of premises belonging to them. The headquarters of the WDH at Hambantota and the Viharamahadevi Training Complex is built on land allocated to the WDF.

Over time the WDF has built up a net asset base of Rs. 517 million. This is all depositors’ and borrowers’ savings and loan repayments. The depositors now own the Banku Sangam. This is the miracle of micro finance, which the ‘Godfather of Micro Finance’ Prof. Yunus of Grameen speaks of – depositors become borrowers and then become owners. In 2013, operationally the WDF had a financial surplus of Rs. 70 million. This indeed is an impressive performance for a rural women’s organisation such as the WDF.

Kingdom of Ruhuna

Time was when the Hambantota District was a quiet backwater in Sri Lanka’s Deep South. In ancient times, when the Kingdom of Ruhuna was in existence, it was a highly-developed area. Extensive cultivation of rice and other crops supported by an intricate water management system was the base of a highly-developed Buddhist culture and civilisation.

The high standards of the hydraulic civilisation which existed in the Raja Rata at those times would have undoubtedly spread to southern Sri Lanka. The name Wel-Laksha (Wellassa) land of 100,000 paddy fields gives a clue to this economic powerhouse. The area was also a focus for the extraction and distribution of salt to the rest of the country.

The dry climate was ideal for collecting sea water in vast areas of low-lying land on the coast, and letting the water evaporate under the heat of the glaring sun. The salt distribution was the monopoly of Muslim traders, who took salt by pack bull to the interior hills and bartered it for spices, which they brought back to Magampura and exported.

Research has shown that the development of Muslim communities in the interior of the island have been on this salt route inland, roughly a day’s march apart. Similarly, before the advent of the Europeans, the Muslims held the monopoly of the internal trade in salt and the external trade in spices.

Ancient Magampura (today’s Hambantota) was a harbour on the southern sea route from the West to the East – what has today been branded as the Spice Route. Indeed some historians argue that the name Hambantota is derived from ‘Sampan Thota’ – the harbour used by Chinese seagoing sampans which traversed the southern seas in the 1400s well before the European colonisers arrived. A stone plaque at Galle records that Admiral Cheng Ho visited the Galle Port with his fleet at that time and kidnapped the local ruler and took him and his family back to China. Some time ago the descendants of that family visited Sri Lanka as guests of the Government.

The international flavour of southern Sri Lanka can be measured by the fact that the Galle plaque is in four languages – Chinese, Persian, Arabic and Tamil. Even at that time, Sri Lanka was clearly globalised.

An ancient carved edict on a rock near the ancient port of Magampura gives specific details of the tax revenue to be collected from imports and exports moving through the port, as prescribed by the ruler’s revenue department. It was certainly an emporium for international trade. Ruins of ancient Buddhist religious buildings, some renovated, and antiquities recovered from archaeological sites in the area, provide a backdrop to the regions rich cultural diversity.

The prominent Muslim Malay part of the population is said to be partly descended from seafarers from the Malay Archipelago who travelled through the Magampura Port, and over time settled down. The presence of a pre-existing Malay community prompted the British Colonial Government to disband and settle soldiers of a Malay Regiment which had fought with the British in the Kandyan wars at Kirinda near Hambantota.

Arrival of the European colonialists

After the arrival of the European colonialists, and the focus of the Galle Harbour, Hambantota went into quiet decline. The Portuguese and the Dutch were primarily interested in the spice trade and focused on the wet zone in the western part of Sri Lanka. Hambantota was an arid zone, located within the dry zone, and the interest of the colonials was mainly due to the salt pans, from which salt was extracted and distributed to the rest of the country.

The Portuguese and the Dutch, who were challenged by Muslim traders from West Asia in this spice trade, were keen to break the monopoly the Muslim traders had in the distribution of salt locally and to the Kandyan Kingdom. The Portuguese and Dutch built and garrisoned forts at Bundala to guard the saltpans and control the internal trade. The British moved the garrison to Hambantota and built a Martello tower (that Italian style unsolicited proposal), overlooking the bay, which stands to this date as a lookout post for enemy vessels.

The British established the administrative centre of the District at Hambantota, situated the Kachcheri (revenue office), the Court House, the Police Station and other Government establishments in the town. A Customs post was also established. The Green Line, a round island ship service during colonial times, called at the Hambantota pier.

During the colonial years, Hambantota District went into gradual decline and the only industries of any capacity were salt extraction and the dairy industry and due to the large quantities of milk produced, which could not be stored for marketing, a curd industry developed as the main cottage industry of the district. The brand Ruhuna ‘Meekiri’ or Ruhuna Curd is even today a product for which there is excellent brand recognition.

Leonard Woolf, a young British Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota, has written extensively on the district and its poverty. This is well-reflected in his masterly novel ‘Baddegama – The Village in the Jungle,’ which was later made into an award-winning film. Hambantota was a stopover on the way for pilgrims travelling to the jungle shrine of Kataragama.

Hambantota Women’s Development Federation

When Hambantota was still a poor district with social indicators well below the national level, at the height of the 1989 insurrection in the south, a remarkable event was kindled. A group of mothers, who were worried about their young sons and daughters who were caught between a group of vicious terrorists fighting the Government and Government Police and soldiers who were waging an equally-vicious campaign to wipe out terrorism, appealed to some senior Government servants serving in the district to assist them to build up their collective capacity to secure their lives of their children and develop their families.

At that the time, around 1988, the government has launched a major poverty alleviation program, called Janasaviya – based on two legs. The official Government Janasaviya program based on a hand out of funds and social mobilisation component by the Janasaviya department of the Government on the one hand, and the Janasaviya Trust Fund (JTF), an apex funding agency, which worked through civil society partner organisations on the other.

The district had some capacity development instilled into its poor and marginalised, through an extensive Integrated Rural Development Program (IRDP) implemented with the support of Sweden’s SIDA. Building on this capacity, the officials concerned formed the women who came for their help into small groups and encouraged them to look at what steps they can first take within themselves as a Self Help Group (SHG). This is the classic SHG model which has been highly successful in other parts of South Asia and also was the basis of the initial development of microfinance in Bangladesh by Nobel Prize winner Professor Mohammed Yunus’s Grameen bank.

The officials used the mobilisation funds available from the official Janasaviya program to provide resources to the women’s SHGs. The funds handed out were used to generate a savings movement, and later the women within the SHG began to lend money among them from their group savings fund. The officials realising the opportunity offered by partnering the Janasaviya Trust Fund (JTF), encouraged the women’s SHGs to formalise their informal arrangement by Federating the SHGs into the Hambantota Women’s Development Federation (WDF).

The micro financing aspect of the operation, which had now collected funds centrally and had begun making advances to the SHGs, in addition to the SHG members transacting their own funds, were organised into Janashakthi Banku Sangam, or Banking Association of People’s Power. The WDF became a partner organisation of the JTF. The Janashakthi Banku Sangam became an implementing partner of the JTF’s credit fund, one of the most efficient. The WDF itself was involved in the other development windows of the JTF, the Social Mobilisation Fund, the Nutrition Fund and the Community Projects Fund.

The WDF responded heroically to a challenge thrown to them by the founder Managing Director of the JTF, at one of the Annual General Meetings of the WDF that ‘if they perform and show results, the JTF will be unstinting in their support’. The WDF was one of the most effective Partner Organisations of the JTF, continuing its relationship even after the JTF name was changed to the National Development Trust Fund (NDTF) and even when the credit fund was transferred to the Sri Lanka Savings Bank, after the poverty alleviation project ended.

The WDF and the Janashakthi Banku Sangam is today one of the most formidable and efficient instruments for empowering women in Sri Lanka. As at June 2014, it had a membership of 69,676 women. The number of Women’s Society SHGs is 1,272. The number of Janashakthi Banku Sangam branches is 158. The number of clients to which the Janashakthi Banku Sangam provides microfinance program services is 107,175.

The total value of shares in the enterprise purchased by members is exceeds Rs. 72,920,352. Depositors have invested over Rs. 503,430,218 in the enterprise. The number of active borrowers from the Janashakthi Banku Sangam’s micro finance program is 37,676. This is an outstanding performance and profile for women from, what was at one time, one of the most underdeveloped areas of Sri Lanka, achieved in the timeframe of 25 years. Hambantota’s social indicators are also much improved.

What of the future?

What of the future? The first requirement is that the microfinance operation of the WDF through the Janashakthi Banku Sangam must be placed on a firm legal footing. For this, the draft legislation on setting up a regulatory framework for microfinance must be enacted soon, ending the current legal lacuna.

The second would be enhancing the WDF’s capacity to provide insurance services to its membership and to others. The poor and marginalised remain poor mainly due to the fact that they are unable to cope with economic shocks – sudden unexpected events such as death, sickness, catastrophes such as floods, cyclones, fire, theft, etc.

The WDF has already a micro insurance scheme for its members. This insurance scheme covers: death of the borrower, permanent paralysis of the borrower, natural catastrophes like flood and drought, if the enterprise which has been set up by the loan is destroyed by fire, theft or robbery of the assets of the enterprise. In the future the WDF should consider hiving off its insurance business into a separate entity, in compliance with the regulatory environment of insurance in Sri Lanka, get into a fully-fledged subsidiary which would focus on providing micro insurance to poor residents of the region. The regulatory framework for micro insurance in Sri Lanka needs reform if this is to be achieved.

The third future step for the WDF would be to provide technical support to other women’s groups in and out of Sri Lanka who aspire to set up an institution such as theirs. This is already being done in a small way. But this service could be enhanced and developed and turn into an income generating enterprise, through the provision of consultancy services.

In terms of human development and empowerment of women, this other Hambantota story is one which deserves and has received world class recognition. In the sphere of microcredit, the WDF’s Janashakthi Banks have already been recognised as a historic achievement. The lessons learnt must be mainstreamed and women’s organisations in all parts of Sri Lanka must be provided with the opportunity to develop in the way the women of Hambantota have done in this alternative ‘other’ development story emanating from the Deep South.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    D.A. Rajapaksa every son and daughter dont just look different

    Mahinda – Looks Malay
    Gota – Looks like another Malay’s son
    Dudley – Look Chinese

    Sampan-Tota indeed!

    • 0

      Your avatar is rather disrespectful.
      How about Laughing Gona?

      • 0

        OK ok sorry to Malay people if it came out that way. CT please delete that comment after judging for yourself.

        If the gona Dandina nona’s sons let CT through it will be disrespectful to the whole nation I suppose.

        On a more respectful note shall we all agree that Sampan-Tota harbour development was much later than the now largely washed out harbour in Godawaya which is Tamil buddhist. So was the later period Iswara temple the Portugese pirates razed down at Matara.

        Kanchana Ratwatte touched on Galle being Tamil too. The whole area especially Tissamaharama and even Beliatta was Tamil.
        In the immediate region the biggest thing that was there reminding all this was Kataragama -till Kathirkaamam’s identity was erased by Premadasa going looney one fine poya day.

  • 2

    “The ‘Other’ Hambantota Story”.

    Why Sinhalese capitals are moved from Polanaruwa to Anurhadapura to Nuwara to Kotte to Hambantota?


    • 0

      History lesson 4 U you dear.

      1. Dont regurgitate what was force fed to you.
      This way you’ll mislead the next generation.

      2. Capitals in the islands moved but even the force feeding never says Polonoruwa to Anuradhapura. Its the other way around.

      3. Force fed history misleads that the move to Polonoruwa was due to Tamil invasions and ransacking. This is true. but those who were ransacked were also Tamil.

      4. Sinhalese emerged as a race at the heyday of Polonoruwa period as Kalinga power started to wane after Nissanka Mallan
      This goes against the rant by the Australian who looks Tamil and who has posted another long wound treatise next door

      5. Capital of Sri Lanka is named after president Junius Richard J. Another Tamil Jayawardana of Kotte period was used as an excuse

      6. Hambantota is not and never has been a capital for the sland or any nation. If anything any attempt to render Hambantota the capital will be put to an end when Attanagala will be put forward as the place to be on Solomon West Richard B’s birthday next January. Fat Namal might make history by landing a Sampan set off from Hambantota to return where his ancestors mostly come from – Malay peninsula.

  • 2


    please dont waste your time in researching into these unwanted stuff and try to find a solution what to do with the white elephant projects of the mega maniac Rajapaksas like the Mattala Airport/Magampura Harbour etc., as you will be a part of the new Prime Ministers think-tank sooner than later.

    • 0

      matilda,we can lease them out to china.In fact we can create some competition between india and china and give them to the highest bidder.Though india is only interested in trincomalee,because they don’t want the chinese to control hambantota they will also bid high.

      • 0

        India already has Trincomalee on paper. Refer Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987.

  • 0

    Thank you Charitha Ratwatte for a fine article. Just goes to show where our real potential lies, in mega projects or simple ‘grameen’ methods. My only fear is that now that the financials of the WDF have been revealed the greedy Rajapaksas will pounce on it.

  • 0

    It was at this time that Martello came up with the innovative idea of building a series of towers on the coast of the English Channel


    Martello towers were inspired by a round fortress, part of a larger Genoese defence system, at Mortella (Myrtle) Point in Corsica. The designer was Giovan Giacomo Paleari Fratino (el Fratin),[1] and the tower was completed in 1565.


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