29 May, 2022


The Return Of Rajakariya With The Return To A Mediaeval Monarchy

By Emil van der Poorten –

Emil van der Poorten

The slower descent of the penny in one’s thinking processes is a reality of the ageing process and I can only blame it for the fact that I didn’t observe something right before my eyes: an emerging and clear pattern of events heralding a return to mediaeval systems and methods of governance in Sri Lanka.  However, in self-defence I can also say that those constantly claiming erudition in all matters Sri Lankan had also failed to perceive what was happening in the cold light of day!

In previous short articles about my neighbourhood I have spoken of the fact that the pathway for the power line which carried electricity for domestic use was cleared entirely by manual labour provided “voluntarily” by the local informal settlement “colonies,” the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) from a time when many state-managed plantations collapsed under the weight of incompetence and corruption.  Before the Ceylon Electrical Board would consider the erection of power poles and the stringing of power cables, the local residents had to cut down trees, trim the limbs off others and clear the path for a power line up to a transformer from where individual supply was to be set up.  Using their own hand tools, borrowing a power saw or two from the larger land-owners of the area was the only way the task could be achieved.  But they did it and then had to sit on their hands while the CEB-installed power lines didn’t carry any electricity until the local politicians could make political capital out of the event, until the arrival of an election that was on the horizon.  In any event, the work was done and the power was delivered.  However, the supply to the settlers’ houses from the transformer entailed an additional task for the residents: they had to carry another set of power poles to designated locations and then install them as well!

More recently yet, we had the spectacle of volunteer (“shramadana”) labour being employed on road repairs so that some accessibility, no matter how close to a bullock cart track it is, was ensured for medical and other emergencies where a wheeled vehicle was required.  Again, I documented the fact with accompanying photographs.

Now I keep getting reports of the “shramadana” labour required of (very poor) residents at the schools which their children attend.  In one instance I was told that, at one of the meetings periodically summoned by the school administration, parents were asked to, first, collect all the damaged furniture in the school and then told that the repair and/or replacement of all of it was their responsibility.  For those with some carpentry skills this would require their foregoing wages that might otherwise be earned elsewhere to perform a responsibility that in more “advanced” parts of the world (inclusive of Sri Lanka before the arrival of pestilential governments) would have rested with the Department of Education.  If the parent didn’t have the carpentry skills to do this work, they would have to hire someone else to do the job, something which surely would place yet another burden on an already over-burdened purse.

In a Central School in the district, I was told that a retaining wall had to be constructed by labour provided by parents.  The manner in which this would be done would presumably be the same as in the previous example cited with the added cost and responsibility of providing the building material – rock, cement, sand, etc.

In an even more ambitious project, one of our employees had, as all the other parents of that school, to contribute a sum of Rs. 10,000 towards the construction of a building to replace one that was past its “best before” date.  He had paid half this amount in the first of two installments and would, next month, have to come up with the rest.  This man who lives away from his village and is estranged from his wife, provides for three teen and pre-teen sons already attending school who reside with their grand-mother.  The burden this places on him, an unskilled worker, can well be imagined.

This imposition of forced labour on a population living in an allegedly “developing” country in the 21st Century almost defies description!

At least in mediaeval times, the forced labour of the peasantry and poorer people in the nation was driven by the fact that alternatives did not exist because of the technology available at the time.  Today, with enormous budgets devoted to alleged “development” goals, this is nothing short of obscene.

Does one even have to join the dots from the fact that there is wholesale theft from the public coffers to the concomitant need for forced labour from the poorest elements of our society for the maintenance of essential services?  What is required of these “volunteers” cannot even be dignified with the term “improvement of facilities” because it is, basically, maintenance of existing “plant.”  We are not talking about building some Parakrama Samudra or Yoda Ela.  We are talking about a “gal bemma” here and some “mesa and “putu” there!  At least in mediaeval times, what was achieved led to the enhancement of the quality of life through such as the establishment of an intricate irrigation system.  In the current circumstances, what we are seeing is forced labour band-aids to shore up basic services.

That there is in progress, quite advanced in fact, a return to a repressive monarchical system in this country is now beyond argument and, in that context, what is happening in the matter of forced labour in the Rajakariya mode has a certain logic to it. The question is, “What, if anything, are Sri Lankans going to do about something that has now gone beyond being a mere “trend” or fad?”

As a footnote, I cannot but draw attention to the fact that those who spend their time pillorying “Colombians” (aka urban supporters of human rights and decency in governance) could better devote their efforts to taking a look at what is happening to the poor of a rural Sri Lanka of whom they claim expert knowledge from atop their pedestals of self-righteousness.  However, that could well be beyond the capacity of those systematically spouting rhetoric in defence of a government whose conduct is indefensible!

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Latest comments

  • 0

    One wonders if any of these ‘inconveniences’ will have any effect on these folk come the next election, and if they are oblivious to the fact that this is the grim reality of the Rajapakse rule.

  • 0

    Glad that you are highlighting specific issues.

    In my mind this example of “enforced Rajakariya” labor for community development have no clear cut answers.

    Before I get to my thoughts, a little background. I have lived at some periods of my life in the South Bronx and Harlem and now in the Puttalam area.

    Even in the US, the least “socialist” of the West there are plenty of hand outs for those below the poverty line. The biggest being child support, encouraging children by multiple fathers, very apparent in the US/UK.

    When its all handouts, there is no vested interest other than waiting for the next hand out. East Asia, S Korea, Taiwan, Singapore developed with military draft (and US Investment). Military draft is Rajakariya in another word.

    My thinking is that we need to look to the East to develop.

    For some extreme right wing opinions of the west read isteve.blogspot.com and takimag.com . I am kind of seeing their point, must be age.

  • 0

    To me this looks like what “gamaneguma” is. We make what we break. It is in a sense privatizing our lives, making it private and personal, and our own business, with no hand from the government. Mediaeval all right. Lets go for it.

  • 0

    Mr. Vander Pooten:

    Don’t take my comment offensively.

    My observation is, even in the USA, big company workers are like govt work places. They are worried about every thing else except the work they do. Only the small company -workers want to work. Executives are there to cut and slash and get their bonus at the expense of some one else.

    Take India and China as examples. Monarchial systems had thrived in there.

    See Europe is bankrupt and other developed countries in the west are facing the same situation. How long the development and good times last. Only one generation.

    Why do you think the democracy is working. See, UK and Europe, a mess ?

  • 0

    The fact is the Govt has got its priorities wrong. Ports and Airports in plenty for high flying tourists and bureaucrats. Carpetted roads for those who can afford vehicles. Millions being spent on religous monuments. Millions on vehicles for ministers and their minions. Millions to be spent on CHOGM.

    A pittance for the poor and dispossesed. They cannot educate their children. No medicine in hospitals. Take over their lands, raze their houses to the ground to make things look good. No justice for them in the police stations or courts etc. No hope for them in this miracle of asia.

    • 0

      Every country in the world has the same problem.

      Think about USA, UK or France spending billions on Wars or USA spending Billions on space flights. They can spend that money on people.

      US became a developed country after the war and after 1950s USA never had spent major portions of money on Roads.

    • 0

      Thank you for that simple and accurate description of the “Sri Lankan Reality” that at least one other commentator has sought to justify in referring to the various “negumas.” What is being practiced, very obviously, is a reverse-Robin Hood policy that some people fail to see, perhaps, because they are the beneficiaries of it.

  • 0

    AS long as it is voluntary labor there is nothing wrong in Shramadana. it is a higher level of DANA which is encouraged by all religions. What is the grouse?

    • 0

      The “grouse” is that essential services, such as public roads have always been provided by the state to all of its citizens without the application of some kind of Rajakariya, particularly in the last few centuries. It appears that you see this as some kind of religious obligation for the POORER ELEMENTS of society while the wealthy, particularly the politically privileged, can ride around in their Mercedes’ and Bimmy’s at STATE EXPENSE and pay token amounts for even their domestic electricity supplies, leave alone personally repair the roads that serve them and install power poles for the CEB to string high tension cables on.
      It is very obvious that your conception of social justice is a tad different to mine!
      In any event, those who practice this injustice and whose behaviour you obviously support claim that Sri Lanka is some kind of miracle of modernity. Please explain this dichotomy and while you are about it, I should tell you that I have spent the better part of my life working in the volunteer sector and am not unfamiliar with the difference between voluntarism and coercion, no matter how anyone seeks to conceal it under a bunch of verbiage.

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