Volume 3 Number 4
We Build the Road '- the Road Builds Us
01 April 1990
Last year, Sri Lanka topped world tables for the numberof-political-murders per head of population. The Sarvodaya movement - active in a fifth of Sri Lanka's villages - is answering the roots of violence as well as poverty. Jehan Perera explains.
Sri Lanka, according to our national airline, offers a `taste of paradise' to the visitor. But the last decade has offered our people a taste of hell.
First there was the civil war between government and Tamil separatists. Then came the trauma of Indian intervention. Finally towards the close of 1987 the bloodiest period of all commenced. In the South the Sinhalese-based People's Liberation Front (JVP) began its campaign to capture state power, while in the North fighting erupted between the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and the Indian Peace Keeping Force.
The back of the JVP insurrection was broken in November 1989, when most of its leadership was captured or killed. But in January 1990, official statistics still put the death toll for the month at 450. The real figures are certainly much higher. In a single night in December, for instance, 170 people were killed in one small town in the South and their bodies left mutilated by the roadside. In the North, the Tamil Tigers have mercilessly regained control over most of the area vacated by the withdrawing Indian army. While Muslim and Tamil refugees flee the region, the government is engaged in tortuous negotiations with the Tigers.
Some say the blame for this reign of terror lies with Sinhala-Buddhist communalists who forced the Tamils to take up arms to protect their rights. Others accuse the Tamils who resorted to terrorism instead of the democratic process, or India which trained and armed Tamil guerrillas to weaken Sri Lanka's sovereignty, or the open economy forced on the country by the World Bank, or the ruling party's abuse of democracy.
A T Ariyaratne, whose Sarvodaya Movement for development is at work in 6,000 of Sri Lanka's 30,000 villages, takes another view. The roots of the unrest among Sri Lanka's young people, he wrote at the height of the violence in 1988, go back to a fundamental alienation. `The governing class has not been able to implant in the minds of these young men and women, whether Tamil or Sinhala, that their individual personalities are an inseparable and living part of the entire collective personality of the country in which they live. Modern society has not afforded them the chance to create the invisible but has only led them to destroy the visible.'
Ariyaratne's insights have largely been ignored by Sri Lanka's decision-makers and by those for whom pragmatism and economic factors weigh heavily. But he maybe closer to the truth than many experts.
Sri Lanka's social divisions run even deeper than those of race, religion and language. At the top of the two-tier society are the seven per cent of the population who speak English and the 10 per cent who receive 51 per cent of all income. These divisions are perpetuated by the centralized national decision-making process. In the offices of Colombo, the capital, it may seem more important to subsidize Air Lanka than to rehabilitate the victims of the fighting.
We Sri Lankans are paying a massive price for our failure to rid ourselves of the distortions created by 450 years of Portuguese, Dutch and British rule.
At independence, in 1948, Sri Lanka inherited an economic, political and social structure that was finely tuned to the needs of the colonial rulers. These needs, of course, were at variance with those of the country itself. So it was imperative that the independent country should re-adapt its structures.
Take the tea, coffee and rubber plantations, which were established by the British. They became a lucrative source of profit both to their owners and to local commercial interests. In the areas around the plantations, a small proportion of the local population obtained admission to this dynamic new society - but most of the country and its people lay outside its ambit. After independence these cash crops became the mainstay of the Sri Lankan economy.
The new leaders of Sri Lanka could not fail to see the gap between themselves and those who lived outside the society to which they belonged. They sought to bridge this gap through an ambitious social welfare system which included free issues of rice and expanding the educational system. The scheme proved too expensive to maintain. Moreover rural school leavers could not find jobs.
Frustration among the youth culminated in revolt. The politicians used force to suppress the aspirations of the bottom tier.
In the mid-Fifties a group of high school teachers led by A T Ariyaratne in Colombo began to look at these issues. The education system, as they saw it, was book-centred, classroom-orientated, based on colonial needs and irrelevant to rural people. It provided a handful of professionals with lucrative positions, leaving the rest of the student population to drop by the wayside.
Ariyaratne and his friends translated their convictions into action. Groups of students and teachers gave up their vacations to work in the country's most backward and remote villages. In trying to help rural communities, they learnt from them.
Sarvodaya began as an educational experience, but by 1967 it had become a people's development movement, working in over 100 villages. Five years later, it was active in nearly 400 villages. During these years all Sarvodaya's work was voluntary, funded by local donations.
In 1974, the first foreign donors entered the picture. The movement expanded. Alongside education and development it began to focus on changing the structure of society. Today Sarvodaya runs programmes in about a fifth of Sri Lanka's villages and has over 7,000 full-time staff (mostly women, both paid and unpaid) working shoulder to shoulder with rural communities. It is trying to bring about non-violent revolutionary change in people and society, working from the bottom up.
The philosophy of the movement is summed up by its name. The word sarvodaya was coined by Mahatma Gandhi, as a translation of Ruskin's book title, Unto this last. Gandhi interpreted this phrase as `welfare of all' or sarvodaya. In Sri Lanka, the Sarvodaya movement has interpreted the word as `awakening of all', to fit into the country's predominantly Buddhist context.
This does not make Sarvodaya a 'Buddhist movement'. The movement translates the universal values propounded by the Buddha into the religious context of the particular village where it is working.
True to its name, Sarvodaya believes that development involves more than material growth. It involves the progress of all people from ignorance to enlightenment and has psychological, spiritual and moral dimensions as well as social, economic and political ones. Material well-being, Ariyaratne holds, is no more than the vehicle necessary for spiritual awakening - and extreme affluence extinguishes insight as much as extreme poverty does. So the Sarvodaya movement seeks to promote the vision of a no-affluence, no-poverty society which is people-centred rather than production-centred. One key to this is the `family gathering', at which villagers and Sarvodaya workers get together to meditate, sing and discuss.
No bulldozer needed
This approach differs sharply from the conventional concept of development.
A few years ago the Sri Lankan government completed the Victoria Dam Scheme at a cost of £100 million, with British assistance. This is part of a major irrigation and power generation project. But by the side of the dam are parched fields. Under the electricity lines which carry power from the dam to cities and factories live people who have no permanent homes and no access to water or electricity. They had no voice in the decision which spent so much of the country's resources - nor have they benefitted from it. The people who were displaced when the dam was built - without their permission - have been moved far away.
Most of these capital-intensive, largescale, expensive projects have not alleviated the burdens of the vast majority of Sri Lankans living in the villages. The gap between rich and poor has widened. Ecological costs have been high. What is more, large-scale development requires highly centralized control. This alienates people and weakens democratic checks and balances. When people have no part in decisions which affect their lives, more and more violent forms of social change emerge.
The Sarvodaya movement aims to create an environment in which both the individual and the community can awaken. It helps villagers to work together in their own interests.
Fifteen years ago the bund (embankment) around the small reservoir which feeds the paddy fields of Thengedagedera village collapsed. This meant that the village had no source of water in the dry season - and therefore no second harvest. Unable to raise Rs15,000 (£300) to buy the materials and hire a bulldozer and labour to repair the bund, the community stagnated.
Last year, Sarvodaya workers helped the people of Thengedagedera to organize a camp. Three hundred people from Thengedagedera and surrounding villages repaired the bund in a day. The visitors brought their own tools, the villagers supplied the food, no bulldozer was needed and no money exchanged hands.
Thengedagedera's fields had lain fallow because its people were not organized. Through the work camp, Sarvodaya welded the village into an entity. In sharing their labour, the villagers found that their relationships to one another were being transformed. Class, caste and other divisions yielded to the sense of participation in a shared endeavour. As the Sarvodaya saying goes, `We build the road, the road builds us.'
In the last four years, 20,000 of these shramadana camps have been held in Sri Lanka. (Shramadana means the sharing of time, thoughts and effort and forms part of the movement's full name - the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement.) 1.4 million people have taken part.
Sarvodaya also helps rural people by giving them long- and short-term credit, by determining the technical and financial feasibility of village projects, by building wells, latrines, foot-bridges and low-cost housing and by providing legal aid, relief and rehabilitation in disaster areas. The movement is engaged in peace work too, organizing marches and public meditation meetings.
Unless there is active village leadership, programmes that bring resources into the villages invariably become welfare schemes rather than stimulating development. Sarvodaya runs courses for community leaders in 30 district centres throughout the country, including areas in the north and east with a Tamil majority.
Sarvodaya workers themselves can easily fall into a welfare mindset. If they start to see their role as channelling resources into the villages from other levels of the Sarvodaya organization, they may fail to mobilize the community's own human and material resources and squash local initiative and enthusiasm.
Government sponsorship of local initiatives has often created dependence. In trying to bridge the gap between government services and those who should benefit from them, Sarvodaya aims to enhance, rather than discourage, local self-reliance.
Sarvodaya has set up a network of administrative centres, development education institutions and service centres in over 300 places in Sri Lanka. Ironically, in so doing, the movement has itself become dependent - on foreign aid. This has had its disadvantages. In order to satisfy donors' requirements for reports and assessments, Sarvodaya has had to develop a bureaucracy, which ties up many of its best field workers in management roles for which they are not equipped. At the same time, the professionals who have come in from outside may lack the movement's essential spirit, while possessing the skills popular with foreign donors. This has led to disputes and tensions within Sarvodaya which have yet to be resolved.
In spite of these problems, Sarvodaya is the only non-governmental organization which is functioning effectively in rural areas all over Sri Lanka today. Governmental structures have collapsed in both the Tamilmajority north and east and the Sinhalamajority south. Sarvodaya has maintained the trust of all parties and has been able to go on working because it is truly non-political and multi-ethnic.
One of Sri Lanka's most respected academics recently related statistics on murder rates to geographic areas. He found that violence was highest in areas of government sponsored migrant colonization and lowest in the predominantly Catholic coastal areas, where social cohesion is strong. Another scholar pointed out a similar pattern with regard to suicide rates - now the third highest in the world. These two findings suggest that violence is highest in areas where the sense of community is weakest.
When even the Catholic church fissured from within during the height of the SinhalaTamil conflict, the Sarvodaya movement retained its unity. When youth unrest swept the country, Sarvodaya's field workers kept aloof from militant activism and terrorism. This can hardly be because they had jobs, for their pay fell below official poverty levels. It would seem that the secret lies in Sarvodaya's success in building a community - whether in a village or among the thousands of full-time workers spread across the country. This is a considerable achievement in a country as divided and weary as Sri Lanka.
According to a recent survey from the Worldwatch Institute in the USA, the proportion of humanity living in poverty rose during the 1980s, reversing the progress of 30 years. In 1980 22.3 per cent of the world's people were unable to meet their own most basic needs. By 1989 this figure stood at 23.4 per cent. In Sri Lanka, during the same period, the share of national income accruing to the poorest two-fifths of the population fell from 13 per cent to seven per cent.
The growing inequity between and within countries has resulted in a world where the richest billion people earn up to 40 times as much as the poorest. Global per capita income has more than doubled since mid-century - but the fruits of success have gone overwhelmingly to the fortunate.
Governments and international organizations will need to redefine their concepts of development if they are to reverse this downward spiral. For over three decades the Sarvodaya movement of Sri Lanka has kept alight the flame of an alternative path.