One day I was watching a heart-breaking story of a rural family in Sri Lanka, as telecasted by a TV channel demanding attention of the authorities. The story is about the misery of the family, caused by poverty. And the poverty was a result of the lack of opportunities and resources. The head of the [...]

Business Times

Mind the remoteness!


One day I was watching a heart-breaking story of a rural family in Sri Lanka, as telecasted by a TV channel demanding attention of the authorities. The story is about the misery of the family, caused by poverty. And the poverty was a result of the lack of opportunities and resources.

The head of the family explained the lack of sufficient meals for his family with little children for days. He had no hope about where tomorrow’s meal would come from. It was an isolated remote village with no proper access roads.

As we know, in Sri Lanka it is not the only village of that nature. Neither was it the only family of that nature. There are many villages with little opportunities and resources required for better living. And there are many families living in these isolated villages even without access to their basic needs.

Even if authorities or any development agency intervene to create opportunities and provide resources, it is difficult to say that all such efforts are sustainable. In fact, Sri Lanka is a country with a long history of rural development policies, programmes, and projects. But we may also find that even with such efforts, the problems as depicted in the above incidence are not rare.

I quoted the above story to discuss a less-attractive development truth, perhaps a “bitter truth” as some might perceive: Where we live matters! Some of us might disagree with that statement, but it is my duty to reveal it.

“Kolambata kiri – Gamata kekiri”

This was a politically appealing powerful slogan, when it was said in Sinhala colloquial language: “Milk to Colombo – Cucumber to village”. It was about development disparity between Colombo and rest of the country or rural sector.

The slogan is supported by our national accounts: About 40 per cent of our national GDP is born in the Western province that consists of less than 6 per cent of the land area of the country. The rest of the country covering eight provinces and 21 districts produces the balance 60 per cent.

The slogan depicts the popular resentment against regional development disparity, pointing the finger towards the government as the responsible party to the regional inequality. The government is held as responsible either because its policies resulted in that inequality or because it didn’t do enough to prevent that inequality.

I don’t disagree with the claim, but I must say it is only a half of the truth. In fact, there has been a change over the past 20 years in the direction as we desired: When the above slogan became popular, the Western province was contributing more than half the country’s total GDP.

Growth is bumpy!

We all admire “regional development equality” so that there is no reason for a sensible person to dispute it. All Sri Lankans would love to see that all nine provinces of the country and all 25 districts are “equally” developed throughout the country’s development effort.

Even by going deeper into the issue, probably the same argument can be applied to about 15,000 of all our villages in Sri Lanka; there is no reason to disagree with the fact that all these villages should enjoy the same living standards just like a fortunate village in Colombo district!!

The harsh economic reality is, however, different: All the regions, the provinces, the districts, and the villages will never prosper at the same rate.

We would see that some geographical locations may grow fast – in fact, “smaller” locations, while other larger areas may lag behind. Given the harsh truth of the way of economic development, I believe that there might be many remote villages in Sri Lanka which will never come near prosperity for the next 100 years. Such locations would become desolated over the years, as people from generation to generation would leave them.

By the way, some politicians may not like to see that change so they would try to prevent it with various strategies. This means, unfortunately, we are blocking the ways and means of improving the lives of people by nailing them down to unsustainable geographical locations.

Night image of globe

Picture courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.

In 2016, the NASA Earth Observatory published a satellite night image of the earth with high resolution, covering all continents. As the picture depicts, some locations on the face of the earth illuminate with lights in the night, while the rest of the earth covering vast areas remain in darkness in the night.

The US, Western Europe and East Asia illuminate brighter than the rest of the areas on earth. A close-up image of a region or a country makes clear that, not everywhere but only smaller locations illuminate leaving larger areas in darkness in the night. In East Asia, for instance, the Pacific coastal areas of Japan, the North Western and South Eastern regions of South Korea, the Eastern coastal areas of China, and the Western coast of Taiwan, illuminate brighter than the other areas of the respective countries.

If you look at Sri Lanka in the image, it is only Colombo that can be clearly identified with bright lights in the night. The rest of the country sinks in darkness in the night with some tiny dots of lights in some locations.

The night image of the earth has a sensible economic meaning: The locations that illuminate with night light shows the concentration of people and economic activity! The studies show the high correlation between night lights on earth or “luminosity data” and the geographical concentration of GDP or “economic density.”

People gather

The point is that in the development process of a country, economic growth will never be even across geographical space. Growth is higher in smaller locations where economic activity and people concentrate than elsewhere which will be left as farmlands and forests.

There are valid economic reasons for people to concentrate in some places of a country rather than to spread everywhere in order to invest, work, and live. Economic activities get concentrated in some locations because investors find these places offering better investment opportunities than elsewhere.

People gather in such places where economic activity concentrates, because they also find better opportunities than elsewhere in order to make use of their human resources in economic growth (better work) and to derive benefits from growth (better life).

If we think that it is the “infrastructure” that economic activities and people bring together, it is wrong: Massive investment in Hambantota is more than a confirmation that investment alone would not bring higher growth to the area. It is, obviously a result of a set of factors underlying the concept of “connectivity” – both internal and international connectivity that eliminates the barriers to concentration of people and economic activity.

More will have even more

Now we have a question: Does it mean that regional inequality prevails forever? As we have already demonstrated, in Sri Lanka too there will be only a couple of locations that would grow and prosper; perhaps, Hambantota might be one of them. Trincomalee could be another.

However, the rest of the country will grow too, only by improving their “connectivity” to these locations or even beyond such locations as connectivity is not limited to mere physical connectivity. Secondly, with spill-over effects of growth the rest of the country can benefit too.

In spite of all that, it is the economic reality that the geographical locations that have more, will continue to pull even more; and the locations that have less, will also continue to lose more.

Therefore, according to the future geographical image of Sri Lanka, we will have less people and more forest lands in the country with more people and economic activities concentrated in urbanised locations with connectivity. It’s worthwhile facilitating that transformation with economic policies too, rather than blocking it with political meddling.

(The writer is a Professor of Economics at the University of Colombo and can be reached at

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