If we keep waiting like this, in a little time we won’t be able to eat our meal from Sinhala rice”. These are the words of a beautiful Sinhala song with anti-colonial nationalist sentiments, sung by one of Sri Lanka’s great artists, Sunil Edirisinghe. The words of the song call for revolting against Sri Lanka’s [...]

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Independence: Then and now


Tea fields developed by the British.

If we keep waiting like this, in a little time we won’t be able to eat our meal from Sinhala rice”. These are the words of a beautiful Sinhala song with anti-colonial nationalist sentiments, sung by one of Sri Lanka’s great artists, Sunil Edirisinghe. The words of the song call for revolting against Sri Lanka’s British colonial regime at the time and seem to be related to the Matale Rebellion in 1848 – that is 100 years before Independence.

I like the song too, but for a long time my attention has been caught up by one of its phrases about imposing a dog tax by the British colonial government. The literal meaning of the phrase goes as “why a tax on the loving doggy at a village home”. My concern about this particular phrase was not without a reason; let me explain.

The British colonial regime existed in Sri Lanka stretching for over one and a half centuries from 1796-1948.  After taking over the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815, the British government introduced far-reaching new taxes, including a “dog tax” as the song refers to, affecting particularly the rural peasantry.

Tax on doggy

British had already introduced a “dog tax” in their home country, England, in 1796 for two purposes as per the historical documents. One is, of course, the revenue purpose as the British government had faced a cash shortage due to wars and food crisis at the time. The second is the public safety because the dogs roaming freely in the cities had caused dog bites, diseases and deaths on people as well as on horses and sheep.

More than two centuries later, today, England and other developed countries have established more developed and more complex regulatory systems, including taxes and licenses, to cover domestic pets such as dogs and cats. These countries did not do away with their old laws and regulations but developed them into their modern forms covering all aspects of raising domestic pets.

In Sri Lanka, many of the rules and regulations introduced by the colonial government were sarcastically ignored and abandoned after Independence. In fact, that is why I was concerned about that particular phrase of the Sinhala song regarding the dog tax. If Sri Lanka continued with implementing a regulatory system covering domestic pets such as dogs and cats, today the country would not have the problem of stray animals, and the waste of public funds to treat the spread of rabies.

During the colonial times, trespassing railway tracks and spitting on roads were some of the examples among many other laws which were treated as punishable offences. Today railway tracks are used not only for trespassing and walking, but also for building residential premises and other structures on either side encroaching public property. In fact, until the recent past such premises were unable to have legal access to public utility supplies such as electricity, water and cabled telephone connections as well as to obtain a formal address.

At the time of Independence

The country that Sri Lanka inherited from Britain in 1948 was much more prosperous and more modern with civil administration than most of the country’s Asian neighbours. For about 100 years, the British had invested in building an export-oriented plantation economy of tea, rubber and coconut. The thriving plantation economy had been generating foreign exchange flows resulting in trade surpluses.

In 1952, the then Minister of Finance, J.R. Jayewardene reported that unlike in other independent states in our neighbourhood, we in Ceylon did not have a foreign exchange shortage to start off our industrialisation.  The economic prosperity based on the plantation crops was instrumental in introducing the country’s welfare systems including health care and education, resulting in high human development standards.

The plantation economy helped the country to build its infrastructure including both the railway and the road network across the country, to develop a modern financial sector including the banking system, and to develop Colombo port and aviation services.

It was under the British government that Sri Lanka’s civil administration covering the entire island was established. Apart from that, Sri Lanka also inherited a well-functioning judiciary and the institutional mechanism for maintaining the country’s law and order.

Sri Lanka also inherited its multi-party democratic political system of the Westminster type. Britain had granted the country’s universal suffrage as far back as 1931, just after three years when it was established in their own home country, in 1928.

What more we want?

Joan Robinson, a Cambridge Economist who visited Sri Lanka in 1959, produced a research paper for the Planning Secretariat titled, “Economic Possibilities of Ceylon”. In this paper she mentioned that the country’s “…national income per head . . . is, up till now, one of the highest in Asia”. It is the same economist, who also stated in the same paper one of the important characteristics of the Sri Lankan economy about “eating the fruit without planting the tree”.

Another Cambridge economist, John Richard Hicks, who visited Sri Lanka in the same year wrote that the main development challenge that Sri Lanka was faced with was not that of raising the living standard, but of maintaining it in the face of a rapidly growing population. In Sri Lanka, “…there is not at the moment a crushing problem of poverty and malnutrition such as there is in neighbouring countries”.

Having observed all these great initial conditions at the time of Independence as well as the peaceful transfer of power from colonial rule to the nation, Donald Snodgrass, a British economist who carried out his PhD research work in Sri Lanka in the 1960s, questioned in one of his research papers: “What more could a newly independent nation want?”

Lee Kuan Yew, the late Prime Minister of Singapore, when he visited Sri Lanka for the first time in 1956, made this remark, which is published in his book – Singapore Story: “My first visit to Sri Lanka was in April 1956 on my way to London. I stayed at the Galle Face Hotel, their premier British-era hotel by the sea. I walked around the city of Colombo, impressed by the public buildings, many with stone facing undamaged by war…. Ceylon had more resources and better infrastructure than Singapore.”

After reading this passage for the first time, I also wondered why he had a stop-over in Colombo on his way to London. The conclusion I derived was that it could be that Colombo provided the air travel passengers the transit hub in the region, with connecting flights to other destinations.

After Independence

Sri Lanka received not just Independence in 1948 without any independent struggle, but also it came with a solid economic, social and political foundation for development that the British had laid down. Rather than building the nation on that foundation, the national leaders mixed up the national priorities and mis-guided the divided nation.

It all began with two major issues that had played an influential role in shaping the country’s post-independent developments. The first is a political question: Rather than building one nation, the leaders nurtured a broken nation along ethno-centric lines. Accordingly, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims were divided according their ethno-centric and geopolitical interests, Burghers were forced to leave the country, and other minor community groups were cornered from the mainstream. The divisions played a major role in shaping the country’s economic future.

The second issue was nurturing economic isolation of the nation from the rest of the world. Sri Lanka, which had been an “open economy” for thousands of years and which had been the strength of the nation during the colonial times, had now begun to move along the isolation path after the 1950s. The path ended up with the polity reaching dirigisme and the economy reaching dire shrinkage by the 1970s.

Even though the country is said to have moved into an “open economy” in 1977, its open economic policy regime reversed over the past 30 years. The politics of ethno-centric nature and policies of economic isolation continued to haunt the future of the Sri Lankan nation. And, amid all that, today we celebrate our 76th Independence Day.

 (The writer is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Colombo and can be reached at sirimal@econ.cmb.ac.lk and follow on Twitter @SirimalAshoka).


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