Sri Lanka’s Rural Development Success Story — Part 2

Rural development and poverty alleviation initiatives have done an essential service to keep the population contended without falling into abject poverty and to improve the quality of life to a considerable extent.

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Ragala, Sri Lanka [ Photo: Shashank Hudkar/ Unsplash]

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2.1 Rural Development Initiatives Undertaken

Parallel to industrialization and economic growth, urbanization is a global trend. In contrast, Sri Lanka remains a rural nation even in this digital era and slowly reached a low-middle income country in 2007 and an upper-middle income country in 2019 after 21 years and, again, back to a low-middle income country in 2022. During this period till 2017, a 5-6% GDP growth rate was achieved. On par with economic growth, unemployment and poverty decreased considerably. However, the urbanisation rate has not changed on par with the economic growth rate. It has remained stable for the last two centuries.  Since 2018, the economic growth rate has been retarded, and subsequently, it has turned negative. This article will not discuss the effect of the recent economic recession but will examine and question the rural development strategies of independent Sri Lanka and its outcomes.

Sri Lanka has no officially accepted regional/rural development policy in black and white, but it is not a new phenomenon like in most other developing countries. The government’s support for it has been visible since the first half of the 20th century under the different programme labels. Under the Donourhmore Commission Reforms in 1931, Sri Lankans had an opportunity to play a significant role in governance through the State Council of Ceylon. Since then, many development initiatives have focused on rural development and poverty alleviation, though the specific terminologies have not been used. Some of them are, (1) the Free Education Bill of 1943, which provides free education for every child above five years and covers the whole country, (2) the Acquisition of private schools in 1960 to make education free for everybody and equal distribution of opportunities throughout the country, (3) The Dry Zone Colonization programme and Village expansion schemes under the Land Development Ordinance -1935 to provide land, shelter, and employment for, landless rural poor, (4) The Land Reform law of 1972 to make more land available to alienation for the landless, (5) Establishment of Rural Development Societies in 1940, to enhance the enthusiasm and the effort of rural people for the improvement of their social, and cultural conditions and improve the accessibility to the public service delivery system, (6) Rehabilitation of Irrigation schemes, rural roads, supply of domestic water, and rural schools by rural development societies with voluntary Labouré(participatory development), (7) Divisional Development Council Programme to provide employment to rural youths during1970/77, (8) Free agriculture extension service for all farmers and peasants, (9) Free or subsidized food for everybody,(10) Food Stamp Scheme for the people below the official poverty line, (11) Guaranteed price for paddy to enhance farmers income,(12) Integrated Rural Development programme with donor funding to fill the investment gaps of the national programme at the district level from 1979 to 2001, (13) Gramodaya Mandala system to plan and implement village level development programmes with the community participation, in 1980s, (14) Jana Saviya and Smurdhi  as national poverty alleviation programs since 1990 to date, (15) Maganeguma and Gama Neguma programs to improve rural accessibility, other infrastructure and rural livelihood, from 2005 to 2015, (16) Rural Housing Programmes under the National Housing Development Authority  since 1980, (17) Mahaveli Development Programme,the most comprehensive agriculture-based settlement program since 1970 to date, (18) free health care and primary health care system throughout the country, (19) Most recently, Weda Lakshayak (one hundred thousand Village projects) and one hundred thousand kilometres of Rural roads. In addition to the above, many programs focused on the estate sector are being implemented, which also amounts to rural development. If carefully analysed, a significant share of the national budget is annually allocated for rural development. Since independence, rural development and poverty alleviation projects have been used as bait by most political parties to lure votes in every election. With the assistance of donors, international NGOs, and local initiatives, Sri Lanka has tried/ experimented with almost every strategy available for rural development.

2.2 Success Story of Rural Development 

According to the above discussion, it is evident that even long before the donor involvement, Sri Lanka had prioritised poverty alleviation and rural development under different program/project tags. Since the 1980s, with donor assistance, Sri Lanka has been driven on the same path under the famous rural development and poverty alleviation label. After vigorous support for rural development over eight decades, it is time to revisit all poverty alleviation and rural development strategies to ascertain the outcome and impacts.

2.2.1 Rural-Urban Migration Minimized

According to the World Bank Collection of Development Indicators, 80.97 per cent of the country’s population lived in rural areas as of 2022.  Accordingly, the urban population is only 19.03 per cent, much below the 51% average of developing countries. Sri Lanka’s urban-rural population ratio is misleading due to two reasons. Most significantly, in 1987, the change of urban boundaries by abolishing Town Councils resulted in an overnight artificial increase in the rural population. The second reason is that migrants to urban areas settle in the periphery of the city; administratively, those areas come under rural local government authorities. Consequently, 22% of the urban population in 1981 has declined to 19.3% in 2023. However, the low pace of urbanization can’t be ruled out because the urban population in the 1971 census was also 22%. Even if the above two distortions were corrected, the figure may not increase much above 22%.

Most developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America have a remarkably high degree of urbanization, with migrants from rural areas looking for a better life. However, the migration pattern in Sri Lanka differs from the above situation. Without an assured job or schooling facilities, Sri Lankans do not migrate to urban areas to suffer in slums because living in the village is much more convenient, even without a job.

The quality may be lower, but most basic facilities are available in the village due to the many years of rural development. Those include physical infrastructure like paved roads, electricity, piped-borne water, and social infrastructure such as health and education facilities, banks, post offices, scattered small townships (Kada Mandiya), etc., reducing the need to migrate to urban areas. For most children, schools are available within walking distance. The wider transport network coverage at a reasonable price has facilitated the daily commuting to cities for work and education while staying in the village. It also prevented large-scale shanty development in urban areas.

2.2.3 Minimized the Urban-Rural Difference in the Physical Quality of Life

Consequent to the transfer of wealth and income distribution under rural development, communities can satisfy their basic needs within the village, even with a low income. Table 1 shows that socio-economic indicators have no significant differences between urban and rural communities. Except for household income, most indicators are closer to the national averages. However, there is a substantial difference between the urban and the estate sectors. The ‘Life Tables for Sri Lanka and Districts, 2000 – 2002’ published by the Department of Census and Statistics says, “A salient feature in the district pattern of mortality is the very low level of life expectancy in Colombo district for both males and females. One major contributory factor for this is the higher occurrence of deaths in Colombo due to the presence of a strong network of hospitals and health facilities run by both government and private sectors. Another possible cause for higher mortality is the existence of extreme poverty in slum areas of the capital city. In contrast to Colombo, some of the most disadvantaged districts, such as Hambantota and Monaragala, have reached the highest levels in life expectancy.” (cite reference). This statement also shows that a reasonable quality of life exists in rural regions.

2.2.4 Social Justice

Rural development and poverty alleviation initiatives have done an essential service to keep the population contended without falling into abject poverty and to improve the quality of life to a considerable extent. The universal coverage of comprehensive free health and education provided an invaluable service in human resource development. Capitalising on free education, many rural people have become high-level professionals, administrators, managers, and national-level decision-makers, though their contribution to the cradle is questionable. Free health services reduced infant mortality and increased life expectancy without much urban-rural difference. So, rural development has done social justice through income transfer and egalitarian social and economic opportunity distribution and has played a vital role in maintaining political stability. As an overall impact of successive governments’ multiple rural development initiatives since independence, Sri Lanka still successfully maintains much of the ever-increasing rural population confined to rural areas. These are the achievements of the longstanding rural development efforts in Sri Lanka. Accordingly, Sri Lanka’s rural development is a remarkably successful story.

Table 1: Sri Lanka -Socio-Economic Indicators 2019

 IndicatorUrbanRuralEstateSri Lanka
  No schooling %
  AL& above %
  Literacy(2001census) %93.491.775.191.1
  Permanent wall  %97.898.698.998.1
  Permanent roof  %97.795.951.494.3
  Electricity for lighting %98.998.897.298.8
  Safe water  %
3Mean income per household, per month Rs.116,67069,51746,86576,414
4Poor Household, as per Updated poverty line %
5Labor force Participation %50.352.7NA52.3
6Child malnutrition (stunted), 2016      %14.717.037.717.3
7Life expectancy (Years)    
Source: Socio-Economic Data-2022, CBSL, Department of Census & Statistics

2.3 Negative Aspects of the Success Story

Though we are satisfied with keeping the increasing population confined to rural areas without migrating to cities, it has adverse by-products affecting the national economic growth. Farmer income is low, and rural poverty, unemployment, and underemployment are high compared to urban regions. The low contribution (8.8%) from agriculture to the GDP by 25.75 % of the labour force engaged is substantial evidence of rural poverty. As shown in Table 1, the mean income of the households in rural areas is much lower than in urban areas. Despite the heavy investment in rural development, agriculture, the main economic activity in rural areas, remains low productive, backward, and highly inefficient in its value chain.

2.3.1 Weak Linkages with the Mainstream of the Economy

Rural development is not the final goal of the development process; it is a means to enter the development path. It is only a stopgap measure until urban-based secondary and tertiary sectors embrace the whole economy, including the primary and village sectors, which is yet to happen in Sri Lanka. In the 1980s, I explained the above with the following example at a workshop sponsored by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), the funding agency for Matara IRDP. “Rural development is like doing the house wiring pending the region’s high-tension line and the village’s distribution line. If those two things do not happen, house wiring has no use. In other words, it is like laying eggs but not hatching them. Similarly, rural development can’t produce many results without regional and national development. It can create a breathing space until the momentum is gathered for the take-off.

Unlike newly developed Asian Tigers, macroeconomic policies in Sri Lanka did not encourage the private sector to expand the urban-based secondary and tertiary sectors. So, it could not capitalise on the breathing space created by rural development that would support the rural economy. The urban sector could not generate a significant demand for the rural sector products, except for a few items, such as rice and vegetables. Rarely did it create demand for agriculture-based raw materials. Also, the industrial sector could not meet the demand generated through rural development, such as agricultural inputs and consumer goods. Hence, it was diverted to the global market. The low rate of urbanization and rural-urban migration is a combined result of the success of rural development and the failure of the urban-based secondary and tertiary sectors to absorb the increasing population. As the urban sector is not offering attractive opportunities, people are compelled to stay in the village even with low income and limited opportunities.

2.3.2 Over-emphasis on Welfare Aspects

Except for the irrigated colonisation schemes, most rural development strategies we followed have little bearing on the mainstream macroeconomy. Other packages have been targeted towards the egalitarian distribution of wealth and income rather than economic growth.  Rural income and employment strategies such as self-employment, micro credits, bottom-up planning, participatory development, and social mobilisation are not means for development but only survival strategies pending gainful employment through commercially motivated sustainable development. To a considerable extent, the above-said success has been achieved at the cost of national economic growth (income distribution exceeding the growth rate). The by-products of successful rural development may have contributed considerably to the slow growth rate over several decades and the minus growth rate after 2017. Countries like Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam have sacrificed only a few national resources for rural development and poverty alleviation. However, their agriculture is much ahead of Sri Lanka, and their economic growth has significantly reduced poverty.

2.3.3 Disruption to the Social Order  

Welfare-oriented economic policies, concepts, and strategies have made rural living artificially convenient against the market and economic forces. Traditional village life has been changed to a diluted new way of living, and attitudes and behavioural patterns are neither modern nor traditional. Rural people are accustomed to a new consumption pattern beyond their means, and its sustainability is highly questionable if there are no subsidies and price distortions through government interventions. The widespread social attitude is that the government must provide its citizens with everything for free or at a subsidized price. People do not think about their duties and responsibilities but are more concerned about their rights. Everybody wants to live beyond their means and blames the government for their inability to do so.

Social evils, such as liqueur and drug addictions and underworld operations, which are found in urban peripheries in developing countries, are now found in Sri Lankan villages. Most rural people are liqueur and drug-addicted, more than in urban societies, and it is a significant socioeconomic challenge in the village. Today, village politics is much more complicated than urban politics. Quarrelling over limited resources, opportunities, and political differences has changed the peaceful environment, and the so-called social cohesiveness is no longer in the village. Access to information is equally high in urban and rural areas today due to technological advancements. Rural youth are more conversant, sensitive, and susceptible to local and international socioeconomic and political issues due to their frustration and time availability. They grasp radical political thinking swiftly and participate in various anti-government movements, protests, riots, and disruptive activities.

To be continued

Sirisena Amarasekara

Sirisena Amarasekara is a Sri Lankan public servant and diplomat. He is the former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana, and Eswatin. He had functioned as the secretary to the Prime Minister on two occasions, and as the secretary to the Cabinet of Sri Lanka. Having completed more than 50 years of public service, Amarasekara is one of the most senior Sri Lankan public servants.

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