Village Urbanization in Sri Lanka — Part 3

The young generation does not want to shift from the subsistent peasantry into a subsistent form of self-employment, which continues the same horrendous lifestyle. They value the modern lifestyle more than simply living in a village with limited social opportunities.

10 mins read
Rural life in Sri Lanka [ Photo: Ishan Kahapola Arachchi / Unsplash]

Most rural areas get semi-urbanized self-spontaneously by establishing shops along main roads as ribbon development and almost all road junctions as small townships (Kada-Mandiyas) to provide daily needs to the rural community. Abreast with the population and economic growth and inter and intra-regional migration, thousands of Kada-Mandiyas have evolved all over the country, on different scales, step by step. Due to the scattered nature of housing, small Kada-Mandiyas are essential for daily needs. However, some of them are growing into small and medium-level townships, providing a more comprehensive range of social infrastructure and services necessary for everyday life, such as post offices, banks, fuel filling stations, hardware shops, restaurants, coffee shops, vehicle repair facilities, agriculture input supplies, local-level health centres, primary and secondary education facilities, etc. Local communities called them towns, and often, they are the local-level geographical identities for the villagers. This urbanisation process can be defined as bottom-up urbanisation. This is, to a certain extent, like “In-Situ Urbanization”. However, these are unplanned, unregulated, self-spontaneous, small-scale developments, and rarely are municipal services provided.

 In the Urban hierarchy, these townships can be considered the lowest-level cities. However, those are not functioning as industrial centres for employment generation or high-density planned residential places. This is a process of transforming densely populated villages into low-density townships. As houses are scattered, the vicinity of most townships has no adequate concentration of population to provide municipal services and establish industries and tertiary sector enterprises, which need a scale of operation to benefit from the scale of economies. If we do not scientifically address this bottom-up urbanisation pattern, wet zones may turn into boundaryless rural or semi-urban slums without space for economic activities. This has many disadvantages, such as increased travel time, high costs in transport, infrastructure and service delivery, environmental degradation, and the destruction of the rural lifestyle.It is pertinent to note that despite the government spending a significant share of the national budget for rural development, its contribution to the public coffer and the overall economy is minimal.

3.3 Changing Economic Structure of the Village     

Except for the newly established villages like Mahaweli settlements, rarely someone can find full-time farmers in villages today. I have observed this situation in districts like Matara, Galle, Kalutara, Gampaha, Rathnapura, Kegalle, Kandy, etc., mainly in the wet zone. Although 80.9 % of the country’s population lives in rural areas, only 25.75 % are employed in the agriculture sector, and their contribution to the Gross Domestic Product was 8.8% in 2021. This does not mean that 74.25 per cent of the GDP is generated by the 19.1% urban population. Most farmers are engaged in secondary and tertiary sector activities as supplementary/secondary or primary sources of income. While living in the village, the young generation engages in secondary and tertiary sector activities within or outside rural areas and is not dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. Their source of income lies outside the village. Though the data is unavailable, a considerable share of rural income is generated outside the village or from non-agriculture activities. Due to labour scarcity (the young generation’s unwillingness to be agrarian proletariat), high input prices, land fragmentation, and threats from wild animals, smallholder farming is becoming unsustainable. Most people wish to dissociate from agriculture and seek off-farm employment, especially wage employment, which is difficult to find or create in the village environment.

Various attempts to improve rural income under the Integrated Rural Development and many other rural development/poverty alleviation initiatives were unattractive to the young generation. Those were participated mainly by the peasants and older women who find it difficult to leave their homes and surroundings. However, during the last 2-3 decades, a new window of opportunity attractive to the young generation, foreign employment and military service have been opened, and remittances facilitated village living without migrating to cities. Moreover, with the expansion of education, income sources have diversified further. The educated young generation expects more dynamic wage employment and to be distant from the rural lifestyle. However, our conventional rural development strategies work against the emerging economic forces and the aspirations of the present generation. Still, policymakers and rural development practitioners enjoy the traditional approach, which helps to maintain the community’s relationship and can claim credit for people’s friendliness. (Micro credits, self-employment, distribution of plants, seeds, minor access roads benefitting two or three families, mamoties, kitchen utensils, mortar, etc.). Today, most politicians find it difficult to identify meaningful projects and activities to develop rural areas, as most essentials have been fulfilled by many years of rural development. Hence, they do various unproductive things to maintain their popularity among the constituents. Villagers also think something is better than nothing and accept giveaways.

3.4 The Village as an Indispensable Point of Life   

The people with roots in the village prefer to live in rural areas while working in cities for several socioeconomic reasons, such as the need to live with parents and relatives to look after them, the non-financial benefit of the extended family system, the culturally evolved social security system, the unwillingness of the parents to live in cities, and the need to look after the village assets base etc. Yet the lands alienated by the government can be transferred only within the family, which also bonds them to the village.  Also, some areromantic in the village socioeconomic environmentand unwilling to distance themselves from the rural life they are accustomed to. Also, the availability of rural infrastructure provides many external economies, making rural living more affordable at a low income. At the same time, the prohibitive cost of housing in cities works as a pushing factor for them back to the village. All push and pull factors work to discourage migration and encourage rural living.

3.5 Land Hunger and Unregulated Land Subdivision  

At the early stage of rural development, the scarcity of residential and agricultural land for the peasants has been addressed considerably through the alienation of the government’s land under colonisation schemes, village expansion schemes, encroachment regularisation, land reforms, etc. However, now, the potential of such solutions is minimal, especially in densely populated wet zones. More than agriculture, land for housing is becoming a significant issue in those areas. The land demand pattern is changing rapidly from agriculture to residential. Under the above circumstances, the social pressure to subdivide agriculture and residential lands has increased. The lands used for highland crops have been subdivided among second and third generations, limiting the plot size for homesteads or housing blocks, losing their value as agricultural lands. There are legal impediments to the subdivision of land blocks granted by the government, but it is practically happening informally and illegally. Rural local authorities do not regulate the land use, construction works and sub-division of lands. Hence, private lands are subdivided without any control. Further, natural disaster-prone locations and land reservations are also used for housing. Land sale companies subdivide lands into small blocks in ill-chosen locations of densely populated villages, creating expensive slums. Though data about unregulated land uses is unavailable to assess the issue’s gravity, some rural areas could become congested like urban peripheries. Still, administratively, those are rural, without municipal services. Under the above circumstances, keeping the increasing population in villages is possible only at the cost of agricultural production, environment, and economic growth.

3.6 Rural Industries     

From the economic point of view, rural industries may be defined as ventures in which processing is done near the source of raw material to prevent spoiling or reduce the weight or volume for the convenience of transport. However, except for tea, rubber, coconut, and sugar cane, Sri Lanka has no raw material sources that need in-situ processing.  Forestry, fish, and animal-based raw materials are transported to central locations for processing.  So far, mining products, such as graphite, phosphate, ilmenite, etc., are exported in bulk as raw materials. As such, there is no trend of industrialization in rural regions yet. The importance of agriculture is gradually decreasing in the village’s economy, and employment opportunities are shrinking. Having realised the issue, off-farm employment has been supported under different program tags, such as rural/small/cottage industries, handicrafts, self-employment, micro-enterprises, rural credit, micro-financing etc.

Cottage industries are home-based production activities rather than factory-based ones. Some cottage industries like pottery and reed work are also located near the source of raw materials. But those are labour-intensive, low-productive cottage/small industries and are often engaged as a source of supplementary income when they do not find gainful employment. Most cottage industries are restricted to the caste system and considered low-prestige employment. Those artisans and their children anxiously seek opportunities to disassociate from such jobs and leave the village. When I was the Director for Matara IRDP in early 1980, one village famous for reed works was selected to be developed under its Back Ward Village Development Component. Since it was following a participatory development approach, our officials had several awareness-building and consultation programmes to prepare the development program for the village. They accepted village infrastructure and welfare activities. To our dismay, ideas put forward to develop the reed industry through increased availability of raw materials, using machinery to process raw materials, etc., were rejected, especially by the youngsters. They were looking forward to alternatives to the low-prestige job. As a small village confined to a particular caste, land area is limited; hence, the potential for agriculture-based activities was also limited. Their probable solution is the factory-based industries and services sector activities in towns. However, such investments were outside the mandate of IRDP, and the support was limited to welfare-oriented activities and village infrastructure, which brought some convenience to village living. Still, their problem of unemployment/under-employment remained unresolved. The same project introduced a self-employment credit scheme on a pilot basis in a coastal village in the Weligama area. The post-evaluation revealed that only a few borrowers had repaid the loan. An in-depth discussion with the community revealed that borrowers who repaid the loan are engaged in illicit liquor-related activities such as distilling, selling, producing, and selling bites, etc., and their income is good. Borrowers who chose cottage industries concerning coconut fibre and fish processing could not generate sufficient income to repay the loan.

During 1970/77, a special programme called “Divisional Development Councils” was implemented to generate on-farm and off-farm employment for the youth within their villages as collective ventures. The Department of Small Industries, Department of Textile Industries and Industrial Development Board also supported a variety of small industries during this period. Those economic activities survived under the closed economic policy but found a natural death after introducing the Open Economic Policy. Later, Janasaviya and Samurdhi Programmes introduced a massive financial support program for self-employment without macro-level policy support for such micro-enterprises. Also, under private sector initiatives, micro-credit programmes focusing on rural women have been introduced, which resulted in increasing rural indebtedness rather than creating self-employment.

The young generation does not want to shift from the subsistent peasantry into a subsistent form of self-employment, which continues the same horrendous lifestyle. They value the modern lifestyle more than simply living in a village with limited social opportunities. They prefer more dynamic wage employment outside the village to be well-dressed on the street and go to the workplaces by vehicle with friends. It is the emerging trend and attitude towards the job among the young generation. However, against the villagers’ expectations, economic limitations, and realities, such activities are often supported as self-employment under rural development, making villagers professional borrowers and eternal debtors.

3.7 The Impact of the National Poverty Alleviation Programmes 

A comprehensive national poverty alleviation programme has been implemented vigorously for over three decades since 1990. As of 2020, 35% of the households (1.8 million) were receiving Samurdi benefits. A parliament debate revealed that according to a survey conducted in 2023, the eligible number has increased to 2.8 million families, which is nearly 50% of the families in the country. It is unclear to what extent the Samurdhi has contributed to bringing down absolute poverty. The statistics and politicians talk a lot about rural unemployment. However, the Samurdhi programme has created a significant labour shortage in the village and urban economy. Skilled workers like carpenters and masons and unskilled labour like domestic helpers prefer to stay unemployed in the village to qualify for the Samurdhi/ Aswesuma. Because people think Samurdi or Aswesuma entitlement is the qualifying criteria to receive free houses, land, and other benefits from the government, withdrawal from it is a waste of opportunity. So, they want to remain Smurdhi beneficiaries at any opportunity cost. This dependency syndrome is cancerous for self-reliance development and distorts the whole labour market. This will be amplified further under the new welfare programme called “Aswesuma”.   

3.8 Need for a Paradigm Shift.    

Rural development is a significant issue, affecting 81% of the country’s population. Through a long journey, rural development in Sri Lanka has reached a cul-de-sac, needing a critical turning point. In the market economy, where the secondary and tertiary sectors play a significant role, most of the country’s population can’t rely on the rural sector. It is possible only in a feudal or subsistence economy. So, rural development should not be a permanent phenomenon or the ultimate end of development.

According to Sri Lanka’s achievements towards the 1980s, rural development should have been considered a transit point/springboard/turning point or the first phase of the development process to become an advanced nation. But, even with donor assistance, we have continued along the same path, like keeping the patient under saline forever or feeding a parrot in a cage, which increased dependency and prevented motivation and dynamism. If we had capitalised on the success story, the importance of rural development in the development agenda would have declined gradually. However, our macroeconomic policies and strategies have failed to do so. In other words, we have been unable to use the rural development achievements as the springboard to economic take-off.

Over several generations, we have maintained a sizable portion of the population unproductively confined to rural lifestyles and demotivated them from finding better opportunities outside. Further attempts to accommodate the growing population in the village would give a negative rate of return and work against the market forces of the open economy. Under these circumstances, the possibility of turning the success story into a more complicated socioeconomic and political issue cannot be ruled out if the consequential issues of the success story are not carefully addressed. With my experience in rural development under different regimes, using various concepts and strategies introduced by locals and the donor community, the potential for further rural development will soon reach saturation if we keep the same approaches and strategies. Therefore, it is time to shift from conventional rural development strategies and look for innovative solutions. More than the statistics, the 2022 Aragalaya in Colombo gives a strong message and is proof of the policy debacle. They rejected our attempts to keep them confined to the village and isolated from much of the world. The young generation will not be contended with bare minimums such as food, shelter, and village infrastructure. They won’t be satisfied with poverty alleviation handouts.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog