Agriculture or services for Sri Lanka’s future?

Jan 28, 2008 (LBO) – At a conference organized by the Sri Lanka Institute of Marketing, an interesting question came from the audience: what would be the most globally competitive sectors of the Sri Lanka economy in ten years?

The top sector that most of the panellists agreed on was agriculture, though one panellist did raise the flag for services after mouthing the usual platitudes about agriculture.

Many reasons were given for choosing agriculture.   One was that Sri Lanka is 80 per cent rural.  Another was that Sri Lanka was colonized for its agricultural products.

We were said to be culturally inclined and attached to agriculture, though the same speaker conceded that children of farming families wanted to leave this occupation their parents were culturally attached to.  Action should be taken to make the next generation want to be farmers, he said.

80 per cent rural?

Battaramulla is in the neighbourhood of Parliament.  Given the number of government offices including ministries that are located in Battaramulla, it would be reasonable to think of it as part of the national capital.

Since the development of Sri Jayawardanapura and Parliament Road, Battaramulla and points east have been transformed into a dense urban area.   Yet, it is, by the definition of rural used by the government of Sri Lanka, rural.

Sri Lanka defines urban as areas that fall within municipal and urban council limits.  Because Battaramulla falls within the boundaries of the Kaduwela Pradesheeya Sabhava, it is deemed to be rural.  Battaramulla is rural; Sri Lanka is 80 per cent rural.

If that is not enough, here is the official word.  H.R. Gunasekera, Director, Department of Census and Statistics, in a paper presented at a conference in New Zealand in April 2007:

“Urban areas in Sri Lanka are defined on the basis of administrative boundaries.

During early 1980’s urban areas comprised of all Municipal Councils,(MC) Urban Councils (UC) and Town Council (TC). In 1987, Town Councils were abolished and absorbed into Pradesheeya Sabahs, which were essentially rural areas. Since then only MC and UC areas have been considered as urban areas. The Census of

Population and Housing conducted in 2001 also used this definition. As a result, the urbanization in Sri Lanka is underestimated and does not actually reflect the ground situation.” (

So Sri Lanka is actually not as rural as people like to think.   If seeing the urban sprawl everywhere you go is not enough, the government bean counters say so too.

Colonized for agricultural potential?

Sri Lanka was colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British.   The earliest data on population density I can find is from 1871 (presentation by Professor Indralal de Silva of the University of Colombo).  It was 37 people per square kilometre.

In 2001, it was eight times that:  305 people per square kilometre.   Obviously, some things had changed, things with serious implications for agriculture.

Leaving out city states, Sri Lanka is the 11th most densely populated country in the world.  Leaving out the Northern and Eastern provinces, it is the 5th most densely populated country.   Not exactly ideal conditions for agriculture, whatever the colonizers thought or did centuries ago.

Culturally attached to agriculture?

The aspirations of young people constitute good evidence of cultural attachment.  A recent study done by Chanuka Wattegama and Nandasiri Wanninayake in Mahavilachchiya, a village on the borders of Wilpattu 40 km east of Anuradhapura, provides evidence (

Fifty four per cent of those in Mahavilachchiya wanted IT related jobs, compared to the 38 per cent who wanted jobs in the army in the control group.   But the real news was that no one, absolutely no one, in either village wanted to continue in agriculture like their parents.

For at least the past sixty years, the decision makers in Colombo have been trying to make people like agriculture.   Recall the “Govi Rajas” of the 1960s?  The “Waga Sangramaya” of the 1970s and the propaganda songs that dominated the government radio all that time?

But those who actually had to do the hard and unrewarding work knew better.   The young people of Mahavilachchiya and the adjacent villages know better.

However, the government and the do-gooders in Colombo have been cooking up various schemes to keep them on the farm and keep them poor.

They have been given titles to their land that are not transferable.   They are prohibited from giving up on paddy and moving to other crops.   They are promised cheap fertilizer and kept hanging around government offices for days.

Services are the future

The key to a good life in agriculture is productivity.   Productivity is achieved by less people creating more value on the same land.   Unless we take people out of agriculture, agriculture cannot become productive.

The way to save agriculture is not more Govi Rajas.  It is active concerted effort to employ those currently in agriculture in industry or in services and creating the conditions for agricultural productivity.  By taking garment factories to the villages, President Premadasa started.  But task is unfinished.

The IT related jobs that the young people of Mahavilachchiya want are in services.  Army work is services.   The people want to work in services.   Let them, preferably in services that create, not destroy, wealth.  Stop romanticizing agriculture.   Take people out of agriculture to save it.