History of The Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka: Tribute to late Mr. D.A.Abeysekera On His 33rd Death Anniversary
By Ramani D.Wickramaratne
"Shramadana" or offering one’s strengths and commitment on a voluntary basis to the welfare of lesser fortunate human beings is an extremely noble endeavour. This concept was purely to give of one’s time, energy and money on a non-profit making voluntary basis towards the upliftment of lesser privileged communities in this country. On a national scale & with government patronage this endeavour began as far back as 1958 when the Dept. of Rural Development under their programme to help backward communities in Sri Lanka namely the Rodhiyas, Veddahs & Kinnerayas which were considered social outcasts and neglected. Under the wholehearted commitment & guidance of a Senior Rural Development Assistant (SRDA) by the name of Mr. D.A.Abeysekera launched this programme.
The late Mr. Abeysekera travelled the length and breadth of this country in search of the above mentioned communities in a bid to uplift their living standards by finding methods to improve their living, employment, health and education standards. December 2008 marks the 50th (Golden) Anniversary of the Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka (it is not the Golden Jubilee of Sarvodaya as is publicized everywhere!).
As an enthusiastic young university pass out in the late 1940s, he began his professional life by joining the Department of Rural Development and Cottage Industries and was put in charge of alleviating the suffering of the "Backward Communities" in Sri Lanka. The Rodiya, Veddah and Kinnarya communities in Sri Lanka came under this categorization of "Backward Communities." He could not have chosen a better area to work in as this was truly his mission in life- to help the innocent, the down-trodden and the less fortunate communities in our society. His entire professional life until retirement in the early 1970s was spent working silently for the development of backward communities at the Dept of Rural Development as Senior Rural Development Assistant(SRDA). During the period of 1952-53 he went on a UN Fellowship to the USA, Scandinavian Countries and Japan which enhanced and sharpened his insight into serving this country with still greater commitment. As part of his work, he was called upon by the governments of the time, to conduct seminars as well as coordinate on behalf of the Sri Lanka Government with organizations like Care International and The Peace Corps to conduct orientation programmes for these expatriates, and to evolve methods of helping the backward communities. To this day, those foreigners who worked with him still maintain sincere close ties with his family and have the highest respect for him as a man of principles, even though he himself passed away in 1975. During 1961-62 during the time when the late Mrs.Sirimavo Bandaranaike was Prime Minister, Mr. Abeysekera also initiated the National Service Scheme through the Dept. of Land Development -National Service Branch and the Hiniduma and Kalubowitiyana Road Projects got underway.
The late Mr. D.A.Abeysekera was an embodiment of Metta, Karuna and Muditha in the true sense of the word and when he visited these villages where these backward communities lived, he was appalled by the lack of basic facilities such as toilets, schools and even proper housing facilities. These people lived in "wattle and daub" huts with cadjan (mats woven with coconut leaves into the shape of a kind of roofing sheet) roofs. Their children did not have cots to sleep on but a contraption similar to a hammock which was tied between two posts inside the huts. Almost all these communities earned their daily upkeep by begging or by hunting in the jungles. If we talk of nutrition, these people did not even know the meaning of it because they just ate whatever was available which most often happened to be yams and green leaves plucked from the jungle nearby. They had no interactions whatsoever with the more affluent residents in the nearby villages or town due to the fact that they happened to be "social outcasts."
Mr. Abeysekera made laborious notes while on his visits to these villages and compiled many proposals to the Dept. of Rural Development to obtain funding to help these communities. He coined the word "Shramadana" through which he planned to get support from the more affluent citizens living in big cities to offer their might, time and money where possible and participate personally at work camps he organised.
In 1957, while Mr. Abeysekera was on one of his field trips to Kuliyapitiya together with Mr. Seneviratne, he visited Mr. Premachandra Wijesinghe who was a teacher and also the Scout Master of Kuliyapitiya Central College in his home, introduced himself and informed Mr. Wijesinghe that he had heard that Mr. Wijesinghe and the Scouts of Kuliyapitiya Central were doing good social work and invited him and school to join the two Rural Development Officers to visit Kalatholuwa and Manawe, two Rodiya villages in the Kuliyapitiya District with a view of understanding the problems that the Rodiyas were facing. Next day Mr. Wijesinghe accompanied Mr. Abeysekera and Mr. Seneviratne to visit these two villages.
This visit became the "preamble" to the first Shramadana Work Camp in the history of Sri Lanka. The masters and students of Kuliyapitiya Central spent many weekends thereafter, visiting and helping Kanatholuwa and Manawe to help the Rodiya community to clear land, and construct basic facilities necessary.
In December 1958, the Department of Rural Development under the guidance, organisation and coordination of Mr. D.A. Abeysekera (he always signed as Co-ordinator, Convenor or Organizer) conducted the First Shramadana Work Camp at Kanatholuwa. The Dept. of Rural Development also invited the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka the late Mr. S.W.R.D.Bandaranike to participate at this historic occasion but since he was unable to attend, he most graciously sent his wife the late Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike as his special representative carrying his message of congratulations and blessings for this historic event.
Joining hands with the Department of Rural Development and Mr. Abeysekera at this work camp were masters, scouts and students of Kuliyapitiya Central College under the supervision of Mr. Premachandra Wijesinghe; under the full patronage of Mr. M.W.Karunanda, Principal Nalanda Vidayalaya - masters, students of the Social Service League of Nalanda Vidyalaya under the supervision of Mr. A.T.Ariyaratne; masters, scouts and students of Hettipola Maha Vidyala under the supervision of Mr.K.B.Rathnayake and many well wishers like Ms.Somie Meegama (a personal friend of Mr. Abeysekera) including Mr. Abeysekera’s wife Ada and children Ranjan and Neelangani who were 12 and 11years ; Mr. Abeysekera’s sister Malathie and children Nalin and Ramani (myself) who were 8 and 6 years at the time.
A Rodiya Village situated in the backwoods of Kuliyapitiya became a hive of activity with this work camp when a Rodiya children got their first hair ever cuts from Mr. Abeysekera and his sister, they got wells to obtain drinking water, toilets, volleyball court, cultivation plots, clearing of jungle areas, etc-many were the benefits. Improvements of housing facilities for the Rodiya facilities were priority. The villagers were taught through a series of lectures the importance of sanitation, education, self-employment rather than begging which was their only source of income until then. In the evenings camp fires were organized and cultural programmes were introduced with everyone joining in with songs, dances, skits, "raban pada" and the flute (bata nalawe) which were a special talent of the Rodiyas.
After the successful inaugural shramadana work camp at Kanatholuwa, many more small scale camps were held at Kanatholuwa and Manawe during the next years together with Kuliyapitiya Central and Hettipola Maha Vidyalaya. Nalanda College students also held similar camps. Apart from these villages, similar work camps were organized by the Department of Rural Development in Panichchankerni and Akaralle and other villages.
During the school vacation of April 1960, with the full support of the Department of Rural Development Mr. Abeysekera was able to create yet another milestone in the history of the "Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka" by organizing and conducting the first ever International Work Camp at Manawe-another Rodiya village in Kuliyapitiya District. It was he who invited the Service Civil International (SCI) which brought in volunteers from the USA. Switzerland, India and Malaysia together with 17 governmental organizations and private companies in Sri Lanka; The Mahila Samithiya; The Commissioner of Girl Guides Ms S.Rajasuriya, Ms. Vinetia Gamage and the Girl Guides; the late Ms. Kusala Abhayawardane and Ubhayartha; students and Cadets from Nalanda Vidyalaya, Dharmapala Vidyalaya, Kuliyapitiya Central, Hettipola Maha Vidyalaya, Cadets from Royal College, Teacher Trainees from GTC Maharagama, Christian College-Kotte and the families of Mr. Abeysekera and his sister.
Mr. Abeysekera was well known both locally and internationally for his commitment to the Shramadana Movement as well as for his absolute discipline, immaculate organization & coordination skills, honesty and sincerity to the cause of enhancing the livelihoods of backward communities in Sri Lanka.
26th November 2008 marks the 33rd Death Anniversary of the “Father of the Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka” - the late Mr. D.A.Abeysekera.
By-Products of The Shramadana Movement In Sri Lanka:
1. As a result of Mr. Abeysekera’s successful shramadana movement in the backward communities, many years later Dr.Lakshman De Silva (whose father Mr. M.W. De Silva was a personal friend of Mr. Abeysekera) started the Saukyadhana Movement. Saukyadana was initiated to offer medical help and first-aid to pilgrims who went to Sri Pada annually and thereafter, it developed into a national movement where their medical services are seen at all major events in the country.
2.The original concept of the Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka saw another development when the concept of voluntarily offering one’s services for the upliftment of lesser fortunate was corrupted & "hijacked" by Mr. A.T.Ariyaratne and he started to go on his own by starting the Sarvodaya Movement from the latter part of 1960 onwards. Sarvodaya Movement deviated into a money spinning profit making NGO and could be termed as more of a family business organization rather than a voluntary organization. It has now developed into a "business group of companies" having its own printing press, furniture production for pre-schools, money lending institutions, vocational training centres, street children’s projects & multi-purpose community centres(MPCCs) etc and obtains heavy funding from foreign donor organizations.
Mr. A.T. Ariyaratne got interested and got initiated into the Shramadana Movement when Mr. D.A.Abeysekera was invited in 1956, by The Government Teacher’s Training College, Maharagama to give a lecture on "Backward Communities and Development of Under-privilaged Villages" and as a result, a few young Teacher Trainees like Mr. A.T.Ariyaratne got their first lesson on backward communities got interested in community work and it was Mr. Daya Akuratiyagama (who was known to Mr. Abeysekera) who took Mr. Ariyaratne to Mr. Abeysekera’s house the following day to meet him for further discussions on the subject.
Having completed his course at Maharagama Training College and gaining a teaching appointment at Nalanda College, he became the Teacher-in – Charge of the Social Service Association of the school. By accompanying Mr. Abeysekera on his field trips, Mr. Ariyaratne was able to understand the problems of the less fortunate communities in our society. It is however, sad to note all the distortions he makes about the history of the Shramadana Movement in his book "Bhava Thanha-Vol.1" where he insults the late Mr. D.A.Abeysekera who was his friend, philosopher and guide and the person he addressed as "Guruji" in page 201 where he states: (quote) "It was in the Manawa camp that I got chicken pox and had to leave. I think I gt the infection from Dr. Basil Seneviratne at the first Saukyadana (gift of health) camp. During my recovery at home I heard that discipline in the camp had collapsed. A group who had been invited by Mr. Abeysekera had been responsible for the lack of discipline. Immediately, I returned and I sent this group away, making Mr. Abeysekera also leave. The alienation of the SCI organization and Mr. Abeysekera from Sarvodaya took place this way. The Saukyadana Organisation later broke away from Sarvodaya"(end quote).
For those of us who were there and know the truth, what is quoted above is a total distortion of facts. The Manawa camp was not organized by Sarvodaya but by the Dept. of Rural Development under the leadership of Mr. D.A.Abeysekera where the first ever international work was organized. Sarvodaya had nothing to do with it except be a participant together with other volunteers. Even the statements made about how the Saukyadana Movement under Dr. Lakshman De Silva came into being is far from the truth. Saukyadana was not part of the Sarvodaya Movement but of the Shramadana Movement. These two organizations worked simultaneously and complimented each other’s services where suitable.
Mr. D.A.Abeysekera passed away on 26th November 1975. At the time of his death he was just a pensioner but with a happy and clear heart for the numerous self-less services he had rendered to the down-trodden communities in this country. Mr. Ariyaratne was by then a highly successful and prosperous businessman operating an NGO.
From his sick bed Mr. Abeysekera wrote one of his last letters dated 14th October 1975 to the writer who was at the time studying overseas thus: (quote) "Duni Darling………………………..What do you think, 2 days ago A.T.Ariyaratne, Nita and their daughter came to see me as soon as they heard from Amara( Ariya’s sister that I was in hospital). For 3 long hours they offered me anything & everything I need.Ariya gave me his card to Amma and said "Phone me if Mr. Abeysekera needs anything. "…………& seek my advise again for his vast Sarvodaya Movement. For 15 years I never wished him ill once…………he ruined the movement we began and climbed alone to the top while I lay sprawling in the bottom—but with a clean heart. I am not too enamoured by his plaudits…………"(end quote).
What more can one say?
- Asian Tribune -