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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2673

Development of Sri Lanka's South - A Postcolonial Necessity

Dr. Siri Gamage - University of New England, Australia

It is well known that the coastal areas including those of the South of Sri Lanka were the first to be colonised by the Portuguese, Dutch and British powers. Kandyan Kingdom fell to the British in 1815. The colonial institutions and processes were implanted in the Southern areas much earlier than in the Kandyan areas. The process of land acquisitions by the colonial states, introduction of alien administration, law, religion, education, economic activities etc. were other aspects of this experience.

The process of transforming so-called peasants to be laborers in plantations started in the South much earlier than in Kandyan areas. Leonard Wolf's depictions of the peasant life (Gami Jeevitaya), its trials and tribulations in the Hambantota district during the later British colonial period is representative of the hard life that the average citizen of this part of the island endured.

It is well known that the Rajapaksa politics emerged out of the contradictions existed in the Hambantota district between those locals who held power and authority some of whom had already changed their language, religion, and allegiances, e.g. mudaliars or chieftains, and the average Southerners who were the so-called ruled and powerless at the time.

Looking at the development projects being planned and implemented in the South under the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, it seems that the tables have turned perhaps for the benefit of not only the upper and upper middle classes but also for the average Southerners in the lower middle and lower classes as well as those living in poverty. Colombo and Kandy-centric development has been altered to accommodate Provincial-centric development as far as the South is concerned.

Notwithstanding the development projects such as Walawe scheme, the growth of tourism in the Southern coastal belt, as well as the social mobility achieved by many Southerners via education and professions, the deep South remained a place of under development and poverty up until now. The lack of developed infra structure such as railways, townships, ports and airports contributed to this state of being for the average Southerners.

At each election they were bombarded with heavy political rhetoric couched in anti-imperialist and pro-development sugar coatings. One of the main demands of the Southerners in the 80s and 90s was to seek industries to the rural areas. While this came as a result of textile industries etc. at some time in the post colonial period, the benefits they provided to the people at large cannot be counted as very significant.

The out migration of female Southerners to Middle Eastern countries has had a similar tendency. Many young males chose the path of joining the security forces, in particular the army only to realize the devastating effects the war with the LTTE has had on themselves and their families. The of course the Tsunami came. The devastation suffered by Southerners, particularly those at the bottom of the class and caste hierarchies, from the time of initial colonization up until today hasn't been articulated even by the Sri Lankan and outside intellectuals and writers adequately.

In fact compared to the social science and humanities scholarship available on Kandyan areas, the scholarly work on the South is very insignificant. Even after the establishment of Ruhuna University at Matara, one has to wonder what effect it has had on the development of scholarship, research, and publications on Southern issues as compared to those of the Kandyan areas. One has to acknowledge the fact that many anthropologists from the UK and other countries of Europe and America preferred to investigate the life of Kandyans perhaps because of the belief that those areas held the traditional Sinhalese culture and way of life more so than in the South. Nonetheless this is no excuse for not having a similar interest in the study of Southern life -particularly as it reflects the hybridity in complex ways whether it is in areas of education, religion, professional life, cousin, architecture, rituals and so on.

The South, particularly deep South needed to be developed in this context both economically and socially. This required massive injection of funds for identified development projects. Establishment of Southern Development Authority (SDA) under the previous governments was a step in the right direction. However attracting necessary funds to develop projects such as the Hambantota port was a problem faced by previous governments.

Previous government started the Matara-Colombo highway development project, which still continues. Added to these under the leadership of Rajapaksa are the Weerawila international airport, Hambantota port, expansion of Southern railway up to Kataragama and many more projects of a small scale. These are being planned and implemented while other areas of the country are also being targeted for such developments, e.g. Colombo-Kandy expressway development.

Together these development projects and programs will change the South considerably in the decades to come. South will be connected to Colombo and other areas of the country with modern network of rail and roads. Telecommunications is already in full swing. Technical education, fisheries education facilities are also in advanced state. Private sector development in particular under the Board of Investment regime is also progressing. Previously much talked about Singapore style dream country seems to be in the offing.

While these new developments may benefit many Southerners, they can bring new challenges also as these projects will change the conditions of life in the South in some drastic ways. For example, many tourists may opt to use the Weerawila airport rather than Colombo airport as their first entry point to the country reflective of a change in tourist behaviour. Even the expatriate Sri Lankans may choose this path. Of course for them such a change will be not only more economical but also less cumbersome. Land and house values may go up. Labour costs can reach the level found in Colombo. Water and other amenities of life can become scarce and expensive. On the positive side, young people of the South may find new employment opportunities in the developing South. In this context, it is very important to initiate socio-economic and feasibility studies, which have a focus on socio-economic conditions. Such studies can map out various scenarios emerging in the South and provide the policy makers advance knowledge about any social problems that may arise or aggravate any existing problems.

After all what Southerners want is the place to be developed in such a way that the development does not bring more problems. Rajapaksa government has taken some correct steps to develop the South. Will Sri Lankan and other scholars interested in Sri Lanka now come to the scene and initiate sociological and humanities scholarly work from critical and constructive perspectives?

Dr. Siri Gamage, Senior Lecturer, School of Professional Development & Leadership Faculty of Education, Health and Professional Studies University of New England, Armidale NSW Australia.. Also member of the Centre for Research on Education in Context; Affiliate Fellow, UNE Asia Centre; and Member, Australian Migration Research network.

- Asian Tribune -

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