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A progressive economist remembered

Jayantha Kelegama

It is sometimes not unseemly to refer to oneself when paying a tribute to another. I first met Jayantha Kelegama, who died recently, when we were both at the same university in England. I was an admirer instantly as much for his convictions as for his personal charm and friendliness. I knew instinctively that this man was destined to a supreme place in the service of the State.

During the subsequent half a century, circumstances prevented me from knowing him closely. We met rarely, probably once a year or so. I never had occasion to ask him a favour, nor to grant him any.

Yet, over the years we spent many happy hours together on numerous occasions when Kelegama took me to the Wanni.

We lingered around ruins of historic fortresses, visited old temples, walked on the bunds of ancient tanks off the beaten track, met people in obscure places - he even took me to see a lady, a hundred years old, the daughter of an Adigar, who had been renowned far and wide in her day as a "medicine woman".

To cap it all he gave me a chart, laboriously completed by him, of my paternal ancestry traced from a Wanni village in the jungle covering five generations!

Why is Kelegama's life and career so special in the pantheon of economists in Sri Lanka? After all he left high office in the public service in 1977 following seismic political changes while still in his forties, never to return. The answer lies in the rare combination of three qualities that stand out.


The first were his convictions. There was nothing ambiguous about them. They inspired his ambitions, his writings and, above all, his actions as a public servant.

In them he had a compass to steer him through triumphs and setbacks. He may have changed his opinions on occasion but never his principles and convictions.

Two strands shaped those convictions. One was Buddhism and the Sinhala language culture and customs learnt at his mother's knee in a village and rural environment in the Wanni. But it was Buddhism and nationalism in an area hardly exposed to British colonial rule let alone to the Kandyan kingdom. They were a gentler and less contentious variety than seen elsewhere.

They reflected the habits of people that were simple. Honesty, integrity, unshakeable rectitude came naturally to them. Rights, obligations and mutual self-help were wrapped in complex traditions and kinship.

The ethos and values garnered in his pre-teen years remained very much part of him, even when, having mastered the English language, he had moved on permanently to a heavily Western influenced world. It included a feeling of being apart from the somewhat 'vulgarised' ways and manners of the English-oriented urban elite.

The second strand was what might be called the 'conditions of the people question'.

In his formative years Kelegama witnessed the depressed state of the Kandyan peasantry, exploited by paddy landowners, the local traders and moneylenders.

Likewise, he was aware of the concentration of wealth and economic privilege in the country existing side by side with grotesque deprivation.

Such consciousness and his intellectual development drew him towards socialism as a solution to the inadequacies of the capitalist economic system, primarily in the distribution of the national cake. It was a short step to believe in public ownership and public enterprise - the leitmotif of Kelegama's career - as a means of redressing economic inequality.


The second quality was scholarship. It is not extraordinary that like many others he should have won both form and special prizes at school, and distinguished himself in public exams. What is different and distinctive is that there is a considerable body of exact scholarship to his name.

The articles he wrote as a young economist in the 'Ceylon Economist' in the 1950s are still well worth a read. They included such titles as 'The Kandyan Peasantry Problem', 'A Development Corporation for Ceylon', 'Control of Inflation', 'War and Post-War Ceylon Economy', 'The Economy of Rural Ceylon' and the 'Problem of the Peasantry' and the 'Economic Significance of the Paddy Lands Bill.'

So too are his memorial addresses on leading left politicians and prolific writings in Sinhala. His doctoral thesis at Oxford is an outstanding tour de force on the history of banking in Ceylon.

Kelegama fulfilled his obligations to academe too by becoming professor of Economics at Vidyalankara University (now Kelaniya). He was a highly effective lecturer in Sinhala and inspired the brightest and best to pursue their studies to a higher level.

Kelegama's strength was that he wrote in a fluent and lucid style. In later life, he became a superb economic journalist writing a weekly column in a newspaper. It was not only the quantity of output (running into some five hundred articles between 1995 and 2005) but the uniformly high quality of writing that was remarkable.

With the full rigour of logic he hurled the hardest stones against the headlong rush to embrace free market economics. He highlighted the likely creation of huge disparities of wealth and privilege. He drew attention to the inevitable contraction of indigenous industries, the weakening of peasant cultivation and the emasculation of state commercial and welfare activities.

But theme he pursued relentlessly was the importance of the role of the State in developing indigenous enterprise and domestic production. He argued the case for public enterprises in building a self-reliant national economy. Hard facts and analysis from a deep study of the active role played by governments in East Asia's fast growth made his writings unassailable.

Policy maker and administrator

The third quality was as a creative policy maker and administrator. Kelegama realised that convictions and scholarship without power was not of much use. He obtained his opportunity to exercise power in the early 1960s.

Illangaratne, the Minister of Trade and subsequently Minister of Finance, was looking for intellectual support to extend the frontiers of the state in the economy. He found his man in the youthful Kelegama. The Central Bank refused secondment to the Government! Kelegama resigned and became a Government servant.

In the early 1960s, Kelegama was foremost in providing the intellectual back-up for the economic and social policies pursued by the Government to improve the quality of life of the masses.

He not only outlined with an economist's logic Government policy of intervention, ownership and control of the commanding heights of the economy. He was closely involved in applying that policy. He was one of the main architects of the nationalisation of insurance service and establishing of the State Insurance Corporation and the setting up of the People's Bank.

Power as a primary decision-maker came to him in 1970 when appointed Permanent Secretary, Ministry of External and Internal Trade. He held the post until 1977.

There is no doubt that Kelegama led from the front in orchestrating a huge administrative operation of the Ministry. It was conducted in the context of foreign exchange shortages, the banning of private sector imports of essential foodstuffs, rationing and subsidisation of these products, and import and export control and licensing.

Kelegama grasped what he had to do in implementing an austerity programme with a sure understanding of what was at stake. He established the State Trading Corporation to channel monopoly imports of essentials of foodstuff and other commodities. He established Consolexpo as a Corporation to encourage exports especially under numerous government-to-government trade agreements.

He was instrumental in creating a vast network of consumer cooperatives in every corner of the country to distribute rationed foodstuffs. He set up an efficient import and export regulation structure. He travelled extensively taking with him trade delegations to promote exports.

In his own terms Kelegama's organisational activities were outstandingly successful. Food was distributed to the masses fairly throughout the country at subsidised prices; inflation was contained; and corruption minimal (comparatively). It is his political judgement that is more controversial. Distribution of rationed, subsidised food only through cooperatives, is an example. It led to long queues at cooperatives all over the country to obtain goods.

Kelegama was plainly an outstanding administrator. He was no ideologue. He believed in a mixed economy. He may have had a dirigiste approach.

But he recognised the positive features of private enterprise. He was pragmatic enough to oppose land reforms, presumably because it would make no difference to the masses particularly the Kandyan peasantry.

When a new free market-oriented administration took over in 1977, Kelegama's services were dispensed with, somewhat to his surprise. The irony is that a UNP government conferred him a gong (Deshamanya) in early 2004 for services rendered to the State.

Out of office, Kelegama kept his mind active spending years as a consultant working in UN organisations. When the political tide turned after 17 long years in 1994 he was the most eminent progressive economist available to serve the new administration. He spent the last decade of his life busily involved in humanitarian activities and in writing.

Kelegama's thinking and actions helped shape the economic direction of the country in the past. His writings between 1995 and 2005 are a lasting legacy. They may well help to inspire a new generation of economists in the future when the present globalisation gospel hits the buffers.



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