A progressive economist remembered
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
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
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
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
In his formative years Kelegama witnessed the depressed state of the
Kandyan peasantry, exploited by paddy landowners, the local traders and
Likewise, he was aware of the concentration of wealth and economic
privilege in the country existing side by side with grotesque
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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