An Intellectual who understood the problems of peasantry
REMEMERED: A portrait of the late Deshamanya Dr.J.B. Kelegama
is to be unveiled at the University of Rajarata where he functioned as
the first Chancellor of the University, and it was during this period
that he, with his vast experience, both national and international, in
the areas of public policy making and administration, was able to
provide guidance to the University of Rajarata at its very initial
Therefore, it is very relevant and appropriate to make use of the
occasion, which, in my view, is uniquely historical as the University,
in its very formative stages, has taken the right decision to honour its
founding Chancellor with a portrait, to reflect upon the illustrious
career of Dr. Kelegama who, in my view, was an outstanding economist
whose intellectual pursuits amply demonstrated that here was an
intellectual-cum-public policy-maker who always thought in terms of the
development of the country on the basis of the proper utilisation of its
own resources, including its human capital.
Dr. J.B. Kelegama
In Sri Lanka, at the very initial stage of University education, most
students who entered the Arts Faculty, which, in fact, was the centre of
intellectual activity in the Universities opted to study Economics.
T.F. Kinlock, writing a short essay on Six Giants of Economics : Adam
Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Mill, Jevons and Alfred Marshall, stated that:
"a great number of men and women read Economics at the Universities",
and this was true of Sri Lanka as well.
Since the very inception of the University of Ceylon in 1942,
Economics became the most popular academic discipline and all students,
who read Economics, made use of it to find ways and means of
transforming the Sri Lankan society which then remained dominated by all
processes of colonial exploitation.
All students of economics, as the late Dr. Kelegama displayed with
both writings and public policy formulations, were guided by what Alfred
Marshall's famous statement: "Economic doctrine is not a body of
concrete truths, but an engine for the discovery of concrete truths".
Dr. J.B. Kelegma, with tremendous loyalty to the downtrodden
peasantry of this country, wanted to examine all issues relating to
development from the point of view of the need to improve the quality of
life for both the individual and the society.
He, through the employment of proper and realistic economic tools,
envisaged a total transformation of the Sri Lankan society from that of
a colonially-exploited dependent society to that of a developed country
with a self-reliant economy and a democratic polity.
As Alfred Marshall once said, economics gives the individual the
opportunity to collect information in the same way as goods are loaded
into trucks, and it was this thesis that compelled many an economist to
collect information - both social and economic data which formed the
basis of economic decision-making.
Dr. Kelegama, in my view, was very much loyal to this assumption, and
it was this belief of his which made him a pragmatic economic theorist
who saw the emancipation of the Sri Lankan peasantry as the basic
foundation for both political and economic change in the country.
He was a master craftsman who knew the utility of his science and the
way in which it needs to be employed for the emancipation of the poor
and the construction of a society based on needs and aspirations of a
nation that suffered under rapacious processes of colonial exploitation.
Howard Wriggins once described Sri Lanka as a country which can
proudly speak of an intellectual enterprise, consisting of a galaxy of
intellectuals whose intellectual standing sees no comparison in any
other newly-emerged State.
It was no exaggeration as Sri Lanka, through the University of
Ceylon, was able to produce a set of intellectuals who, in the last
seventy-five years, played a significant role in the modernization of
Sri Lanka as a newly independent State.
Jennings, who pioneered the establishment of the University of
Ceylon, once wrote that 'fundamental task of a University is to produce
educated men and women in the fullest sense of that phrase, men and
women who are capable of fulfilling any function in the world that may
fall to their lot, citizens of high intelligence, complete moral
integrity and possessing energy, initiative, judgement, tact, and
qualities of leadership'.
The students, who passed from the University of Ceylon, especially
those graduates who passed out from the Department of Economics,
embraced all those qualities which Jennings attributed to the successful
graduand who entered the Sri Lankan public bureaucracy.
The Department of Economics of the University of Ceylon - both in
Colombo and Peradeniya - was a prestigious Department which, in the last
seventy-five years, has produced a galaxy of intellectuals -cum -
economists who, with their academic and professional achievements, have
made a noteworthy contribution to the development of Sri Lanka as a
modern nation. Dr. Kelegama, belonged to that illustrious band of Sri
Lankan economists who reached that stage via the prestigious Department
He joined the Central Bank as a member of the first batch of officers
which included such reputed economists as Dr. Gamini Corea and Dr.
Warnasena Rasaputra. The Central Bank of Ceylon has been just
established and it needed a set of economists, trained in Sri Lanka, to
undertake its multi-faceted activities; it needed primarily a set of
economists who could indulge in economic policy making from a national
perspective, and it was this approach and perception which made Dr.
Kelegama to break-away from the intellectual servility to the West and
It was during this period that the country, due to the expansion of
the University population and the establishment of various academic and
research institutes, witnessed a considerable expansion in the number of
intellectuals who now began to play a key role in the social, economic
and political activities of the country.
It was in this context that we need to look at the emergence of
economists as major public policy decision-makers, and the University
dons, though had the capacity to get themselves involved in
policy-making, were not allowed to engage themselves in that task.
The Central Bank of Ceylon, in filling the vacuum, produced a number
of reputed economists who later became administrators in Ministries
related to economic and social development. It was in 1957 that Dr.J.B.
Kelegama returned to the island after completing his doctorate in
Economics at the University of Oxford and the political change of 1956,
which demanded many more changes in the public policies, especially
those relating to the economic development of the country, recognised
the need to make use of the intellectuals, especially those who
understood the impact of the political change of 1956, for the
formulation of both economic and social policy for the benefit of the
oppressed peasantry and the working class.
It was in the sixties that Dr. Kelegama assumed direct responsibility
for the formulation of public policy in the areas of economic
development. The 1956 regime, as it was short-lived, did not have the
time to identify a set of good decision-makers and it relied on the
fossils of the Sri Lankan bureaucracy who were more influenced by the
remaining legacies of imperial rule.
T.B. Illangaratne was a Minister with a vision and he looked at
issues from a national perspective; the heritage of the country came to
be converted into an economic and social development resources.
Dr. Kelegama's entry into the Ministry of Trade and thereafter the
Ministry of Finance was a turning point in the history of economic
policy making in this country; he was able to influence budgetary policy
of Sri Lanka in the period 1960-65. In addition, Dr. Kelegama got the
opportunity to work under three leading Finance Ministers - T.B.
Illangaratne, Felix Dias Bandaranaike and Dr.N.M. Perera.
It was T.B. Illangaratne who took several important progressive
measures to modernise the Sri Lankan economy, and state intervention in
economic development came to be accepted as the main standpoint in the
development policy of the then Government.
In addition, nationalisation was treated as an instrument of
development. Dr. Kelegama who, in his last days as well, believed in the
role of the State in the economic development of third world states
played a pioneering role during these years. And today even economist of
the calibre of Joseph Stiglitz of the World Bank supports that the State
has a key role to play in the development process.
Two institutions which came to be established in the sixties included
the Insurance Corporation and the People's Bank, and the economic
justification for such institutions came from Dr. Kelegama who always
argued that when the private sector is not adequately developed the
State has a crucial role to play in economic development of the country.
In the period of 1965-67, Dr. Kelegama assisted U.B.Wanninayake in the
preparation of the budget of the period.
Dr. Kelegama, like most intellectuals of his generation, believed in
the role of the intellectual in the transformation of a society from a
state of economic underdevelopment and a traditional culture into a
modern society. According to Edward Shils, the intellectuals in new
States are the leaders who provide leadership for this kind of societal
transformation. A society which aspires to pass from a state of economic
underdevelopment needs an intellectual community with varied interests.
To be modern, a society must possess a community of intellectuals with
Dr. Kelegama was an intellectual who, while understanding the need to
import modern ideas for the development of the country, never discarded
the relevance and utility of certain institutions in the traditional
Dr. Kelegama, like many an intellectual of his generation, understood
the fact that in all underdeveloped countries the role of the
intellectual is central to the whole process of change because of the
middle class, which has been the vanguard of change and progress in
advanced countries, is in a rudimentary stage of development in these
The intellectuals in these countries will therefore have to take on
many of the functions performed by practical men of affairs in the
In this context, one can say that one of the first tasks of the
underdeveloped countries is to produce the right numbers and the right
kind of intellectuals for public administrative and executive functions
and also for truly intellectual activities. Sri Lankan Universities, in
my view, saw to the adequate production of intellectuals and the
question is whether they effectively performed the various functions
that strictly belonged to the intellectuals.
Dr. Kelegama, in the initial period of his career as a young
economist at the newly-established Central Bank of Ceylon, pioneered
research writing from the point of view of the need to formulate public
policy in the relevant field.
His two articles on the Kandyan Peasantry Problem, which appeared in
1953 in the Ceylon Economist, openly criticised certain aspects of the
Kandyan Peasantry Commission Report; one important criticism was that
the Kandyan Peasantry Commission, though its primary focus was on the
Central and Uva Provinces, failed to examine the problem of the
peasantry in all traditional Kandyan areas.
It would be useful at this stage to quote Dr. Kelegama on this
question and his comments on the Kandyan Peasantry Commission Report
amply demonstrated the extent to which he was interested in the
emancipation of the Kandyan peasantry who were dispossessed of their
lands due to the establishment of plantations and their expansion in the
His major criticism of the Kandyan Peasantry Commission - the very
composition of the Commission - was that it comprised of lawyers instead
of economists. Dr. Kelegama, making his critical remarks on the Kandyan
Peasantry Commission and its recommendations, stated that : 'it was
shown how layers upon layers of injustices and exploitation had been
piled up through decades giving rise in the Kandyan provinces to a
situation which is intellectually indefensible and ethically wrong.
Now comes the more difficult task of solving the problem. What should
we do to rehabilitate the Kandyan peasantry? The Kandyan Peasantry
Commission has made a large number of recommendations but they touch
only the fringe of the problem. This is because of the recommendations
were made by lawyers instead of economists. It is rather surprising that
a Commission appointed to investigate into an economic problem did not
contain a single economist. No wonder the Commission has failed to grasp
the implications of the problem'.
Such criticism, in the end, resulted in the creation of
administrative institutions such as the Kandyan Peasantry Rehabilitation
Department, which, in the last three decades, had made a contribution to
the economic and social improvement in the Kandyan areas.
Dr. Kelegama, in the course of his study of the Report of the Kandyan
Peasantry Commission, pointed out the major flaw of this Commission
which, despite all its deficiencies, produced a good report. Dr.
Kelegama, referring to those deficiencies and weaknesses in the Report
wrote that: 'the so-called Kandyan Peasantry Commission surveyed only
four districts; it has excluded five districts where there are more
Kandyan peasants than in the former four from its scope.
Then the Commission has done only 'half' the work, and 'things done
by halves are never done right'. The Commission should realize that the
rehabilitation of the peasantry in the Central Province and Uva will
only solve half the problem. The Kandyan peasantry is by no means
confined to Central province and Uva only'.
It was in this context he emphasized the need of a plan to
rehabilitate all the Kandyan peasants, and it was perhaps this kind of
criticism which led to the extension of rehabilitation activities to
cover certain other districts as well. Yet another point which he
emphasized was the need of a development plan to cover the whole
It was his view that the rehabilitation of the Kandyan peasantry
needs to be integrated into an overall economic development plan. He
concluded his article on the Kandyan peasantry problem with some
prophetic words relating to future economic policy in this country, and
it is therefore worth quoting to prove the point that Dr. Kelegama was
more an economic policy-maker than a mere researcher.
The following are his prophetic words: "An overall plan to provide
economic holdings, by consolidation and distribution of estates, reform
land tenure and most important of all - industrialization to take away
the surplus population away from the land is what is required. Ceylon's
agrarian structure cannot support the increasing population; moreover,
agriculture cannot develop without industrialization. Rural Development
Societies or Cooperatives are no remedy, to the Kandyan peasantry
Such comments were made in the early fifties, and as he expected,
several important changes took place in the area of public policy in the
last several decades. They took place as a result of such intellectual
intervention by committed economists of the calibre of Dr. Kelegama.
It was through the journal: Ceylon Economist, of the Ceylon Economic
Association that Dr. Kelegama tried to influence the decision-makers to
adopt development policies for the benefit of the people. It was through
Ceylon Economist - probably at the behest of Dr. Kelegama - that an
attempt was made to provide a set of economic policies for centre-left
political parties based on their historical foundations of and the
concept of democratic socialism.
His short spell as the Professor of Economics at the University of
Kelaniya was again an innovative period in his professional and economic
career. There was a school of thought in this country in the fifties
that Economics cannot be taught in Sinhala, and Dr.Kelegama was one who
disagreed with this view and pioneered the teaching of Economics in
There were many others at the University of Peradeniya who pioneered
the teaching of Economics in Sinhala and they included stalwarts such as
H.A.De. S. Gunasekera, I.D.S.Weerawardene, F.R.Jayasuriya, A.V.de S.
Indraratna and B. Hewavitharana. They were the leading economists who,
through contributions to the Ceylon Economist, gave some kind of
guidance to the formulation of policy in the area of economic and social
The impact of such intellectual activity, including public
policy-oriented economic and social research, had a major impact on the
formulation and implementation of public policy in the period of office
of the UF Government in 1970-77.
Dr. Kelegama was appointed as the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry
of Internal and External Trade, and the Minister-in-Charge of the
subject was T.B.Illangaratne who looked at issues from the point of view
of the ordinary masses.
Several important policy initiatives were taken during this period to
expand the public sector in the area of commerce and trade; it was true
that some of the ideas emanated from Dr.Kelegama who believed in the
role of the State as an instrument of economic development in the
underdeveloped countries. Dr. Kelegama also got several opportunities to
serve in a number of international organisations such as UNCTAD, FAO and
ESCAP as an economic consultant. All this showed that Dr. Kelegama too
had a reputation as an internationally recognized economist.
The traditional University structure, which came into existence in
the early fifties, reached its optimum level of development, and this
required a change in the system of higher education in the country. It
was in response to this change that a decision was taken in 1994 to
establish a provincial structure of Universities with a view to
accelerating the economic, social and cultural development of the
It was in this context that the University of Rajarata was
established at the seat of the ancient civilization, and the appointment
of Dr. Kelegama as its first Chancellor was unique as such a University
needed the intellectual guidance of an intellectual-cum-administrator of
the calibre of Dr. Kelegama. In addition to this kind of assignment, he,
as a humanist, played a key role in the Cancer Society and Sahanaya for
many years, and these two institutions were two leading humanitarian
organizations in the country.
This tribute to one of the outstanding intellectuals of this country
needs to be concluded with a discussion of his intellectual attainments
during a professional career running to more that half a century. It was
very unfortunate that his intellectual capabilities were not made use of
by the regime which came to power in 1994; his open hostility to some of
its wrong policies probably hurt the all-knowing experts of omniscience
who ran the economy during the period.
Dr. Kelegama belonged to the older generation of economists who were
influenced by the Fabian School of Socialism and Keynesian Economics;
Kelegama, like many of his contemporaries, stood at the centre-left of
the political spectrum in his economic thinking.
It was known that the leading British intellectuals of the period
were attracted to Fabianism which, in fact, was based 'inevitability of
gradualism', and it was on the basis of this philosophy that economic
and social policies were introduced with a view to achieving democratic
socialism - or the extension of the Welfare State.
Throughout his professional career, Dr. Kelegama remained loyal to
his intellectual committments, and the numerous articles which he wrote
under the pen-name "Kanes" on various current topics, showed that a
country like that of Sri Lanka, despite all pressures, should not adopt
a totally open-market economy model as the country still lacked a strong
supply base and domestic capabilities.
He, therefore, advocated the mixed economy model in the period of
transition till a strong supply base and domestic capabilities were
adequately developed in Sri Lanka.
It was his belief that the Government-initiated fiscal stimulus based
on the Keynesian formula was necessary to develop the supply potential
and domestic capabilities in the country. In other words, Dr. Kelegama,
with his own perceptions on the global economic scenario, gave an
alternative viewpoint to that of ardent advocates of a total free market
economy who argued that with a totally open market economy, the supply
base and domestic capabilities will automatically develop with minimum
He was able to articulate his position on this matter in his weekly
column to the Sunday Island, and those articles, in my view, were loaded
with various policy prescriptions.
In paying a tribute to this economist, one must say that here was an
intellectual who, though had an exposure to the Western world and the
Western-oriented economic prescriptions, always thought in terms of the
needs of the country rather than to look at them from the point of view
of foreign theories.
In that sense, he was an intellectual who derived inspiration from
the national heritage of the country, and also provided inspiration to
the younger generation to think always in terms of the basic needs of
the poor people of the country.
Harold Laski, in Faith, Reason and Civilization, wrote that: " the
intellectual is a citizen as well as a private person and that the
literature of an age will never be helpful to that age, will rarely,
even, be great literature, if the intellectual turns his back upon the
outstanding problems it confronts". Dr. Kelegama truly fell into this
mould of the modern intellectual.