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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 stages.

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 of Economics.

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 its protagonists.

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 modern ideas.

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 society.

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 countries.

The intellectuals in these countries will therefore have to take on many of the functions performed by practical men of affairs in the developed countries.

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 19th century.

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 country.

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 problem".

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 Sinhala.

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 development.

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 various provinces.

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 State intervention.

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.

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