11 April 2014

How about celebrating the ’78 Revolution?

Ask those interested in Sri Lankan history what the year 1978 signifies and 9 out of 10 will say something about the 2nd Republican Constitution, that pernicious document authored by JRJ that is largely to blame for most of our governance problems over the past three deacdes.  This constitution came around the time that J.R. Jayewardene famously said ‘let the robber barons come’.  In other words he was telling the rich, powerful and unscrupulous of the world that the resources of this country was theirs to plunder and the labour theirs to exploit.  The year 1978 marked the streamlining of laws, regulations and the processes of making and breaking laws to facilitate the furthering of capital interests. 
The visionary as a young man

While all this took place with pomp, pageantry and salutation, something else was happening in a small village called Walgama, close to Rambukkana.  A thrift and credit cooperative society was undergoing change.  There were changes made in the by-laws, in the orientation and thinking of this unknown and in every sense of the word marginal village-level organization.   Most importantly, a young man, then just 36, decided that the ‘revitalized’ model was replicable through the length and breadth of the country. 

Those who were busy making constitutions and making things easy for robber barons would not have known about these thrift and credit cooperative societies or about their potentials.  They had been around since the year 1906. Isolated bodies, used by the British to dish out rations during times of war, these societies went from year to year, decade to decade, changing leaders now and then but never really doing anything extraordinary apart from existing of course.  

You will find this logo in all parts of the island

The young man, Podi Appuhamy Kiriwandeniya, was earlier an enthusiastic campaigner of the Sarvodaya Movement and then a ‘tank-builder’ of sorts along with Upali Senanayake working for an organization called ‘Jathika Urumaya’.  His experience in the Walgama sanasa samithiya had taught him that it is possible and necessary for communities to recognize their resource endowment, learn thrift, adhere to cooperative principles and find ways of keeping community-wealth within the community itself.  He realized that this was one way in which capital could be accumulated and bargaining power enhanced even in a political and economic climate that was terribly skewed against the lower classes, the farmers, and those in rural areas.

At that time there had been some 800 Sanasa societies in Sri Lanka.  He went around the country, speaking to the leaders of such societies, discussing options for improvement.  In August that year, there was a landmark event that the media missed (in retrospect, fortuitously, one can say).  A convention.  A coming together of leaders, most over 60 or 70 years old to discuss the model, learn from one another and blaze a path that could lead to a different kind of future.  Kiriwandeniya had a simple message: ‘We modernized the Walgama Sanasa Samithiya. Take a look and tell us what you think.’

Kiriwandeniya with his family and 5 daughters

There was nothing magical about it.  This was microfinance long before that term entered the development dictionary.  It was a model waiting for its cobwebs to be cleared.  It was a model that was home-grown and based on ancient principles of thrift.  These were microfinance institutions that already had a 60 year old history.  Informally, for centuries before that, our people had developed various methodologies pertaining to thrift and credit.  There was ‘seettu’ long before we heard of ‘revolving funds’.  There was ‘miti-haal’, a system of putting aside one fistful of rice each time a meal was cooked; it was collected separately and after some time you would have a bagful of ‘extra’ rice.  Most importantly, SANASA, the pioneering microfinance outfit in Sri Lanka had its roots in and was inspired by cooperatives.  Equally important, this meant that it neither objected to nor was overawed by either the open economy or the ‘socialist’ and more ‘closed’ model it had replaced in 1977-78. 

After a little over a decade Bank has now over 75 branches

SANASA was like the soot-laden golden urn of the Serivanija Jathaka. It was waiting to be discovered.  That’s what Kiriwandeniya did.  He found a society in Walgama, explored it, discovered potential and went all over the country either revitalizing existing SANASA societies or setting up new ones.   It was not about money alone.  These societies, courtesy the cooperative principles they were founded on, the ethics associated with thrift and the motivation to keep wealth within the community, served to protect things material and cultural that the robber barons would have otherwise destroyed as a natural consequent of plundering.

Today there are some 8000 plus SANASA Primary Societies, over 1000 of which are financially stronger than most branches of established commercial banks.  There are several hundred thousand members linked to the SANASA Movement. The Movement itself has spawned a bank, an insurance company and is currently pioneering the development of ‘micro justice’.

Today there are many NGOs and CBOs ‘doing microfinance’ are actually doing SANASA-like things.  That’s model-replication.  That is what revolutions do. 

In 1978 there was a ‘revolution’. That’s JRJ’s ‘revolution’, some would say.  There was a lot of noise.  The country was turned around, some said.  Turned upside down, others counter.  Through it all, there grew from strength to strength a movement that defied tendencies to extract from our villages and villagers assets, money and labour, a social force that resisted processes that sought to turn people into consumers, an organization that protected assets and made it possible for the most humble people to become owners of their destiny. 

And it all began in 1978.  There was a young man, P.A. Kiriwandeniya.  He had vision.  He had an idea.  He shared it.  There was a coming together of disparate entities.  They made a revolution.  Not one drop of blood was shed.  

Today, the SANASA Movement celebrates the 32nd anniversary of the Walgama Convention. I doubt many will make a song and dance about it.  Maybe this is a good thing.  Real revolutions are not made with slogan and banner.  They are alive.  On the ground. In people’s lives. Their work. Their communities. 

Postscript: The modest training center set up in a 50 acre plot of land off Kegalle has now developed into a fully fledged degree awarding institution recognized by the University Grants Commission. Under Kiriwandeniya's direction a clapped out rubber estate has been transformed into one of the most beautiful campuses in the island.

[Originally published in the Daily News in July 2010]



Dulan de Silva said...

Thanks interesting. Mr.Kiriwandeniya did indeed make a major contribution to financial and social empowerment of villagers by reviving the TCCS movement . Hats off