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Speeches at the Conference

Address by Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne, General Secretary, Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, Sri Lanka

As a leader of a people’s movement in Sri Lanka inspired by the ideals promoted by Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, I consider it a singular honor to have been invited to speak at this Session on “Inclusive democracy and people’s empowerment” on the occasion of commemorating the 125th Birth Anniversary of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

I represent the SarvodayaShramadana Movement, Sri Lanka’s largest non-governmental grass roots development organization. Since its inception in the late 1950s, Sarvodaya has promoted a holistic development model based on participatory democracy and self-reliance and has reached over 15,000 village communities covering the entire country including the Northern and Eastern Provinces affected by the violent internal strife that engulfed the country for nearly 3 decades. Sarvodaya’s unwavering commitment to non-violence and multi-ethnic inclusiveness has earned the respect of all communities living in Sri Lanka

Pandit Nehru is a well-known and respected personality in Sri Lanka. He first visited Sri Lanka in 1932. When we were school children we have heard the famous story of Pandit Nehru spending time in deep contemplation all by himself at the Samadhi Buddha statue in the sacred city of Anuradhpura during that visit. PanditNerhu visited Sri Lanka again in May 1956, this time as the Prime Minister of India when the country commemorated the Buddha Jayanthi Year, the 2500th anniversary of the passing away (Parinibbhana) of Buddha (543 BC). Prime Minister Nehru was accompanied by Shrimathi Indira Gandhi. The highlight of his stay was the visit to Anuradhapura, which he did the following day, travelling by a special train. Pandit Nehru visited the Samadhi Buddha statueagain and had recalled his previous visit and had told that Samadhi Buddha statue had brought him solace when he was in prison.

How do we as a people’s movement from a neighboring country, connect to the Legacy of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru today?

As you all know, my country Sri Lanka was also under the British colonial rule. After centuries of monarchies and colonialism, Sri Lankans were privileged to have received universal franchise in 1931, long before many other countries in the South-Asian region. Though the scope was limited, this opened up space for Sri Lankan citizens to vote and elect representatives to govern them. A number of constitutional reforms1 expanded the scope of governance and the number of elected representatives at different levels of governance2. But ‘power’ under this representative democracy has always been concentrated among and enjoyed by a few at the top, who belong to Sinhalese and Tamil ethnicities. The role of the both Sinhalese and Tamil privileged political leaders have been subsequently criticized and challenged by the radical youth of both ethnicities, who have been frustrated by lack of space to participate in to governance process, lack of access to education and other basic needs and widespread unemployment and underemployment. The Sinhalese youth uprising in 1971 and 1989, and the Tamil youth uprising in 1983 which eventually ended up as a full-scale war, destroyed thousands of human lives and opportunities of development and prosperity as a nation.

1 Donoughmour Constitution (1931), Soulbury Constitution (1947), Republic Constitution (1972), Constitution of Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (1978), the 13th amendment to the Constitution of 1978 in 1987

The engagement of grassroots communities in governance as envisaged by great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru, has never progressed in the same scale or speed, even after the independence in 1948. There have been a few failed attempts3, but unfortunately, Sri Lanka presently lies behind countries in the region in creating and practicing a people-centered governance system that is transparent and accountable to the public, especially to the people at the grassroots. Some argue of the existence of such space due to the numerous elections that are held through out each year4, but it has been noted that fewer and fewer people are interested in voting in elections since they do not feel confident that they are part of the governance system.

Amongst many important gifts that Pundit Nehru has given to the world, is the shining example of how true democracy can work in a country having vast social, economic and cultural diversity - how to create unity in diversity, how to build a secular state in a highly religious population, how to transcend communal politics etc.

From the Sarvodaya’s perspective, inclusive democracy goes beyond the conventional definition. It has to create spaces, opportunities and avenues for the full engagement of people of all ages, ethnicity, religious traditions, social strata in exercising their democratic rights and freedoms.

We have been working very hard to create grass roots democratic institutions throughout the country. Unlike in India, we do not yet have “panchayat” like system where power is devolved to smaller geographic units – the villages. However, we have created village level legal bodies known as SarvodayaShramadana Societies under the existing state legal enactments. Functioning under a constitution where they elect their own officers to manage village affairs, these independent bodies now numbering over 5000, have demonstrated that they could effectively plan and implement various social and economic interventions to meet their basic needs whilst preserving age old spiritual and cultural values. The external support that has been channeled to these largely poverty stricken communities have contributed to their own self-reliance and sustainability of their actions rather than making them dependent on dole outs.

2 The Parliament (225 members); Provincial Councils (427 members); Local Government bodies (~4,000 members)
3 Village Council Ordinance in 1871, District Development Council and Rural Development Societies in 1970s
4 Presidential elections; General election; Provincial Council elections; Local Authority elections

This we call “evolution from below”. As quoted in Prof.AdityaMukherjee’s paper (p.10), emphasizing the role of local village level self-governing cooperative institutions Pandu Nehru had said;

“I feel more and more that we must function more from below than from the top. The top is important of course and in the modern world a large measure of centralization is inevitable. Yet, too much centralization means decay at the roots and ultimately a withering of the branches and leaves and flowers. Therefore we have to encourage these basic organs in the villages”.

Thus whilst we help evolve democratic structures and practices from below, Sarvodaya has also initiated a nation-wide program known as Deshodaya (national-reawakening) to affect a change in the political consciousness of our people and thereby evolve a culture of consensual politics based on maximum possible devolution of power and resources. Our ultimate objective is to create evolve a governance system based on the concept of “gram-swaraj” (village self-governance) building on the strong foundation laid through the villages level SarvodayaShramadana Societies. Deshodaya seeks to build horizontal networks among village communities to take political responsibility for shaping their future by engaging with state authorities. These networks are trained to organize around sound policy initiatives, and to respond critically and practically to Government initiatives. This nation-wide program of raising the political consciousness and policy engagement among village communities is encapsulated in the term “Deshodaya”.

Today our world is faced with enormous challenges – social, economic, political and environmental. Sectarian violence and religious extremism are also spreading at an alarming pace.

There are two dangerous trends in the party and power political systems in our part of the world. They are communal/sectarian politics and patronage politics.

One of the sacred democratic values that we cherished over decades after colonial rule is seeing our diversities as a resource and a strength. Democratic institutions were created on this important premise. Pandit Nehru was an ardent champion of a secular State. Today, we see our political leaders exploiting religious, ethnic and other social and cultural differences to retain or gain power. As a result, new tensions are created between communities who have lived side by side in great harmony and coexistence for decades. What is known as “identity politics” now dominate the national polity of some of our countries.

Secondly, on patronage politics -main stream party political machinery continues to bombard the population with materialistic goodies that satisfy the sensual desires of the masses and thereby making them blind to the dire problems affecting their lives at individual, family and community levels. Party political maneuvering has cleverly made the disillusioned masses to depend heavily on the center gradually to the extent of weakening the periphery and even killing the slightest trace of self-reliance found in community life at village level. Therefore, inclusive democracy is not only about empowering the masses to engage in the electoral process as informed voters but it is also about creating and nurturing a democratic culture at the village level that influences the community life beyond an election.

I also like to refer to Prof.Aditya’s reference to another important dimension of democracy articulated by Pandit Nehru.

“If poverty and low standards continue, for all its fine institutions and ideals, ceases to be a liberating force. It must therefore aim continuously at the eradication of poverty… in other words, political democracy is not enough. It must develop into economic democracy also”.

The grass roots community based organizations which I referred to earlier are also involved in various economic empowerment programs including micro-finance, enterprise development and improving financial literacy amongst the village people. Again, all decisions are taken by the elected village society officials or committees. We see the validity of such an integrated and holistic approach in ensuring sustainability and equity in distribution of wealth and resources. Pandit Nehru was absolutely correct when he emphasized the need to develop “economic democracy” along with political democracy.

Therefore, Pandit Nehru’sprinciples and practices are much more relevant today than more than ever before. Let’s recommit ourselves to build a new world order based on Neruvian values and let’s start it from South Asia.