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Like Old Babi Achchi – Philip Gunawardana & the Making of Plans


Ananda Meegama, in this biography notes Philip’s ambitious program to revitalize the village economy, the need for accurate and detailed statistics, to enable a scientific basis for agricultural extension, and the importance of state farms and crop insurance.

Philip Gunawardana & the Making of Plans

“A plan cannot be made in a day, a few months or even one or 2 years… the first 5-Year Plan in India was in incubation for about 10 years; material was gathered by the Congress Party, books were written on the subject; and the vast literature that was produced on the first 5-Year Plan of the USSR, the Gosplan, was at the disposal of the people who were responsible for getting together the material and preparing that plan…We are ourselves are to blame to some extent…the Left parties who got up on platforms and talked a lot but seldom buckled down to producing anything worthwhile. If a plan was not produced we ourselves must share the blame, not the UNP and others only. For 20 long years, we were in a political field, we were in touch with the peasantry, we organized the workers, but we failed to study things carefully and produce a plan…” – Philip Gunawardana

Philip felt that we had to learn to industrialize by trial and error, like “old Babi Achchi” learning to ride a bicycle. He pointed to the English Left-Keynesians (like Joan Robinson) visiting China, who were “struck by the tremendous achievements of the People’s Republic’, and found ways to reconcile the economics of Keynes and Marx. (Between 1957-59, the Sri Lankan government invited foreign economists: John R Hicks, Nicholas Kaldor, Joan Robinson, Oskar Lange, John K Galbraith, Ursula Hicks and Gunnar Myrdal, to each write an article on our economy.)

Philip singled out the “rolling plan” suggested by Myrdal: “3 rolling plans functioning at the same time. You have a One-Year Plan, specific details worked out to the minutest part; then you have a 3-Year or a 5-Year Plan of which this One-Year Plan is a part…” Philip then elaborated on such a plan and the need for maneuverability.

“The trouble with plans”, biographer Meegama interjects, “was they tended to focus on investments and targets sometimes to the neglect of policies”. In Sri Lankan agriculture the reshaping of policy was all important. On how to rescue and strengthen the ande farmer. How to efficiently reform cooperatives to deliver credit to the cultivator, to prevent fragmentation of the plantations and finance the nationalization of the sterling plantation companies.

The author feels the Myrdal plan was more pragmatic than the USSR or Indian plans that laid down fixed investment schedules for 5 years and allowed little room for delays, errors, shortages.

Myrdal felt the crucial factor was not foreign aid or economics but social discipline of the masses. Philip’s plans for rural development laid “heavy stress on people’s organizationscultivation committees and cooperatives”. He wanted the people to help themselves; the government could only assist in developing and building the institutional framework. Foreign exchange had to be utilized properly to buy capital goods, equipment for development needs, rather than waste it in buying consumer articles.

In July 1958, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food brought out a detailed plan for peasant and plantation agriculture. Philip in debate noted, the PM had wished to set up Planning Committees in all ministries concerned with development. Philip also appointed a Committee to inquire into the fragmentation of tea and rubber plantations, which some local capitalists were eviscerating, selling factories as scrap to Pettah merchants and land by strips to speculators, throwing thousands out of work. The Committee was boycotted by the Treasury under the Minister of Finance, but Philip still pushed an Anti-Fragmentation Bill through parliament in December 1957.

Meegama’s chapter on the Plan notes Philip’s ambitious program to revitalize the village economy, the need for accurate and detailed statistics, to enable a scientific basis for agricultural extension, and the importance of state farms and crop insurance.

It also provides detailed sketches about Philip’s contributions to rubber replanting, coconut industry, rehabilitating tea lands, nationalization of the sterling companies, his successful promotion of potato growing in Nuwara Eliya, large-scale sugar cane production in Kantalai, and other crops like pineapple, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, and the production and marketing of milk. The chapter ends with the centrepiece  of the plan, to provide security of tenure to the ande goviya and easy credit to the cultivator, through the famous Paddy Lands Bill and the Cooperative Development Bank Bill. An explanation of these, plus the toughest battles Philip would face, leads to the next crucial chapter: “Land to the Tiller – the Paddy Lands Act”.

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