Alternatives to Political SystemsPeople SystemsVillage Development

Letters from Sri Lanka – Does Sarvodaya Hold the Secrets to Systemic Change?

Note: Despite the title’s preamble, I’m no longer actually in Sri Lanka. Over the next weeks I’ll be writing a few posts on my discoveries there from notes and recordings, and will keep the ‘Letters from Sri Lanka’ label going to ensure these posts are easy to spot and search for. As I do so, I would also invite people that have had their own experiences with the Sarvodaya network, and who may have observations that they think I should be aware of, to send these to me [editor (at)] as the more viewpoints the better as we examine potential solutions.

Sri Lanka is a little smaller in land area than Ireland, but with five times the
population density. Millions of people in more than one third of Sri Lanka’s
villages are involved in what is effectively a large scale, non-violent,
bottom-up, democratic revolution – the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement

All photographs Copyright © Craig Mackintosh

Shramadana – a Gift of Labour

In 1958 a village of Rodiya social outcastes living in the tropical backwoods of Sri Lanka became the target of an attempt by concerned citizens to reach out and improve their lot. Villagers lived in ramshackled mud and daub houses, wore little or nothing in the way of clothing, and ate by plucking wild yams and leaves, hunting in the forest and from begging in neighbouring villages. These were Sri Lanka’s ‘untouchables’.

Normally regarded as an anathema, teachers and students from several schools volunteered their time and labour for a joint effort. Wells and latrines were dug, houses were improved, land was cleared for cultivation and gardens were planted, and instructional programs were held to teach the people about the importance of sanitation, education and self-employment (rather than begging). Rodiya children were even given their first ever haircuts. In the evenings volunteers joined with the Rodiya in their rousing campfire songs and dances.

The organiser of the event, the late Mr. D.A. Abeysekera – who worked for the Sri Lankan Department of Rural Development and had been put in charge of finding solutions for the ‘backwards’ communities of Sri Lanka – had coined the term Shramadana, meaning ‘gift of labour’, to describe and market this work to those who might help through their time or donations. The village, called Kathaluwa, was to be the first of many to receive this gift of shared labour.

Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne and the Birth of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement

Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, founder of the
Sarvodaya Shramadana movement

Among the teachers involved was Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne, a young high school teacher at Nalanda College in the capital of Colombo. He lead forty students and 12 teachers from his college to participate – in what he regarded as an ‘educational experiment’. This ‘experiment’, and its success, was repeated in other villages, evolving separately from the Department of Rural Development over the next couple of years, and resulting in the formation of what would ultimately become the largest development organisation in Sri Lanka – the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement. Within a few years, hundreds of schools were organising Shramadana camps.

Today, of the 38,000 villages in Sri Lanka, more than 15,000 of them belong to the Sarvodaya Shramadana network. The central thrust of Sarvodaya targets a no poverty, no affluence ideal – and, a society that holds the health of their psychological and physical environment as their highest agreed priority. The organisation is based on self-governance and works towards every village becoming its own ‘village republic’.

Talking to the living legend was easier than I anticipated. Dr. Ariyaratne welcomed me with a warm and relaxed handshake and smile, and simply said, "Come" – in the manner and tone one might use for an old friend – motioning me to follow his shuffle upstairs, to the quiet of his library.

This quiet-spoken 77 year old has been the recipient of numerous national and international honors, including the Sri Lankabhimanya, the highest National Honour of Sri Lanka, the Gandhi Peace Prize, the Niwano Peace Prize, the King Beaudoin Award, and many more. Over the years the popular support he has engendered has, conversely, also made him the target of political envy, malice and conniving. With more than a third of the populace supporting his ideals he has endured intimidation, multiple death threats and officials sidling for his political endorsement. This ‘little brown man’, as they used to say of Gandhi, the great peace and democracy activist he is often likened to, has rubbed shoulders with world leaders and destitute unknowns; he has calmed angry crowds and mediated conflicts; and he has lead massive peace meditations, with almost 650,000 people from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds converging at one event alone – making them perhaps the largest the world has ever known.

Yet, as I sat down, my mind was filled with other thoughts.

The emblem of Sarvodaya

I had spent the preceding two weeks rushing from facet to facet of Sri Lanka’s largest people’s movement – meeting dozens of people from diverse areas within its broad sphere of operation. Living outside of Sri Lanka, you may not have heard of Dr. Ariyaratne or the movement he founded fifty years ago, but I doubt there would be a soul in Sri Lanka who hasn’t. Indeed, as I travelled the island state, I found doors opening and post-civil war security being relaxed when people learned I was a guest of the Sarvodaya family. Of the twenty million people living in the teardrop-shaped nation, it is estimated that around eleven million are benefitting from its work.

And, before arriving to Sri Lanka, I came from a background of having studied, rather earnestly, world issues over the previous few years – particularly the multitude of environmental, energy, economic and political problems that are converging upon the human race. I knew that if petroleum man was to avoid a deadly collision with the future, and extinction, and if our industrialised, consumption-based society was to transform into a more sustainable form, then systemic change was essential, and imminent. Stratified society had to become more equitable; competition and extraction had to give way to cooperation and nurturing; large scale, specialised industry and centralised economies had to transition to diverse, small scale, relocalised, community-centric interdependencies; government dependency had to be replaced with individual action and village scale resilience.

The Sarvodaya movement came to sit on my horizon, shimmering mirage-like on the far side of a desolate expanse. Did Sarvodaya hold the secrets to this systemic change? Or, being devil’s advocate here, did Sarvodaya threaten us with more of the same – taking impoverished but low carbon millions, helping them onto their feet, just to see them reach out for the very lifestyles from which we’re now trying to retreat?

Growing out of shallow, muddy waters across the country, the ‘Nil Mahanel’,
a blue water lily, is a symbol of truth, purity and discipline to Buddhists and
is the national flower of Sri Lanka. The Sarovodaya logo (above left),
an opening lotus flower before the rising sun, is steeped in this same
Buddhist symbolism.

Either way, the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement is probably the largest participatory democracy movement on the planet. Is it perfect – like the spotless lotus that emerges, unsoiled, from the murky shallows of the world to represent the organisation? Perhaps not, but I think Sarvodaya’s structure, goals and methods will speak volumes to many a Permaculturist’s heart – those seeking patterns to observe for their own ‘back yard’; those seeking to rebuild the ‘invisible structures’ permaculturists don’t talk enough about – the community constructs that have been progressively dismantled over the last several generations.

Continue to Part II: Letters from Sri Lanka – The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, and the Ten Basic Needs



  1. Very interesting, and heartening. Sadly, probably why we haven’t heard much about it. This is exactly the type of thing that makes the powers that be quake in thier $1000 loafers. It is beautiful to see a movement that isn’t about seizing power but about distributing it at a local level, the only place where it is really relevant. I am looking forward to hearing more about it.

  2. I dont know whether this would be the correct place to inform the following, but this movement has done so much that I am sure this will help
    My gift of effort is in the legal field. Act No 21 of 1998 materially changes the way villages, the poor, the displaced and all of us will own land in the future. Extremely important legislation dissemination of the knowledge is important for all who want to own land in Sri Lanka. All of us have uncertainty of land laws and now land is fraudulently taken away by fraudsters villagers suffer a lot because the legal process is expensive. this is a good opportunity but there is hardly support to spread the knowledge. I have taken leave of my profession to serve , if interested plese write to my e mail.
    Thank you

    Attorney at Law- Member Committee appointed by Ministry of Justice for the Title Regsitrtaion Act
    Member Terra Institute USA

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