Hector Kobbekaduwa remembered

by Dr. Dhanawardana Gamage

(September 19, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) One of the former Ministers of Agriculture (1971-1977), Mr. Hector Kobbekaduwa’s 25th death anniversary falls on 18th September. Various activities to pay statutory and public respect to his good deeds and virtues are specially held today. He is remembered in particular for his services towards the development of the agriculture, in particular to empower smallholder farmers in Sri Lanka by providing all sorts of institutional services and backup.

He was responsible for implementing two counts of land reform and he was able to revolutionize the land tenure system in this country without shedding a drop of blood. He found the need for land reform on the basis of many factors. One is the need to provide the land to the tiller. He found that the problem of rural poverty is the result, to a large extent, of rural landlessness and operation of uneconomic size land holdings. He also felt the need for redressing the injustice caused by the British Colonial Government on the Kandyan Peasantry by acquiring lands they used on customary basis for chenas and forest product collection to establish plantation estates. Most importantly, he envisioned that land reform was a sine-qua-non requirement if another youth insurrection was to be avoided. In his vision, he also saw that the land reform could provide land for collective or cooperative farming to solve youth’s unemployment problem.

He opened Agricultural Productivity Centres in practically every Village Council area and with branches of the Bank of Ceylon to provide production credit. Above were also to function as the village level institutions to settle disputes related to land, water and production. His idea to establish Agrarian Service Centres originated from the long felt need to serve the farmers within the village itself. These centres were to function as local institutions providing agricultural extension, credit, planting material, and agricultural equipment. All these steps were taken to strengthen the farming communities as self-sustaining units of production.

He established Janawasas on lands acquired under the land reform laws. Janavasas were increased from 18 in 1973 to 200 in a short period. The Janawasas were an experiment in collective ownership and self-management to optimize productivity. Total membership increased to 13,000 and they covered an extent of about 50,000 acres. The members of Janavasas were drawn from unemployed youth in the rural areas.

He also had many other foresights to improve the agricultural productivity through efficient use of existing natural resources in the country. For instance, he often aired his views about the need for use of underground water for increased production. In fact, he provided the Irrigation Department the necessary funds to test the feasibility of using tube wells for agricultural production. Ideas that he has originated those days have been put to test today and in use. As you all are aware, today the ground water is a major source of production of chillies and onion and variety of other crops.

One exemplary example of his vision of strong and self-sustaining farming communities is his attempts at establishing an Institute for socio-economic research on the smallholder farming sector in this country. He established the Agrarian Research and Training Centre (ARTI) in 1972 by realizing that institutional and structural causes are amongst the primary causes of under development in the smallholding sector. In a way he was the first Agricultural Minister who realized that impasse in the smallholding sector emanate from institutional causes than technological and natural constraints and acted to provide the farmers a voice by establishing ARTI. This institute is named today after him and his services.

Many of us remember that he became the Minister of Agriculture when the whole world faced a shortage in food production between 1972 and 1974 due to a prolonged drought that hit in particular the poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. He was right behind the food production campaign in the early 1970s and his efforts provided a cushioning effect on our people.

Mr. Kobbekaduwa is remembered not only for his services within a short time span in the agriculture and agrarian field, but also for his vision for the smallholder farming sector at the time and many virtues as a politician like his humanistic disposition towards all the people, kindness, justice, openness and fairness. It is possible that he partly inherited these noble characteristics from his parents. His father, a physician in western medicine used to provide his services, free of charge. Before he became a politician, following his father’s footpath young Mr Kobbekaduwa practicing as an advocate served the poor people at the Kandy courts without charging any fees. He probably opted for politics so that he had a better arena to fight for social justice. He never harassed his political opponents in implementation of the land reform law.
- Sri Lanka Guardian