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Does Sarvodaya Hold the Secrets to Systemic Change?

by Craig Mackintosh, permaculture.org.au, Sunday, September 13, 2009

The emblem of Sarvodaya

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

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.

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.

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

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?

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.

[Selection from Part II of the series]

Sarvodaya – ‘Everyone Wakes Up’

The word Sarvodaya, originally coined by Mohandas Gandhi from two Sanskrit roots – sarva (all) and udaya (uplift) – meant ‘universal uplift’, or ‘progress/welfare of all’. Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne also redefined it to reflect the Buddhist ideal – becoming ‘the awakening of all’, or (my preference) ‘everyone wakes up‘.

As we’ve already shared, Shramadana means ‘gift of labour’ or to ‘donate effort’. So, the combined terms essentially become ‘the awakening of all through shared labour’. Implicit in this statement are the concepts of cooperation, service, moderation, restraint and non-violence – rather than the competition, greed and excess encouraged by western policies, industry and media, and the plundering facilitated through these and their military.

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement Takes the Development Road Less Travelled

As mentioned, the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement evolved out of the work of Sri Lanka’s Department of Rural Development in the late 1950s. But, why did Ariyaratne venture to start an entirely new movement, rather than aligning with the government’s development arm and building on that instead? Some have questioned the motives of Ariyaratne over this move – going so far as to consider it pure, manipulative, self-aggrandisement. His most outspoken critics state that the growth of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has come at the expense of the Department of Rural Development, which, they propose, would have done the work as well or better.

But, I think, the question to ask is what would be the ultimate aim of each?

Sitting aside the coffee table in Ariyaratne’s library, I asked him to describe, in his own words, how the movement began. From this we may begin to comprehend his intent. You see, while both groups were seeking to improve the lives of their ‘wards’, the ultimate destination of development was likely quite different – purely because their understanding of what ‘development’ was weren’t necessarily the same.

I was thoroughly dissatisfied with the system of education and the kind of education we were giving our students. It was classroom confined, textbook oriented – the ultimate objective only passing examinations…. There was no totality of approach, to awaken the personality of the student to the fullest. So total personality awakening was absent from that education system. And, more than the educational philosophers, the educational beaurocrats were running the whole show. So the Sarvodaya movement began as a response to that situation.

We took students into rural areas, got them to live with village people and work with village people, and this went on as a series of educational extension camps in villages. – Interview with A.T. Ariyaratne, Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, 11 August 2009

Like Gandhi, Ariyaratne’s views on education were entirely holistic, and practical – he believed education should be targeting personal development, or awakening, and aiming at the individual being better able meet the circumstances of the environment within which he found himself.

The following statement from 2008 sums up his healthy views of what education really should be:

Education is totality of the methods and techniques adapted by the civilized society to bring about positive changes. – Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, delivered at the Sub-Regional Consultation Meeting on Development of Education for International Understanding Policy in South Asia, 4-6 September 2008, in Colombo, Sri Lanka

The aim and end result of education should be ‘positive changes’ for society. This contrasts to the conventional, generic trend of education within so-called ‘developed’ countries, which simply turns out production/consumption oriented drones for the captains of a centralised, corporate economy.

The schools and colleges are really a factory for turning out clerks for Government. – Gandhi

Ariyaratne explained further:

Together these students and teachers, along with their rural counterparts, and all members of the community – men, women and children – gifted their labor, know how, wealth and resources for the common well being of the village. New access roads, new village water reservoirs, new irrigation canals, wells, wattle and daub houses, preschools, community centres and even school buildings were built in these camps without any cost to the government. Here was an example of linking the school with the community and education merging with development.

The hidden potential of people’s strength for self reliance and community participation surfaced and people became less dependent on government and other external resources. A self-development initiative swept across these communities and adjacent villages which were at that time neglected by all governments. Governments at the time did not believe in people’s participation in their own self development. They promoted more dependence. – Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, delivered at the Sub-Regional Consultation Meeting on Development of Education for International Understanding Policy in South Asia, 4-6 September 2008, in Colombo, Sri Lanka

While governments aim for economic growth, globalised integration, so-called ‘trickle down’ economics, and, inevitably, more control – the Sarvodaya movement targets village scale self-reliance, cultural and economic equality and true bottom up democracy.

And, it must be noted here that, for Ariyaratne, village development and social improvement were not ends in themselves. The ultimate goal of the movement is Sarvodaya, or, awakening for all – it is the beginning, the end and the means of development. All here means the individual, the village, the country, and, ultimately, the entire world. Grounded in Buddhist values, this awakening, or enlightenment, is achieved through Shramadana – the selfless acts of sharing one’s labour – and through this, gaining empathy with one another’s experiences and sufferings.

The Ten Basic Needs

So while we were going on like that, quite accidentally, in one of the villages [was] an old traditional physician, who was basically a farmer. But, from his grandparents he inherited particular medicine for some things like cancer. So I happened to accidentally talk to him, in order to take a patient to him. Then we started talking about life, and he used for the first time I heard, these words ‘basic needs’.

He said, "If our basic needs are satisfied, what more do we need?"

That struck me very much, and I asked, "What’s your number one basic need?"

He said "Environment".

"What do you mean by environment?"

He said "The psychological and physical environment in which we live. It should be something that would not bring fear to us. We should feel comfortable in that psychological atmosphere. Similar with the physical environment." - Interview with A.T. Ariyaratne, Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, 11 August 2009

Ariyaratne and his colleagues then sought to find out what were the basic needs of villagers – asking them to list ten, in order of priority. After surveying 660 villagers, and averaging the results, they end up with the following list:

1. a clean and beautiful environment
2. an adequate supply of safe water
3. minimum requirements of clothing
4. a balanced diet
5. simple housing
6. basic health care
7. communication facilities
8. energy
9. total education related to life and living
10. cultural and spiritual needs

source: http://permaculture.org.au/2009/09/13/letters-from-sri-lanka-does-sarvodaya-hold-the-secrets-to-systemic-change/
source: http://permaculture.org.au/2009/09/21/letters-from-sri-lanka-the-sarvodaya-shramadana-movement-and-the-ten-basic-needs/

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Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa.
Buddha sāsana.m cira.m ti.t.thatu.