Sinhalese - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence agriculture, supplemented by marginal employment in service-related occupations and government employment, characterizes the economic life of most rural Sinhalese villagers. Rice holdings are small and marginally economic at best. Plowing is often done with water buffalo; tractors are numerous but more often used for light transport. Seed is sown and the young shoots are transplanted by hand; harvesting and threshing are also done manually. "Green revolution" hybrids are widely used but are underfertilized. Additional subsistence food crops include fruit (jackfruit, breadfruit, and coconut) , vegetables, and manioc, which has become a significant staple-of-last-recourse for the poor. Domestic animals include cattle, buffalo, goats, sheep, chickens, and pigs. There is significant nonplantation, as well as village-based cashcrop activity, especially in the highlands, that produces chilies and other spices, poultry and eggs, goats, honey, herbs employed in Ayurvedic medicine, onions, tomatoes, pulses, cereals, vegetables, ganja (marijuana), and potatoes. A major supplement to the village economy is direct government income for schoolteachers and village officials. Low Country Sinhalese achieved early prominence in coconut, rubber, and low-elevation tea plantation agriculture as well as trade and light mining. Marginal employment is available for many in tea, rubber, and coconut processing.

Industrial Arts. The classical Sinhalese achieved remarkable feats in irrigation engineering, but the technology was lost in the collapse of the dry zone civilizations and Sinhalese today show little interest in engineering, mathematics, or Science, preferring liberal arts subjects. "Hands-on" technical work is stigmatized by linkages to low-caste occupations, serving to inhibit children's hobbies, vocational education, and technological literacy, while Western imports have all but wiped out traditional arts and crafts. Efforts to industrialize Sri Lanka have met with little success, and the country shows one of the lowest rates of industrial growth of any South Asian country since its independence. Severe and growing unemployment and landlessness, particularly among rural youth, has contributed to the JVP youth militancy.

Trade. Apart from the prevalence of subsistence agriculture, the Sri Lankan rural economy is almost completely cashbased, with barter and reciprocity restricted to kin-group transactions. Village boutiques involve villagers in debt that frequently results in an impecunious farmer becoming little more than a tenant on his own land; village shopowners are thus able to amass large landholdings. Shops in town sell additional consumer items, and weekly village markets provide marginal economic niches for itinerant traders and Village cash-crop agriculturalists. Transport is provided by bullock carts, tractors pulling flatbed trailers, old automobiles, and light trucks. Internal trade, foreign investment, tourism, and economic growth are all casualties of the Tamil rebellion and the JVP insurgency.

Division of Labor. Traditional Sinhalese society is male-dominated and patriarchal, with a strong division of labor by sex and a tendency to stigmatize female roles (women are considered to be ritually impure at times owing to the "pollution" of puberty, childbirth, and menstruation). Men are responsible for the provision of food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities, while women prepare food and care for Children. Traditionally, a family lost status if it permitted its women to engage in extradomestic economic roles, such as menial agricultural labor or cash-crop marketing. Men and women led separate lives aside from the convergence brought about by their mutual obligations. The entry of women into higher education and the professions is beginning to alter this pattern.


Land Tenure. Traditionally the descendants of the village founder owned inheritable (but not marketable) shares ( panku ) of the village paddy lands. The actual holdings were sensitively adjusted to suit water availability and to reduce inequities in water distribution; when holdings were reduced below the economic level, a group of villagers hived off into the wilderness, constructed a new tank, and founded a new village. British reforms that defined all wilderness as Crown land and eliminated multiple claims to existing plots of land seriously eroded this system and, as land came on the market, a new class of rice land investors (called mudalalis ) acquired substantial holdings but left the farming to clients holding the lands by a form of traditional sharecropping tenancy ( ande tenure). Population increase has led to severe and still growing landlessness.


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