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Sri Lanka

Chapter 2. The Society and Its Environment

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Woman bringing "ambula" (noon meal) to the field

SRI LANKA LIES practically in the center of the Indian Ocean and thus has climatic and cultural links with three continents. Monsoon winds, driving against Sri Lanka's peaks, support lush vegetation on the southern half of the island, but the northern half is a dry zone. The winds affect human culture as well, having brought wave after wave of immigrants and merchants following the southerly trade routes. Outsiders found a wide range of ecological niches on the coast, on the plains, or in the mountains, and they built a remarkably variegated civilization. Merchants long have sought Sri Lanka as the source of pearls, jewels, spices, and tea. Visitors for centuries have marvelled at the beauty and great diversity of the island.

The South Asian landmass to the north has strongly influenced Sri Lankan culture in the past and continues to do so. From an outlander's perspective, some of the main aspects of Sri Lankan society--language, caste, family structure--are regional variants of Indian civilization. From the perspective of the islander, however, the Indian influence is but the largest part of a continuing barrage of stimuli coming to Sri Lanka from all sides. The people of the island have absorbed these influences and built their own civilization.

The Sinhalese (see Glossary), a distinct ethnic group speaking the Sinhala (see Glossary) language and practicing a variant of Theravada Buddhism (see Glossary), comprise the majority--74 percent--of the population, and their values dominate public life. There are, however, substantial minority groups. The Tamils, speaking the Tamil language and generally practicing Hinduism, comprise almost 18 percent of the population. Muslims, many of whom speak Tamil as their main language, make up 7 percent of the populace. Each of the main ethnic groups is subdivided into several major categories, depending on variables of religion or geography. There also are sizable Christian minorities among the Sinhalese and Tamil. People living in the central highland region of the country generally adhere more closely to their traditional ethnic customs than lowland dwellers.

Caste creates other social divisions. The Goyigama (see Glossary) caste of the Sinhalese--traditionally associated with land cultivation--is dominant in population and public influence, but in the lowlands other castes based on commercial activities are influential. The Tamil Vellala caste resembles the Goyigama in its dominance and traditional connection with agriculture, but it is completely separate from the Sinhalese caste hierarchy. Within their separate caste hierarchies, Sinhalese and Tamil communities are fragmented through customs that separate higher from lower orders. These include elaborate rules of etiquette and a nearly complete absence of intercaste marriages. Differences in wealth arising from the modern economic system have created, however, wide class cleavages that cut across boundaries of caste, religion, and language. Because of all these divisions, Sri Lankan society is complex, with numerous points of potential conflict.

The population of Sri Lanka has grown considerably since independence in 1948, and in the 1980s was increasing by approximately 200,000 people or 1.37 percent each year. Because of this population pressure, the government has faced a major development problem as it has attempted to reconcile the divergent interests of caste, class, and ethnic groups while trying to ensure adequate food, education, health services, and career opportunities for the rapidly expanding population. Politicians and officials have attempted to meet these needs through a form of welfare socialism, providing a level of support services that is comparatively high for a developing nation. Building on colonial foundations, Sri Lanka has created a comprehensive education system, including universities, that has produced one of the best-educated populations in Asia. A free state-run health system provides basic care that has raised average life expectancy to the highest level in South Asia. Ambitious housing and sanitation plans, although incomplete, promised basic amenities to all citizens by the year 2000. In 1988 the government addressed the nutritional deficiencies of the poor through a subsidized food stamp program and free nutrition programs for children and mothers.

The crucial problem facing Sri Lanka's plural society is whether it can evolve a form of socialism that will address the needs of all groups, or whether frustrated aspirations will engender further conflict. In the field of education, for example, excellent accomplishments in elementary schooling have emerged alongside bitter competition for coveted places in the university system; this competition has fueled ethnic hatred between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. In a land with limited resources, the benefits of social welfare programs highlight the inadequacies of progress for some regional or ethnic groups. In these circumstances, caste, ethnic, or religious differences become boundaries between warring parties, and a person's language or place of worship becomes a sign of political affiliation. The social organization of Sri Lanka is thus an important component of the politics and economy in the developing nation.

Data as of October 1988


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