Shared Labor

Full Title: *Sharing of Labour*

_World Health, Geneva, May 1978_

‘Are you happy?’ I asked the farmer.

‘Of course, Yes, but why do you ask?’ I was silent for a moment. Why did I ask him that question?….’

‘Are you happy?’ I asked the farmer.

‘Of course, Yes, but why do you ask?’ I was silent for a moment. Why did I ask him that question?….’

The farmer’s name was Kawwa, but he was also known as Vedamahattaya. Vedamahattaya in the Sinhala language means a practitioner of traditional medicine. Like any other farmer of his village, Kawwa earned his livelihood by cultivating his fields – three acres of low land and two acres of high land. In addition, he attended to the minor ailments of the villagers. Attending the sick was a traditional service that has been carried out by his family for several generations. His village, Kuruketiyawa, is one of the 23,000 villages of Sri Lanka. To arrive there took me a four-hour drive from the capital, Colombo, along a main road, followed by one-and-a-half gruelling hours by jeep on a cart track through the thick forest.

Kawwa had just returned from a journey on his own bullockcart which took him a whole day. I arrived just as he had unharnessed the bullocks and removed his under-shirt. Bare bodied from the waist up, he looked at me with a smile.

‘How about the others in your village? Are they happy?’ I asked again.

‘That is not a question for me to answer. But if I may express an opinion I would say that most people of my generation in this village are happy. But I do not think that the younger generation is as happy.’

‘I am 78. But I can still work as much as six of our modern youth put together.’

‘Can you tell me why the younger generation is not happy?’

‘That is a long story. Give me a few minutes. Please take a seat till I come back.’

Kawwa went inside his house an old yet sturdy house made of wattle and daub and several layers of thatched hay on the roof. He came out in a loin cloth and briskly walked towards the two animals tied to a coconut tree. He untied them, took them to the backyard near a pool and started bathing them. He fondly washed the two beasts as if bathing his own children, in fact, he addressed them as ‘Putha’ (son). He tied them up again, gave them food, returned to the well, bathed himself, milked the cow and came back to me. It was dusk now.

He knew that I was from the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka, a grass-roots movement working in nearly 1,500 villages to promote people’s self-help. Sarvodaya means awakening of all and Shramadana is sharing of labour. The Movement has just started in Kuruketiyawa and Kawwa was instrumental in getting us there. I was going to spend the night in the village as his guest. Seated in the verandah, the old man started to talk again.
‘Happiness is a state of mind.You cannot buy it with money. You can only develop it by a proper understanding of life. The present generation is fast losing an understanding of what life is about. Everybody is looking for jobs where you do the least and are paid the maximum. Then they have an ever-growing array of desires which all the money in the world cannot buy.’ ‘You are a native physician. Don’t you think that health is the most important basic need for us?’

‘Undoubtedly, health is the beginning and end of all our efforts, but remember, to bring about health so many other factors have to be satisfied at the same time. We have to look at the individual, the family, the village – and even the nation and the world as one integrated unit. Then we have to look at the immediate surroundings and strive to initiate a process of self-development with what we have at our disposal. Then we can reach a healthy state of living.’
‘You mentioned basic human needs. In your opinion, what are the basic human needs of your own village community?’

Instead of continuing the conversation Kawwa got up and said: ‘The fourth basic human need according to me is food. So now you may come in and share our meal.’

I followed Kawwa into the house and ate one of the tastiest meals I have ever had with him. Apart from, perhaps, salt, everything was from the village itself. With my meagre knowledge of nutrition I thought it was a balanced meal.
After dinner we walked to the temple built on an elevated place to which many men, women and children were coming for a ‘family gathering’. While we waited for them I asked Kawwa: ‘How is it that you think food is the fourth basic human need and not the first?’

According to him, what we may call in modern jargon, ‘a healthy psychological, physical and social infrastructure’ is the first need for a human being. He stressed that ‘a clean and beautiful environment both in the physical and mental sense’ was the first basic human need.

‘What is your second priority?’

‘An adequate supply of clean water, firstly for our personal use and secondly for agriculture.’

‘The third ….?’

‘The third basic human need is clothing. We first cover our shame before we think of our stomach. The man without shame is not a civilized person.’

‘Then of course comes food. And what are the other basic human needs?’

‘In order of priority I would put them as housing, health care, roads and communication, fuel, education, and spiritual and cultural needs.’

*Family Gathering*

We could proceed no further that evening after the ‘family gathering’ began with a few minutes of religious observations and silent meditation. From talking to Kawwa and many such other leaders in our villages, I was convinced that we outsiders had almost nothing to offer them by way of advice on their philosophy of life. There was so much that we could learn from them. All they needed was recognition as human beings, some material assistance and the know-how about appropriate technology to meet their basic human needs.

The villagers decided to organize a series of Shramadana (gift of labour) camps by which they would be able to improve their roads, dig wells, repair the tanks and existing irrigation canals, dig pits for toilets and put up a children’s centre where pre-school education, health care, and nutrition programmes could be carried out. The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement was to help them by providing trained personnel, building materials, supplementary food, seeds, tools and equipment. Above all, they would be linked with the other Sarvodaya villages in the country.

I asked Kawwa what he meant by self-development. His reply was: ‘Thirty years of freedom have not freed our village from false values, rivalries and imported goods at the expense of village crafts. Many have become unemployed because this new system has no use for their traditional skills. The schooling system has created literate but uneducated people; because an educated man not only knows how to read and write, but is also disciplined and hard working.

‘If we are to rebuild our villages we have to begin at the beginning where we have to depend on ourselves. That is why I was attracted to Sarvodaya; that is what I meant by self-development.’

‘In your list of basic human needs you did not mention employment or income. Don’t you think these are also important human needs?’

‘These are not needs, these are only the means to achieve those needs. What is the use of income if that money is spent on drinking, gambling and collecting all types of luxuries that cannot give you true happiness. We have good earth and surely we can make our limbs work to produce the food we need and the houses and wells we require.’
‘What about basic health care in your village? What about a hospital for your village? What about a doctor for your village?’

‘There again you are on the wrong track. The art of healthy living is a part of our culture. In the good old days, we drank water from pure springs in our wells. With this indiscriminate destruction of vegetation, construction of roads, culverts and bridges without taking into consideration the total physical nature of the area, these springs have been destroyed. Now you ask us to drink boilded cooled water. We agree, but you also must remember in a few years’ time we will not have enough firewood for us even to boil our water.

‘Lately we have been getting visits from health personnel. What I stress is that they should not come here as extension arms of government or of hospitals. They should come here to help us in our efforts, so that the responsibility for health becomes our problem and helping us then becomes the duty of the government.

‘Going to hospitals has become a fashion. There are some cases which should go to hospitals, but these will be very few if we organize the community within the village so as to satisfy the human needs I mentioned earlier. I once took my wife to a doctor in the city, and was ashamed of the way he treated us. First of all, he asked me to pay him before he examined my wife. I am not a doctor in that sense, but the simple medicines I give would never work if I charged money for them. In our tradition a doctor should never ask for a fee; whatever donation a patient likes to make in cash or in kind is left on the table. He doesn’t treat it as payment. Sometimes the native doctor spends out of his own pocket buying medicines for the poor who cannot afford them. I think what we need is not grand hospitals but educated young men and women of medicine who will love their people and learn to get the joy of living from service.’

*An Ancient Philosophy*

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka was founded on an ancient development philosophy, a glimpse of which was given in my conversation with Kawwa. The Movement’s programme is based on the objective of satisfying the basic human needs outlined by him.

Already in more than 1,500 villages self-development programmes have been initiated. It is an integrated programme of village re-awakening where the initiative is taken by village leaders themselves such as Kawwa. Under their mature leadership are developed groups such as Pre-school Children’s Formations, Youth Formations, Mothers’ Formations, Farmers’ Formations and General Elders’ Formations. Representatives of these groups constitute a Gramoday Mandalaya (Village Awakening Council) in every village, and this council in turn bears the over-all responsibility for the village’s self-development programme.