Pressenza Interview with Dr Vinya Ariyaratne, President of Sarvodaya the largest NGO in Sri Lanka reaching with their message of compassion and nonviolence over 15000 villages in the country.


I am Antonio Carvallo editor of presence and member of the team promoting the World Humanist Forum (Asia).

I am delighted to welcome Dr Vinya Ariyaratne on behalf of Pressenza International News Agency and the WHF Asia to present Sarvodaya Shramadana the largest NGO in the country, Sri Lanka.

Sarvodaya has expressed its willingness to be an active supporter and participant in the first Humanist Asian Forum scheduled to take place in November of this year.

The Humanist Forum is being called by like-minded individuals and organizations who have the human being as its core value and the principles of active non-violence as its core methodology of action, which can be encapsulated in “Treat others as you want to be treated”.

We think we are navigating through a profound civilizational crisis, where the world seems to have lost its course. This affects all expressions of human life, because a human being, individuals and full societies, are experiencing a lack of future and psychological confusion. Even the environment is out of balance as a result of, or concomitant to the civilizational crisis. More so as a result of the pandemic.
We Universalist Humanists are inspired in the teachings of Silo, who launched The Movement, in a public address known as the “Healing of Suffering” in 1969, in Argentina.

Silo worked incessantly all his life, creating awareness and forming people in the goal of humanizing the earth. This goal is shared in my view and experience by Sarvodaya inspired in Buddhas and Gandhi’s teachings.

We believe it is important that people with goals and principles as ours meet, discuss, and share solutions for the main issues affecting humanity at the moment and they communicate these solutions to the whole of humanity so that it can recover its balance and be able to recognize the right direction into the future

Sarvodaya has expressed its willingness to join this fascinating but difficult endeavor at a world scale.
Please, Dr. Vinya introduce yourself and Sarvodaya to our listeners and readers.

V.A. Thank you, Antonio good morning good afternoon good evening to everyone who is joining this conversation it’s a great privilege and a pleasure for me to join today.

I am a medical doctor by training I am specialized in public health and I have had a lifelong association with the Sarvodaya movement of Sri Lanka but I have been working full-time for Sarvodaya only since the year 2000 before that, for 10 years I have been practicing as a doctor and an academic teaching public health and today we are very much involved in the present Covid-19 crisis but Sarvodaya Movement which I will introduce to you in a minute is the largest as Antonio said the largest humanitarian and development and peace building organization in Sri Lanka in terms of its outreach to the community and Sarvodaya actually originated in the late 1950s 1958 when a group of students and teachers led by my father Dr A.T Ariyaratne, went to a very impoverished village in Sri Lanka at that time, they were also a socially ostracized community in terms of their caste and started this group, and started working with this community to build a school and also try to satisfy their basic needs and that movement which was started in a very humble way then evolved into become the largest volunteer movement in Sri Lanka which is and was aimed at uplifting the village rural communities in Sri Lanka based on a very unique holistic and integrated program of action based on Gandhian and Buddhist teachings. Sarvodaya, the word Sarvodaya was coined by Mahatma Gandhi and it means awakening of all, server coming from Sanskrit language server means all, udaya is awakening and the movement also adopted the term Sramadana. Sramadana means sharing sharing of your labor sharing of your thoughts your intellect your wealth and everything that you can share for the welfare of others so Sarvodaya Sramadana movement from 1950s late 1950s from very small beginnings evolved to become a self-sustaining grassroots movement reaching thousands of villages by the 1970s. Then because of the demand for its services and also the evolution of the programs from being just grassroots development work into something which was really aimed at social transformation with hundreds and thousands of volunteers joining the movement and going from village to village and inspiring people and getting people mobilized to take control of their own lives and then form their own community based organizations, with which they are now working in a legally autonomous way in more than 5000 out of about 38 000 villages in Sri Lanka but cumulatively we have had outreach to about 15 000 villages nearly probably about 20 percent of the population have directly or indirectly benefited from the work of the movement for 63 years now.

So Sarvodaya believes in a vision where we try to empower in the process of awakening starting with the individual then the family and then the urban and rural communities then the country as a whole and also because we are interconnected in a world which is much more connected in more than one way and affecting the lives of people. Something happening in one part of the world also is affecting a rural community in Sri Lanka, in the same way in other countries in the southern hemisphere. We have a goal of awakening of the whole world so we work very closely with like-minded individuals and organizations around the world and World Humanist Forum of course is very much aligned with the Sarvodaya vision and we are very happy to be connected with the Movement at this critical time when the world is facing a pandemic.

But also the pandemic resurfaced the injustices social inequities that are there so Sarvodaya movement works across different sectors from child development, nutrition, environment, enterprise development, economic transformation, peace building all these programs are built on a very strong spiritual foundation although the Buddhist is our philosophy and action is based on Buddhist teachings we are a very secular organization in terms of mobilizing communities belonging to different ethnic, religious and cultural groups in Sri Lanka. So as a country which has had a war which lasted for nearly 30 years starting from 1980s, Sarvodaya has been in the forefront of peace building and also humanitarian work to assist the people who are affected by the war.

Today we have a strong organization which has an outreach to all the 25 geographic districts in Sri Lanka and also branched out to different areas with different organizations legally formed so the movement itself consists of more than 12 different legally independent organizations but working towards the same goal of awakening of all of developing the nation based on spiritual, moral, cultural, social, economic, and political development. I am blessed to have a team of professionals, as well as very experienced workers who have come from grassroots working together at this difficult time. We belong to the second generation of leaders we have a third and fourth generations now who are working who believe in this vision and who believe that a different world is possible and we are therefore in solidarity with many others who believe in a world where the human values, spirituality and also respecting differences, are in the forefront of any form of development and we are working to the extent possible with other different partners including the government and also the private sector, that is where we are now. That’s a brief introduction to the Sarvodaya Movement.

Brilliant! thank you very much, it’s so clear… Could you tell us a bit about the current social, economic, and political situation in Sri Lanka and because I understand like in many other places, that is quite difficult.

Yes, so we are facing perhaps the most unprecedented social economic and political crisis since the independence. We gained independence from the British in 1948 and because there was a lot of deficiencies in the way that we govern our country due to various reasons including extreme forms of nationalism and we couldn’t get a policy that was inclusive of different ethnic and religious communities in Sri Lanka so that is the reason why it led to a very bloody civil war which costed many, many, thousands of lives and many being affected.

So, what happened was since the war ended in 2009, we have had several government changes, we were trying our best to restore peace and build reconciliation between different communities in Sri Lanka but certain forces prevented us and still prevents us from working together as different communities and find an acceptable form of governance in the form of a constitution that is also acceptable to all people. Then as a result of that our economy was also very much affected because the war itself costed a lot in terms of the damage to the economy infrastructure and all that, so it took a long time to restore some of the basic services in the areas affected by the war. However, since 2019 we, we started going in a worst direction our economy was badly impacted by the Easter Sunday terrorist bombing and since then a country which is very much dependent on foreign exchange in terms of tourism. Exports were affected and then in 2020 the Covid impacted and due to the pandemic the economy was very badly damaged and this in combination with a lot of serious issues related to governance we are facing a foreign exchange crisis right now and therefore we are having a shortage of fuel and also the essential imports are being affected because we don’t have foreign exchange to buy those goods to the country and exports have also been suffered, so there is a serious economic crisis and we are facing escalation of prices of food also due to a government decision to ban importation of fertilizer, chemical fertilizer. We believe in organic agriculture and non-chemical agriculture but it cannot happen overnight because the whole agricultural sector is dependent on imported fertilizer so when a certain decision was taken due to the shortage of foreign exchange, this affected very badly the agriculture sector and the farmers were affected so the harvest that was expected in this season is totally inadequate and also the prices therefore have gone up so this is impacting the vulnerable sections of our community particularly the children and women and their nutritional levels are also getting really deteriorated and we as a national movement are also at the moment very much involved in designing and implementing some food assistance programs to vulnerable families as well, so we hope despite all these things, we will be able to somehow mount a response where we can work together to address these social and economic problems.

How are the people responding to the approaches of Sarvodaya?
Because people may be quite lack of protection in this situation psychologically emotionally and solidarity, I imagine that is such an important factor…

Absolutely, so you know it’s not just the physical dimension you know because of the covid-19 there was a big impact psychosocial impact so psychological impact has been quite intense and also we have seen domestic violence, violence against children gender-based violence so it’s a heap of problems that we need to deal with and so we are also providing a lot of psychosocial support counseling support to people who are affected we are working with the medical professionals also in providing very specific support to people who are affected by this crisis.

Just because we are doing so many things along similar lines in different environments many of them not urban but also rural in other parts of the world in Latin America especially and also experiences that can be applicable while we can go creating synergies in order to contribute if we have some know-how that can be useful we have to explore that possibility and it’s very important that people hear from you then what is the situation because they will come forward with initiatives materials or experiences that can be transmitted that is that is very positive and I wanted to ask you I understand now because your answer was very comprehensive and you have taken immediately two or three of my questions, but I would like to know what are things that for you are particularly important to discuss with other similar organizations across Asia in the Forum in the setting of the forum?

Yes i think even though the nature of the impact of the social economic and political crisis that we are facing as countries individually, I think if you go deeper the structural issues are the same it’s the exploitative economic systems which do not respect you know the environment, or human values and it’s all aimed at profit, and you know you know kind of economy and international system based on greed and few people accumulating wealth so I think it’s the same in many other parts of the world and also you know this very narrow ethno-nationalism I mean we don’t see diversity now societies as a strength so I think it’s very important that we reflect with others about the reality in our own countries but look at the determinants, what leads to this kind of situations in the world then we see that these systems are interconnected so if there are ways that we can have a dialogue understanding and exchange of experiences not just about our own situation but what are possible innovative solutions for example in order to deal with the macroeconomic crisis we in Sarvodaya believes in a decentralized devolved solutions we are individual communities to the extent possible come together and also link with grassroots organizations in smaller geographic areas and try to satisfy their basic needs and then also look at kind of a cooperative system where they can exchange uh their products and use of technology, technological platforms things like that so there are innovative solutions already coming up which are designed by people themselves the people who are affected by these issues so I am sure that way we can share our experiences and solutions and don’t also inspire and also develop hope for people to you know have faith in the future otherwise that itself of hopelessness is further it will further damage and it will hurt us and that’s not going to be that healthy for us to move forward.

Perfect this is very interesting you know that Silo wrote a very interesting piece after his visit to Sarvodaya in 1981 which I will send to you it was published in a compilation of conferences under the name of ‘Silo Speaks’ it is called ‘The Talk at the Agricultural Collective of Sri Lanka’ and there he had a dialogue with some Buddhist monks and so that was really quite special and I will make sure to send it to you.

Is there any specific message that you would like to leave with the readers and listeners of Pressenza in this occasion?

Yes, I think Pressenza is doing a very important role in connecting because we need this solidarity. I think the global solidarity and we need to believe that ordinary people have the courage and have the strength to change things, we cannot expect you know, macro systems and big powers to find solutions to our problems so the key message probably I would like to share is the sentiments that we share right now what we believe that the leaders cannot find solutions absolutely not and our political leaders can’t relate to the situation that we are in, therefore we need, as peoples ordinary peoples in the world to find solutions based on human values, so that is why the Humanist approach is so important it it’s become even more important than any time before, because we see a lot of injustice inequities in our society and the only way to address that is by having that kind of people solidarity and believe that a better world is possible through a collective social transformation.

Well, it’s a fantastic message is very profound and I share it hundred percent so I hope that we will have many occasions to exchange our experiences even in the run-up to the forum and also we’ll see ways in which members of your organization can get published and can share the specific experience at the level of the village, at the level of the of the region etc. in different areas of activity so everybody can find out about these concrete experiences by ordinary people as you say, thank you very much and I’ll see you in the next one.