SB is no more

Dr. S. B. D. de Silva (1926-2018), the foremost political economist of Sri Lanka passed away in the evening of June 15, 2018 at his home in Kalubowila, after a brief illness. Dr. de Silva, had his education at St. Thomas’ College, Colombo and University of Ceylon. He went on to read for his PhD at the London School of Economics. He is known world wide for his path breaking singular publication The Political Economy of Underdevelopment. First published in 1982, the book deals with the theory of underdevelopment, as “Dr. de Silva attempts a synthesis between the internal and external aspects of underdevelopment and, in the Marxist tradition, focuses on the impact of the external on the internal as the dominant reality. Viewing underdevelopment as a problem in the non-transformation to capitalism, this analysis is in terms of the character of the dominant capital and of the dominant classes. Underdevelopment thus encompasses the ‘traditional’ peasant economy and also the export sector where the ‘modernizing’ influence of colonialism was felt. The book finally considers how the contemporary internationalization of capital affected the economies of the Third World” (Routledge)

Dr. de Silva was a Deputy Director of Economic Research in the Central Bank of Ceylon, and a Consultant for the Research and Planning Division of ECAFE (Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East) and a Deputy Director of the Agrarian Research and Training Institute, Colombo. He taught for three years in the School of Comparative Social Sciences, University Sains Malaysia.
Later, he went on to teach at the Department of Economics, University of Peradeniya. He also taught courses at the Department of Economics, and the Department of Sociology ( Post-Graduate Diploma in Sociology), both at the University of Colombo.

The following article on SB, as he was affectionately called, by fellow economist and contemporary G.Usvatte-aratchi originally appeared in the Island


Dr. Silva: our senior most economist :by Usvatte-aratchi

Dr. de Silva (SB hereafter) is senior to us all not simply because he graduated some 10 years before us but also because his insights into underdevelopment are far sharper and deeper than those of any of us. SB wrote far more than he published. He always wrote but was rarely satisfied with what he wrote and continually revised what he wrote. We were surprised in some degree when he finally permitted the printer to go ahead and print his typescript for “The political economy of underdevelopment”. He wanted to write exactly what he had in mind, bereft of dross and ambiguity. He wrote mostly in the 1960s and the 1970s, well before the plethora of statistical material on development, both historical and contemporaneous, came out. He wrote as if he were carrying on a conversation with the writers whose work he was discussing. And the writers he was conversing with were not simply economists of 1950s and 1960s but also the classical economists who taught us political economy, historians like Marc Bloch and colonial administrators like the Assistant Government Agent, Nuwara Eliya, among others.

The problem or problems he tried to understand belonged in the political economy of underdevelopment. It was well before we had the benefit of the work of the statistician Angus Maddison or the new economic historians like Carlo Maria Cippola or Joel Mokyer, all of whom with many others have helped us understand the processes by which underdeveloped economies of Europe in 1700 began to develop rapidly in the 18th and 19th centuries and transformed themselves into developed economies in the 20th century. The discourse on development in the 1950s was dominated by concerns with the scarcity of savings to pay for investment in underdeveloped countries, as evident from the early UN Expert Group Meetings. The 1960s were remarkable for the enormous attention economists and policy makers gave to human capital in the process of development. It was not till the 1980s that new institutionalists came anywhere near what SB was arguing all along. ‘Economics, ever since Ricardo, has progressively distanced itself both from history and the humane sciences. For, while remaining as weak as ever as a basis for prediction, economics stubbornly clings to its foothold in the so-called exact sciences, through the use and misuse of mathematical logic as its fundamental analytical tool’ (Cipolla). It is against this academic flood that SB swam.

One of the most valuable chapters (Ch.9) in his book is that about plantation agriculture. It contains most valuable insights into production relations in plantations and how they differed fundamentally from capitalist production which propelled economies in Western Europe into higher and higher levels of productivity. This at a time when leading economists in Colombo looked to plantations as the ‘modern sector’ that would lead the economy into prosperity. Plantations are a product of the 17th century economic conditions in the Caribbean that later spread to colonial Asia and Africa. And there is no evidence that plantations mode of production piloted economies into modern prosperity. Such sectors normally employ labour with higher than average levels of general education and skills. In plantation labour we have had those with the lowest level of schooling and hardly any skills employable outside their immediate places of work. Our current problems with the plantation economy rise in part from this stagnation in productivity in that mode of production. Plantation agriculture was not capitalist production.

SB was deeply interested in agrarian relations in the country. I came to know him when he, much senior to me in the Bank, was kind enough to ask me to accompany him in his field trips to study the gambara system in the Hambantota district in the early 1960s. I had published a short essay on GPS in the Ceylon Economist, then edited by Wadinamby Aratchi, and that had caught his attention. We walked in rice lands in Ridiyagama and Lunugamvehera and talked to cultivators on their relations with landlords and their agents. And we returned to Hambantota Rest House to eat rice, canned fish curry and pol sambal. This work helped me greatly in my subsequent work in Gal Oya Valley and preliminary work on the Mahaveli Project, still later.

He traces successive phases of colonial economic relationships: for example, the Portuguese here built fortresses to protect themselves from competitors and collected the produce for export; the English in contrast took to the production of exports and the sale of their own domestic production at home in colonial markets. In the 19th century European economies had output to sell in contrast to the 17th century when they had little to sell in Asian markets whose products were far superior to anything produced in Europe. With high productivity after the industrial revolution and imperial policies to promote home production, colonial economies underwent the long term stagnation that economists came to call underdevelopment in the 20th century. The destruction of the Indian textile industry is the classic example. In the last chapter he extends the analysis of world economic development in colonial times to the present day (1980) but short of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and of course, the rise of China, India and Brazil as new economic powers. The emergence of these economies into prominence, slow growth and stagnation in the earlier developed economies and the new dynamics that have developed among them may benefit from review using his framework of analysis. That is a job for a younger man.

SB also had a glimpse into industrial development here when he worked in the Ministry of Industries where gentle T.B. Subasinghe was Minister. He understood immediately that producing for the domestic market with imported machinery and other input was an invitation to a balance of payments crisis, which the Bandaranaike government inevitably faced in the 1970s.This relationship was later formalized by people like Bella Balassa and Ian Little. Whenever we talked about industrial development, he kept coming back to this experience. ‘Where are the basic industries?’

SB also taught at university both in Penang and Peradeniya. He knew his students well. He just once talked to me about a bright student he taught at Peradeniya whom I eventually met and found indeed to be so.

One thing he liked about life styles in Penang was the habit of eating out in small restaurants, especially Chinese. He remarked that in the 1960s, the practice was so uncommon in Colombo. Things have changed during the last 50 years or so. A sociologist needs to explain to us what happened in our society to bring about such change. A fall out from this experience in Penang was SB’s search for good Chinese restaurants in Colombo. We ate many fine meals in a Chinese restaurant in Park Street (?) near Turrret Road but lost touch with it later. Good restaurants of any kind at reasonable prices are rare in Colombo and one remembers nostalgically the plenitude of such eating places, especially in Southeast Asian cities.

Dr. S. B. D de Silva is an example that for scholars, it is far better to know than be known. I guess that no media institution has a photograph of him. Scholarship is not something cultivated under floodlights but in the quiet shade of groves inhabited by like souls. He sought them eagerly but such men in academic groves are rare in our land. All the more reason that we cherish the very few we have. SB is pre-eminent among them. The Japanese were ingenuous indeed to invent the institution ‘living national treasures’.