Sunil Handunnetti

MP Handunnetti’s data on urbanisation: quoted correctly, interpreted wrong


74% of the population of Sri Lanka lives a rural lifestyle/in a rural setting.

Divaina | October 15, 2018


Partly True

Fact Check

Is the claim made by the MP true?

According to Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) data for 2018 (which is based on Census data from 2012), the percentage of the population classified as living in the rural sector is 77.4%.

The figure Handunnetti has used in his statement is close to the CBSL report’s figure. However, the definitions of ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ that have been used to calculate these statistics in the Census refer to the percentage of people living in locations classified within the “rural sector”. This, in Sri Lanka is not the same as living in a rural setting/lifestyle, due to a peculiarity in the classification system. The published classification of urban and rural sectors in Sri Lanka is based purely on historical administrative labels (as explained below), which are often inconsistent with the lived reality of those sectors in the present day. As a result, Handunnetti’s use of this data to talk about people’s habitat settings/lifestyle ends up being incorrect.

Conclusion: Handunnetti seems to have quoted [approximately] correctly a highly misleading statistic released by the Department of Census and Statistics. But that statistic is not interpreted correctly by Handunnetti, because it does not capture the actual percentage of people living in a rural lifestyle/in a rural setting. Therefore, we have classified his statement as PARTLY TRUE. The correct percentage of the population living in rural settings is 56.2%, not 74%.

The source of Handunnetti’s mistake

The Census of Population and Housing Final Report of 2012 defines the “urban” and “rural” sectors as follows.
Urban sector – all areas administered by Municipal Councils and Urban Councils come under the Urban sector;
Estate sector – areas comprising of estates of all plantations in extent of 20 acres and above fall under the Estate sector;
Rural sector – all areas in the country that do not come under either Urban or Estate sectors belong to the Rural sector.

These definitions are based entirely on administrative considerations that were defined in 1987, and are not reflective of the present reality of the country. For example, Kelaniya and Homagama are both governed by a Pradeshiya Sabha, and so by definition fall into the rural sector, but are major centres of urban activity. As a result, these definitions of the rural sector no longer overlap meaningfully with rural settings/lifestyles.

The Census Key Findings Report itself states, “The degree of urbanisation depends upon its definition. […] Therefore, it is important to introduce a realistic definition of urban areas taking into account of [sic] the characteristics of the population rather than based on pure administrative considerations.”

The source for a more correct statistic

The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) proposes the following alternative definition of an urban area:
If a Grama Niladhari Division (GND) has a minimum population of 750 persons, a population density greater than 500 persons per km2, firewood dependence of less than 95% households, and well-water dependence of less than 95% households, such a GND is defined as an urban area.

According to this definition, the percentage of the population living in rural areas is 56.2% which is much lower than the figure found using the Census definition.