21,273,000 (2013); 18 per cent of people live in urban areas; growth 0.9 per cent p.a. 1990–2013; birth rate 18 per 1,000 people (31 in 1970); life expectancy 74 years (43 in 1946 and 64 in 1970).
The largest ethnic group is Sinhalese (estimated at 74 per cent of the population), followed by Sri Lankan Tamils (12 per cent), Muslims (seven per cent), Indian Tamils (five per cent), and small communities of Malays and Burghers (persons of Dutch or partly Dutch descent) and a small number of Veddhas, descended from the earliest inhabitants. Historians now believe that Dravidian and Indo-Aryan cultures, which form the roots of the modern-day Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese, most likely arrived in Sri Lanka late in the first millennium BCE, having filtered down from India.
Indian Tamils arrived later, brought in by the British in the 19th century as labour for the plantations. Some Indian Tamils were repatriated from 1964, and since 1988 all remaining Indian Tamils have attained Sri Lankan citizenship. The Muslims are mostly descendants of Arab traders, and the Burghers descendants of European settlers of the 17th century onwards.
The official languages are Sinhala and Tamil. English is used in commerce and government and very widely understood.
Buddhists 70 per cent, Hindus 13 per cent, Muslims ten per cent and Christians six per cent (2012).
Public spending on health was one per cent of GDP in 2012. Both Western and Ayurvedic (traditional) medicine are practised, though most doctors practise Western medicine. A free health service is available, with hospitals and clinics countrywide, supplemented by several private hospitals and clinics in Colombo. Some 94 per cent of the population uses an improved drinking water source and 92 per cent have access to adequate sanitation facilities (2012). Infant mortality was eight per 1,000 live births in 2013 (83 in 1960). Over 90 per cent of children are born in hospital. Family planning is common, with about 68 per cent of married women practising contraception. Polio has been eradicated, but malaria remains a problem.
Public spending on education was 1.7 per cent of GDP in 2012. There are nine years of compulsory education starting at the age of five. Primary school comprises five years and secondary eight, with two cycles of four years. Some 97 per cent of pupils complete primary school (2010). The school year starts in January.
The University Grants Commission (UGC) recognises 15 public universities and 17 higher education institutes, and there are four other public universities that come under other departments of government (2013). Leading universities include the University of Colombo, which was established – as University of Ceylon – in 1942 when the Ceylon Medical College (founded 1870) and Ceylon University College (1921) were merged; University of Kelaniya; University of Peradeniya; and Open University of Sri Lanka, which provides courses through distance learning. Technical colleges offer courses up to diploma level in engineering and business. The female–male ratio for gross enrolment in tertiary education is 1.80:1 (2011). Literacy among people aged 15–24 is 98 per cent (2010).
In 1980 Sri Lanka hosted the Eighth Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers in Colombo. Commonwealth Education Ministers meet every three years to discuss issues of mutual concern and interest.
There are several daily newspapers in Sinhala, Tamil, and English including the state-owned Daily News, and the independent Daily Mirror and The Island, plus several weeklies including the state-owned Sunday Observer and independent The Sunday Times.
The public radio network of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and many private stations broadcast in Sinhala, Tamil and English. The Independent Television Network and Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation both provide public TV services, and there are several private TV channels; public and private channels are also in Sinhala, Tamil and English.
Some 76 per cent of households have TV sets (2007). There are 38 personal computers per 1,000 people (2005).
Country code 94; internet domain ‘.lk’. Mobile phone coverage is good in urban areas and the number of subscribers has grown rapidly. Internet cafes can be found in the main towns. Postal services are good.
For every 1,000 people there are 127 landlines, 955 mobile phone subscriptions and 219 internet users (2013).
Independence Day (4 February), Sinhala and Tamil New Year (mid-April, two days), Labour Day (1 May) and Christmas Day.
Religious and other festivals whose dates vary from year to year include Tamil Thai Pongal Day (mid-January), Prophet’s Birthday, Good Friday, Vesak Poya Days (two days generally in May) and
Deepavali (Diwali, October/November). There is a Buddhist Poya holiday each month on the day of the full moon. With the exception of the Vesak Poya Days, when Poya Days fall at the weekend they are nonetheless observed on the full moon day. Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) are observed only by Muslims, and Mahasivarathri only by Hindus.