.S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of independent Sri Lanka, in his inaugural address to the nation said, “The independence we won would be a reality only when the people are ready to safeguard their newly-won rights and responsibilities. By gaining independence, we have seen the end of a struggle, but it would be the beginning of another struggle which is mightier and challenging than the one just concluded.”
Immediately after World War II, D.S. strove to gain independence for his country. This he achieved without causing an upheaval or shedding a drop of blood. He created a new nation with unity, and the birth of the United National Party (1946) was a result of his efforts.
The UNP was formed bringing various political and social organisations such as the Sri Lanka Jathika Sangamaya, Sinhala Maha Sabha and the Muslim League under one umbrella. D. S., who was elected as the party leader, spearheaded the freedom struggle with new vigor and foresight. It is not an exaggeration to say that no man suffered than him in the struggle for freedom. In fact, his whole life was dedicated to gain independence. He was chiefly responsible for the country gaining independence from the British after colonisation. The Europeans lowered our national flag four and a half centuries ago, and it was D.S. Senanayake, ‘Father of the Nation,’ who made a European prince hoist it once again.
Don Stephen Senanayake was born on October 20, 1884 at Botale, a village in Hapitigame Korale of the then Negombo District in the Western Province. The village was named after ‘Bodhi-tale’— the place of the Bodhi or Bo tree. According to history, the Bo tree planted at Botale was the direct descendant of the tree at the Mahiyanganaya sacred temple, a holy place visited by Lord Buddha.
D.S., the ‘Mahakalu Sinhalaya,’ has become an honest and formidable leader who made an indelible impression on the history of this country. D.S. has often been described as an ordinary man with special qualities. He made significant changes in the country’s politics and agriculture, while also commanding the respect and trust of those different groups he dealt with. He strove to establish a viable democracy in Sri Lanka after recognising the significance of developing local economic resources to meet the needs of a growing population.
In his book ‘Agriculture and Patriotism,’ D.S. warned the country of the consequences of rapid population growth without corresponding economic development as well as increase of production.
D.S. entered the national service through the Temperance Movement. The British rulers started to issue liquor licenses countrywide, thereby inflicting a terrible blow to the comparatively-peaceful social structure and spiritual feelings. He carried out the struggle in 1912 with the support of people in the calibre of F.R. Senanayake, Arthur V. Dias, A. E. Goonesinghe, Piyadasa Sirisena, Baron Jayatillake, W.A. de Silva, D.C. Senanayake, three Hewavithrana brothers, Amadoris Mendis and Martinus C. Perera.
D.S. became an active member of this movement. In 1915, when martial law was declared by the British government as a result of communal clashes between the Sinhalese and Muslims (which they had nothing to do with), the Sinhala leaders including two of his brothers (F.R. and D.C.) who gave leadership to the Temperance Movement were taken into custody. They had to remain behind bars for some 40 days.
At the age of 40, D.S. stepped into mainstream politics through the Legislative Council of 1924. He had many qualities of a great leader, but despite his success, he remained simple and friendly. He had a magnetic personality and always remained dignified. He was also a devoted Buddhist but managed to win the support of leaders from all ethnic and religious groups. D.S. was successful in winning over the minorities to his way of thinking and also had a firm understanding of the responsibility that came with political independence to this under-developed country.
First Prime Minister of independent Sri Lanka
Founder of UNP and Ceylon Cooperative Society Movement
Formulated the first Agriculture Policy
Under his leadership, SL qualified to apply for UN membership
Sri Lanka was fortunate to have D.S. as the Agriculture Minister in the first State Council. In 1931, he became the Chairman of Agriculture and Lands in the Executive Committee under the Donoughmore Constitution. In the second State Council inaugurated in March 1936, he became the Agriculture Minister. Firstly, he visited the Dry Zone where much of the staple food, rice, was cultivated. D.S. opened his eyes to the plight of malaria-stricken families who lived on the edge of starvation when rains failed.
“Our village is suffering from a severe shortage of drinking water. Residents of the area have no time to work or study because they spend the whole day in search of drinking water. Our infants are crying of thirst at night but they cannot go out as elephants frequent the Pannal Oya,” said D.S. Senanayake in one of his speeches in 1939 as Agriculture Minister.
The pathetic situation is that the struggle for water supply still continues not solely due to drought, but also due to the negligence of those farsighted visions of D.S. He saw the need for a careful assessment of land and water resources before restoring the abandoned irrigation facilities.
As Agriculture Minister from 1931 to 1947, D.S. initiated the first Agriculture Policy and established the LDO, a migration and settlement scheme for landless peasants.
The thinking behind this was to make the country self-sufficient. He also restored old irrigation facilities while building new ones. He did not forget the three main export industries; coconut, tea and rubber. He improved research facilities into these plantation industries and sought cooperation with foreign countries that engaged in similar plantations, all the while concentrating on sustaining prices and improving quality.
The other significant developments while he was holding office were the introduction of adult franchise (voting power for each and every adult), and guiding C.W.W. Kannangara in implementing a free education system.
D.S. never allowed miscommunication with the common man to take place, and never missed an opportunity to visit poor farmers and the irrigation schemes he started.
He was tough and courageous in making a strong decision by moving out a population to less-developed areas in the Dry Zone including Minneriya. There is no doubt that the great achievements of D.S. Senanayake during this period were the Minneriya scheme launched on April 30, 1933, Kagama development scheme in 1936, Minipe Canal development project in 1939, Thopa wewa development project in 1937, Hurulu wewa rehabilitation project in 1946 and Ridibendi ela development scheme in 1935/36.
"If we join to honour his memory today, it is because the country must learn to cultivate, preserve and cherish the kind of leadership he gave"
He was able to start agricultural colonies; Minipe, Elehera, Bakamuna and Gal Oya were a few of them. He restored Parakrama Samudra, the largest reservoir in the county. Next came Gal Oya, the great reservoir development and colonisation scheme, which he initiated as Agriculture Minister.
He also took measures to restore many ancient shrines and gave special attention to the development of Ruwanwelisaya - Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Mahiyanganaya and was himself the president of the Mahiyanganaya Restoration Society when it commenced.
He was a great lover of animals and the environment. By establishing farms and encouraging cattle rearing, he sought to educate the rural folk in methods of housing, breeding and feeding livestock. Also, he set up the Ruhuna and Wilpattu National Parks by the legislation introduced in 1938.
Having founded the Ceylon Cooperative Society Movement in 1923, he emphasised the development of cooperatives and attempted agricultural modernisation. He refused a knighthood in 1946, but expressed gratitude for British goodwill and cooperation.
Travelling extensively in far flung areas in the country, he worked tirelessly and lived with the needy and the poor. He never used luxurious vehicles, but travelled by train, bullock cart or horseback. In the nights, he never occupied luxury hotels but instead stayed in camping tents or under a canopy. He never travelled abroad to find solutions to domestic problems.
He possessed an extraordinary vision and skill to give quick pragmatic solutions to problems. D.S. was instrumental in forming the Udarata Gemi Punaruththapana Komisama - the Commission for the development of underprivileged Kandyan peasants. His progressive measures included free healthcare and above all, the provision for food, mainly the staple food.
"At the age of 40, D.S. stepped into mainstream politics through the Legislative Council of 1924. He had many qualities of a great leader"
In a country without coal, oil or gas deposits, a start was made in developing and demonstrating the future hydro-power potential with the commissioning of the Lakshapana power station in 1950. The two development projects initiated during his period, the six year development plan (1951-1957) and the six year investment programme (1954-1959), placed major emphasis on investment in agricultural infrastructure. As planned by D.S., the Central Bank of Ceylon was established in 1958 by replacing the currency board system to implement an independent and flexible monetary policy.
Under the guidance of this leader, Sri Lanka became eligible to apply to the UN for membership. Sri Lanka was entitled to appoint her own diplomatic representatives or use those of the United Kingdom if she so preferred.
On March 22, 1952, we lost one of the chief architects of our country’s freedom. If we join to honour his memory today, it is because the country must learn to cultivate, preserve and cherish the kind of leadership he gave as the visible embodiment of the country’s struggles and aspirations for independence.