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Little known Facts about a Well Known Personality

22 October 2014 08:26 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The Ministry of Lands and Land Development which the late Minister Gamini Dissanayake presided over for more than a decade was by present day standards and practices, a Mega Ministry; we had eight Government Departments many of them quite large and highly pedigreed and four statutory Boards and Corporations under our belt.

My responsibility as (Permanent) Secretary again for more than a decade was to assist the Minister to oversee that portfolio. But in addition to that the sister Ministry of Mahaweli Development with an unprecedented capital budget, the Minister had responsibility for a massive portfolio.

This essay is an attempt to present to the reader some salient facts about the formation of the two Ministries, the processes that were adopted to meet the challenges before us, the technological policy and human chemistry that was needed to produce results and how the late Minister Gamini Dissanayake galvanized a professional team to achieve the goals.

To step back a little, at the time the UNP was returned to power in July 1977, I had just completed my post-graduate studies in Land Policy at the Cambridge University and was on an extended Reading Programme facilitated by the Department of Land Economy. I was to return to Sri Lanka by September and logically I should have been assigned to the Ministry of Agriculture. However, when I returned to Sri Lanka in September, I had been ‘attached’ to the Ministry of Public Administration (MPA) based on the logic that for an SLAS officer that was  his Parent Ministry and the  Ministry Secretary could assign me to any agency he thought fit. With the change of government there were many senior SLAS officers ‘displaced’ from their former positions and until they were assigned to new positions, they were ‘attached’ to the MPA; attached to the MPA meant that you were in the infamous ‘pool’ to which unwanted SLAS officers, who had perhaps done no wrong and therefore could not be charge sheeted but not acceptable to somebody or anybody were placed.

When on my return I reported to the MPA Secretary D B I Siriwardana he straight away offered me the post of Senior Assistant Secretary in his Ministry. When I pleaded that my training is in land policy/ agriculture, he said SLAS officers have to be prepared to work in any admin position and if I do not accept his offer I would be assigned to the ‘pool’ and that if after six months I do not get a posting I may lose my job. That sent shivers down my spine and I just looked him straight in the face. Then he said Mr. A…. you are appointed SLAS MPA.

My move out of the MPA was due to initiatives taken by Engineer Douglas Ladduwahetty then Chairman Mahaweli Development Board and N.G.P Panditharatne later Chairman, Mahaweli Authority, who having known me during my tenure at Agriculture Ministry introduced me to Minister Gamini Dissanayake who was then on the lookout for senior staff to lead the Accelerated Mahaweli Programme (AMP)

At this time I was quite busy organising the Independence Day Celebrations 1978 which became a high profile affair as the   ceremony for the Investiture of the Executive President (JRJ) was combined with it. The Committee directing the arrangements was chaired by Cabinet Secretary G V P Samarasinghe.

I was under tremendous pressure   especially regarding invitations and seating arrangements. On the Saturday before the ceremony the Prime Minister (JRJ) summoned the Secretary MPA and me to his Ward Place residence and meticulously went through the programme and especially the protocols relating to seating arrangements. While we were on this his Secretary P B Menikdiwela walked in and quite casually said  Minister Gamini Dissanayake has asked for my services but MPA is not releasing me to which JRJ said, “I will have to act King Solomon”. I did not realize that this issue had gone that far and I concentrated on the Ceremony.

The Investiture Ceremony went through without too many noticeable glitches; as soon as the formalities were over the Cabinet Secretary came up and took me by the shoulders and said that the President is very happy with the arrangements. The following week when I came to office and met Minister Montague Jayawickrema he extended his hand to congratulate and thank me and to say that the President is very pleased with the organisation. In the same breath he said, “Gamini has asked the President for your services and I have promised to release you because your training is more suited for his work.” He then added, “I know you were not happy with working in this Ministry but I am very pleased that you did not canvass for a transfer as most officers nowadays do. “ I thanked him for all his courtesies and stepped out of MPA.

My first face-to-face meeting with Minister Gamini Dissanayake was around March 1978 when I crossed him in the elevator in the Darley Road building that had recently been purchased by the Mahaweli Board to house the Ministry of Irrigation Power and Highways, which was Minister Gamini Dissanayake’s portfolio -- a carryover from the previous regime and a favourite of former SLFP veterans Minister C P de Silva and Minister Maithripala Senanayake. The elevator was being cranked up manually as the power had not been connected for the building. Water, electricity and toilets were luxuries. Ladduwahetty introduced me to the Minister who assumed that I was already in the Ministry. He took me to his office and gave a brief about AMP and asked what kind of position I wanted. I said I was not particular about a position but am interested in trying out some of the things I learnt at Cambridge. He seemed happy and suggested that I work on land settlement policy for the AMP.


IPH Secretary Sivagnanam designated me Senior Assistant Secretary Settlement Planning (Mahaweli) and as an Advisor to the Mahaweli Development Board. Ex officio I was appointed a Member of the Task Force on AMP chaired by the Minister which met very frequently and had fortnightly evening meetings with the President to take the strategic decisions on Mahaweli.

One morning the Minister called me and said the President was contemplating a cabinet reshuffle and that he would like to indicate to the President the architecture of the portfolio he was interested in; he wanted me to prepare   a brief covering land, energy and environment. He seemed happy with my two page note; after a few days the Minister said he showed it to the President and that he seemed to agree.

By now the AMP was in the melting pot; the Ministry and Mahaweli Board was a hive of activity with meagre resources though. We had to contend with a host of outdated rules and regulations with little chance of a breakthrough in the near future, a shortage of basic office equipment and facilities, shortage of both professional and skilled support staff and the basic infrastructure.

By mid 1978 the minister had assembled the best talents available in the country and formed a fully multi-disciplinary team to meet the challenges of the AMP. The Minister also took the initiative to get the necessary approvals to cut through entrenched procedures and regulations to speed up the processes. The President decided   to set up a ‘Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka’ (MASL) with wide-ranging powers and cutting across departmental barriers. N G P was designated pro-tem Chairman pending the formalisation of MASL; one of my tasks was to assist NGP in drafting the MASL Act of Parliament which the Minister supervised closely as he was keen to see that legal and procedural obstacles do not stand in the way.

AMP was not only an engineering and political challenge; the expected costs of AMP were to be of unprecedented proportions and fund raising was a critical factor as not all donors were convinced about the  feasibility of such a gigantic task. Marketing Mahaweli was a challenge that Minister Gamini Dissanayake took on personally. He devoted a lot of his time and energy on fund raising -- he excelled in communicating the concept and scope to the media and the general public, addressing donors at meetings and dinners and generally getting everybody on board about AMP as there were negative views too publicised about the high costs and possible negative impacts of Mahaweli. This task the Minister discharged with aplomb, reaching out to different donors -- the British, the Swedes, the Germans and the Japanese on their respective wave lengths, convincing the parliamentary opposition and the people at large. His after-dinner addresses to donors were vivid and out of the box; he would say how Mahaweli would transform the lives of the rural backwaters, how  the peasants would emerge out of poverty, how health and education would be improved and rural populace empowered and eventually that  new markets would open up for the donor countries. He made sure to attend all kinds of forums pro and anti, that were held to deliberate on developmental, environmental and political issues and interact with a wide range of professionals and interest groups, all because he had a vision for the Mahaweli settlements -- a vibrant and prosperous agro-industrial society. He often said that Mahaweli should not breed a flat society as in the old colonisation schemes but rather mirror the country’s emerging modern diversified society.

The much awaited cabinet reshuffle of JRJ came in September 1978 and Gamini got twin Ministries that of Lands and Land Development and of Mahaweli Development possibly the only Minister to get such a combination. It took a couple of weeks to realign the existing ministries and to appoint key staff. One morning he called me and in the presence of N G P asked me something about the position of the Secretary to the Ministry of Lands and Land Development. As the question was not very clear I said I will come up with some names at which he shot back in his direct manner, “No, I want YOU   to be the Secretary.” Honestly this was too much for me; I sat back and asked for some time to decide. Then he asked   me why? I said I belong to a profession and a service and that he should consider other eligible candidates as well. “So you don’t want to displease your colleagues?” he asked   to which I said “to some extent yes” and that I would be quite happy to get experience   in an operational position right now. Think about it said the Minister. As we walked out of the minister’s room NGP asked me “why did you refuse the offer? If you want to swim, you have to get in to the water.”

There was no further consultation; after about a week I received a two paragraph letter from the Secretary to the President   that the President has directed him to inform me that I have been appointed Secretary to the Ministry of Lands and Development on September 25,  1978 and that the appointment will be published in the Gazette. Funnily enough, it was sent to my name with no address and not copied to any one, not even to the Minister. I   showed the letter to the Minister and thanked him for the confidence placed in me. I came to know later though that there had been many contenders for the position   but the Minister had insisted on appointing me although he had scarcely known me.

Up till now I had essentially observed the Minister from a distance; now I had to work closely with him. One of his first briefs to me was that he had to devote ‘a lot of time to politics’ and that I should take charge and run the Ministry. This was a tall order given the size and varied nature of the agencies under the Ministry many of them with a history of 100 years or more. Perhaps I had some advantage in that  the senior officials, especially in the technical departments like  the Survey, Irrigation Forest and Land Commissioner had been my colleagues in the field and in the former Ministry of Agriculture and Lands and I enjoyed their fullest support.

The Ministry of Lands and Land Development (MLLD) had to be built from scratch; we had no staff, no office space, no vehicles and equipment not even telephones as virtually everything was absorbed by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development as it was managing the AMP a lead project of the President. My first important task was to build a team of professional staff to design and implement the Ministry’s programme. Fortunately for me the Minister gave me an absolutely free hand to select competent and reliable senior staff who would be self driven and motivated. Although it took a couple of months to get   positions created and the staff released from their positions   by mid 1979 we were able to hold the first Land and Water Conference, a national level forum with the President, Prime Minister and key Ministers attending, to chalk out the Ministry’s vision for the year 2000 and a five-year work plan. At this Conference the Minister spelt out his vision and the strategies based on a number of professional studies and surveys held during the preceding months.

Indeed the months leading up to this conference was a time of intense activity where we conducted several surveys to understand in depth the ground situation and to figure out what is feasible in the short and medium term. Land and water sector which included forestry had been subject to a lot of immature experimentation and abuse under previous restrictive administrations which emphasized import substitution. Corrective action combined with a strategic plan and policies was the need of the day. It was indeed my fortune that the Minister had the patience to allow us time to deliberate on these matters. Thus between September 1978 and July 1979 we had conducted a full scale physical Survey of Encroachments on some one million acres of state land, a Forestry Sector Survey, a review of Water Management in major irrigation schemes, a study of land settlement experiences, restructuring of departments and to cap it all a Management Study with the help of experts from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmadabad (IIMA) to fully revamp the ministry and its institutions.
The Minister also agreed to get Dr. Henry West of Cambridge University, an expert in land economy, who had trained many Sri Lankan administrators over the years to formulate the scope of the Ministry’s role in natural resources management. Dr West, following extensive consultations locally came up with the following policy statement which was adopted at the 1979 Conference and remained the Ministry’s philosophy and guideline for the next decade.
“That the resources of the natural environment must belong ultimately to the whole nation and be devoted to the national welfare;

That there is an obligation on the social democratic state to erect an institutional structure by virtue of which such resources may be evaluated, monitored, conserved, distributed and utilised on a sustainable basis and to the greatest national advantage;

That as land and water provide the operational, conceptual and emotional plane of contact between the nation and the national environmental resources, this institutional structure should be framed in terms of land policy and land use planning;

That land policy and planning should be rooted in scientific understanding and reliable data; that it should have a positive development orientation, should be comprehensive and constantly reviewed, but should be sufficiently varied  and flexible to promote the operation of state, corporate and private sectors in a mixed economy and the objectives should be that the nation should learn to live in productive and harmonious equilibrium with nature; that access to resources should be widely and equitably distributed and that basic needs should be safeguarded for all citizens.”

All the agencies under the Ministry were restructured and staffed to work towards these goals and to co-ordinate with connected ministries.
I personally and my colleagues were so happy to have an enlightened and well-read minister who would give us a free hand to put into practice what we had learnt and believed in, in the larger interests of the country’s future. I was also fortunate to get the support of highly qualified and experienced technical and administrative staff who could be entrusted responsibilities with minimum supervision.

At the Land and Water Conference the Minister set out his plan in the following words. He said “The interdependence of land water and forests is so intricately interwoven that maintaining the delicate balance in the ecology and the environment should be every one’s concern…..

Our immediate focus has to be at least the Year 2000 which could for convenience be considered a landmark; but our long term focus has to be much further beyond, since these resources are in fact held and managed by us in trust for future generations……..

Finally, I must reiterate that our focus has to  be the long term, our focus has to be the rural environment  …….and our focus has to be on the rural people and on improving their quality of life without damage to the natural environment they are living in”

The   outcome of the Conference triggered a co-ordinated and focused set of activities that were to give direction and life to the natural resources sector to meet the challenges of the    21st Century and set a firm foundation for the transformation that was to occur in the economy with the blossoming of the Mahaweli Development Programme.

The following programs which helped transform the sector were of special significance:
·         Island wide programme of Encroachment Regularization and land allocation to the landless
·         Land use Policy Planning
·         Rehabilitation of major irrigated settlements starting with Gal Oya Scheme
·         Rehabilitation and restoration of Village Irrigation Systems island wide
·         Promotion of irrigation water management and farmer organisations
·          Large scale afforestation and  community Forestry
·         Forestry Sector Survey and Master Plan preparation
·         Systematic forest management and harvesting
·         Land Reclamation in urban areas
·         The Swarnabhoomi Program


These programmes, though less glamorous than Mahaweli were meant to reach out to a wider populace, especially the rural poor and to ensure sustainability and productivity of the rural environment and the revival of the economy.

Although the Minister was not involved in the day to day decision making on account of his focus on AMP and his other interests like cricket, he kept himself briefed constantly and provided leadership to the program by effectively communicating with stakeholders at all levels.

He always reminded staff that MLLD is an outdoor Ministry and we should reach out to the people especially in the rural areas where he wanted the impact to be felt.

Given the limitations of space, I would now move to a different aspect of our programme. The Minister was always supportive of strengthening institutions and development of human resources; he was also keen to open out Sri Lanka to the wider world. We had been deliberating on a land tenure and settlement study center and a Forestry Institute. In addition to restructuring all the key departments under the Ministry, we did re-establish the Galgamuwa Technical Training Institute which had died naturally due to neglect and initiated the Forestry School and a Masters Programme at the USJ.

The real opportunity at international level came in the mid eighties when the Ford Foundation on behalf of the international agricultural research community was on the lookout for a host country for a proposed International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI now IWMI).We started initial discussions in mid 1982, whence the Minister got the green light from the President and then vigorously pursued the opportunity against intense competition from countries in the Region. By September 1983 we signed the initial Agreement in spite of adverse publicity for Sri Lanka following the July unrest; thereafter the Minister steered it through Cabinet and Parliament to be able to host the first and so far the  only Headquarters of an  international body in Sri Lanka. IWMI raised Sri Lanka’s image in the international research and academic circles as a country receptive to global knowledge building and also helped many Sri Lankans to get exposed to working for and with an international research organisation.

On the strength of this initiative we also had the opportunity to invite IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) to establish its Regional Office here. Both these institutes which are thriving with close national collaboration   have given a boost to the management of natural resources and human resources in the country which was the goal Minister Dissanayake set out in 1979 at the first Land and Water conference.

The Minister’s overall personality and charisma and his extraordinary communication skills in both English and Sinhala was a major factor in convincing  a range of stakeholders, local and foreign, on the importance of Mahaweli for Sri Lanka’s future.

The late Minister Gamini Dissanayake not only pronounced these goals but got them going and indeed lived it. It is this nation’s misfortune that he did not live to witness their fruition; nevertheless, it is cause for satisfaction that there is a body of professionals, intellectuals and institutions that are interested in pursuing attaining those ideals. That would be the best tribute one could pay to a visionary leader who had to meet an untimely passage two decades ago.

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