Sun, 05 Dec 2021 Today's Paper

A great engineer who led from the front

Lalith Vidanapathirana

23 October 2021 12:50 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Phidias, the great sculptor was immersed in work. It was 447 BC, and Phidias was given the mission to sculpt a massive statue of the goddess of wisdom and war –Athena by a statesman of Athens - Pericles. He was working high above ground, behind the head of Athena. A passerby wanted to ridicule Phidias and shouted at him… ‘O great sculptor Phidias..! Who will ever want to know what kind of fine works you are creating? No one is going to climb this massive statue and have a look”. Phidias answered. “I will…”  Men of this nature, who will put everything… heart and soul to a task, given to them when no one is looking are rare. Yet, we at Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) are fortunate to have many such men among us. Men who will silently work under trying conditions to keep the country lit up and active. Leaving the master sculptor Phidias in the distant past, let me tell the story of one such man: Lalith Vidanapathirana.


I first encountered Lalith at the Deputy General Manager’s office of CEB in Galle in 1987. He was an energetic Construction Engineer and we were a group of trainees from University of Moratuwa, two years into the degree programme. We were solving various problems. Suddenly we heard a strong voice. What are you trainees doing here? It was a command. We had no business indoors; we should be outdoors. Thus begun a spell of constant engagement in various projects in and around Galle. We learnt much about electricity distribution and about what to expect in a career as electrical engineers. 


We met again in 1997; now both of us working for the same organisation, CEB, at a training workshop on Power System Protection. He caught my attention as the most active participant shooting so many practical questions. He exclaimed that it is so very nice to have me in CEB. Then our paths crossed again in 2006, this time at a training workshop. CEB then had only 3 MW of capacity from wind power and now, 103 MW capable of providing the annual electricity requirements of more than 400,000 Sri Lankan homes.


Lalith made a massive contribution to make it happen on the ground. Then he went on overseas assignment. This was a UNDP assignment which benefited Iraq, as he was able to fully develop teams capable of shouldering the massive reconstruction burden, after years of conflict. 


When Lalith returned I worked with him in a boundary metering project. We attempted to scale up the success of the first wind power project in Hambantota, in a 30MW wind project in Kalpitiya. Despite all efforts it wasn’t a success.  


During these days I learnt about his early career at Samuel & Sons.  I was told that he was a formidable force. With this knowhow, he was a much sought after person in CEB. When it came to Lalith it was about leading. Be it the transmission lines destroyed by insurgents or distribution systems torn apart, he was willing to lead from the front. 


Then in 2016 Lalith called me and asked whether I would join him to build the wind power plant in Mannar. By that time my colleagues Kumara and Thusitha had done a sizable job in Mannar, initiating all-important bird survey and other pre-project development work. I told Lalith that I would join if he agreed to lead the project and train young engineers. Lalith agreed. 


He stood by his team through struggles and fought for what he believed in with the sincere motive to get things done. So, we accomplished all pre-project development tasks within a short period of time. We saved a few million Dollars and a whole year of project gestation period. 


 The 103 MW, the largest-ever wind power plant in Sri Lanka, was about to enter the construction phase. Then came the devastating news about a serious illness he had developed. The illness reduced his mobility, but he made it a point to attend all important events. He had a dream, just to see one turbine erected “before I go” he would tell us. He did not wait that long. He only lived to see the selection of a leading turbine manufacturer as the main contractor. However, he fulfilled his dream to see his son’s graduation ceremony, albeit his failing health. He left us on October 22, 2018, leaving the unfinished job in the able hands of Upul.  


Mannar wind power project is now a reality. I stood diminutive under the massive wind turbines standing tall on the Mannar shoreline and running against the wind, which reminded me of the struggles made by many. Who would have ever thought that… 
We were running against the Wind…
We were young and strong, we were running against the Wind… 
Well, I am older now but still running against the Wind… 
against the Wind… against the Wind… against the Wind…


This by all means is a feeble attempt to share my memories of a man of integrity, dedication and practical approach. It is also an attempt to appreciate and recognise the lives of many other Sri Lankans, who are still running against the Wind. It is also to remind the young, not to get swept away by Winds. For his impressive run of life was always against the Wind.   


May he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana.
Ajith Alwis

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