Sixth Death Anniversary
The man who tamed the wild Mahaweli

By P. Mapitigama
Secretary General of JR Jayewardene Centre
On a chilly night in late November, 1969, I met Gamini Lionel Dissanayake for the first time when he visited my official residence at Nuwara Eliya. The twenty seven year old Gamini had been nominated a few days back to contest the Nuwara Eliya seat as the UNP candidate. The MP for Kotmale, D. B. Ranatunge, who was a close relative and dear friend of our family accompanied him.

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Gamini Dissanayake

Gamini was a young graduate in his late twenties. He was fair, lean and frail and spoke excellent English. He was a gifted conversationalist. After a few rounds of coffee, I was convinced of the wisdom of his party hierarchy to have chosen this young man as their representative for a significant district of the country. Adorned with a highly diversified ethnic background. Nuwara Eliya was highly regarded by many a literati as a district of profound political significance of the era. In my personal opinion, the district had a lot of promise, on both bases - personal and political.

A few weeks afterwards, I had the opportunity of listening to the maiden political speech of young Gamini Dissanayake. He spoke with a few jerks and breaks but managed to convey his message to the voter. I noticed him speaking in Sinhala with enormous difficulty and I thought he had, at first, ooutlined his speech in English and then delivered in Sinhala. Gamini picked up his Sinhala in double quick time and within a few weeks, he became one of the finest Sinhala speakers. Requests kept coming from other areas inviting him to speak at election meetings.

I was impressed with the style and the manner with which he initiated and conducted his political campaign. Gamini’s brother, Norman Dissanayake, an excellent organiser, was helpful in coordinating the work in the electorate. Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria, brother-in-law to Gamini Dissanayake, a fine election strategist, headed the entire organisation and was a tower of strength to Gamini.

He had nearly a dozen of budding young lawyers covering the entire area. Cellular telephones were not heard of in those days but they had their own internal network and coordination was excellent. From the inception to completion this was a prime paradigm of brilliant teamwork.

Gamini came from a highly respectable Kandyan family in Kotmale. He had his higher education at a leading school in Kandy and at the young age of 24 years graduated as a lawyer. In 1969 Dudley Senanayake picked Gamini to contest the Nuwara Eliya seat. This had been his father’s electorate some years back. Although Gamini won the seat, he lost the seat later on, on an election petition. He won the by-election again with a majority of 2,750 votes. He was the youngest member of his party, which was reduced to 17 members in 1970. The six years he spent in the opposition gave him an excellent opportunity to brush up his oratorical skills and by 1977, he was one of the foremost debaters in parliament.

In the 1977 General Election, J R Jayewardene was elected to power with a five sixth majority and he was looking for promising young men to form a cabinet. One of the vital ministries in the cabinet was the Ministry of Irrigation, Power and Highways that oversaw the Mahaweli Authority, which eventually became a separate ministry. The Mahaweli scheme was one of the essential items in the political manifesto of the UNP at that time. This ministry carried the potential of becoming the mirror image of success or failure of the newly elected government.

The Ministry of Irrigation, Power and Highways, formally headed by the deputy leader of the previous Government, veteran Maithripala Senanayake, was handed over to 35-year old Gamini Dissanayake who had never held a cabinet portfolio before. There would have been good reasons for a person of the calibre of J R Jayewardene to have chosen this young man with barely seven years of political experience behind him over many others who were more senior to Gamini, both in age and experience. Then again sixth sense might have influenced JR on his decision to pass on the most arduous and daunting task of his government to the youngest member of the cabinet.

To undertake the Mahaweli Accelerated Scheme was undoubtedly a challenge to anybody, but Gamini had the courage, strength and vitality to accept it. He was determined to deliver the goods in time.

Day and night he planned the infrastructure to tame the Mahaweli in the waythe govt. wanted and to complete the entire project in six years, instead of taking thirty years as was planned by his predecessors. He travelled day and night covering every inch of the Mahaweli area. He met farmers and villagers and discussed the subject with them. He listened to their problems and came to know of their aspirations. After coming back from the field he met the President and discussed as to how a start should be given. JR’s main concern was speed of the project.

"Why cannot we build all the dams simultaneously—Kotmale, Victoria and Randenigala instead of one by one? While we are building the dams why cannot we clear the jungle, build the canals and settle the people?"

JR visited the Mahaweli Board with Gamini. They met the engineers and administrators. JR posed the vital question for them.

" Can’t you do this in six years - why thirty years?" JR asked. Officials were silent for a couple of minutes and then there was a response. " If you give us the manpower, money and equipment we have the ability to do it in six years, the officials responded," JR and Gamini were delighted.

Appeals were made to the US, UK, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Canada and France for assistance. Gamini invited diplomats and local heads of aid missions for detailed discussions. It was not an easy task to find the money. JR, Gamini and Ronnie de Mel may have spent many nights straining their brains thinking of ways to overcome the difficulty.

A team of engineers and administrators were picked for the project. Dr. K. N. S. Kulasinghe, Douglas Ladduwahetty, Walter Abeygunasekera, K. H. S. Gunatilake, D. V. A. Senaratne, Maheshwaran, Ratne S. Cooke, S. Punrajah, K. D. K. Perera, Ivan Samarawickrema, T. Sivaganeshan, C. W. E. Rosa, Parker Perera, H. D. S. Manamperi, N. G. P. Panditharatne, R. U. Fernando, Lalith S. Godamunne, K. D. Perera, P. T. Senaratne, Dennis Fernando, Rama Somasundaram, Jayatissa Bandaragoda and Nanda Abeywickrema were some of those selected for the great operation.

It was during this period I was invited by Gamini to join the team. I left the Department of Probation and Childcare to assume duties as the Senior Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Irrigation, Power and Highways.

Gamini was a different man when I met him as minister. As the trusted and able lieutenant of the most powerful politician of the era—JR, Gamini had immense ascendancy over othersbestowed on him. He most certainly possessed the spirit of endurance. In a spotless white dress and open smile, combined with a dynamic personality, Gamini was in a class of his own. He was truly one of the most outstanding politicians to have come through in the recent past. I strongly felt and know without any doubt that one day he would enjoy the highest political authority the country has to offer - a view that was later adequately substantiated although it never totally materialised.

With all the power at his command, he was yet one of those men with whom one could discuss problems. He was unanimously elected President of the Plantation Workers’ Union. Then became the President of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka. A meticulously prepared and authoritatively delivered speech by Gamini at the ICC Headquarters in London brought the awaited ‘Test’ match playing status to the country. It is still recognised as one of the most significant moments of the history of the sport in Sri Lanka.

Another noted quality in Gamini was that he was an inspiration to those who work with him. He spoke out as he believed and acted instantly whenever he saw an injustice. One of the most memorable moments in his life is the occasion he opposed the civic disabilities imposed on Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. That was a great moment in his life from where his upright qualities reflected all over and afar illuminating his righteous image forever.

Once Gamini was addressing a political meeting at the "Belek Kade" junction in Ratmalana. It was different to the type of speeches he had made earlier and I was not at all impressed with his speech. When I met him a few days after the meeting, I voiced my view, and I particularly mentioned that the standard of his speech at Ratmalana seemed to have deteriorated. I was keen in giving my candid observations.

"Several known people expressed the same view, but it is a surprise that you do not understand the audience I had to address. I had to address factory workers and I had to use a language that they could easily and readily understand ". I nodded and agreed with him as I realised that he was correct. That type of language was indeed necessary to reach the heart and soul of the factory worker effectively.

Once again, he was invited to address the top personnel of the Department of Irrigation. It was more or less a departmental conference that was not intended for the public, but due to an oversight of Ananda Dharmapriya, the Press Officer, the press had been invited. I was worried and agitated about the gaffe as I was responsible for the event as the officer in charge. Right on time, the Minister arrived at the Department headquarters at Jawatte. The Director of the Department of the Irrigation met the Minister at the entrance to the building. I wanted to take him on a longer route to the Conference Hall as I wanted time to explain the complicated and sensitive issues at hand. However, he took the shorter cutto the Conference Hall. Within this short space of time, I whispered to him and said that we have made a mistake by inviting the press.

"What do you want me to do? ", he asked.

"Sir, it is nice if you can speak on a general subject for a little while and then make a request to the press to withdraw as we have to carry on with the official work."

The house was full and he was in an happy mood. He greeted everyone and started his speech. He started with Sinhala kings, present arid zones without water, ancient irrigation schemes such as Kalawewa, Parakrama Samudra, Yoda Ela and other subsidiary tanks. He spoke on modern technology, irrigation, agriculture, water management and hydropower. There was pin drop silence. He spoke for nearly 45 minutes and then he turned towards the table where the press officers were seated.

"Gentlemen of the press, thanks you, thank you very much for being with us. Now I want to conduct the day’s programme with my officials. You may now withdraw". The Minister concluded the first part of his speech and sat down giving time for the press to withdraw. Everyone thought the meeting was conducted according to a well-planned agenda. On the following day some English dailies even wrote editorials on the subject. He was such a brilliant impromptu speaker who could speak without a script or even a scrap of paper.

Gamini was a minister who had firm determination and self-confidence in whatever he did. While resting in a bed or travelling in a car or flying in a plane, he read whatever material he could get hold of on the subject in hand. He listened to resourceful persons and maintained an inner circle of trusted advisors and consultants. At the end of the prescribed term of six years, he had tamed the Mahaweli, the way he wanted it done and was also successful in adding 623 megawatts to the national grid.

On August 23, 1994, Gamini became the Leader of the Opposition and was nominated unanimously as the UNP candidate for the Presidential election.

It was the evening of October 23, 1994. After spending a weekend in Kandy, I was returning to Colombo in the evening. For some unknown or inexplicable reason, I travelled in a vehicle which was not equipped with a mobile phone. Gamini Dissanayake had tried to reach me several times during the day. Failing his effort he had at last left a message asking me to contact him immediately on my return to Colombo.

By the time I returned home it was around 11.00 p.m. I rang him up immediately and was told that he had gone to address an election meeting at Kotahena. No one knew the expected time of his return. If I were in Colombo that day or had my cellular telephone with me when I was in Kandy, I would have most certainly gone to his house or would have even probably proceeded with him to the meeting at Kotahena.

I felt like attending the meeting even at that time, but as I was too tired after the long trip, I rang up L.B. Aluvihare, Private Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, on his cellular telephone. At that time he was just passing Kelaniya. I appealed to him to proceed to Kotahena, just a kilometer away, to see the progress of the meeting and to know exactly why Gamini wanted me. I usually return a call from Gamini as soon as possible. For him to ring me up several times the same day within a space of a few hours was ample evidence that he had some urgent business with me. L.B. readily agreed to my proposal and I retired to bed.

The telephone rang past midnight. As usual, my wife reached the telephone first. L.B. was on the other end of the line. As soon as I heard the dejected voice, very unusual for vivacious L.B. I knew that something dreadful had happened. What L.B. had to say brought tears to my eyes. I heard the most distressing and shocking message I have ever heard in my life. "Gamini is gone", he said and the telephone went dead.

As a senior public servant, I have worked for Gamini Dissanayake for 13 long years. During the administration of J. R. Jayewardene, I served the country under Gamini in various capacities and finally as Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Lands, Irrigation and Mahaweli Development. I was with him from the time he was sworn in as a minister until he was unremorsefully removed from the Mahaweli Ministry and eventually from the cabinet of ministers by President Premadasa on March 30, 1990.

I consider it an immense privilege to have had the opportunity of serving such an exalted and noble personage who changed the destiny of the country for the better and bettered the welfare of the people whom he loved and treasured dearly.

A man destined to guide the nation and mould the country for a better future had gone forever. A refined man, a powerful minister, a first class orator, a seasoned debater, a potential future president and a multi-faceted great leader, who tamed the wild Mahaweli in six years had been assassinated by a group of gruesome and heartless murderers.

Sri Lanka lost a great man who can never be replaced.