Politics

Gamini Iriyagolla
A Brief Memoir

Gamini Seneviratne
I attempt here merely to place his personality and working life in context. His work in the public service was followed by a practice in the higher Courts including much done pro bono, and in published commentaries on matters of public policy. In all such the quality of his work was outstanding.

He was a few years senior to me in school, fewer than the difference in age at entering University or joining the Ceylon Civil Service. At Royal he carried away some of the landmark prizes that were supposed to separate men from boys in scholastic terms; he edited the college magazine. He also distinguished himself as an athlete at rugby and in track & field. I believe he topped his batch at the University Entrance examination. When he graduated (in Law), he was under-age for the C.C.S. exam. He used that time of waiting, for what was then the prestigious slot in the public service, to complete his professional examinations in law and be enrolled as an Advocate.

He joined the C.C.S. in the company of others who achieved high distinction; among them the late Gaya Cumaranatunga and Ackiel Mohamed merit special mention. Wimal Nawagamuwa, who topped that batch, was the first to depart. Devanesan Nesiah and Raja Senanayake, the others who are around, have pursued careers, as they were to do, somewhat adrift of the public service. R. Paskaralingam is once more active as advisor at a high level.

I first met Gamini, to work with, in 1966, in the Ministry of Agriculture & Food; that was a natural combination of functions that efforts have since been made to uncouple in the service of predatory global interests. It was his first posting on his return from postgraduate studies at Cambridge. He had by then served in Anuradhapura under Nissanka Parakrama Wijeratne, and in the Land Commissioner’s department in the wake of M. Rajendra. Around the same time I was transferred to that ministry from Matara, literally "by telegram": ‘political interference’ in the management of what is known to textbooks as ‘public administration’ has a hoary history that in Sri Lanka antedated the Republican Constitution of 1972 by over a hundred years.

In Agriculture & Food, M. D. Banda was the Minister, with the genial P. C. Imbulana as Parliamentary Secretary and Baku Mahadeva as his Permanent Secretary. Neil Bandaranaike, whose field experience was very wide indeed, was Director of Agricultural Development, Gamini was his deputy. Neil was the unquestioned leader of the team, Gamini its catalytic force. It was early days for the Ceylon Administrative Service, and as the programme, which the Prime Minister, Dudley Senanayake, called a ‘Food War’, gathered steam, a number of officers from line departments were brought in. The distinction that all of them achieved later perhaps had its roots in the culture of work that Neil and Gamini established there. Not least in that team were the support staff some of whom were mean competitors at billiards and snookers at the old Government Services Club: several moved with me to the new Ministry of Plantation Industries in 1970.

All those officers who were based in Colombo worked closely with the Government Agents, the District Agricultural Committees (DAC) and the district heads of line departments. Cultivation programmes for each season were developed at the Ministry in consultation with them, and cross-checked with those proposed by the DAC. Though we were all involved in these activities, Neil handled the paddy programme while Gamini directed the livestock development programme. In due course, as Gamini and Neil moved on, to the Agrarian Research & Training Institute (ARTI), and to the Milk Board, respectively, those programs came within my responsibilities.

The ‘food war’ which pursued the objective of self-sufficiency in rice for the people has since taken many nasty turns, mostly engineered or supported by ‘Colombo wallahs’ who have never held a plough. The dominant tactic is the pursuit of a programme with the object of destroying the people’s capacity to feed themselves. The dismantling of the Paddy Marketing Board and the vandalising of the Department of Agriculture (DoA) and related institutions were important components of that ‘project’. This and similar exercises are being mediated through the absorption of a range of mercenaries at varying levels in decision-making or advisory positions.

The DoA did exemplary work in research, developing varieties that were diseaseresistant (eliminating the need for agro-chemicals) and also could produce high yields at minimal levels of added fertiliser. It conducted Co-ordinated Rice Varietal Trials which proved that the hybrids developed by our scientists were superior to IR-8 and other "miracle" varieties that came out of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. office-holders in that Department since have chosen to forget that history in pursuit of the greener pastures that demand the subservience that a lowing cow would not deign to supply.

We had become habituated to the import of rice due to the anxiety of the colonial administration to supplement low wages, especially in the plantation sector, at the cost of the native peasantry, - the major contributor to agricultural production (a fact that is ignored in official reports) and to food security at national and household

level. Such imports supplemented domestic production. The purchase and processing of paddy was undertaken or co-ordinated by the Department of Agrarian Services (DAS) and MPCSs and supplied to the Food Commissioner.

Attempts were made to place the production of seed paddy and other quasi-commercial activities of the DoA on a self-financing footing. ‘Programme Budgeting’ initiated via the General Treasury, worked only with respect to the DoA. Under Gamini’s overall direction D. A. Kumarage, the Chief Accountant and I worked over the figures at regular intervals. However the attempts made to bring in the efficiency that the private sector is rumoured to possess under a ‘special leases scheme’ proved disastrous. Big private companies, especially agency houses, were given thousands of acres of land in and around Alutharama (Mahiyangana) for commercial food production. They were given tax breaks and duty free import of agricultural machinery. They used the latter to fell the jungle, sell the timber and leave a desert behind. We have also the prior example of the Minneriya Company that scored a spectacular failure around 1915. Evidently in our environment food crop production does not suit company operations on a large scale.

The ministry covered key departments headed by distinguished public servants: Food (P. A. Silva), Agriculture (M. S. Perera), Agrarian Services (S. B. Senanayaka), Cooperatives (P. E. Weeraman), and Marketing (K. B. Dissanayake). They were supported by a phalanx of highly competent and honourable public servants. Listing them would cover several columns: what a contrast to a profile of the public service now! Tea and Rubber Control, as also Coconut & Cocoa Rehabilitation, incidentally, were located in the Ministry as they seemed to fit in even less elsewhere. Those industries were run by brokering firms and agency houses, visiting agents and the Estate Employers’ Federation, the public servants who dealt with them choosing, through long practice, to be cogs in that particular wheel.

A former Conservator of Forests, (‘Kela Rajjuruwo’), J. L. E. Fernando, joined the Ministry as Additional Permanent Secretary, — I confess to a few dadi-bidi with him-and was followed by Tissa Ratnatunge who had been for many years the Settlement officer, a key position in colonial land administration.

What was that recital of names, and others omitted for reasons of space, about? It was about public servants who served the people. Few in that generation were chastised for it, as has become common now. But the signs of adopting sycophancy as the route to ‘advancement’ at whatever cost to the public they were paid to serve, were already there: within that ministry itself we saw a couple of very senior officials sabotaging the Urea Project to help the importers of Sulphate of Ammonia.

Besides his general rectitude, Gamini was not by temperament, ‘a Party man’. Though circumstances had changed and political parties had stabilised themselves, much like burrs, in society, Gamini stayed within the tradition of the Independents among whom his father, I. M. R. A. Iriyagolla, T. B. Subasinghe, W. Dahanayake and a few others had continued for many years through successive parliamentary elections. Despite his father taking ministerial office under a government that, like Philip Gunawardena before him, he had previously opposed, Gamini remained sceptical of the role of politicians who had become ministers through the mechanism of ‘party’.

In 1969 Gamini Iriyagolla was sent to set up the ARTI and I was appointed in his place as deputy to Neil. Shortly after that Neil moved to the Milk Board and Mahinda Silva took his place. At that point a cloud appeared in Gamini’s career. The ARTI was to be headed by a foreigner, Dr. Ernest Feder, with Gamini as his counterpart. Gamini decided that he was not prepared to spend the most productive years of his life looking over the shoulder of someone else. What he perhaps ignored was that the ARTI was designed to be the regional centre for agrarian studies. Among public servants and academics he surely had a more profound understanding of our agrarian economy than anybody else, though we all had much to learn from our vel vidanas and gamaralas. Although Feder’s principal work had been in Latin America, he had worked upon a larger canvas, practically and theoretically. He was a scholar of outstanding ability. Eventually, we lost his services towards, say, taking a fresh look at Marx’s notion of the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ (AMP) that later came to be supported further through the Accelerated Mahaweli Programme (AMP) that Gamini, at its very inception, critiqued so incisively.

The outcome of it all, nevertheless, was that with the change of government in 1970, both Feder and Gamini were out of the ARTI. Mahinda Silva who had succeeded Neil Bandaranaike, moved up as Permanent Secretary and on the bifurcation of the ministry I was moved to the new Ministry of Plantation Industries as its Senior Assistant Secretary. Gamini was moved back to the Ministry of Agriculture as Deputy Director - to succeed me who had succeeded him! Envy is a powerful agent indeed. He was later appointed Senior Assistant Secretary in what had become the Ministry of Agriculture & Lands.

Gamini Iriyagolla was one of the ‘sharpest minds’ I have encountered, but, with him, that was a question-begging term. What is ‘sharp’? Any policeman can read past, or himself concoct, an unlikely story. Gamini’s quickness of perception was of a very different order. His studies in the law as it has been practiced here over the past one hundred plus years certainly contributed to a particular approach to phenomena but his being was conditioned in what, in this language, are called ‘the humanities’. Gamini’s life was rooted in his native land, its language and its culture and the sturdy branches it had thrown out. The egotism that tended to cloud, not his thinking—for he was conscious of that hazard—rather his mode of expression in company, as though he were facing a mirror of sorts, faded away as he set out to articulate the history and way of life of the people of this land.

He viewed ‘the law’, as it had come to be written down in enactments of various kinds, in the light of customary law. The latter helped the people manage their own societies and guaranteed their survival. The former were, and continue ever more transparently to be, designed to serve the interests of those who seek to promulgate them. In taking this view Gamini belonged, in contemporary times, with C. J. Weeramantry, A. R. B. Amerasinghe, R. K. W. Goonesekera and H. L. de Silva.

So it was with the succession of "new" approaches to agricultural development. He was familiar with the traditional systems of water and land management, with the numerous obligations cast on landholder and/or tiller, and how the produce should be most equitably apportioned. He comprehended and articulated the basis of those systems long before they were translated into ‘theories’ by social scientists, local and foreign, who had acquired a partial acquaintance with them in recent years.

His book on the Mahaweli project predated by some twenty years the current view that. large dams, mouth-watering in their opportunities for making big money, aren’t good for you. They damage the environment, especially human settlements. They tend to deliver power, some of it hydro-electric, much of it in straight cash, and generate resistance, hitherto mostly fruitless, by people who are forcibly relocated away from their age-old villages and way of life. I was associated with him in discussions with foreign experts on the Master Plan for the Mahaweli in the late 1960s, and my appreciation of his contribution towards the re-thinking of the premises on which it was based has grown with time.

His writings on the Kandyan Convention, which has been violated even more aggressively by several ‘native’ administrations since 1948, on ‘citizenship by affidavit’ as occurs nowhere else in the world, and on myth-making on ‘homelands’, should be required reading throughout the educational system — in foreign universities as well. One would have to be extraordinarily benign to believe that those who are given the floor on such matters are unaware of his work - or, indeed of its primary sources. The bulk of his writings was in Sinhala but much of it is available in English for those who comprehend that language.

Through a long period of partial incapacitation, acutely distressing for a man of his gifts and temperament, he never volunteered any kind of complaint. A question put to him would occasionally draw a remonstrance related to his state of dependence, always gently phrased — recrimination was long behind him.

He is gone now, carried aloft on other waves in the ocean of samsara. In his later life he saw himself and the life around him with eyes emptied of ego; in his latter days, physically handicapped though he was, he was the image of a prescient being.


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