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The Ministry of Lands in the late 1960s

There was a time when ministries and departments were distinctive organizations, each having its unique place in the administrative system. A ministry usually grouped together related departments, coordinating and facilitating their work, and acting as the political buffer between departments on the one hand and parliament and politics on the other. There were no ministers in departments and projects and in districts. The only politicians in the ministry were the minister and his deputy. Times have changed, and departments are now ministries, and ministries in the old sense of grouping related departments and corporations have largely disappeared. Consequently, politicians in the guise of cabinet ministers, non-cabinet ministers, project ministers, have supplanted the senior administrator who used to head departments. The proliferation of ministries has resulted in the politicization of the administrative system. Politicians have taken over the administration of the country.

In the 1960s, the Ministry of Lands, Irrigation and Power was a large and sprawling ministry bringing within it many leading departments and statutory bodies – the Land Commissioner, Land Settlement, Land Development, Irrigation, Power, (Department of Government Electrical Undertakings) Surveyor General, the Gal Oya Board, and State Plantations Corporation. The Minister was C. P. de Silva and the Parliamentary Secretary was Capt. C. P. J. Senewiratne. The ministry was lightly staffed – the Permanent Secretary, (M. Srikantha) the Additional Secretary, a former Surveyor General (P. U. Ratnatunga), Senior Assistant Secrtetary (T. Sivagnanam) and four Assistant Secretaries – A. G. F. (Francis) Perera, in charge of Administrative matters, W. Karunaratne, in charge of Finance, S. Subasinghe, from the Electrical Department looking after related matters, and myself, who looked after the Forest Department, Gal Oya Board, State Plantations Corporations and did sundry jobs from time to time. B. H. Hemapriya, the Press Officer worked closely with the minister. There was an excellent clerical and stenographer cadre, thoroughly conversant with the administrative detail. The ministry, including the departments and corporations, was a kaleidoscopic mixture of people and skills – administrators, engineers, surveyors, and the ministry was seen by some as largely an engineering ministry.

C P de Silva was an exceptional minister, having worked as a senior public servant and with long experience in irrigation and land development. He entered politics in the early 1950s, and from 1956, served as a minister in the same capacity for thirteen years (his political career had less than a year to run when I left the ministry). He was in charge of a powerful ministry, and was a leading politician in his own right. He was a dominant figure in politics between 1956 and 1964, when he crossed over from the SLFP to the UNP. As a UNP minister between 1965 and 1970, although he had the same ministry, he was a less influential political figure with a semi-detached relationship with the Prime Minister. He was not at ease in the UNP in the way he was in the SLFP. The minister had a mercurial temperament, and was unpredictable in his moods. While having a good relationship generally with his officials, he could be brusque and short-tempered at times. He was a visionary of a kind, and always full of plans to develop irrigation, power and land development projects. If he had his way, he would have constructed all kinds of canals and dams across the length and breadth of Sri Lanka. When he was in an expansive mood, mostly when he was on circuit, he would suggest all kinds of development schemes, without any time frame in mind. Sri Kantha and Sivagnanam had developed the art of ‘selective listening’ to the minister, confining themselves to taking in what is practical to implement. Once the minister was on circuit and he stopped near Tanamalwila, and pointed to the rolling landscape and made the pronouncement that this area was ideal for livestock and that he would like to see a large livestock development project. The senior official with him absorbed all this and when he got back to the ministry he built up a file after assiduous research on the feasibility of livestock development in that area. He gave this to the minister. The minister’s response was sharp: "who is the fool who told you that Tahanamalwila is good for livestock". The minister had lost all interest in livestock by this time.

C P de Silva had an unsophisticated development philosophy. He wanted to open up as much land as possible for cultivation and settlement of people. He was fascinated with engineering, and he wanted dams and canals and roads built in the dry zone so that people will take advantage of this infrastructure and develop their lands. He was irritated with cumbersome land settlement procedures and wanted people to be settled as fast as possible, and even went so far as to see land encroachment by land-hungry people as a positive feature in the development process. He took less interest in ensuring high levels of agricultural productivity and he felt that that was the matter for the farmer and for agricultural extension people. The minister’s philosophy brought him into collision with the newly formed and powerful Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs headed by the Prime Minister (Dudley Senanayake). The Ministry of Planning was more concerned with economic efficiency and getting the most from the investments made in the short-run. They frowned upon large capital expenditures on irrigation and land development and emphasized the intensification of agricultural development, instead of the expansionist plans of C. P. de Silva. There was much controversy at that time on these issues. In the long-term, C P de Silva was probably right in investing heavily on infrastructure , as a few years later, the costs would have escalated several fold. By investing in infrastructure first and leaving the farmers to increase their productivity, based on price incentives, was not such an illogical strategy as it was made out at the time.

There were other tensions with the Prime Minister. One had the impression that the Prime Minister was not favourably inclined towards the Ministry. There was no outward criticism although there were prime ministerial actions in the area of responsibility of the Ministry of Lands. One was the Gal Oya Board. The Prime Minister had appointed his own man (Kahawita) as the Chairman of the Board. In 1968, the Prime Minister, without much consultation with the Ministry of Lands, appointed Senator Arthur Amaratunga, who was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Planning as a one man committee to look into the affairs of the Gal Oya Board. I acted as the Secretary to the Committee. The Minister C. P. de Silva, and the Permanent Secretary, M. Sri Kantha, did not want to hear anything about it. The Permanent Secretary told me to work with Mr. Amaratunga and that the Ministry of Lands was not particularly concerned either with the Committee or its Report. The report came to the conclusion that the Gal Oya Board should be phased out and normal systems of administration in the Amparai District should take over from the Board. There was another instance of prime ministerial intervention. The Prime Minister wanted a report from the Ministry on the deforestation that was taking place in Horton Plains. I enjoyed a good holiday in preparing this report.

One of my most interesting assignments in the Ministry was to follow-up on the Committee stage of the Budget Debate (in relation to the Votes of the Ministry). C P de Silva was sensitive to MPs’ concerns and he wanted the observations made by MPs during the Committee stage of the Budget Debate scrupulously followed-up. About fifty MPs had made observations on diverse aspects of the work of the Ministry and its departments. They were largely to do with the Irrigation Department and the Land Commissioner’s Department. The Minister told me that I should prepare a letter to each of these MPs, which he would sign, telling them how the issues they had raised were being addressed. This involved talking to the departments concerned, and even visiting a few field sites to find out the facts. This was a time-consuming, although rewarding, task and took a couple of months. This is a fine illustration of how Parliament, without getting involved in administration, can influence, policies and programmes of a ministry, through proper attention to Parliament’s oversight functions.

Most of the people I worked with at the Ministry are no more. M. Sri Kantha, the Permanent Secretary was a gentle and kindly soul. I got to know him in early 1961 in Jaffna, when he had been removed suddenly from his job of Government Agent Jaffna. At that time, he was living in a private residence in Jaffna Town, and I met with him several times. It was he who wanted me to come to the Ministry of Lands. Those days he had no official car, and I used to drop him at his residence in Norris Canal Road on many occasions. A deeply religious man, nothing much ruffled him. T. Sivagnanam, was an outstanding public servant and knew the subject of irrigation more than most engineers. His days of fame lay in the future, with the Mahaweli Scheme. I was privileged to work closely with him on many matters, especially the early design and planning of the Udawalawe Project. Having observed the way in which the Asian Development Bank team dealt with cost- benefit analysis, to suit its own purposes and that of the Ministry, Sivagnanam, developed a healthy skepticism on this kind of quantitative make-belief. I learnt a lot from working with him. A. G. F. Perera was a superb administrator, and had worked in the Treasury where his icon was Shirley Amarasinghe. Watching A G F, his demeanour and his actions, there was the impression that he was much influenced by his iconic superior. B. H. Hemapriya, was the prince of press officers. He had a love for the dry zone and was widely read on Sri Lankan history. A few months before he died he left me a large file of his press writing. As a press officer, his aim was to get the work of the ministry a high profile in the media. There was no personality cult of always getting the minister into the limelight.

What impresses me most today is the sense of collegiality which prevailed in the Ministry. We worked as a team, and there was no competition to get ahead of each other. There was no great eagerness to be close to the minister. Political preferment was not much heard of at the time. There was a creative space for the public servant to contribute to policy development and improvements of procedures and practices. The politicians were the masters, and the Public Servants were not servants but partners.

(The writer served as an Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Lands, Irrigation and Power from 1967 to 1969)

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