The Gal Oya Project 60 years on - Part I


K. Kanagasundram

by Ajit Kanagasundram


Not many people today remember the Gal Oya Project but for 20 years it was the showpiece of modern independent Ceylon. It was later overshadowed by more grand (grandiose?) projects like Mahaveli where billions more were spent but the Gal Oya Project remains the standard by which all other projects should be judged.

The Gal Oya Project, moreover , stands as an exemplar as to how things should be done under ideal circumstances. The project was done and paid for within our own resources, managed by local administrators and completed on time and all major objectives relating to the clearing of forest, settlement of colonists and irrigation of land were accomplished. Even more remarkable, all through the project there was no whiff of scandal, though many millions were spent on equipment. My father when he was Chairman of the Gal Oya Board and building his house in Colombo, would not order building supplies under his own name as he feared unsolicited discounts from suppliers. Very different from later projects like the Mahaveli where it was a standing joke that the Mahaveli had been diverted from Trinco to Finco.

Let me first confess my bias – I have been intimately involved in the project since childhood. My father was the Chairman of the Gal Oya Board from 1952 to 1957, when the bulk of the work was done - like the building of the main dam, clearing the jungle, constructing the irrigation system and settling 70% of the colonists. Among my happiest memories are holidays spent at Ampara and Inginiyagala when the area teemed with with wildlife - my lifelong passion. After graduating from Cambridge my first job (given by R.L Kahawita, then Chairman of Gal Oya Board, was as a field worker paid Rs 10 per day (!) in a socio-economic survey of the colonists’ standard of living. I was later the Assistant Secretary to the Gal Oya Project Evaluation Committee headed by one of my Cambridge professors B.H. Farmer, and where the Secretary was Tissa Devendra my first (and best) boss (!), and one of the last of the truly distinguished public servants. Yes – I am biased but the facts speak for themselves and I hope that they will teach us that, like in the days of the great Sinhala kings, we Lankans can still do great public works for the general good and do it to world class standards.


The Genesis of the Project

The genesis of this projects, and indeed all other projects that followed it like the Mahaweli, was our first Prime Minister D S Senanayake’s vision to settle the dry zone with Sinhala colonists from the Kandyan areas, provide them with cleared land, irrigation and housing and redress in some way the historical injustice done to them when the British expropriated their ancestral lands - especially after the Kandyan revolt of 1848 (under the infamous Waste Lands Ordinance ) and then cleared the land and cultivated coffee and tea with alien Indian Tamil labourers. This was the first "ethnic cleansing" in Sri Lanka.

Was there an anti-Tamil racist element in DS’s thinking? Historians who have studied him will not agree and my father, who knew him well, confirmed it to me. DS was pro- Sinhala not anti-Tamil. It was the Sinhala people who had their traditional homelands expropriated by the British and who suffered from endemic land hunger especially in the Kandy and Kegalle areas. Furthermore, the lands to be colonized were in jungle areas (albeit within the "historical homelands’’ of the Tamils (according to the Federal Party) and during the project not a single Tamil farmer was displaced. On the contrary there was generous provision for village expansion in the Purana lands cultivated by Muslims and Tamils. The Sinhalese settled were for the most part, true farmers – goviyas – and were able to make full use of the government largesse. If DS had any prejudice it was to favour the goigamas and vellalas!

Once , travelling to Batticaloa by train my father was told by SJV Chelvanayagam, the founding father of the Federal Party, " Young man – do you realize that you are driving a dagger into the heart of the Tamil people?" My father patiently explained that as AGA Kegalle he had witnessed the dire land hunger of the Kandyan peasantry. The lands colonized were jungle lands uninhabited, and there would be ample village expansion lands for the Tamils and Muslims in the Purana lands. All to no avail. Chelvanayagam exhibited the same dog-in-the manger attitude that the Federal Party was to show till the 1970s when JR Jayewardene settled the issue once and for all, this time with an overtly racist motivation and used the Mahaveli project to settle tens of thousands of Sinhalese in the North-east and forever changed the demographic balance in the East and destroyed forever the Eelamist dream of a Tamil Ealam in the North and the East. This time the colonization was not accompanied by village expansion schemes for the Tamils in their traditional lands and many were evicted from their ancestral lands. From Sri Lanka’s point of view a desirable end was achieved but at the cost of unnecessary suffering for the Tamils displaced.

But now, back to the history of Gal Oya – in the late 1940s, DS consulted a small group of engineers in the Irrigation Department about the possibility of a major colonization/irrigation project in place of the incremental colonization that had been done in the 30s and 40s when DS was the Agriculture Minister in the colonial era State Council. The engineers, headed by R L Kahawita and Kennedy, recommended Gal Oya (Kahawita and Arumugam were the two greatest hydraulic engineers we have produced.) Incidentally Kahawita’s son, Professor Renee Kahawita, is a Professor of Hydraulics at the University of Montreal and the principal consultant to the Chinese government in the Three Gorges Project – the greatest engineering project in history. They recommended the following:


1) They could design the dam and irrigation network but Ceylon lacked the engineering depth to implement the main dam project.

2) Modern equipment be used to supplant the traditional labour intensive schemes to accelerate implementation of building the irrigation system and clearing the land for the colonists

3) 50,00 colonist families could be settled in cleared land with housing and irrigation within five years – a monumental task.


DS set to work immediately – an international tender was called and within three months given to Morrison Knudsen, a US firm that had earned its spurs constructing airfields for the US military under Japanese fire. They were known not to waste time. Kahawita was sent to Boulder, Colorado to design the dam with a world famous engineer, whose name I have forgotten. Then DS looked around for the best administrator he could find and picked Huxham, an Australian Civil Servant who was the Head of the Treasury ,to head the project, at the then princely salary of Rs 3,000 per month – unheard of in the Civil Service!

A Bill was passed in Parliament setting up the Gal Oya Development Board – hereinafter GODB. It was to have plenipotentiary powers over 1,400 square miles – combining the powers of the Government Agent, Irrigation Department, Electricity and Water Boards and all local authority functions.

But things moved too fast for Huxham who was used to the more sedate ways of the British Civil Service. Kahawita finished the design and Morrison Knudsen arrived in Ceylon like an invasion force.

Meanwhile equipment for the irrigation work, which was to be done by the GODB, started arriving at Colombo harbor and piled up – no store room, no inventory .The Board members also were not on speaking terms - in other words - chaos! Huxham could not deal with it and suffered a heart attack.

DS then looked around and chose my father, then 39-years old and enjoying his first posting in Colombo as Land Commissioner. In my father’s words – "The PM called me to his room and Dudley was also there looking pensive and smoking a pipe. ‘Kanagasundram’ said DS ‘ I want you to take up the post of Chairman Gal Oya Board with immediate effect’ That was all" – The first thought that hit my father was that he would have to resign from his beloved Civil Service and, then, what about his pension (beloved by the Jaffna man).? But that was the end of the conversation and my father was dismissed. Later, when he visited Huxham in hospital he was told – "Young man – this is an impossible job and will be the end of your career;’’ in ways that he could not have foreseen Huxham was right!

The Gal Oya Board consisted of the following people – my father K Kanagasundram was the Chairman, N E Weerasooria ( a leading UNP lawyer) , Arthur Amaratunga a shrewd UNP operative and R L Brohier, a distinguished former Surveyor General. Civil Servant Shirley Amerasinghe was the Resident Manager in Ampara. The first thing my father did was to restore harmony among the Board members, who were at that time not on talking terms and prone to fling files at each other during Board meetings, and get down to the arduous task of bringing order to the existing chaos. He later told me he could not see the end result but tackled each challenge one – by – one. Eventually, some type of order was restored and the goal of having 150,000 acres ready for colonization in two years was in sight.

The contract with Morrison Knudsen stipulated a bonus payment if they completed the dam at Inginiyagala early .With the military precision with which they had come to Ceylon they decided to bypass Colombo and Trinco ports as transport to the site would be a problem but instead used Batticaloa harbor and widened the road to Inginiyagala – they also built luxurious housing for their staff. Many of the buildings like the present Rest House at Inginiyagala still remain. They furnished these quarters to American standards with air conditioners, fridges and freezers – unheard of luxuries then. I still remember being fascinated by a juke box containing records with the latest Broadway hits.

Using the latest heavy equipment and working round the clock shifts and methods perfected in the heat of war Morrison Knudsen were on track to finish the dam – the largest in Ceylon – early and earn a substantial bonus. Ceylon had never witnessed anything like this.

But Ceylon had a team to meet the challenge – the Minister of Agriculture was Bulankulama Disawa, an old style Kandyan aristocrat who delegated full power to his team( in five years he only intervened in Board affairs once – to get a family retainer land under the scheme). The GODB was led by Kanagasundram, the outstanding civil servant of his generation. The Board had varied experience and the Resident Manager was Shirley Amerasinghe, who later distinguished himself on the world stage as the author of the Law of the Sea when he was our Ambassador to the UN. What a team – the original "dream team"! The GODB had to scramble to build the right and left bank irrigation channels, clear the land and build 30,000 colonist cottages to be ready in time.

There were interesting stories from this time – during land clearing a wild elephant once charged a group of workers seriously injuring six, but a bulldozer driver charged the elephant in his machine and killed the poor animal who was only defending his turf. The rush to be ready caused the only wrong decision by the Chairman – in hindsight it would have been better to use the traditional slash and burn methods rather than the mechanized option chosen, as this would have preserved the top soil better. But given the rush to be ready for the colonist there was no choice.

By 1953 the dam, power station and irrigation system with cleared lands and colonist cottages were ready. A record breaking feat by any measure! And colonists were brought by train to Batticaloa and thence by truck to their new homes – in their tens of thousands. It was an encouraging sight to see so many eagerly looking forward to their new lives, and carrying their meagre worldly posessions with them. The early colonists were pampered lot and got two acres of high land and five acres of paddy land – together with cooking utensils and farm implements. This was later reduced to two acres of highland and three acres of paddy land. There was a Colonization Officer to look after the wants of every 100 families and their progress was measured. Never before or since was so much care taken to ensure the welfare of colonists. By 1957, 70% the colonization process was completed.

There were many other achievements: a 10 MW hydro power plant, a tile factory, a huge rice mill (sourced by Raju Coomaraswamy – another of the Civil Service ‘mafia’, later a high official in the UNDP) and a sugar factory. The latter was one of the few failures of GODB. Land suitable for sugar cane was identified and a sugar factory was built. But to keep it profitably running you needed the output of 25,000 acres of sugar land. Even in tea plantations where we had 100 years of experience there were never more than 1,500 acres under one management .The GODB had an out- of- the- box solution – to bring in Japanese farmers (the Japan International Co-operation agency – JICA - had a scheme to settle Japanese farmers in Brazil and they were to do the same for Sri Lanka) – imagine what 500 Japanese farmers – the best the world – could have done for farming and horticulture in Ceylon! But before the scheme was implemented the government changed and the SLFP vetoed the scheme. The result was predictable – the local farmers, unused to sugar cane cultivation, were never able to supply more than 18% of the factory’s requirements – another wasted opportunity!


‘Camelot’ in the East

Then the Gal Oya valley entered an idyllic period – the main objectives were being met on time, the farmers were bringing in their first crops, there was a thriving Club for officers of the GODB at Ampara with tennis, tombola for the ladies, bridge, snooker and carrom. It was a thriving community of Sinhalese , Tamils and especially Burghers attracted by the pioneering challenge. There were even a few European refugees from World War II, settled under a UN scheme for the stateless – all highly qualified. There was Burkhart, a barrel-chested native of Danzig – who earned the respect of his tough Sinhala workers by being able to repair any type of machine with his bare hands. Chekovitz, a Jewish refugee from Czecoslovakia, who was the GODB architect – he introduced the concept of airy building using natural ventilation even before Geoffrey Bawa. He was responsible for the office and staff quarters that were later criticized by the Gal Oya Evaluation Committee as too extravagant. But best of all there was Stan Francis – a gentle giant of a man from the South African railways. Not only was a he a superb mechanical engineer but he was an excellent organizer and motivator who cajoled his Sinhala workers to Herculean heights.

Morrison Knudsen had left behind all their heavy equipment used in the dam construction. Stan Francis set up a base workshop and repaired and refurbished these machines and had them ready for round the clock work on land clearing and building the irrigation system which was the responsibility of the GODB . My father later said that he not only had he saved the country millions in foreign exchange but also cut down the time required by six months !

DS’s dream had been fulfilled – Camelot had been created in the jungles of the Eastern province- but then a dark cloud descended.

Part II will appear next week

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