The Gal Oya Project 60 years on - Part II


by Ajit Kanagasundram
(Continued from last week)


End of the Dream

In 1956 the government changed and the SLFP took over with necessary but different priorities to peasant colonization. The communal bogy raised its ugly head and the Gal Oya workers, instigated by Minister Philip Gunawardane after the Galle Face satyagraha by the Federal Party politicians, rioted against the Tamil staff in GODB. The 1956 riots were the first of many later pogroms against the Tamils. Later it was revealed that about 100 Tamils were killed.

Eighty five Tamil staff and families with infants, including two pregnant women, sought refuge at the Ampara Rest House which was surrounded by a mob of 500 Sinhala workers. My father and mother were there as well and did their best to keep everyone calm. For two days they endured the siege with little food but on the third day the water and electricity were cut. The workers had already broken into the dynamite stores. The (25-year-old) Sub-Inspector Pathmanathan in charge of six Sinhala policemen – told my father he had to have the necessary authority to open fire or he could not guarantee the safety of the women and children. My father, who was vested with the authority, had previously told him that under no circumstances was he to shoot, finally gave him permission. My father told my mother to tie her thali around her waist and be prepared to run as the mob surged forward. Sub inspector Pathamanathan gave the order to shoot and three rioters dropped dead and, as if by magic, the mob disappeared.

Pathmanathan later told my father he had been unsure as to whether his Sinhala policemen would obey the order to fire on their fellow Sinhalese in defense of Tamils, but it says a lot for police discipline, then, that they did. The next day, the army detachment led by Colonel F C de Saram arrived and order was soon restored. One incident worthy of mention is that a mob pf Sinhala colonists proceeding in commandeered GODB lorries to join the mayhem in Ampara was ambushed by Tamil farmers from the Purana lands (expert shots from the experience of defending their lands from marauding wildlife) in the newly opened Siyambalanduwa road and rioters were killed. Dr.Usvatte Aratchi( later on the Committee to Evaluate the GODB) , then an economics undergraduate at Peradeniya University, was engaged with other students in a socio-economic survey of the Gal Oya valley under Professor S.J.Thambiah . The Sinhala and Tamil students involved escaped in a GODB lorry – driven, in Dr.Usvatte’s words, ‘by a madman’- along the same route! The few East Europeans in Gal Oya also escaped to the hills of Nuwara Eliya by the Siyambalanduwa road and shortly after sailed back to Europe.

During all this my sister and I were picked up by Sydney de Zoysa (a legendary Police officer and family friend ) and driven through the night to the GA’s Residency in Batticaloa – I remember being fascinated by the Sterling sub machine gun he had with him.

The SLFP government appointed a Commission of Enquiry under a retired High Court Judge to enquire into the events that took place. They took extensive oral and written evidence from all parties and came to some firm conclusions: The Gal Oya Board was not blamed for the events, the Board administration remained in force even during the recent traumatic events, order was restored within a week when the armed forces arrived and pointed the finger at – though did not name – political involvement from a key party within the government.

The Report of the Commission was suppressed and, I presume, it is still gathering dust in some government archive waiting for a future historian. Maybe the new Freedom of Information Act can be used to unearth it.

The riots ended ‘Camelot’ and broke the optimistic spirit that had permeated the Gal Oya Valley. A proposal to use the Board’s newly acquired engineering skills to build a dam in the Purana areas to benefit Tamil and Muslim farmers, at a very attractive cost, was shelved for no good reason. A year later the original Board was dissolved – I will tell the story in CP de Silva’s words in the next paragraph. CP had been a batch mate of my father in the Ceylon Civil Service – my father the first and CP the 12th in the order of merit at the time of appointment. They were good friends, and C P de Silva was by then the Minister of Lands responsible for the GODB and 10 years later as well the Minister for Agriculture in the later Dudley Senanayake government from 1965 to 1970. After a desultory Civil Service career, he had joined SWRD in politics and was rewarded by being given the plum Ministry of Lands portfolio.

Later CP suffered a stroke, and was in London recuperating in our house – at this time my father was the Acting High Commisioner in London when these events took place.

"Kanaks – I couldn’t help it. Philip spoke to Banda and said we can’t have a Tamil in such a powerful capacity as Chairman Gal Oya Board. If you don’t change him I will bring my unions out. Banda, being weak, gave in and that is why we dissolved the Board." The government realized that they had done an injustice to a highly effective and respected Civil Servant and so offered him the London post as Deputy High Commissioner. My father, after a short break in London, where he sat for and passed the Bar exams with honours, accepted the offer for the sake of his children’s education, but he was broken man. His heart was in dry zone peasant colonization and above all in Gal Oya which was near to his heart. The glamour of dinner at Buckingham Palace and endless diplomatic cocktail parties bored him, and he died five years later of a heart attack during a game of tennis, while he was our Ambassador in Jakarta.

In 1966 the Dudley Senanayake government appointed a Comittee to Evaluate the Gal Oya Project. It consisted of a distinguished set of people:


* BH Farmer – Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge; author of ‘Pioneer Peasant Colonization in Ceylon’ and ‘Ceylon – A Divided Nation’; leading authortity on South Asia’; former Chairman, 1965 Land Commission

* Dr G Usvatte Aratchi, Central Bank economist, under secondment to the Ministry of Planning, who later distinguished himself at the UN

* T P De S Munasinghe – former Director of the PWD

* S Arumaugam, former Deputy Director, Irrigation Department and an outstanding engineer

* D S de Silva – former Auditor General

* Tissa Devendra of the Ceylon AdministrativeService who went on to a remarkable career in public service as GA in Matara, Trincomalee and Jaffna and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission was the Secretary.

* I was the Assistant Secretary


At the outset the Committee decided to confine themselves to a strictly technical approach eschewing the political dimension as many of the people involved were now with the government. The Committee would do a cost-benefit analysis of the project, agricultural policies and the secondary industries started etc.

After a year of intense work the Committee published their findings [ Sessional Paper 1/1968]


* From a purely cost/benefit point of view the project was a failure. However from a colonization, paddy production point of view the project was successful.


* The Committee chose to ignore the fact that the main objective was Sinhala colonization in the East – and this was achieved

* Total costs up to date and projected were Rs 1 billion while expenditure was approximately the same and, if one accepted a discount rate of 10% ,the net result was negative. I will comment on this finding below.

* The power generation project was a success even using the unreasonably low cost then prevailing for alternatives means of generation. The oil crisis was then far away.

* The returns on the improvements in irrigation and flood control of the scheme in the Purana lands was very positive.

* The sugar project was a disaster given the fact that the output of sugar cane never satisfied more that 18% of the factory’s need – but I have pointed out earlier the Board was aware of this challenge and proposed to bring in Japanese farmers (Japan was the still recovering from the war and was eager to encourage emigration) – this out- of- the- box solution was rejected by the government.

* The other projects like the rice mill and tile factory had only a marginal impact

* One obvious conclusion – not explicitly stated in the Report – was that by 1957 all the dams, irrigation works, land clearing roads, bridges, workshops had been completed and 70 % of the colonists settled, but the GODB spent the same amount over the next ten years to achieve very little. The GODB had a scheme to move all the equipment and staff to the Walawe project but this was not achieved due to political interference and unnecessary new infrastructure was created at Walawe. If the GODB’s activities in Gal Oya had been wound up in 1958 or 1959 and its infrastructure moved to Uda Walawe, as was the plan of the GODB , then the economics of the project would have been very different. Once again the culprits were with the ruling party now.


*The Committee also faulted the Board for being extravagant in the expenditure on roads, staff housing etc. But this had been necessary to attract suitable staff into the wilderness of the Eastern province, and the roads and bridges and schools built still serve this area.


The reason that the first conclusion was not correct is that in the eyes of the Project founder – DS Senananayake – the main rationale of the project was Sinhala colonization of the Tamil dominated Eastern province and this was achieved. This started the process – later carried on by the accelerated Mahaveli project - to change the demographics of this province. In hindsight the results of the Eelam war may have been different if this had not been done.

Also the Committee started with a low yield per acre of paddy of 30 bushels with modest improvements over time. Today the yields are higher than projected, the overall project economics would have been positive. I intend proving this by funding a study by the Faculty of Agriculture at Peradeniya on the paddy production in Ampara

Today the Gal Oya valley is a peaceful backwater where all communities thrive – now with the third and fourth generation of the original colonists. The original colonists and their descendants now number a quarter of a million and had forever changed the racial composition of the Eastern Province as DS had originally intended. The main problem now faced by the Sinhala colonists is that their children prefer the bright lights of Colombo and the Middle East to the hard, but rewarding, life of farming.

It is a lovely part of the island and well worth a visit – beautiful paddy lands fringed by mature coconut trees and elephants bathing in the Senanayake Samudra are unforgettable sights. DS’s vision has been fulfilled and was achieved by Ceylonese administrators working with our own funds – no foreign aid was sought or needed. Foreign "experts", no less than foreign judges, are peripheral to our achieving our aims. We need to recapture the self confidence and self reliance we once had


The writer is a retired banker [e.mail:]



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