D S Senanayake as Minister of Agriculture and Lands (1931 to 1947)


by R L Brohier

CEYLON has always been mainly an agricultural country; hence, the parent earth was, and ever will be, the heart of Ceylon life. Truly, the original decree which sent man forth as "tiller of the ground", is perhaps even truer in its natural than its metaphysical sense, when reviewed in the comprehensive landscape of agriculture in Ceylon from the early years of Aryan settlement 2500 years ago, through 23-centuries of Sinhalese kingship.

The feud for food

Then as now, the feud for food was a long battle waged chiefly in the Ceylon dry zone against frequent and continuous droughts, where man's very sustenance depended on fertilizing a soil that would yield results only in proportion to the labour and energy spent in tending it. Our knowledge of the conduct of the remarkable efforts by which natural prosperity through agricultural industry was built in the past, are scanty. Nevertheless, the vastness of the engineering skill connected with agricultural interests, and the evidence of an organised land system cannot deny a very high standard of development. In the gloom of its decline, the historical annals do not fail to record that "because the fertility of the land had decreased, kings were no longer esteemed as before,"

The panorama of indigenous agriculture in Ceylon shows too, how vain human efforts were to stay the operation of those mighty causes, also now lost in obscurity, which stalled the march of civilization and consigned those extraordinary and intricate irrigation systems to neglect and decay. For centuries these sad and solemn memorials, together with the ruins of proud cities have lain deep in cloistered forests which sprang up to give tranquillity to the plains. Only a remnant descended from the original settlers, whose very insignificance was a melancholy commentary on their poverty of resources, continued to till and cultivate such patches of field as the driblets from the ruined tanks allowed.

Agriculture in the Dutch and the British times

When the Dutch were in occupation of the maritime territory they made some endeavour to rescue the peasant agriculture.of Ceylon. They left the impress of their efforts even in remote and sparsely populated villages, and repaired many ancient works calculated to benefit undeveloped and under-developed tracts subject to flood and drought.

In the first half-century of the British period there were sown the seeds that diverted agriculture to an industry which commanded money rather than the means of sustenance. Very little, if at all, was done to encourage the utilization of the soil for the production of the first article of food, which had commanded in the past the most anxious care of princes and legislators.

Apparently too, without cognizance of the absolute necessity for the joint action required of co-parceners in connection with irrigation as practised in Ceylon from remote time, compulsory labour on the old communal system was abolished in 1832, on the report of a Royal Commission. Many irrigation works, especially the smaller village tanks, fell early victims of the neglect which followed.

Rekindling some interest in indigenous agriculture

In this phase of general neglect and somnolence, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the masterly report of a young Assistant Agent of Government named John Bailey, and the force and acumen of a Governor Sir Henry Ward, supplied the sparks, which kindled interest in the subject. Both focused earnest attention on the practicability of restoring the works of irrigation which the climate rendered indispensable and for securing the intimate co-operation so necessary for successful paddy cultivation. Nevertheless, although the British administration made some effort to restore the old reservoirs, to every dispassionate reviewer the conviction is irresistible that the difficulties of restoring the ancient bunds and channels only screened a disinclination to spend money on such works, so long as imported rice fed the people and yielded a revenue.

Emergence of D.S Senanayake with a new agricultural policy

If one were to contrast the official attitude to indigenous agriculture in Ceylon from this stage of passivity and supineness into which it had sunk, with that which followed after the promulgation of a new Constitution on the basis of the Donoughmore Report in 1931, the picture one gets is startling, inasmuch as the change is dramatic. Coincident with the establishment of a new Constitution, the governmental administration of agriculture was in the hands of the people of the country, and D. S. Senanayake was projected into the arena as Minister of Agriculture and Lands. No one was better blessed with the many qualities of head and heart which fitted him to play a role in shaping what may well be called the modern chapter in the history of irrigation, agricultural development and colonization in Ceylon.

The new Minister's magnificent conception of turning barren acres into national use was based on a conviction that the future of Lanka depended more than on anything else, on systematic land development, improved husbandry, and what the poet Goldsmith termed: "a bold peasantry their country's pride." His policy focused itself on the peasant farmers needs. First, with agriculture as a technology based on science; secondly, as an industry based on tradition; and thirdly, as a business to be founded on economics and not merely a way of life: "a long drawn question between crop and crop," Basically he accepted the fact that the past was a mighty teacher, that its lessons are not to be lightly regarded although we may fail to measure their wisdom at a glance.

Both, the lessons of history and the dictates of policy inculcated in him the ambition to solve the problem presented by the phenomenon of a rising population, convinced that the solution lay in organising agricultural efforts primarily for the production of crops which would afford a direct means of sustenance, but in equal measure emphasising the dignity of labour and the value of co-operation. He saw in this plan much work to be done: a wide expanse of land once the seat of a flourishing industry and the "home of millions," sadly neglected in jungle, which had to be reclaimed to productivity. He saw large tracts of land under crops which had to be scientifically tended in order that they may produce more food. He saw the necessity for improving the quality of crops, for growing a wider range of varieties to ensure balanced dietary, and the need for inculcating animal husbandry. He also visualized that there must be governmental financial assistance for the colonist to set himself up, technical guidance, and a system of easy and orderly marketing.

In order to get his policy going and co-ordinate various activities, the Minister launched his initial skirmish by notifying his intention in 1931 to have frequent consultations with the Heads of Departments functioning under his Executive Committee.

Foremost in his plan of action was a concerted effort to build up a line of defence against drought by getting irrigation projects established. Investigations had however disclosed that most of the ancient works which irrigated the dry zone in the past, and were indispensable for indigenous agriculture, had reached a considerable state of deterioration. Moreover, that not all the ancient tanks and channels were capable, if restored, of performing their pristine functions. The causes on which this latter conclusion was based were two-fold. It seems as well to notice them here for they played an important part in D. S. Senanayake's policy. The first point established that the ancient irrigation works were contributions made in succeeding cycles of time. The water was invariably diverted from the old to the new works and the former went into ruin long before the plains were abandoned. The second point was the part played by the rain-forests of the mountain zone in providing the water to fill the large man-made reservoirs which were in due course built. Within half a century of British occupation many of these forests were felled. The uplands of Ceylon were thereafter covered with plantations of coffee. Later, tea rose phoenix-like from the ashes of the coffee estates. When in due course rubber was introduced as a commercial crop, the foot-hills too were denuded of their forest cover.

As a result of forest denudation the springs in the up-land regions dried up, the fair-weather flow of streams diminished and their storm-flow increased. The weathered products swept down from the ridges and slopes lost many a noble perennial river to the low-lands they were specially intended to benefit. These changes in hydrographic conditions had brought new and intricate problems of flooding and silting, which had to be solved in relation to the present day scope and functions of the ancient irrigation schemes. .

These altered conditions called for careful and wise consideration of land and water resources before any of the old works could be restored. It was clear too that the problems would have to be tackled on different lines for no mere pottering at isolated tanks would suffice to give the country the water needed to cultivate the available areas of undeveloped and under-developed lands.

Large storage reservoirs sited at selected points from data collected on a river-basin wide scale of investigation, together with an afforestation drive, appeared the most effective solution. On this basis, responsibility for the ground-work and plans for these investigations as far as they concerned land and terrain were assigned to the Survey Department; for appraisal of gauging and availability of water, to the Irrigation Department.

Refocusing on Mineriya and irrigating 50,000 Acres

This wide range of investigation necessarily required much time to complete, but the Minister would brook no delay. The measures he adopted, and the success which attended his efforts to rehabilitate the dry-zone with as little delay as possible are therefore specially noteworthy. While the mundane medium of surveying and gauging was progressing apace, he turned to ways and means of utilizing to fullest advantage such water resources as were already available. This was how Minneriya which had long tantalized patriots who sought to promote a well-rounded prosperity to agriculture, was brought once again to public notice as a scheme which held out great promise for colonization on an irrigation basis.

Traditions old in story allege that nearly seventeen centuries have elapsed since the Mineriya tank was built. It was one of only a very few reservoirs which survived the dire effects of abandonment. As regularly as one year followed another, this tank was filled by rainfall draining from its catchment. Untrammelled by the old stone sluices which had ceased to function, this water escaped in an unbroken stream. Only a dwindling handful of peasants bound by hereditary ties who continued to live in the deadly fever-stricken climate, made use of the water. They tilled in all 170 acres of ancient field in the Minneriya Village. The rest of the water ran to waste.

Minneriya today with its environal colonies, Hingurakgoda and Hatamuna, designed and constructed to bring 50,000 acres of virgin wild into valuable irrigable land, is the first large-scale operation in the dry zone which testifies to the zeal and energy of D. S. Senanayake as Minister of Agriculture and Lands. From the outset the scheme of reclamation was evisaged as a whole, based on a careful survey of the region and a full study of its potentialities. It began with the construction of roads and irrigation channels and a lay-out of the land into irrigable and high-land plots. It has proved, indeed, a monument to the Minister's far-seeing aims of mass distribution of population on scientific lines.

With no knowledge of past conditions and the many unsuccessful attempts made to reclaim Minneriya, it is not possible to realise the difficulties which had to be surmounted to carry out what the Minister did. Arrayed against his efforts was even the failure of "Big Business," which financed a Company at the close of the first Great War, with the intention of opening up Minneriya to produce rice. Paddy was then selling at what was considered the very high price of Rs. 4 per bushel, hence much enthusiasm and breathless activity characterised the initial operations. It was expected that good profit would be earned on the capital invested.

To be continued

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