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


D.S. Senanayake

by R L Brohier

(Continued from yesterday)

One year showed that in prevailing circumstances, no business concern could hope to rescue the dry-zone. What was more essential than money was courage and determination. The first monsoon rains brought malaria-very deadly in its attacks at that time. Labour could not be controlled, and the Minneriya Development Company Limited resolved to liquidate.

The primary purpose of the Senanayake enterprise to colonise Minneriya was social. The returns he realised were not to be measured so much in solid rupees, but in the splendid satisfaction and very great value of having developed rich and fertile new lands for Ceylon and her people out of a vast area which had been lying forgotten and neglected for centuries.

Often has D. S. Senanayake recalled the many initial difficulties he had to contend against to bring his plans under way. He even told of subterfuge and juggling with votes to pay for some surveys required for tracing a channel which the Treasury refused to finance. Eventually, in December 1932, the Scheme was approved by the State Council, and was formally inaugurated in April the next year.

The practical measures taken to implement development on this scheme, are of more than ordinary interest and merit notice here, as they imprint many an idea of the Minister's, which were as novel as they were repugnant to the official disciples at the time. Moreover they are important since D. S. Senanayake was the pioneer who was endeavouring to establish a new place for agriculture in the policies of Government, and was formulating the lines which agricultural development and government policies in relation thereto should follow.

The task of formulating a definite plan was entrusted at an early stage under his guidance to a Committee consisting of the Land Commissioner, the Government Agent of the North-Central Province, the Director of Irrigation, the Director of Medical and Sanitary Services and the Medical Entomologist. They recommend a general plan of development with paddy regarded as the main crop. There was to be no prohibition against the cultivation of other crops provided that cultivation was adopted to a regulation of water designed to meet the requirements of paddy, and that the issue of the water would not be injurious to the interests of the paddy growers.

Selecting the colonists

Two important details received special consideration: namely the system on which colonists were to be selected, and the terms on which land should be made available to selected colonists. Both are in force to this day, the latter, a completely new system. Briefly, all applicants were to be divided into three classes: peasants or small-holders, middle class Ceylonese, and others. The terms, in the case of the peasant or small-holder was a restricted tenure preventing alienation or mortgage without the consent of the Government Agent.

Conditions protecting the holders from the sale of their lands by order of Court, for ensuring that the land was not abandoned or left uncultivated, and for preventing the land ultimately becoming subject to multiple undivided ownership, were also laid down. The extent of each individual allotment was to be limited to five acres of paddy land besides two acres of high land for dwelling purposes, on which a cottage would be erected by Government.

As regards the middle class, it was decided that they should be offered much the same terms as those advocated for the peasants, except for the unit of land, which was raised to fifty acres.

The last class of applicant, in a broad sense, the large capitalist, was to be considered only if land was available after peasant or small-holder, and the middle-class were selected and accommodated. It was suggested that such lands should be leased for 99 years on terms which will ensure that the land will be opened up within a reasonable time and thereafter regularly cultivated. Alienation and mortgage were permissible, subject here again to the consent of the Government Agent.

It was by inspiring and implementing the aforementioned recommendation that D. S. Senanayake not merely encouraged people to recognise the fact that Ceylon is not self-sufficing, but acted upon it and powerfully influenced agricultural development in Ceylon. This was also how he saw to it that land would be alienated in a manner most nicely calculated to promote the prosperity of the Island and the highest interests of its inhabitants. Based on this new system of tenure and colonization, dovetailed into his overall policy, the Minister has been the architect who has brought into existence a means of promoting a prosperous self-supporting and self-respecting multitude of peasant proprietors. He had unbounded faith and optimism in the part he played, which bore, and is bearing such abundant fruit.

His adroitness in curbing disappointment while playing for high stakes was displayed at high level during the second world war, when an air field was sited on the open plains at Minneriya and caused a set-back to the work he had cherished and nursed for a decade. His magnanimity although perhaps not entirely altruistic, for he knew when to play trumps in the contest of international events, brought big returns. It connoted all out help to Great Britain, but also kept the country safe and the food lines open. How far he made the fullest use of this war situation to persuade Great Britain to grant full responsible government to Ceylon, perhaps belongs to another story.

The successful and favourable start on the development of Minneriya loosened Government purse strings without which such schemes could not be achieved.Thus, two other colonies came to be started concurrently with Minneriya: the Kahagama Colony of 17-thousand acres which came under the Kalalu Wewa irrigation system, and the Minipe Colony irrigated by an ancient channel which for centuries layout of use. These schemes were more or less based on the plan and programme of development drawn up for Minneriya. The requirement that soil reconnaissance of proposed land schemes should precede colonization, was another policy initiated by D. S. Senanayake. It was a sequel to a soil reconnaissance at Minneriya which revealed that some of the areas allotted to colonists were not altogether suitable for the cultivation of paddy. When it is considered that the peasantry place all their hopes for the future on the productivity of their allotted share of land, and that the State should desire nothing better than that the greatest circumspection should be adopted in the selection and allotment of land for colonization, the wisdom of this policy will be appreciated. The Minister, nevertheless, struck another note of caution: that technique and manurial needs should be used to foster production of rice in good or fairly good crop yields, even when the classification of soil is imperfectly adapted to answer constant succession of seed and cereal crops.

Exploding the phenomenon of inferiority

D. S. Senanayake expatiated time and again on the possibilities of producing fruit and food-stuff in these colonies which the country was importing largely from abroad. "If an attempt is made," he said, "to analyse the causes of this extraordinary phenomenon, it will doubtless be found that they are mainly psychological. It is almost as if that sense of inferiority that is sometimes seen to overwhelm a Ceylonese in the presence of his European brother has also attached itself to his native products. Rice and other grains, eggs, onions, chillies and ginger are humble, though useful, commodities. Fruit has a status only a trifle higher than these. To be engaged in their production is forsooth, something to be ashamed of."

Such were the words he used in urging that national honour cannot be retained if a people's food supply is to remain dependent on a precarious foreign source. Indeed, he went on to lay it down that: "it should be the pride of every patriotic Ceylonese to augment, in so far as lies in his power, the source from which this supply can be drawn from home."

To be continued

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