The village was where
he always belonged
Vincent Subasinghe was to me the embodiment of what a good man should be. Quiet and dignified by disposition, he was a man of unimpeachable integrity. He had a commanding personality and keen intellect. A socialist who lived by the principles of socialism, he did not believe in rabble rousing or slogan shouting.
I first came to know Vincent when I married his wife’s brother. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was the son of a prosperous landed proprietor. Yet he was simple and humble. Essentially a villager at heart, he saw all around him the poor villagers for whom life was a struggle. It was his concern to make them self-sufficient and he endeavoured to do so by making them help themselves. He believed that co-operative effort was the answer and so he decided on a course of action that would make his village, Sandalankawa prosperous and self-contained.
Vincent Aiya was educated at Ananda College, Colombo in keeping with his Buddhist background. On completion of his education he went back to live in the village. He commenced the programme of village upliftment by personally contributing towards the rice milling project.
With the money received from his father he set up this rice milling project and got the farmers to do the pre-milling operations before bringing the seasoned paddy to the mill to convert it into rice for the consumers. He also established a coconut producers’ Co-operative Society in October 1939 which consisted of 13 small and medium coconut growers. Further, with the land and money received from his father he set up a copra drying kiln and fortnightly they were able to send one ton of copra to Colombo by bullock cart.
At Thotalanga (Kelani River junction) there had been a very good outlet for copra. The money thus raised was divided among the coconut suppliers (the land owners) after keeping 20% for the further development of the Society. In 1940 he helped to install a “Sekkuwa” (a bullock driven oil extraction system) and got the income of the society increased. He also started a centre to train village women folk in handloom textile production.
Thereafter, with the land inherited from his father and in collaboration with the Department of Education he established the Sandalankawa Central School, for he believed in encouraging people to help themselves rather than depend on charity.
His next plan was to establish a Multi-purpose Co-operative Society in 1940 – 1941, so that the villagers could get the best value for their skills and money. This included three sales outlets for household requirements. By 1950 a fully mechanised coconut based industry was established in Sandalankawa which included manufacture of coconut oil, desiccated coconut and husk extraction. The handloom mill was functioning by 1954. By this time the number of sales outlets had increased to 32 and this covered the villages around Sandalankawa. By then the membership of the Society had also increased to over 1000.
Healthcare was also a vital necessity for the village and in 1953 Vincent Aiya took the initial steps to start a co-operative hospital on a plot of land purchased by the co-operative society. He was able to get the services of a dedicated doctor, a couple of nurses and a matron for the hospital. This was a great relief to the villagers as the hospital charges were minimal and the patients’ family members could help during the illness. Later, an operating theatre was built where minor surgery could be performed.
My late husband was an anaesthetist and through him Vincent Aiya was able to enlist the voluntary services of a few surgeons from the Colombo General Hospital to commence doing surgical operations. The visits to Sandalankawa were enjoyable outings for the doctors who would attend to the patients and afterwards go for a river bath followed by a sumptuous lunch prepared by my sister-in-law. My sister-in-law was the ideal companion to Vincent Aiya and took great pride in her husband’s work.
With the passage of time the Co-operative Society was also able to build a cinema where the villagers could go for entertainment. The people of Sandalankawa had such faith in him that he was treated as the unofficial judge. When they had problems they would come to him fully confident that he would solve their problems fairly and equitably.
Once a Government Minister had asked Vincent Aiya thus: “You are always criticizing us. Why don’t you join us and help us do something.” Vincent Aiya gave thought to this request and decided to join the Public Service but told the Minister that he would do so only on condition that no one should interfere in his decisions and that no one should countermand his orders. The Minister agreed. At that time there was a move to open a new bank, the People’s Bank as a competitor to the Bank of Ceylon. Vincent Aiya was appointed as the first Chairman of its Board of Directors. He had an indepth knowledge of the Gramia Banking System in India and had visions of establishing a bank which would help the less privileged to save systematically as well as obtain financial assistance. He thought the People’s Bank was the ideal opportunity to achieve this goal.
He was popular among the staff and the executives in the Bank. After a lapse of time he realised that things were not moving as he expected. Therefore, instead of continuing to stay and create unpleasantness he resigned quietly and went back to the village where he belonged.
Vincent Aiya’s dedication to his fellow countrymen was an end in itself and not a vehicle in quest of power, money or position. His goal was the eradication of poverty, ignorance and disease, beginning with his village. After his death on August 23, 1985 the People’s Bank put up the quarters for the nurses of the General Hospital in Borella in his memory; a fitting tribute to a dedicated man and a great patriot. If we had more of such people this country would have been a paradise.