C.P. De Silva, the Minister of Lands, Land Development, Irrigation and Power from 1956 to 1970 except for a few months in 1959 and 1960, devoted his life to the North Central Province. Thirty eight years after his demise he is still referred to as “Minneriya Deviyo” (The Angel of Minneriya).
Charles Pervical De Silva, fondly known as CP to his friends and colleagues, passed away after a brief illness on October 9, 1972. He was one of those rare politicians who represented the large and difficult Polonnaruwa District, at that time the Polonnaruwa electorate, for 13 unbroken years from 1952 and subsequently the Minneriya electorate from 1965 for the next five years. He was the only hope to the poor farmers of the entire Polonnaruwa District for 18 long years, until he too was caught in the UNP debacle in 1970 and lost by 1000 votes.
The election result released early that night, not only shocked the people of the Polonnaruwa District but the whole country. All knew if CP had lost, the UNP Government would lose too. It was only a few months before that the Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake laid the foundation stone for the Polgolla Diversion commencing the biggest single multi purpose project ever – the Mahaweli irrigation project, for which CP had dedicated his entire Civil Service from 1935 to 1952 and his political career from 1952 to 1970.
He was born on April 12, 1912 at Randombe, Balapitiya. His father C.R. De Silva was a well known Attorney-at-Law practising at the Balapitiya Bar. He began schooling at Dharmasoka College, Ambalangoda and soon moved to S. Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia. He was a brilliant student at S. Thomas’ and became the Head Prefect, winning the prestigious Gregory Scholarship and the Miller Award for brilliance in Maths and Science. He then won the ‘Exhibition Scholarship’ to enter the University and graduated with B.Sc Special Maths Honours (First Class).
His professor at the University was Mr. C. Sunethralingam. His parents, who by then were educating the other academically promising members of the family who later became the well known child specialist Dr Stella De Silva, research scientist, Dr L.B. De Silva, a fine civil lawyer A.H. De Silva (MP for Polonnaruwa) and that fine Ceylon boxer Merril De Silva (MP for Minneriya), had no hesitation in sending CP to England to pass out as a civil servant, the most prestigious position to be in under the British administration.
In 1935 CP returned to Ceylon and entered the civil service, as one of the youngest civil servants to ever pass out in the history of civil service in Ceylon. He was promptly sent to Jaffna and then to Puttalam as a Cadet. He then served as an AGA for seven long years in the Districts of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.
As a young and enthusiastic Civil Servant, CP chose to live in the small human settlements surrounded by thick jungle under very difficult living conditions. CP lived alone in the Rest House overlooking the Giritale tank and travelled in a canvas top Willys Jeep once a week all the way to Matale via Elahera to buy milk, eggs, fish and meat to fill his kerosene fridge and other provisions to last the week. Prior to being transferred as AGA Anuradhapura, C.P. De Silva served as an Assistant Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture under Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake. In 1946, he served as the Assistant Land Commissioner. In 1949, he was elevated to the position of Director, Land Development under Dudley Senanayake who was the Minister of Agriculture. Thus he served the poor farmers under the direction of both D.S. and Dudley Senanayake and is known to have personally overseen the farmer settlements in the entire Rajarata and in particular in the Minneriya colonization scheme.
The Minneriya Colonization scheme was in crisis as it was becoming increasingly difficult to persuade the colonists to stay on. D.S. Senanayake called for his young Assistant Secretary and had given him the task of proceeding to the NCP as Assistant Government Agent to resurrect the dying scheme. CP never forgot the support D.S and C.L. Wickremasinghe, the then Land Commissioner gave him in reviving the Minneriya Colonisation scheme. It is said that his Minister and the Land Commissioner used to accommodate CP for hours in the Ministry in Colombo discussing the Minneriya scheme and the several issues faced by the farmers.
It is also said that at every such meeting, D.S. and C.P. finished the Gold Flake cigarette case pulled out by DS and the tin of Gold Flake brought by CP before retiring for lunch. CP was so closely associated with his Minister and the Land Commissioner that the GA Mr. Richard Aluvihare (later Sir Richard) was quite intrigued with the knowledge CP had of issues connected with land and land settlements and Government thinking on them. So much that the G.A. knew all CP’s requests on behalf of the farmers were met by the Government led by D.S. and Minister Dudley Senanayake. It was no surprise when the proud D.S. Senanayake paid a glowing tribute to the AGA, NCP in the then State Council when the Minneriya Colonisation scheme was revived and became a great success.
Very soon CP was made the Additional Land Commissioner in charge of land development. That was in 1946. The Soulbury Commission also arrived in Ceylon and among the many places visited by the Commission was Minneriya. In fact Lord Soulbury attended a Minneriya Cooperative Society AGM. He was so impressed by the way the meeting was conducted, that he had said, “if in the backwoods of Ceylon the people could conduct a meeting of this nature in such a democratic manner, who could say the people are not fit for self Government.”
On February 4, 1950, he resigned his office and retired to his farm in Puttalam much to the annoyance of his father. One evening, while he was watching paddy being stacked in his farm, CP had a visitor, the late S.W.R. D. Bandaranaike. S.W.R.D’s mission was to persuade CP to enter politics. He succeeded in persuading CP not only to contest from Polonnaruwa but also give leadership to his community in Balapitiya. CP was one amongst a few in the SLFP that managed to win in the 1952 general election.
When C.P. De Silva, as the Minister of Lands, Irrigation and Power presented the Bill in Parliament, in 1970, to establish the Mahaweli Development Board, he stated, “during that seven year period I lived and worked in the Rajarata, I saw while standing helplessly on the Manampitiya bridge just 6 miles away from Polonnaruwa, how the poor suffered when the Mahaweli overflowed its banks during the monsoons and suffer again without water to irrigate, drink or bathe during the Yala seasons. I dreamt for hours how to plan the diversion of the Mahaweli waters coming down the awesome Mahaweli river from the wet zone hills to the dry zone.”
It was this dream that resulted in the planning of the great Mahaweli Scheme by C.P. De Silva to be completed in 30 years in 3 phases commencing 1970. The Mahaweli Diversion scheme was readily supported by UN funding agencies and the UNP government led by Dudley Senanayake who had empathy towards agriculture. But CP was quick to caution the Government that, “the total estimated expenditure on the Mahaweli scheme at the time 1969/70 was three times the national income of 1968 and therefore all the agencies dealing with this gigantic project must be extremely careful about the expenditure associated with the project.” It was unfortunate that after CP lost in 1970, not much progress was made by the government led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike from 1970 to 1977 until J.R. Jayawardane commissioned his young UNP Minister Gamini Dissanayake to accelerate the Mahaweli diversion scheme, which he did with great efficiency.
Out of the 18 years in parliament, late C.P. De Silva was a Minister and Leader of the House for 14 continuous years, except for a couple of months each when he was removed from the Cabinet by W. Dahanayake and when he resigned from the cabinet of Mrs. Bandaranaike. It is also significant that CP held the same portfolio in both the SLFP and UNP governments and retained the post of Leader of the House in all three governments while being a Minister.
Interestingly, on the 25th of August 1959, CP drank the glass of milk meant for S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike at cabinet and collapsed seriously ill. No inquiry was held into this incident. Exactly one month later, the Prime Minister was shot. The PM died on the 26th September 1959. Since CP was undergoing treatment in London, he could not take office as the Prime Minister. But a month later, he returned to lead the SLFP in the 1960 March elections though not fully recovered. UNP got 50 seats and the SLFP 46 seats. The entire opposition backed the SLFP led by CP to form the Government without going for another election at a difficult time, if the UNP did not have a working majority. When the UNP lost the Throne Speech as predicted, the Governor General decided to hold another election in July 1960. At that stage, CP took the unprecedented step for a politician to hand over the leadership of the SLFP to a reluctant widow Sirimavo Bandaranaike. SLFP romped home as winners but Mrs Bandaranaike refused to contest a seat. She was appointed to the Senate. Again, CP was called upon to lead the SLFP in Parliament and was the automatic choice as the Leader of the House. In this context, the observation made by Attorney-at-Law S.L.
Gunasekera, a forthright speaker, at a seminar to commemorate the 31st death anniversary of LSSP leader Dr. N.M. Perera in August 2010, is worth being quoted from the Sunday Leader of August 22, 2010. He spoke on the topic ‘Constitutional requirements for a united Sri Lanka’ and he is quoted to have told the audience, “the reason why Mrs. Bandaranaike became the world’s first woman Prime Minister was because the rightful leadership of the SLFP which at the time should have been given to C.P. De Silva, was denied to him, simply because he was from the Salagama caste.” In fact, the political history of our country would have been different if CP became the Prime Minister in a SLFP government on one of two occasions – after the death of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike or if he accepted the offer of Dudley Senanayake.
CP shunned cheap popularity and was hardly seen photographed with other Ministers at important and not so important events. Instead, he concentrated more on his pet subject, the Mahaweli project, and restoration of large and minor irrigation tanks in the Anuradhapura, Ampara, Galoya, Moneragala, Wanni and Baticoloa Districts.
Not only did he develop lands and irrigation systems but he is credited with the establishment of the Royal Central College, Polonnaruwa (modelled on the lines of Royal College, Colombo in infrastructure) and the Medirigiriya Central College – both schools with hostel facilities for male and female students and staff quarters, large playgrounds, labs etc. It was C.P. De Silva who developed Mahanama College, Colombo by acquiring land for the school from the Walukaramaya temple close by.
The break point with the SLFP emerged when Mrs. Bandaranaike and the old left with other agendas, began tinkering with the freedom of the Press to survive mounting deficiencies in governance. C.P. De Silva worked according to his conscience. He fought hard against the Lake House Press take over Bill and when the government decided to present it to Parliament against his wishes; he decided to cross over to the opposition. It was a very difficult decision he had to take and it is said he had sleepless nights pondering over what to do. Finally, C.P. De. Silva left not only his powerful Ministries and perks of office but also the Deputy leadership of the SLFP of which he was also a founder member. Eventually CP joined the UNP.
CP’s colleagues in Parliament never thought he would quit the SLFP, although he spoke about the freedom of the press.
On that fateful day of December 3, 1964, history was created. CP crossed the floor of the House in dramatic fashion and made an emotional speech on behalf of a free and unfettered Press (there was no television then). He said famously, “I am foregoing all this today in order to live a free man in a free society.”
(The writer is Secretary of the Senanayake Foundation)