Remembering “Minneriya Deviyo”, a man of the people

The birth centenary of Charles Percival de Silva falls tomorrow
By Deshamanya K.H.J. Wijayadasa

Men of great distinction and high calibre such as Charles Percival de Silva are rarely born. Such men live in the hearts of the people long after their demise. Popularly and fondly remembered as C.P. he dominated the administrative, social and political life of Sri Lanka in the mid 20th century.

C.P. was an eminent civil servant, gentleman politician and above all, a lover of humanity. His sincere dedication and selfless service to the people of Rajarata in general and the people of Polonnaruwa in particular is indeed legendary. Even today people of Polonnaruwa fondly refer to him as “our Minneriya Deviyo”.

C.P. was born on April 16, 1912 at Radombe in Balapitiya to the family of C.R. de Silva, a lawyer and Mrs. Adlin de Silva, a co-founder of Musaeus College. He was the eldest in a family of four boys and two girls, of whom paediatrician Dr. Stella de Silva, research scientist Dr. L.B. de Silva and civil lawyer A.H. de Silva achieved fame and position. He obtained his primary education at Dharmasoka College Ambalangoda and proceeded to S. Thomas' College Mt. Lavinia for his secondary education where he shone as a brilliant student. After graduating with a BSc special degree in Mathematics (first class) from University College he proceeded to London for further studies. While in London he sat for the Ceylon Civil Service Examination and entered the Ceylon Civil Service in 1935.

After his cadetship at the Jaffna Kachcheri he functioned as Assistant Government Agent in Puttalam District and thereafter in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa Districts for almost ten years. In 1946 he was appointed Assistant Land Commissioner. In 1949 he was elevated to the position of Director of Land Development under Dudley Senanayake who was Minister of Agriculture. He resigned from the Civil Service in 1950 while holding the post of Director of Land Development over a difference of opinion with his Minister.

The saga of C.P. de Silva and D.S. Senanayake with regard to the restoration and rehabilitation of major irrigation works and the establishment of peasant colonization schemes in Rajarata is indeed synonymous. The giant Minneriya reservoir which remained abandoned and engulfed in jungle for some 800 years was restored and inaugurated by D.S. Senanayake in 1934. By some strange coincidence the task of restoration and rehabilitation of the vast irrigation network under Minneriya reservoir as well as jungle clearing, land development, laying down the infrastructure and land alienation fell on the shoulders of the young Civil Servant C.P. de Silva who was appointed AGA Polonnaruwa. C.P. was obviously inspired and motivated by the zeal and enthusiasm of D.S. Senanayake.

After serving in Polonnaruwa for nearly five years C.P. was appointed Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture in 1939. C.P’s long period of service in Rajarata gave him an insight into the sad plight as well as the psyche of the poverty stricken Rajarata peasantry. He lived in the Circuit Bungalow overlooking the Giritale tank. Basic amenities such as electricity and water supply were not available. The scourge of malaria was rampant. He walked mile after mile supervising jungle clearing and land development activities. In the process he mastered the terrain, the gravitational flow of water and the traditional systems of land use.

The secret of his success can be attributed to his ingenuity, inborn talent and dedication to duty. He spent his full time with the people out in the field, grappling with their problems and finding practical and sustainable solutions. Being a bachelor he had no domestic obligations, worries or pressures. He was a very good hearted honest man. He did not make use of his official position or political clout to amass wealth. His only aim and objective in life was to serve his less fortunate countrymen irrespective of race, religion or language.

The first political upheaval of the post independence era took place in 1951. The ruling United National Party (UNP) was split into two when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The fledgling SLFP was short of suitable candidates and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike managed to convince him. C.P. won the Polonnaruwa electorate with a big majority.

In the 1956 landslide victory C.P. retained the Polonnaruwa seat in Parliament with a bigger majority. C.P. was appointed Minister of Agriculture, Lands and Irrigation. Concurrently, C.P. was also appointed as the Leader of the House. Out of the 18 years in Parliament C.P. was a Minister and Leader of the House for 14 continuous years except for a couple of months when he was removed from the Cabinet by W. Dahanayake and when he resigned from the Cabinet of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. It is also significant that C.P. held the same portfolio of Lands, Irrigation and power as well as post of Leader of the House in both the SLFP and UNP governments. Nobody dared challenge his work and conduct or his policies on agriculture and lands. As Leader of the House, C.P. won the confidence and respect of both sides of the House.

Incidentally one of his last acts as Minister in 1970 was the presenting of the Bill in Parliament to establish the Mahaveli Development Board. In presenting the Bill he said; “During that seven year period I lived and worked in the Rajarata, I saw while standing helplessly on the Manampitiya bridge just six miles away from Polonnaruwa how the poor suffered when the Mahaveli overflowed its banks during the Monsoon, and suffer again without water to irrigate, drink or bathe during the Yala season. I dreamt for hours how to plan the diversion of the Mahaveli waters coming down the awesome Mahaveli river from the wet zone hills to the dry zone.” It was this dream of C.P. which was translated into action by him that resulted in the planning of the Mahaveli Scheme in 1970. It was to be completed in 30 years in 3 phases. It was unfortunate that after C.P. lost his seat in Parliament in 1970 not much progress was made until J.R. Jayewardene along with Gamini Dissanayake gave it a kick start in 1977.

C.P. was a man of principles who upheld democratic ideals. He practised what he preached. He lived by example as against precept. His honesty and integrity was beyond reproach. These are the qualities which prompted him to resign from the post of Directors of Land Development in 1950 over a difference of opinion with his Minister Dudley Senanayake. He then bought 50 acres of private land in Tabbowa and led the hard life of a farmer, engaging in rice cultivation and cadju farming. He had ample opportunities to obtain state land on long lease at Tabbowa under the middle class land alienation scheme. But C.P. did not do so as a matter of principle.

If C.P.’s resignation from the Ceylon Civil Service in 1950 surprised the people of Rajarata the role he played to trigger the fall of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government in 1964 shocked the whole country. C.P. was a live wire in the SLFP from its inception. He steered the SLFP to the landslide victory in 1956. Thereafter, he ensured a smooth transition of power to Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike the “reluctant widow” in 1960. However, it is said that the intrigue against him from within the SLFP engineered by the aristocrats had reached intolerable proportions by the mid 1960’s.

Yet, he remained faithful to the party and Sirimavo Bandaranaike until the inevitable happened on December 3,1964 when the Press Take Over Bill was taken up in Parliament. C.P. was always a true democrat who cherished freedom of thought and expression. He has gone down to history as the person who fired the first salvo for press freedom in Sri Lanka. He ended his address in Parliament that day with the words “I wish to remain a free man in a free society.” He crossed over to the opposition benches with 13 members of Parliament which caused the down fall of the Srimavo Bandaranaike government.

In the 1965 General Election that followed C.P. threw in his lot with the UNP enabling Dudley Senanayake to form a coalition government which remained in power till 1970. C.P. retained the same old portfolio of Lands, Irrigation and Power as well as the post of Leader of the House.

The Dudley Senanayake government of 1965 – 1970 with C.P. as its Deputy Head saw the Polonnaruwa District restored to its ancient glory as the granary of Sri Lanka. By the latter part of 1966 the Food Production Drive had gathered such unprecedented momentum and speed that the government had to appoint eight additional government agents to the 8 major food production districts with a view of strengthening the district administration. I was fortunate to have been handpicked by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake for the post of Additional Government Agent of Ampara District. During these monthly inspections C.P. observed the manner in which I sorted out knotty problems of the peasants as well as the follow up action taken by me to resolve them expeditiously.

He developed an instant liking for me that culminated in an excellent rapport between us. When, in August 1967, I assumed duties as the Government Agent of Polonnaruwa, my three year spell there with C.P. as friend, philosopher and guide was indeed the most meaningful, fruitful and satisfying period in my entire public service career spanning 38 years.

(The writer is a former Secretary of the President)

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