When Theodore Roosevelt once remarked, “The most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency” he may have expected the emergence in civilized societies of at least a few politicians of the calibre of the late Gamini Dissanayake. Everyone who knew him is certain to treasure many distinct memories of a man who lived [...]

Sunday Times 2

Gamini Dissanayake — a politician with a vision


When Theodore Roosevelt once remarked, “The most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency” he may have expected the emergence in civilized societies of at least a few politicians of the calibre of the late Gamini Dissanayake. Everyone who knew him is certain to treasure many distinct memories of a man who lived his life fully with a sincere will and a firm commitment to be of service to the people.

Gamini Dissanayake:An intelligent, pleasant and cultured personality.

It so happened that I was among the few public servants who had the opportunity to work for over 12 years of my entire public service career in the Ministries of Lands and Mahaweli Development, and thereafter in the Ministry of Plantation Industries under this unique personality and practically all of us do quite often recollect our pleasant experiences.

In reality when a public servant, especially in a senior position, has to work under a Minister a clear mutual understanding becomes quite a necessity. Firstly, the officials have to be conscious of the massive national and political responsibility vested in the Minister. Reciprocally, the Minister has to appreciate the administrative, technical, financial and statutory framework within which a public servant is required to function. This symmetry was perfect with Gamini Dissanayake.

It was rather unique for Mr. Dissanayake at a relatively young age to have been destined to shoulder the responsibilities of two large Ministries. One was being entrusted with the herculean task of telescoping a previously designed 30 year multifaceted development programme to be completed within six years. Additionally, as the Minister of Lands and Land Development he was responsible for a number of large irrigation and settlement projects including Udawalawe, Lunugamvehera, Inginimitiya and Mutukandiya schemes as well as the implementation of the landmark Swarnabhumi programme to benefit a large number of farmer and rural communities all over the country.

As witnessed by everyone Mr. Dissanayake belonged to the extremely rare category of people who enter politics with a sincere wish to serve the people. Additionally, he possessed the self confidence, discipline and requisite qualities of leadership to motivate others to collectively achieve specific objectives. This was demonstrated in his outstanding success as a Minister who in addition to many engineering and geo technical issues on the massive construction network, succeeded in resolving a number of extremely complex and sensitive issues on environment, irrigation, land acquisition and the relocation and resettlement of the largest population ever undertaken under a single project, that too, without any public agitations. They were accomplished not only on schedule, but most importantly in conformity with the internationally accepted high quality standards which earned the admiration of a number of international institutions and many world leaders including Margaret Thatcher, Lee Kuan Yew, Rajiv Gandhi, Moraji Desai etc.

Within this context we public servants, once mobilised, genuinely felt like essential components in a massive development process in fast motion. The tremendous self satisfaction we felt as active partners of a massive development programme was overwhelming. Moreover, during the course of our active participation in these herculean tasks, we as public servants also had the opportunity to observe and educate ourselves on a number of strategies through which Mr. Dissanayake had been able to achieve his desired objectives.

Firstly, Mr. Dissanayake possessed a clear and overall perception of the scope and extent of his Ministry’s responsibilities, the quantum of work to be accomplished and the types of disciplines and expertise needed to be mobilized for the specific tasks.

Secondly, he had absolute trust and confidence in the competence and capabilities of local expertise in all the requisite specialisations such as planning, administration, management, land development, human resource management, engineering, agriculture and such other fields and took every possible step to identify and obtain the services of the best of such local expertise purely on their proven capabilities and without any other consideration whatsoever. For instance, he had selected personnel such as T. Sivagnanam, Nanda Abeywickrema and Ivan Samarawickrema to function as Ministry Secretaries and A.N.S. Kulasinghe, Tisaweerasingham, A. Maheswaran, K.H.S. Gunatilake, C.W.E. Rosa etc as engineering experts and a number of specialists as advisors in specific fields essentially on their abilities and not on any political or other considerations.

Despite many countries including Great Britain, Sweden, Germany etc providing grant aid for the major engineering and construction work, Mr.Dissanayake had entrusted the technical supervisory function to the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) headed by Dr. A.N.S. Kulasinghe. Even when the foreign engineering experts were to be utilized for special tasks they were required to work in close collaboration with the local counterparts coordinated by the CECB.

Another secret of Mr. Dissanayake’s outstanding success was his sincere appreciation at every opportunity, of the contribution of his staff. We still carry the pleasant memory of one such instance, when HE Queen Elizabeth visited the Mahaweli Project in 1981, Mr. Dissanayake who was also the Minister in attendance, made arrangements to formally introduce to her to almost all the key officials headed by the Secretaries of the two Ministries with the words, “Your Majesty, these are the people who have made this project a reality.” Such was the level of recognition and appreciation Mr. Dissanayake openly extended to public servants which to some extent partly compensated for the relatively low remuneration and perks enjoyed by them during the period.

Despite his busy schedule Mr. Dissanayake was always available for consultation on sensitive political, social, religious or any issues of public interest. We have witnessed him often spending long hours in office and in the field along with the relevant officers and at times with public representatives for discussions and resolution of many problems of a political, social or religious nature. I can recall with justifiable enthusiasm, the admirable manner in which he collaborated with the officials to resolve the complex and extremely sensitive issues on land acquisition and the evacuation and resettlement of nearly 28,000 families from the Victoria, Kotmale and Randenigala reservoir areas, in addition to the relocation of approximately 90 places of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian places of religious worship. So far it is the only exercise of such magnitude hitherto undertaken in Sri Lanka, that too entirely through local expertise. In this enormous exercise, the constant advise of Mr. Dissanayake has always been to take all the decisions in close consultation with the affected parties and without any political, racial, religious or any other consideration whatsoever. Moreover, he never interfered in any of the details despite many lands belonging to his parents and relations getting submerged by the Kotmale reservoir. Most importantly, he never allowed anyone, even politicians of his own political party to interfere in the complex yet transparent processes.

Accordingly, the most difficult task of the massive relocation programme was successfully implemented. Adequate compensation and alternate lands were to be provided to all the affected families. Initially, they were given the opportunity to decide whether they would prefer to be resettled close to their original homes or in the newly developed Mahaweli settlements. Facilities were provided for them to visit the proposed new locations in advance. They were also provided with copies of the plans of the new settlements and were encouraged to collectively agree on the details of location of their houses and paddy lands etc. In effect, they planned their future villages themselves.

Reciprocally, we received the fullest cooperation of all the evacuee families, facilitating the systematic completion of the land acquisition, relocation and resettlement programme within the scheduled period. The vision and the guidance came from none other than the Minister.

Mr. Dissanayake possessed an intelligent, pleasant and cultured personality blended with compassion and humanitarianism. Despite being a political heavy weight, he never ever forced his way around. He always confined himself to policy, the principles and broad guidelines, and never interfered with the details of management. During my service of almost twelve years with him, I cannot recall even a single instance when he even implicitly interfered or allowed anyone else to interfere in any administrative or financial matters. Any representations were always referred by him to the Secretaries of the two ministries, who had his standing instructions to decide on them in collaboration with the heads of the appropriate sectors.

I believe that the public servants, the politicians as well as civil society personnel who had the rare privilege of working with Mr. Dissanayake may feel his loss quite frequently. Moreover, the premature departure of this great personality is mostly felt by the vast majority of Sri Lankans of all walks of life, who have lost not only a friendly and inspiring personality but a great national leader who could have made their lives much more comfortable, if not for the cruel fate which extinguished his life at a time when he was much wanted by the entire nation.

(The writer was the Additional Secretary Ministry of Lands and Land Development and later the Secretary Ministry of Mahaweli Development and the Secretary Ministry of Plantation Industries. He retired from the Public Service as the Secretary Ministry of Public Administration, Home Affairs and Plantation Industries.
Email sijay@sltnet.lk )

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