The civil servant who was more at home among rural hoi polloi than in Colombo board rooms
When I joined the Ceylon Civil Service in 1963, C.P. de Silva, leading Minister and ex-CCS was already a legend. We learnt about his childhood at Randombe in Balapitiya and his outstanding record as a student at S. Thomas’ College, having won all the prizes for mathematics. Mathematics was his forte. He entered the university, scored a first in mathematics and sailed into the highly prestigious and highly competitive Ceylon Civil Service of his day.
At S. Thomas’ he became a close friend of Dudley and Robert Senanayake. Wijedasa Rajapaksa’s book reproduces a historic photograph taken by Dudley Senanayake on an outing of CP and his relatives with Robert and D.S. Senanayake to the Dry Zone. D.S. in a span cloth, smiles lazily at the camera and this shot of him in an ‘amude’ could shock all his critics who harp on the old man’s top hat and tails which he wore on Independence Day, 1948.
This friendship was crucial to C.P. Dazzled by D.S’s vision of a resurgent ‘Rajarata’ the young civil servant threw himself into provincial administration, first as an Assistant Government Agent of Anuradhapura district. At this time Polonnaruwa was a sub district coming under the supervision of the G.A. of Anuradhapura. D.S’s investment in repairing the tanks and canals of Polonnaruwa and the early settlement of farmers from outside – Gampaha, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya districts – warranted the setting up of a separate district of Polonnaruwa. Thus C.P. who was based in Anuradhapura was moved to Polonnaruwa as A.G.A but with — to use Indian administration terminology- ‘Independent charge’.
All those ‘Kaley John’ Thomians like D.S., Dudley, and C.P. were never happier than when dressed in informal wear of their own design, tramping around the Rajarata and dipping into the tanks and canals for baths and digging into hefty ‘rice and curry’ meals cooked by villagers. There are many photographs of these leaders either bare-bodied or in D.S’s case short-sleeved ‘police type’ banians, often – especially Dudley – stroking their full bellies after a gargantuan meal. (If I am permitted a diversion, even we young civil servants never missed a tank or river bath while on circuit. ‘Colonists’ were ever ready to give us delicious meals of red rice, pol sambol and ‘dada mas’). C.P. was a good swimmer, perhaps normal for a Thomian. But once he nearly drowned while swimming in the sea near Mount Lavinia. A senior irrigation engineer who had joined him was drowned. There is a photograph of C.P. in Rajapaksa’s book, in bathing shorts, with his usual expression of puzzlement, after his rescue from a ‘near death’ experience.
Another noteworthy aspect of the D.S., Dudley, C.P. trio was the easy familiarity with which they interacted with the colonists or villagers. They bantered with them, calling them as among close friends, ‘umba’ instead of the correct ‘thamunnanse’ which is hypocritically used by modern politicians.
While the Colombo-based civil servants who focused on Treasury and establishment matters were somewhat distant, the outstation wallahs mixed freely with the ‘hoi polloi’, sometimes drawing on themselves the contempt of the Mandarins. The CCS members from the South, particularly Balapitiya and Ambalangoda, whose numbers were legion, on the other hand, freely intermingled with farmers and were ready to cock a snook at their self-important colleagues. They perhaps in envy gossiped that C.P. was a great ladies’ man who fell under the spell of Kandyan ‘menikes’ who had settled down in the Dry Zone.
|Launch of biography |
The C.P. de Silva Foundation will launch a biography of the late Minister of Irrigation and Power and Leader of the House C.P. de Silva “Minneriya Deviyo” authored by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha next week. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will be present at the book launch
C.P. was impulsive by nature. He would brook no advice from those who did not know peasant life as he did. He had no hesitation in arguing with an English Director of Irrigation, a Treasury Mandarin and eventually with Dudley himself. Nobody could stop his torrent of words. Dudley as a minister would avoid confrontations with his senior CCS officials and did not come to C.P.’s rescue when he was charged with breaking some administrative regulation to get a job of work done. Rural life and especially paddy cultivation works to a calendar and action has to be taken before the rains come. The legend is that C.P. undertook to cut a canal (to Hurulu wewa?) when the Director of Irrigation, an Englishman, said that it would take several years. C.P. got the colonists, led by his Balapitiya cronies who had been settled in Polonnaruwa, to cut the canal in double quick time. But he had overdone the OT payments to make the colonists dig round the clock. The CCS mandarins in Colombo who were angry at C.P.’s refusal to cow down to them now took their revenge. They persuaded Dudley to agree to disciplinary action against his friend, even though D.S. would have urged caution. C.P, easily, but usually briefly, prone to anger, resigned. With no family responsibilities and convinced of the justice of his version — he was honest to a fault – he threw away his CCS career in anger, which was characteristic of him even on subsequent occasions. CCS legend has it that the lorry carrying documents regarding these payments to colonists, which had been asked for by the Auditor General, mysteriously caught fire near Kalawewa while en-route to Colombo.
Around this time the 1952 Parliamentary Elections were called and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike persuaded C.P. to join his newly-formed SLFP. At this election C.P. was returned to Parliament comfortably and became a senior leader of the party, no doubt to the embarrassment of his old friend and minister Dudley. With C.P. in Polonnaruwa and Maithripala Senanayake in Anuradhapura the SLFP managed to turn the Rajarata of D.S. into a SLFP enclave. Bandaranaike himself realizing this potential became a convert to the Rajarata ideology — earlier he had nothing to do with the UNP trademark romanticism of D.S, Sir John, Dudley and CP about the Rajarata civilization. In characteristic cynical style he now became the champion of a cry to make Anuradhapura the capital of independent Ceylon.
C.P’s contribution to the SLFP victory has been underestimated. The ten SLFPers who helped Bandaranaike to be the Leader of the Opposition in 1952, displacing Dr. N.M. Perera included people of the stature of Bernard Aluvihare, Maithripala Senanayake, C.P., George R. de Silva and A.P. Jayasuriya who could give a fight to UNP leaders. Further the non-Goigama lobbies were obviously manoeuvred by Bandaranaike. With C.P. a large part of the Salagama vote countrywide swung to the SLFP. With N.U.Jayawardene’s sacking from the Central Bank by Sir John, the Durawe vote was lost to the UNP. [It is remarkable that the UNP in the grip of the Mandarins had ousted the two iconic figures C.P and NUJ on dubious charges and thereby lost two of the strongest voting blocks of the country]. The Karawa lobby of Mettananda, Kularatna and F.R. Jayasuriya was anti-UNP on the assisted schools issue. They were quickly disillusioned after the 1956 victory when Bandaranaike refused to make Mettananda, his Minister of Education on the instructions of Mapitigama Buddharakkitha. The hill country non-Goigama vote typified by the Jayasena brothers and Asoka Karunaratna also turned anti-UNP. Though Colombo journalists and commentators appeared to be nonplussed by the 1956 ‘revolution’, the changes including the departure of C.P. from the CCS were the beginnings of changes in the hinterland which affected the electoral verdict. ( President Maithripala Sirisena’s victory of 2015 was also a result of seismic shifts of an ethnic nature which cannot be described here for lack of space.)
It is a curious fact that with C.P. at the helm after 1956 the UNP policies regarding land alienation and settlement continued undisturbed. C.P. would not brook any interference and SWRD and even Philip did not challenge him. However what was noticeable was the shift in emphasis from the Eastern Province to the South. The Gal Oya scheme had been completed and the biggest River Valley development – the Mahaveli – had not been contemplated at this stage. Attention was diverted to the Walawe river basin. I was lucky to be the civil servant who was responsible for land matters in the Ratnapura district wherein at that time Uda Walawe was located. The Walawe river which originates in the Balangoda hills where Samanalawewa is now located was dammed at Thimbolketiya near Embilipitiya. Not only was the Walawe command area to be irrigated but water was to be diverted to Chandrika Wewa which was already constructed but suffered due to an inadequate supply of water. From the left bank water was to be channelled to feed a number of small tanks in the Moneragala and Hambantota districts.
C.P. had built up a trusted team. A senior civil servant Sri Kantha was the Permanent Secretary. H.C.Goonawardena, another senior CCS was Land Commissioner. De Silva Gunasekara was Director of Irrigation and Alagaratnam was his deputy. On site were top class engineers — Ratna Cooke, Laduwahetty, Manamperi, Rosa, Gunasekara Jnr and Godfrey Silva. Wherever C.P. went he took along his stenographer with this ‘Gang’. He would dictate instructions on the spot and in a few days we would receive crisp and clear notes signed by Sri Kantha or Goonewardena. I will only say that it was a rare privilege and honour for a novice CCS officer like me to work as a member of this team. I remember the day we walked from Thimbolketiya through thick jungle to reach the Walawe river bed. Ratna Cooke unfurling survey maps pointed out where the high dam would be erected. Today the dam is erected. We cross over from Ratnapura district to Moneragala district on a broad road, on the magnificent dam spanning the two districts. The Uda Walawe Wild Life Park that C.P. then envisaged is now thriving. The Samanalawewa, Uda Walawe and Chandrika Wewa complex is a wonderful testament to C.P.’s vision and indefatigable energy.
I would like to end this tribute with a personal anecdote. After one of our inspections in Uda Walawe we were seated in the verandah of the Embilipitiya Rest House. C.P. had a liking for Kandyans and I enjoyed a favourable relationship with him. “I say Amunugama,” he told me “Do you know that as a student in Europe I visited Hitler’s Germany. There were gangs marching up and down. I still remember the sound of their jackboots as they marched. Germany had lost her freedom. I only want to live as a free man in a free country.”
Within a week he had given up his portfolio, crossed the floor in Parliament and brought down the Bandaranaike government that he had done so much to build.