Dr H.N.S Karunatilake, an economist of rare breed, has passed away. He was a career central banker and retired from the Central Bank of Sri Lanka as its Governor, the highest position which a central bank officer can aspire to reach in that august institution.
The writer’s first encounter with Dr Karunatilake was in 1969 when he taught monetary theory to undergraduates at the then Vidyodaya University of Ceylon as a visiting lecturer. In the following year, Dr Karunatilake taught the writer another subject, Economic Development. At that time, Dr Karunatilake was a Deputy Director in the Economic Research Department of the Central Bank and it was amazing how he could find time to share his knowledge with undergraduates in several local universities.
Despite his busy schedule at the Bank, he was always on time to lectures. The writer could recall several prominent features in his lectures. He never brought any lecture note to the class room. Once he started talking, hard economic theories flowed from him freely. He was student friendly and was willing to answer their questions. Though he had received instruction all throughout in his academic career in English medium, he lectured very fluently in Sinhala without having to use any English word in the middle of a sentence for support. His lectures were clear, to the point and lively.
The writer had a very close working relationship with Dr Karunatilake after he joined the Central Bank in 1973 and especially after 1978 when Dr Karunatilake was appointed as Deputy Governor. Many in the Central Bank consider him as their ‘Working Guru’, because he led them not only in economic policy making but also in the day to day administration of the Bank. He was a builder of institutions on modern lines.
To mention two such institutions which Dr Karunatilake took a personal initiative to build and with which the writer was also involved with him were the Institute of Bankers of Sri Lanka and the Credit Information Bureau of Sri Lanka. As regards the Institute of Bankers, he was one of the pioneering lecturers and examiners of the Institute’s predecessor, Bankers Training School or BTI set up in 1964.
When BTI was incorporated into the Institute of Bankers in 1979, Dr Karunatilake became its first Chairman and laid the foundation for that fledgling institution to become an advanced professional body in the country. Even after retirement, he could not keep himself away from that institute. He, along with his wife, was a prominent guest at every convocation of the Institute, except the last one where he excused himself on the ground of ill – health.
Dr Karunatilake did not belong to any particular economic school. He could have conveniently been a Keynesian on account of his education at two such institutions of higher learning that had a Keynesian lineage: the prestigious London School of Economics on this side of the Atlantic and the reputed Harvard University on the other side of the Atlantic. He was a pragmatist and looked at only the final result of any economic policy.
His economic philosophy had at times been guided by Buddhist principles of economics. He was an economic nationalist to a fault. He was openly anti – IMF/World Bank type of economic policies and spent much of his retired life for finding a nationalist economic policy for Sri Lanka. He was at the receiving end from the mainstream economists of Sri Lanka on this count.
Dr Karunatilake is such a giant among contemporary Sri Lankan economists,that he will be missed by both his friends and foes.