This book contains the experiences, trials and tribulations of a cross section of altogether some 180 Divisional Revenue Officers who held sway in the regional administration of Sri Lanka for almost a quarter of a century from 1939 to 1963. Also, it comprises some valuable insights into the social, economic, cultural and political history of [...]


When our public servants were upright and apolitical | review

DRO (1939-1963) Man for All Seasons By L.M. Samarasinghe, Dhammika Amarasinghe & Jayatissa Bandaragoda A critical appraisal By K.H.J. Wijayadasa

This book contains the experiences, trials and tribulations of a cross section of altogether some 180 Divisional Revenue Officers who held sway in the regional administration of Sri Lanka for almost a quarter of a century from 1939 to 1963.

Also, it comprises some valuable insights into the social, economic, cultural and political history of the post-war and post-independence periods. The book is in two parts. The first part contains a broad overview of regional administration in Sri Lanka from the ancient period to the modern period and the events leading to replacement of the corrupt and feudal Chief Headman system with the DRO Service in 1939. The second part is more readable, being the reminiscences of eleven DROs replete with hilarious anecdotes and spine chilling stories. Reading the book one feels sad as this probably is the Swan Song of the good old true public service.

A highly specialised and closed service

The DRO Service was modelled on the lines of the independent and transparent Ceylon Civil Service but subject to two significant variations. Firstly even though selection to the DRO Service was done through a competitive examination similar to the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) examination; recruitment was on a territorial basis under three categories, namely, Kandyan, Maritime and Tamil-Speaking areas; being a recognition of the importance of the culture, customs and language of each locality. This meant that like Civil Servants the DROs, too, held their heads high and did what was right for the common good, for they were not under obligation to any politician.

Secondly, unlike the CCS which provided for both horizontal and vertical movements, the DRO Service was a highly specialised and closed service. The DRO Service was an exclusive and specialised arm of the Public Service responsible for regional administration in Sri Lanka. Its merits far outweighed the demerits. However, some of the Senior DROs would have been rather frustrated due to lack of promotional and other avenues of career development. In the Public Service there are certain fields of administration such as development, socio cultural and regional in particular and they require personnel with specialised aptitudes, skills and training. Today all the Divisional Secretaries who have succeeded the DROs are generalists drawn from the SLAS. This is a matter that should receive the attention of the policy makers. There is another common factor between the Civil Servants and DROs as well as other staff officers of that bygone era, namely the dignified manner in which we received our appointments. Mercifully, we were not summoned before the Head of State or the almighty minister to receive our letters of appointment. Several DROs in their reminiscences have sarcastically stated that their letters of appointment which were signed by the Secretary of the Public Service Commission as “your obedient servant” were delivered to them at the door step by another obedient servant — the postal peon.

Multifaceted induction training

Another common factor between the CCS and the DRO Service which stood in good stead for new entrants to both services was the two years of multifaceted induction training imparted; both theoretical and practical. The role of the DRO as stated in the reminiscences of DROs was an “all purpose oil”. Personally for me as Government Agent of Ampara, Polonnaruwa and Kegalle, the DRO was a man for all seasons and the all important cog in the wheel of divisional administration. The DRO was always in the battlefront whether it be floods, droughts, festivals, elections or epidemics. He was called upon to play the lead role in the distribution of rationed items, food aid, social assistance, fertiliser and even irrigation water. Thus the comprehensive training programme for DROs which was much more rigorous than for CCS Cadets included office administration, Police work, surveying, valuation, social services, malaria control, first aid, agriculture, irrigation, co-operative work, court work and Ssocial welfare to name a few. Many of the DROs have acknowledged not only the value of the training but also the self confidence and moral courage it gave them to do what is right while withstanding the mounting political pressures, interferences and intimidation.

To my mind the secret of success of the DRO was firstly the tailor made and rigorous training imparted and secondly like in the Civil Service being thrown into the fray and latterly to the political hounds upon completion of the training which meant that the young DRO had to swim rather than sink.

Looking back on my own Civil Service career, I was appointed Director of Broadcasting in charge of five services soon after my cadetship at the age of 26 and as Government Agent of Polonnaruwa to lead the food production drive at the age of 30. The early exposure to the gruelling challenges of responsibility and the vagaries of political gamesmanship is lacking in the Public Service today.
The chapter on “The Establishment of the DRO Service” spells out the detailed 18 months training programme of new recruits. It included a five-week course of in-service training in police work at the Police Training School and four weeks of practical police work in the district. While on the subject of training in police work, I read in the newspapers that 27 school principals nearing retirement age have been elevated to the rank of full Colonel after receiving 10 days of leadership training at the Cadet Corps Camp at Rantambe. This means that the few surviving DROs who received more than nine weeks of comprehensive police training have a good chance of being elevated to the rank of five-star General provided they are still politically serviceable and useful.

Rediscovering a long lost Shrine 

Reading the eleven chapters entitled reminiscences one gets the impression that the DRO’s had enjoyed their work which obviously gave them one hundred percent job satisfaction.

These reminiscences portray the geographical characteristics and the social and economic conditions that prevailed especially in the remote areas and particularly the malaise of poverty that prevailed in the countryside. It is quite evident that the DROs were moved by the pathetic living conditions of the poor and the downtrodden. Invariably the DROs were patriotic and national-minded sons of the soil. U.B. Wijekoon who functioned as DRO Vavuniya South in the early 1960s had been responsible for rediscovering and unveiling the long lost and hidden glory of Tantirimale, an ancient Buddhist Temple dating back to the 3rd century BC.

He had visited this sacred Buddhist shrine first with Vaavunia GA Nissanka Seneviratna and thereafter with Hemasiri Premawardena who succeeded him as GA. On these trips, a young Buddhist monk, Ven. Wimalagnana Thera of Chettikulam Temple had accompanied the team of explorers. To everybody’s surprise the young monk had volunteered to take up residence at the Tantirimale shrine in the middle of the dense forest infested with wild animals and with no human habitation in the vicinity, not even a recognisable footpath. Today Tantirimale is a flourishing Buddhist shrine frequented by thousands of pilgrims and supported by an efficient agricultural community. The moral of the story is that if not for the young DRO’s initiative and the young monk’s brave endeavour, Tantirimale which was an overnight resting place for the royal entourage bearing the Sacred Bodhi Tree from India 2300 years ago may have remained hidden in the jungle for a few more decades at least.

Human Ingenuity at its Best

It is said that human ingenuity knows no bounds. L.M. Samarasinghe functioned as DRO Demala Hatpattu in the Puttalam District in the early 1950s. It was one of the largest DRO divisions at the time covering an area of 385 square miles and administered from the remote hamlet of Anamaduwa. It had a high crime rate being a sparsely populated unpoliced area. The nearest police station was in Puttalam 17 miles away. There were no telephones and public transport was erratic. It was the DRO’s responsibility to discharge basic police functions such as arresting criminals and receiving surrendees until the police arrived may be 24 hours later.

Like all DROs, L.M. Samarasinghe, too, had received training in police work which included the use of pigeons for rapid communication. The Puttalam Police Station had a number of pigeons to be used for carrying messages. The DRO visited several libraries in Colombo and equipped himself with the knowhow of using pigeons and he managed to train 10 pigeons in one week. The pigeon is a monogamous bird; hence the males were taken to Anamaduwa while the females were kept caged in Puttalam. As and when required each pigeon was released with the urgent message to the OIC Puttalam Police inserted in a plastic thistle and clipped to the leg. The male messenger pigeon released from Anamaduwa DROs office whistles across to Puttalam 17 miles away in seven minutes to join his lady love in the bird cage at the police station. As the pigeon enters the bird cage a bell rings and the Police Officers collect the all important message. The pigeons were not kept in Anamaduwa for more than two weeks as there was a tendency for them to get disoriented and lose their bearings to fly home safely.

P. Weerasekara who functioned as DRO Hinidum Pattu at Tawalama in the uppermost basin of the Gin Ganga in the early 1960s has placed on record for posterity the existence of an ingenious contraption called “Kolawe”; an improvised suspension bridge across the upper reaches of the Gin Ganga at Waarukandiya; some distance beyond Batuwangala. It is said that there were no bridges across the Gin Ganga anywhere in Hinidum Pattu at the time but boasted of the only locally assembled cylindrical suspension bridge called “Kolawe” made of coiled cane creepers. DRO Weerasekara says the villagers were quite adept at negotiating it even carrying head loads through it, skillfully balancing themselves. I do not think this ingenious contraption exists anymore. All Sri Lankans should be eternally grateful to DRO Weerasekara for placing on record a description of the “Kolawe”. If ever a National Transportation Museum is to be set up in Sri Lanka a “Kolawe” should be displayed being the only authentic suspension bridge in Sri Lanka made entirely of local raw materials, using local labour and indigenous technology.

Some hilarious anecdotes

The book is replete with several hilarious anecdotes. The story of a young damsel who tasted the forbidden fruit is more pathetic than hilarious. P. Weerasekara the bright eyed, shy and god fearing batch mate of mine at Peradeniya had been functioning as DRO Hinudum Pattu; regarded as the remotest and least developed region in the Galle District, almost five decades ago. In Weerasekara’s own civilised and cultured words the story goes as follows. “An elderly female appeared before me with tear filled eyes and in a whispering tone stated that her school going daughter has had an illicit amorous adventure and had apparently tasted the forbidden fruit and was developing early signs of attaining motherhood.

Her request was simple; a letter from me to the local hospital recommending an abortion of the foetus before the hawk-eyed fellow village ladies specialising in gossipy talk becoming aware of it. I was then a bachelor of mid twenties and had not tasted the pleasures of fatherhood but had to explain the illegality of the proposal and send away the desperate mother after having expressed my deepest sympathy at her plight.” By some strange coincidence while in the process of reading these “humane happenings” in the book under reference, I read in the newspapers that a new law is being drafted legalising abortion in the event of rape. While this would be welcome news to many mothers of today, it offers little consolation to those who are already saddled with unmarried daughters and their illegitimate offspring.

Yet another hilarious anecdote about a Mudliyar of yore of Hinudum Pattu; the predecessor of the DROs as related by Weerasekara is as follows. While wading through some dust laden files in the record room of the DRO’s office, Weerasekara had come across a petition which made a series of allegations against a Mudliyar who administered Hinidum Pattu prior to the advent of the DRO Service. It described the autocratic and unfair manner in which flood relief was distributed and ended up by stating that fair skinned buxom young lasses received special treatment and some were even invited to the Mudliyar’s Walawwa. The amazing thing is that the veracity of the allegation had been amply corroborated by a juicy story of a Mudliyar which was in vogue among the elders of Hinidum Pattu as late as the 1960s. During the heyday of the naughty Mudliyars the Gin Ganga, like the Nilwala Ganga today, was infested with man eating crocodiles. There had been a croc whose pet target had been young damsels coming down to bathe in the river. According to these elders, whenever a bather was dragged away by a croc the helpless victim was a young female. As the Mudliyar had a similar tendency to take away young females the villagers had christened the troublesome croc by the name of Mudliyar. Thereafter, whenever village lasses had to enter the river they checked the movements of the crocodile by making discreet enquiries as to whether the Mudliyar was seen sunbathing or waiting in hiding for the prey closeby.

Hinidum Pattu in the backwoods of Galle District had been fertile ground for the mushrooming of humorous stories as well as being blessed with several young DROs with a fine sense of humour. Dhamike Amerasinghe who succeeded Weerasekara as DRO in Hinudum Pattu has recorded for posterity two anecdotes relating to a Land Kachcheri and Police prosecution in courts. The anecdotes are supportive of the theory that the “law is an ass”. I quote:

“To be eligible for state land one of the prime conditions was that the applicant had to be a married man. An amusing incident occurred in a Land Kachcheri when a young applicant being asked whether he was married replied; “ane hamuduruwane hirayak (marriage) nethuwa idamak ganna bae; idamak nethuwa hirayak ganna bae”. A truly viscious circle if ever there was one”. (unquote)
(I quote) “Once a Police Inspector brought to Court a young lad charging him for riding a bicycle without a warning bell. The Magistrate took one contemptuous look at the Police Inspector and said “I say Inspector, you are like the barber who had no customers and shaved the cat”. He proceeded to warn and discharge the accused”. (unquote).

I quoted these hilarious anecdotes to drive home the point that I really enjoyed reading the part on reminiscences of DROs in particular because like the Mahawansa it has been compiled for the “serene joy and emotion of the pious.” Our universities and our Public Services are not capable any more of producing men and women of the calibre of these DROs of our vintage with backbones of steel and absolute humility instilled in them through learning.

K.C. Logeswaran who served with distinction as DRO in several divisions of Vavuniya District from 1963 to 1968 and later in life as Government Agent, Ministry Secretary and Ambassador has summed up the lessons he learnt as a DRO as follows. (I quote) “I learnt above all empathy with the ordinary poor people. I built up my self-confidence and cultivated fearlessness. It taught me passion for work, to be fair and impartial, to hear the other side and avoid conflict of interest; to uphold and respect the law rather than persons and above all the firm conviction in the dictum that the welfare of the people is the supreme law”.(unquote)

The birth pangs of politicisation

It is said that no news is good news. There are no references in the book regarding political interference or political victimisation of DROs during the first two decades of the existence of the DRO Service. The first decade of the DRO service covered the period up to Independence in 1948 which was a no nonsense period when public administration was dispensed with strictly in conformity with British norms and standards. The politicisation process began with the dawn of the so-called common man’s era in 1956 and got further aggravated in the 1960s. In their reminiscences several DROs have described the mode and manner in which they were intimidated, threatened, politically victimised and transferred out for doing the correct thing without cowing down to the unreasonable and wrongful demands of the local politicians and their henchmen.

P. Weerasekara in his chapter entitled “Those Were the Days” describes how the political rot started in the early 1960s and gradually escalated ending up with the present malaise. (I quote) “Our decisions were accepted without any murmur or protest as the decisions were taken objectively regardless of pressures or the opinions of interested and influential third parties. Nor did we have personal agendas of our own. However, with the passage of time politicians who used to be docile and cooperative with the bureaucracy began to be assertive and challenge the recommendations and decisions of the officials”. (unquote)

He goes on to say that the DRO was one of the commonest targets of attack and this trend gathered momentum till it reached the level of extreme politicisation we witness today. He adds that the independent Public Service which the country proudly claimed to have developed ceased to exist. He sums up saying that the break down in law and order, erosion of discipline, escalation of violence and inability of the ordinary citizen to get his just due all amount to a violation or denial of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

From the sublime to the ridiculous

Today, politicisation of the Public Service and political victimisation of the public servant have taken a nose dive as if from the sublime to the ridiculous. During the heyday of the Ceylon Civil Service and the DRO Service which lasted till about the mid-1960s the enlightened politician recognised the senior public servant as “friend, philosopher and guide.” Today the public servant is being humiliated, belittled, humbled and silenced by the politician at every turn. In the good old days the politicians consulted the public servants and sought their advice. Today, they are being insulted suppressed and tamed by tying them to trees or getting them to kneel down publicly. Alas! The independent , fearless and proud public servant of yester year has been reduced to a subjugated, emaciated and meek underling today.

(The writer was a former Ceylon Civil Service officer and Sri Lanka Administrative Service Officer and secretary to the President of Sri Lanka from 1989 to 1994).

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