Vasanthi (or Vasi, as she is generally known), is one of two pioneering women from Jaffna who were the first to do engineering. (The other, Pushpa Nagaratnam, left Sri Lanka early on, after her marriage.) Vasi had her schooling at Chundikuli Girls’ College up to O/Levels and then went to St. John’s College for A/Levels. [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Building new roads for women

Anne talks with pioneering civil engineer from Jaffna, Vasanthi Nallatamby

Vasanthi (or Vasi, as she is generally known), is one of two pioneering women from Jaffna who were the first to do engineering. (The other, Pushpa Nagaratnam, left Sri Lanka early on, after her marriage.) Vasi had her schooling at Chundikuli Girls’ College up to O/Levels and then went to St. John’s College for A/Levels. She qualified as a civil engineer at Peradeniya University in 1970– hers was the first batch to include eight women.

Long and fruitful career: Vasanthi Nallatamby

“Premilla Sivaprakasapillai of Ladies’ College, Colombo, who passed out in 1964 and was the country’s first female engineer, blazed a new trail for women to follow.” A particular friend of Vasi’s was Lanka Hatharasinghe from Devi Balika Vidyalaya and Vasi mentions with pride that Lanka was, later on, the first woman President of the 100-years-old Institution of Civil Engineers, Sri Lanka. She adds that the ICE London has not yet had a woman as President. 

Vasi began her long career in Jaffna with a casual appointment in the Dept. of Buildings there. She found permanent employment in the State Development and Construction Corporation in Colombo where she was assigned to its Heavy Construction Division. She was sent to the Bowatenne Dam which was part of the Mahaweli Diversion Scheme. “I was one of two women who were the first to do field work which had hitherto been considered a male preserve,” she says.

Her next assignment was to the Ambatale Dam. As Project Manager, it was her job to pay the labourers their wages and an incident related to that task is still firmly etched in her mind. She said that as she stood there, a man who had been dismissed sometime earlier suddenly appeared and snatched the briefcase which held all the money and ran off before anyone took in what he had done. He was never caught, even though Vasi had identified him.

In 1980, Vasi took off for new pastures, going to Nigeria as Planning Manager for a dam project. She was housed in what she called a “Bush Camp” with 20 others, most of whom were Sri Lankans. Imagining their sleeping in tents, I enquired whether there were separate tents for the men. Vasi smiled and explained that a Bush Camp comprised semi-detached little houses in which they were quite comfortable. She served in Nigeria for three years, coming home just once on home leave. One difference she noticed there was that the Nigerian employees were not happy about taking orders from a woman. 

She re-joined the State Development and Construction Corporation (SDCC), in 1983 and was sent to Delicatha Handiya to supervise a road project connected with the Mahaweli Diversion Scheme. She also served at the Canyon Power House Project Stage 2 in Maskeliya. In 1984, Vasi went to Japan on a JAICA scholarship to study Water Supply, for six months. On coming back to the SDCC, she went to different parts of the country. She explained that the SDCC was contractor for the construction of a network of roads and bridges in the Mahaweli areas. “We were the engineers who got the work done,” she said. In 1989 and ’90 Vasi went to Jaffna as Consultant on the rehabilitation of roads.

Her next assignment was an UNDP appointment that took her to Hanoi, Vietnam, where she worked with a Sri Lankan architect who was responsible for building apartment blocks there. The Vietnamese spoke French as their second language, not English like the Nigerians, so an interpreter had to be used.

Vasi enjoyed her three years and learnt to speak Vietnamese which is a phonetic language like ours. She also picked up a little French. She said that Vietnamese women were well represented in all spheres and there was no lack of women engineers, crane operators, interpreters, etc. In Vietnam, she had for the first time, to cycle to work, as did the Vietnamese.

Coming back here in 1994, Vasi joined the private sector, working at Samuel & Sons as Manager, Civil Engineering Division. She said she was amused at how times had changed, for when she applied to Samuel & Sons way back in 1970 she was told they didn’t employ women! Among the building projects she supervised, she remembers the Colombo University Library. She is very pleased that women have come a long way and now hold top positions like Badra Kamaladasa, Director-General, Irrigation and Niranjani Ratnayake, first woman Professor of Engineering at the Moratuwa University. Vasi also said that 30 per cent of the students presently entering the three Engineering Faculties in Peradeniya, Moratuwa and Ruhunu universities were women. 

Vasi decided to take a year off work in 2000. The next year, however, saw her accepting a Consultancy on behalf of employer-supervision. She served the Ministry of Rehabilitation, supervising contractors in the North and East. (I had associated the word “rehabilitation” with human beings, but learnt from Vasi that in engineering jargon the term is used with regard to roads and bridges as well.)

During the Peace Accord of 2002 she was involved in the rehabilitation of the A9 road in Jaffna. Thereafter, the Ministry of Rehabilitation employed her to supervise rehabilitation of bridges damaged in the conflict in the North and East and three years’ funding for this was supplied by the UK. From 2007 to 2010, she was Field Leader for an ADB-funded project to rehabilitate conflict-affected roads.

I marvel at the variety and scope of Vasi’s work as a civil engineer. I have known her for many years and was drawn to her ebullient nature and infectious laughter, but it didn’t occur to me to ask her about her work until now. Today, she happily serves as Team Leader for a Chinese-funded road rehabilitation project that takes her from Kalpitiya to Kandy, to Badulla and elsewhere. She told me that the only place she avoids is Ratnapura because of her horror of the leeches so prevalent there!
She is based in her own quarters in Kurunegala and has a car and a chauffeur at her disposal. Her consultancy involves supervision to ensure the quality of the work and its timely completion.

Vasi has travelled abroad extensively for her own pleasure, going alone or with friends to India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, America and Europe. She is utterly content with her state of single blessedness. Household chores were never her thing, she says. She has enjoyed the freedom to devote her time and energy to her chosen vocation, untrammeled by family ties. ”I have found fulfillment in my job,” she declares, leaving me in no doubt of her sincerity. “I have enjoyed the company and friendship of my colleagues wherever I worked and have always had a lot of support, being encouraged at every level to develop myself. I have never had an issue regarding ethnicity or gender. I hope to continue working for as long as I feel fit enough to do so.”

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