Birth Centenary of C.P. de Silva falls on April 16April 15, 2012, 12:38 am
By Deshamanya K.H.J. Wijayadasa
Former Secretary to the President
A Man of Great Distinction and High Calibre?
Men of great distinction and high caliber such as Charles Percival de Silva are rarely born. Such men live in the hearts of the people long after their demise. Popularly and fondly remembered as C P by both the meek and the mighty, he dominated the administrative, social and political life of Sri Lanka in the mid 20th century. He was an eminent civil servant, a gentleman politician and above all a lover of humanity. His sincere dedication and selfless service to the people of Rajarata in general and the people of Polonnaruwa in particular is indeed legendary. Even today people of Polonnaruwa fondly refer to him as our "Minneriya Deviyo"
C.P. was born on the 16th of April 1912 at Radombe in Balapitiya to the family of C.R. de Silva, a lawyer and Mrs. Adlin de Silva, a co-founder of Musaeus College. He was the eldest in a family of four boys and two girls, of whom Paediatrician Dr. Stella de Silva, Research Scientist Dr. L.B. de Silva and Civil Lawyer A.H. de Silva achieved fame and position. He obtained his primary education at Dharmasoka College, Ambalangoda. He proceeded to S. Thomas’College, Mt. Lavinia for his secondary education where he shone as a brilliant student. He won the Gregory Scholarship and the Miller Award for his outstanding performance in Mathematics and Science. After graduating with a BSc special degree in Mathematics (first class) from University College he proceeded to London for further studies. While in London he sat for the Ceylon Civil Service Examination and entered the Ceylon Civil Service in 1935.
After his cadetship at the Jaffna Kachcheri he functioned as Assistant Government Agent in Puttalam District and thereafter in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa Districts for almost ten years. In 1946 he was appointed Assistant Land Commissioner. In 1949 he was elevated to the position of Director of Land Development under Dudley Senanayake who was Minister of Agriculture. He resigned from the Civil Service in 1950 while holding the post of Director of Land Development over a difference of opinion with his Minister. People of Rajarata were surprised to learn that their hero and one and only saviour had departed unsung and unwept.
The saga of C.P. de Silva and D.S. Senanayake with regard to the restoration and rehabilitation of major irrigation works and the establishment of peasant colonization schemes in Rajarata is indeed synonymous. The giant Minneriya reservoir which remained abandoned and engulfed in jungle for some 800 years was restored and inaugurated by D.S. Senanayake in 1934. By some strange coincidence the task of restoration and rehabilitation of the vast irrigation network under Minneriya reservoir as well as jungle clearing, land development, laying down the infrastructure and land alienation fell on the shoulders of the young Civil Servant C.P. de Silva who was appointed AGA Polonnaruwa. Young C.P. was obviously inspired and motivated by the zeal and enthusiasm of D.S. Senanayake who was Minister of Agriculture and Lands. It is D.S. who spearheaded the movement to bring back to life our forgotten heritage, culture and prosperity buried for centuries by jungle tide. After serving in Polonnaruwa for nearly five years C.P. was appointed Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture in1939. The story goes that after C.P. left Polonnaruwa, Minneriya Colonization Scheme was on the throes of collapsing, The Marxists mounted a massive campaign against Dry Zone Colonization. They made a huge fuss about the harsh living conditions. They said that mosquitos in Minneriya were like crows. D.S. Senanayake knew that only C.P. could stem the tide and requested him to resume the stewardship of Polonnaruwa District immediately.
C.P.’s long period of service in Rajarata gave him an insight into the sad plight as well as the psyche of the poverty stricken Rajarata peasantry. During his tenure of office in Polonnaruwa he lived in a Circuit Bungalow overlooking the Giritale tank. Basic amenities such as electricity and water supply were not available. The scourge of malaria was rampant. He walked mile after mile supervising jungle clearing and land development activities. In the process he mastered the terrain, the gravitational flow of water and the traditional systems of land use. He knew each and every farmer by name and by skills and capabilities. He traveled every weekend to Matale via Elahera in his Willys Jeep to buy milk, eggs, fish and meat to be stocked in his kerosene powered refrigerator.
The secret of his success can be attributed to his ingenuity, inborn talent and dedication to duty. He spent his full time day in and day out with the people out in the field, grappling with their problems and finding practical and sustainable solutions. He could not find the time for holidaying nor did he waste time in globe trotting. Being a bachelor he had no domestic obligations, worries or pressures. He was a very good hearted man. He was also an honest gentleman politician. He did not make use of his official position or political clout to amass wealth. He did not obtain any state lands or houses for himself nor did he lend a hand to his relatives and friends to enrich themselves at state expense. His only aim and objective in life was to serve his less fortunate countrymen irrespective of race, religion or language.
C.P. de Silva; Ideal Successor to D.S. Senanyake
The first political upheaval of the post independence era took place in 1951. The ruling United National Party (UNP) was split into two when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike along with several like minded people broke away and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The fledgling SLFP was keen to contest the General Election due in 1952 but the party was short of suitable candidates. C.P. of course was the unanimous choice of the people of Polonnaruwa. A delegation of his supporters went in search of C.P. to his ancestral house at Randombe in Balapitiya. The delegation was informed that C.P. spends most of his time in his farm at Tabbowa. When the delegation finally reached the farm at Tabbowa that evening they found C.P. in a small farm house resting in his bed. The story goes that he promptly rejected the offer to contest Polonnaruwa stating that he did not have the resources to do so. However, it is said that later on S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike managed to convince him and C.P. won the Polonnaruwa electorate with a big majority. This was not only a major turning point in his life but also in the political history of post independence Sri Lanka. In the 1956 landslide victory C.P. retained the Polonnaruwa seat in Parliament with a bigger majority. By now C.P. was one of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s blue eyed boys and he wasted no time in appointing him as Minister of Agriculture, Lands, and Irrigation. Concurrently, C.P. was also appointed as the Leader of the House. Out of the 18 years in Parliament C.P. was a Minister and Leader of the House for 14 continuous years except for a couple of months when he was removed from the Cabinet by W. Dahanayake and when he resigned from the Cabinet of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. It is also significant that C.P. held the same portfolio of Lands, Irrigation and power as well as post of Leader of the House in both the SLFP and UNP governments. Nobody dared challenge his work and conduct or his policies on agriculture and lands. As Leader of the House, C.P. won the confidence and respect of both sides of the House. He was well versed in Parliamentary procedures and privileges. He was a true democrat who was not only prepared to give a hearing to those with opposite views but also to accommodate them through compromise.
Having spent almost 15 years in the Rajarata, C.P. understood the trials and tribulations of the peasants as well as the problems inherent in dry zone agriculture. They were caught up in the vicious circle of poverty, lack of basic infrastructure such as land, water and roads as well as the attendant ills of under development. In the 1930’s and 1940’s D.S. Senanayake as Minister of Agriculture and Lands pioneered the restoration of major irrigation works such as Minneriya, Parakrama Samudraya, Giritale, Elahera and Kawuduluwewa. D.S. as the Minister in charge was happy that he had a young officer of the calibre of C.P. who spared no pains in discharging meticulously the work assigned to him. Attracting peasants to the newly developed settlements in the dry zone was not an easy task. First and foremost, such settlements had to be made habitable and free from disease. Secondly, basic infrastructure such as water for drinking and irrigation, housing , schools and hospitals and good agricultural lands for paddy and highland cropping had to be provided. Thirdly, the socio economic development of the settlers entailed community leadership and establishing a network of co-operatives for the provision of agricultural credit, agricultural inputs and the processing and marketing of produce.
C.P. was responsible for constructing two fully fledged model schools at Medirigirya and Polonnaruwa each standing in an expanse of 100 acres. He named them as Royal Colleges. He could have easily obtained a Cabinet decision to name them as C.P. de Silva Central Colleges. In fact all national leaders up to Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had set an example by resisting the temptation to lend their names to schools, playgrounds, ports, airports, power houses and what not!! He also directed the planning and development of the New Administrative Centre in Polonnaruwa consisting of the District Secretariat, Court Houses, District Offices, Housing, Recreation Facilities, Schools etc.
The untimely demise of D.S. Senanayake in 1952 created a huge void in the most important development sector in the island; namely Agriculture, Lands, Irrigation and Power. However, fate decreed that C.P. undoubtedly the most competent and deserving successor to D.S. should enter politics in the very same year of his demise. Consequently C.P. had the good fortune of functioning as Minister of Lands, Irrigation and Power for 14 years continuously from 1956 to 1970. During his stewardship of this key development sector he was able to undertake and successfully complete almost all major irrigation and settlement projects hitherto identified as economically and environmentally feasible. In that respect C.P. was indeed the ideal successor to D.S. Senanayake.
One of his last acts as Minister in 1970 which indeed happened to be an everlasting contribution to the socio-economic development of Sri Lanka was the presenting of the Bill in Parliament to establish the Mahaveli Development Board. In presenting the Bill he said: " During that seven year period I lived and worked in the Rajarata, I saw while standing helplessly on the Manampitiya bridge just six miles away from Polonnaruwa how the poor suffered when the Mahaveli overflowed its banks during the monsoon, and suffer again without water to irrigate, drink or bathe during the Yala season. I dreamt for hours how to plan the diversion of the Mahaveli waters coming down the awesome Mahaveli river from the wet zone hills to the dry zone." It was this dream of C.P. which was translated into action by him that resulted in the planning of the Mahaveli Scheme in 1970. It was to be completed in 30 years in three phases. It was unfortunate that after C.P. lost his seat in Parliament in 1970 not much progress was made until J.R. Jayawardene along with Gamini Dissanayake gave it a kick start in 1977.
A Man of Principles Who Upheld Democratic Ideals
C.P. was a man of principles who upheld democratic ideals. He practiced what he preached. He lived by example as against precept. His honesty and integrity was beyond reproach. No one ever not even his political opponents could level any allegation of bribery and corruption or point an accusing finger at him for associating with thugs, criminals and drug pedlars. He was a single minded person with a vision and a mission in life quite opposite of the dual personalities who are enthroned in high office today. He was not ambitious or selfish. He did not chase after fame, position and wealth. These are the qualities which prompted him to resign from the post of Director of Land Development in 1950 over a difference of opinion with his Minister Dudley Senanayake. Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake’s effort to get C.P. to withdraw the resignation was in vain. He could have remained in the Ceylon Civil Service by asking the Public Service Commission for another posting. Quite obviously he left the Public Service in utter disgust. Once again he became a dependent of his family.
He bought 50 acres of private land in Tabbowa and led the hard life of a farmer. He engaged himself in rice cultivation and cashew farming. He had ample opportunities to obtain state land on long lease at Tabbowa under the middle class land alienation scheme. But C.P. did not do so as a matter of principle. Later on in 1965 when C.P. constructed a modest house for himself at Minneriya in a block of private land he sent a strong message to everyone vested with power on how not to abuse power. In any case robbing state land or state property was not in vogue up to about the time of C.P.’s demise. But since then from 1970’s and 1980’s senior officials and politicians have joined hands in robbing state assets with impunity.
If C.P.’s resignation from the Ceylon Civil Service in 1950 surprised the people of Rajarata the role he played to trigger the fall of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government in 1964 shocked the whole country. C.P. was a live wire in the SLFP from its inception. He helped steer the SLFP to the landslide victory in 1956. Thereafter, he ensured a smooth transition of power to Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike the "reluctant widow" in 1960. However, it is said that the intrigue against him from within the SLFP engineered by the aristocrats had reached intolerable proportions by the mid 1960’s. Yet, he remained faithful to the party and Sirimavo Bandaranaike until the inevitable happened on the 03rd of December1964 when the Press Take Over Bill was taken up in Parliament. C.P. was always a true democrat who cherished freedom of thought and expression. He has gone down to history as the person who fired the first salvo for press freedom in Sri Lanka. He ended his address in Parliament that day with the words "I wish to remain a free man in a free society." He crossed over to the opposition benches with 13 members of Parliament which caused the down fall of the Srimavo Bandaranaike government. In the 1965 General Election that followed C.P. threw in his lot with the UNP enabling Dudley Senanayake to form a coalition government which remained in power till 1970. C.P. retained the same old portfolio of Lands, Irrigation and Power as well as the post of Leader of the House.
Ancient Glory of Polonnaruwa Restored
The Dudley Senanayake government of 1965 – 1970 with C.P. as its Deputy Head saw Polonnaruwa District restored to its ancient glory as the granary of Sri Lanka. The global economic downturn, drought and food shortages worldwide and foreign exchange constraints of the 1960’s made it imperative that if Sri Lanka were to survive all resources had to be diverted to agriculture like in the days of our forefathers. Destiny had decreed that this seemingly impossible task of making Sri Lanka self sufficient in rice and other subsidiary crops should be shouldered by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, Minister of Lands, Irrigation and Power C.P, de Silva and Minister of Agriculture M.D. Banda. In this mighty endeavour Dudley provided the strategy, leadership and co-ordination. C.P. had to alienate the unutilized and underutilized state lands, rehabilitate the irrigation network and optimize water use through the application of proper conservation and management techniques. M.D. Banda had to ensure timely availability of improved varieties of high yielding planting materials, agricultural inputs such as fertilizer, agro chemicals and agricultural machinery at affordable prices as well as other technical inputs. Nothing was left to chance. All activities were closely monitored and coordinated. The trio visited the major food production districts at regular intervals. The Government Agents of the eight major food production districts were empowered and given wide ranging institutional and material support and additional manpower.
By the latter part of 1966 the Food Production Drive had gathered such unprecedented momentum and speed that the government had to appoint eight Additional Government Agents to the eight major food production districts with a view to strengthening the district administration. I was fortunate to have been handpicked by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake for the post of Additional Government Agent of Ampara District, the topmost in the list of commercial paddy producing districts. I assumed duties at the Ampara Kachcheri in February 1967. Those days C.P. visited Ampara District on routine inspections at least once a month. Within a couple of days after assuming duties, the Government Agent Victor Unantenna took me to Kondawatuwan Circuit Bungalow and formally introduced me to C.P. and instructed me to accompany the Minister on his monthly inspections in Ampara District.
During these monthly inspections C.P. observed the manner in which I sorted out knotty problems of the peasants as well as the follow up action taken by me to resolve them expeditiously. C.P. developed an instant liking to me that culminated in an excellent rapport between us. Thus, when Ivan Samarawicrema, Government Agent Polonnaruwa was transferred to Anuradhapura, C.P. had no hesitation in recommending me to the Prime Minister as his nominee for the post of Government Agent Polonnaruwa. Even though the people of Polonnaruwa were happy to have me as their Government Agent the people of Ampara were bitterly disappointed. However, in August 1967, I assumed duties as the Government Agent of Polonnaruwa.
My three year spell in Polonnaruwa with C.P. as friend, philosopher and guide was indeed the most meaningful, fruitful and satisfying period in my entire public service career spanning 38 years. As head of the District I was in total command and control. I was only answerable to the Prime Minister, whose one and only concern was the success of the food drive. The rain Gods brought rainfall in adequate quantities and never in excess so as to cause floods. The irrigation network was speedily rehabilitated under World Bank assistance. The farmers responded magnificently. The harvests were bountiful. Paddy yields increased three fold in a matter of three years from a mere 40 bushels per acre in 1967 to 120 bushels per acre in 1970. With the blessings of Minneriya Deviyo the ancient glory of Polonnaruwa was restored.