15 July 2016

Amid the carnage there will always be those who keep life alive

The late eighties was a terrible time.  It was a time of death, of monumental loss, tragedy beyond description and helplessness that was not considered newsworthy by the bleeding heart champions of human rights. 

I’ve often wondered how we recovered.  I suppose we never recovered fully, for as my friend and batch-mate, Werawellalage Premasiri pointed out recently the roots of today’s human resource crisis are tagged ‘Bheeshanaya (Terror) 1987-89’.  Still, life went on and we came to a place where we could say in one voice, ‘terrorism is a thing of the past’.  Death and loss are lamented collectively as well as personally.  We moved on as a collective but there’s no way to say that a forgetting or dealt-and-done-with skin has grown over the scars of that tragedy.  I tell myself that a couple of millennia worth of engagement with the Buddhist notion of equanimity and a corresponding understanding of the doctrine of impermanence might have helped.  Here’s a story that might explain in a more tangible kind of manner.

It is set in the late eighties and was recounted by a person attached to the Ambalangoda office of the Irrigation Department.  His superior at the time was one Mr. Paranamanne, now no more.  They both enjoyed reading, especially about ancient irrigation works.  R.L. Brohier’s book on the subject fascinated them.   They were wont to go trekking deep into the jungles of the area in search of abandoned irrigation works mentioned in the book.  This was a time when NORAD had helped developed a cascade of village tanks in the Mala-ela river basin (‘mala’ meaning dead and ‘ela’ canal).  They were not getting filled during the rainy season due to insufficient runoff, he explains. 

Anyway, the two explorers had in one of their excursions come across the now famous Mau Ara Dam, then known as Gal Amuna.

Let him take over the narrative: ‘The Mau Ara was untapped even for the Uda Walawe Scheme as it fed the Walawe River in the form of seasonal flash floods; (it was therefore) an unreliable water source. Initial investigations showed that damming this and feeding the Malal Ara was a possibility. This new dam was proposed as a water source for the wildlife in the Udawalawe Park and a trans-basin canal would take the water to Malala basin.  As usual the Irrigation Department was not (in favour of) the project (given the) many stakeholders to deal with.’

The two, who were not just adventurers but dedicated public servants who took their jobs very seriously, had then approached the then Director of the Agrarian Research and Training Institute (‘ARTI’ but now HARTI after adding Hector Kobbekaduwa’s name).  The director had visited the area along with the brilliant but eccentric engineer M.S.M. Silva.  They had been convinced of the project’s viability.  

The Director had organized a two day awareness seminar at the ARTI on the Walawe Basin and its irrigation projects attended by the most eminent people on the subjects of Agriculture, Wildlife, Hydrology and Irrigation in order to get the project to the then political administration.

This was twenty years ago.  Today, our narrator tells us, Chamal Rajapaksa (now Speaker) took up the proposal and we have a truly Sri Lankan project executed with local funding and expertise.   My friend Uditha Wijesena, our narrator here, tells me that Chamal in a recent television interview had mentioned his co-adventurer, Mr. Paranamanne, as the engineer who deserves the credit for achieving the engineering feat. 

Uditha also credits the Director, ARTI.

‘[He] too played his part by getting the then political administration to take note of a worthy cause.’ Uditha describes him thus: ‘Seeing his stature and the looks my first feeling was that it would be difficult working with this guy.  But, I tell you Malinda, he was such a gentle guy to work with.  He wanted things his way but I don’t think that was being stubborn. ’    

I remember that Director from twenty years ago.  This was at the height of the bheeshanaya.  He was living at his official residence off Wijerama Mawatha.  There were three undergraduates living in that house, two from Bingiriya and one from Galgamuwa, all hiding from the death squads that roamed our villages and turned roadsides into cemeteries and rivers into dead-carrying waterways; all for the crime of being university students and for having been born in the sixties.  I remember him telling me that nothing we do should compromise his work at the ARTI (he knew we were all politically inclined, anti-JVP as well as absolutely opposed to the UNP regime). 

We saw death and brutality.  We plotted revolution.  He helped keep life alive.  Just by doing his job.  He always worked.  His enthusiasm to serve, to do justice to the salary he got, never flagged even though every single government he served under harassed him for having held leftist views when he was an undergraduate (i.e. before he joined the Civil Service), usually by shunting him to some obscure department or tossing him into ‘The Pool’.  Lalith Athulathmudali had to bypass President Premadasa to appoint him as Director, ARTI. 

I remember him telling me somewhere in the year 1994, ‘I saved millions for this country and after thirty years of service I have only ten thousand rupees in my account, I just finished paying the housing loan and don’t even have a car’.  He didn’t have a car when he retired. He still doesn’t have one.  He struggles to pay his medical bills, telephone bill, water and electricity bills and meet his other expenses. 

Uditha related the above story because memory was sparked by a photograph of a man twenty years older than when he had last met him. 

We recovered from those terrible times.  We pulled ourselves out of a rut and we will do so again and again.  And that’s because we are a different kind of society, I like to think.  It is also because of people like Uditha Wijesena and his boss, the late Mr. Paranamanne.  And of course that former Director of the ARTI.   His name:  Gamini Seneviratne.  To me, ‘Appachchi’. 


This was published on July 14, 2011 in the 'Daily News'.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Twitter: malindasene.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com
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