Sarath Amarasiri, in The Sunday Island 29 July 2012
Dr. Nissanka Seneviratne, a household name among plant pathologists in Sri Lanka, an indefatigable researcher of the Department of Agriculture, a lone crusader against injustice as he perceived it, and a silent philanthropist, passed away after a brief illness on June 15th 2012. He was 79 years old. Dr. Seneviratne was born to a wealthy family owning large extents of lands and other properties in many parts of the country. He was educated at St. Thomas’s College, Mount Lavinia, the school that his father and grandfather attended. He entered the University of Ceylon, Colombo in 1955 and earned a BSc degree specializing in Botany.
He had his own car, a new Vauxhall Wyvern, a rare possession at that time for a university student. He used it sparingly though, often to collect plant samples for student projects along with his batch mates. After graduation he joined the Department of Agriculture (DOA) as a Research Officer in Plant Pathology and continued working in this field until retirement.
A landmark event in his life was the three year stay at the world famous East Malling Agricultural Research Station and Imperial College of the University of London reading for his PhD under the tutelage of the internationally well known plant virologist Prof. A. F. Posnette, FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society). Incidentally, only the most brilliant researchers earn this honour, and I am not aware of any other scientist past or present in the Department of Agriculture who has had the privilege of working under a FRS scientist. His research at East Malling was so outstanding that he is still remembered there as one of the best PhD students. With his reputation there he was able to secure admission to two young scientists of the Department of Agriculture for the PhD programme.
It can be said that Nissanka had the very best that life could offer. A wealthy family, study at a reputed school, a Botany Honours degree, work with an FRS and earn a PhD from the University of London. Furthermore, he had a job to return to after his training and fulfil his life’s primary desire, that of serving the farming community of Sri Lanka to the best of his ability.
At the Division of Plant Pathology of the Central Agricultural Research Institute at Gannoruwa, Nissanka dedicated himself to the development of the human and physical resources there. He took great pains to personally train all members of the staff from casual labourer upwards. Under his leadership he developed the laboratories, library, museum and greenhouses. He maintained excellent personal relationships with his staff. He would attend their weddings and funerals, share their joys and sorrows and not hesitate to provide financial support to them in times of need. His total commitment to work, dedication and passion with which he attended to his duties inspired the work force so much that it was a joy for them to come to work every morning. I have hardly seen a totally dedicated staff working in unison and with purpose more than what I saw in the Plant Pathology Division. As a leader of a research team he was a role model.
His contributions as a plant pathologist were many and varied, his knowledge of diseases of all field crops in Sri Lanka was encyclopaedic, his diagnostic skills were excellent, his recommendations were practical and effective and his judgments hardly questioned. It is of course not possible to even attempt to cover many of his contributions to the country in the field of plant pathology in this note. I shall confine here only to a particular contribution he made to rice production.
When Nissanka joined the DOA in 1957 the national average rice yield stood at about 1.7 tonnes/ha (34 bushels per acre) while today it exceeds 4.4 tonnes/ha (88 bushels per acre). Although the miracle rice varieties such as IR8, bred and released in the mid 1960s by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines yielded more than 100 bushels per acre in many countries, they could not be grown successfully here as they were susceptible to attack by the local fungi and bacteria. Sri Lankan breeders had to develop high yielding varieties that were resistant to these diseases. In this endeavour Nissanka headed a research programme that tested the potential varieties at Ambalantota, Batalagoda, Bombuwela, Karadian Aru (Batticaloa district), Karapincha, Labuduwa, Nalanda and Getambe (Peradeniya). Of particular interest is the Getambe testing site which is surrounded by hills on all sides. Apparently disease pressure was extremely intense there owing to the very high humidity. If a variety passed the test at Getambe, it was considered as having a good chance of surviving fungal or bacterial attack in most other places.
Nissanka visited all the above stated locations regularly. The FRS tutored PhD would travel in the night mail train to Batticaloa, then by bus to Karadian Aru, get into a pair of shorts and jump into a flooded rice field to do his work. He would get back by bus to Batticaloa the same evening, take the night mail again and be in office the next morning. Catching up on lost sleep was not in his immediate agenda.
It can be said that Dr. Seneviratne pioneered the research programme that enabled Sri Lanka to develop high yielding rice varieties that were resistant to fungal and bacterial attack. In fact recent official figures released by the Department of Agriculture show that while the cost of rice cultivation in Ampara and Polonnaruwa districts amounted to about Rs. 32,000 per acre, hardly any money was spent on fungicides and bactericides, as opposed to the situation with regard to cultivation of many common vegetables. If rice cultivation in Sri Lanka necessitated regular applications of these chemicals, the environmental consequences would have been disastrous, quite apart from the enormous costs of having to import large quantities of high priced chemicals. I hasten to add that credit must also be given to the untiring efforts of other rice researchers of the Department of Agriculture for ably continuing the research in the post Nissanka period.
Digressing momentarily, I wish to appeal to the highest levels of government in this Centenary Year of the Department of Agriculture, to even borrow money and provide high quality training to our scientists, like what Nissanka received in his time. This is not to be thought as a favour to the researchers but as a necessary investment for the future of agriculture in this country.
Unknown to many, Nissanka was also a skilful home gardener. He maintained a very impressive garden with well laid lawns, beautiful flowers and a mix of foliage plants, He also grew vegetables. At his funeral many of the neighbours told me that even at the age of 79 years he worked hard with common farm tools such as the crowbar and the mammoty, that he prepared high quality seedlings of several vegetables and distributed them free. I can say that I am yet to come across a scientist of his calibre who was equally adept at working in the lab, greenhouse, experimental stations, farmers’ fields and at home.
Nissanka was not a dull boy and a mere book worm. He was an eloquent speaker, a prolific writer, a lover of classical music and displayed the sarcasm and wit of an Oscar Wilde in appropriate company. Furthermore, he played cricket for St. Thomas’s second eleven and for the Department of Agriculture in the days when inter Departmental cricket competitions were taken seriously. He was a wily leg spinner and a well known big hitter of the cricket ball.
Although this is an appreciation, I do not want to pretend that Nissanka did not have faults. Although he was an excellent team man within the four walls of his laboratory, he hardly communicated freely with most scientists of other disciplines, even those working in the same building. His occasional arrogant behaviour and intransigent nature were irritants to many. I wish his honest, forthright and outspoken viewpoints were presented in a more gentle and tactful manner.
He despised corruption, abhorred misuse of state funds and property, frowned on acquisition and flaunting of wealth, and fought against injustice, He laboured to help others but never asked for favours for himself.
The last one and a half months of his life were spent in the non paying ward of the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital. He did not grumble about the facilities there. His bedfellows were the ordinary citizens of the country. Yet recently, known only to a very few, he donated one million rupees (inherited, not earned) to a school that he loved. That was Nissanka, a man in a million.
(The writer is a former Director General of Agriculture)