Nissanka Seneviratne: a man in a million

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)

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