Nimal Sanderatne’s Life and Times

Ishara Jayawardane, in The Daily News, 5 February 2013

Dr. SanderatneAs I approached his apartment I saw Dr. Nimal Sanderatne standing outside beaming at me. The Sri Lanka-Australia cricket match was on and we chatted a little bit about cricket. I soon discovered that I was dealing with a dynamic personality – a man who is many a man rolled into one. He has compressed the lifetimes and careers of many men into his life. A journalist, a scholar, a university don, an economist, a banker, an international consultant, and the Chairman of the Bank of Ceylon and NDB I met with an engaging personality and an effervescent man.

 “I was born and bred in Dehiwela. I first attended a small school in Dehiwela where the children were mostly of fishermen in the area. This was because my father was keen that I mix with poor children. This was in 1943 during the war. I recall two things from those days. When the sirens sounded we had to put a pencil in our mouths and hide under the desks. The other was the mid day meal of warm bread, dhal and pol sambol. To this day this is my favourite meal.” “I hardly knew any English in 1945 when I left to live in New Delhi as my father was transferred to the Ceylon Government Food Supplies Department there. Over there I forgot my Sinhala and learnt Hindi and English. I came back in 1946 and joined the second standard at S.Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, where I forgot my Hindi and re-learnt Sinhala.”

A multifaceted man

As I approached his apartment I saw Dr. Nimal Sanderatne standing outside beaming at me. The Sri Lanka-Australia cricket match was on and we chatted a little bit about cricket. I soon discovered that I was dealing with a dynamic personality – a man who is many a man rolled into one. He has compressed the lifetimes and careers of many men into his life.

A journalist, a scholar, a university don, an economist, a banker, an international consultant, and the Chairman of the Bank of Ceylon and NDB Reminiscences of Gold met with an engaging personality and an effervescent man.

“I was born and bred in Dehiwela. I first attended a small school in Dehiwela where the children were mostly of fishermen in the area. This was because my father was keen that I mix with poor children. This was in 1943 during the war. I recall two things from those days. When the sirens sounded we had to put a pencil in our mouths and hide under the desks. The other was the mid day meal of warm bread, dhal and pol sambol. To this day this is my favourite meal.”

 

 

 

“I hardly knew any English in 1945 when I left to live in New Delhi as my father was transferred to the Ceylon Government Food Supplies Department there. Over there I forgot my Sinhala and learnt Hindi and English. I came back in 1946 and joined the second standard at S.Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, where I forgot my Hindi and re-learnt Sinhala.”

 Features writer: Nimal had his primary and secondary education at S.Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia. “It was a wonderful experience as one had an excellent all round education including sports, literary activities and exposure to classical music. We had an unrivalled staff during Warden de Saram’s time. I received an excellent foundation that has made me what I am today.”

After his secondary education at S. Thomas’ College, he sat for the London GCE A/L exam as an external candidate for an Honours degree in Economics at the University of London.His preference was to do a degree in English Literature as he had a passion for it. However, he could not do it as he did not have two classical languages at his London A/L examination. Therefore, he opted to do a degree in Economics.

Just before his graduation, he joined Lake House as a journalist which was one of his ambitions during his student days. “I worked as a features writer for the Observer and did a little reporting and sub-editing as the Editor Denzil Pieris wanted me to learn all aspects of the craft as he had identified me as a prospective Editor.

I worked with some of the finest journalists at the time. It was a very enriching experience as it brought me in contact with varied personalities especially politicians.” He had to leave Lake House after a short spell as he was awarded the Commonwealth Scholarship to do a Masters degree in Agricultural Economics at the University of Saskatchewan. “Although I specialized in Money and Banking for the B.Sc. I had a liking for agriculture. The two year degree in agricultural economics not only exposed me to this field but also to international friendships. Some of my best friends to date are from those years in Canada.”

On his return, he worked for a few months at the Department of Commerce and Trade. Meanwhile he had an offer from the Ministry of Planning but decided to join the Central Bank in October 1967 because “the experience of working at the Central Bank would be the best training for an economist.”

In 1970 he was awarded a Fellowship by the Agricultural Development Council of New York to do a Ph. D. at the University of Wisconsin. He considers his postgraduate training a valuable learning experience. “I was exposed to interdisciplinary studies that included besides Agricultural Economics and Economics, Political Science, Sociology and Law. I also picked up a Masters degree in Political Science on my way to the Ph. D.”

Social scientist :The impact of his multi-disciplinary postgraduate training is quite evident in his approach and outlook to his professional work as an Economist. When asked to describe his “specialization,” he said: “with my exposure to many fields of study, it is difficult to state a specialization. I like to be described as a social scientist rather than an economist. My approach to most problems has been interdisciplinary and pragmatic.”

He was not an arm-chair economist who formulated policies in air-conditioned rooms. He is a good team leader, and travelled to remote villages for field work and familiarized himself with the conditions of the “real” people in the countryside. In some villages he visited, the rural folk had not even seen people in trousers. For a “social scientist,” this experience provided an ideal background to formulate a holistic view on development issues and strategies. He always advocated the principle of “inclusive growth.”

At the Central Bank he worked in two departments: the Department of Economic Research and the Department of Statistics. He became both Director of Statistics and the Director of Economic Research. He retired as Advisor Research and Training before the mandatory age of retirement.  He has done pioneering research in the field of agricultural economics and has carried out several studies at the Central Bank on rural credit and indebtedness, crop insurance, land reform and the plantations, among others. He was appointed the Chairman of Bank of Ceylon in 1987, and later in 1994, as the Chairman of NDB. “I was surprised when Mr. Ronnie de Mel asked me to be Chairman of the Bank of Ceylon in 1987. It was a totally different experience to my research career. A big challenge was to ensure that one did the correct thing for the Bank despite political interventions.

The politicians at the time were amenable to reason and when one explained why something should not be done in the interest of the Bank and the country, they accepted it. Nevertheless, I think I was asked to resign as the powers that be did not think I was the man through whom they could get their things done. Altogether it was a rewarding experience that I value.”

He has also served as a consultant to a number of institutions: UNICEF, World Bank, Harvard, SIDA and ADB. “The international exposure has been a significant contribution to my knowledge. My work for UNICEF contributed towards the concept of ‘Structural adjustment with a Human Face.’ The World Bank study on Indonesia led to the reform of their economic policies. The Harvard Study gave me an understanding of the importance of capacity building for economic development.

“I also did a short honorary consultancy with an international team for the reform of economic policies in Vietnam. The lesson I learnt from the Vietnamese experience was their pragmatism despite a legacy of communism.”

Man of many talents:  

Dr. Sanderatne is a man of many talents. He is a creative writer who has published three books of short stories: The Guru’s Library, A Tale of Two Sisters and Destiny that have received good reviews in the press. He has also edited two volumes of short stories and poetry called Creative Expressions. His latest book Reflections and Perspectives is a collection of speeches he has made here and abroad on varied subjects.

Since his retirement from the NDB at the end of 1998, he made his permanent abode in Peradeniya. For the last 14 years he has been teaching Agricultural Economics and Economics at the Post Graduate Institute of Agriculture (PGIA) of the University of Peradeniya. Besides teaching he has also been involved in a book publishing venture called Kandy Books. “I got into publishing owing to the difficulties that writers had in getting their work published. I have published nearly 25 books especially of first time authors and young talented children. It is a loss making project that has given me much satisfaction.”

Nearing 75, Dr Sanderatne is a university teacher, writer and speaker at conferences and seminars.

 

 

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Nimal Sanderatne’s Life and Times

  1. Nuwan Peduru Arachchige

    Thanks for admiring such a great character …………

  2. Nordis Smith

    Nimal Sanderatne was a great friend of mine at the U.W.–Madison. Through him, I got to know other Sri Lankans and made friends with them as well. Nimal and friends opened up my eyes to a very different world perspective. I feel this is especially important for an American, since most of us are a very insular-thinking people, much like the villagers in remote
    rural areas of Sri Lanka who had never seen trousers. We need to have our eyes opened to other peoples and cultures and their values and perspectives on current world events and affairs……Nordis Smith, former
    U.W. Madison student.

  3. Lasantha Pethiyagoda

    I recently had the privilege of indulging in a deep and absorbing discussion with this varied and learned man, although we had briefly met earlier on several occasions. I felt that I learnt much about many aspects of society during the few hours I spent with him.

  4. G. Kumanayake

    I regularly read his column in the Sunday Times. Very informative.

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