Gal Oya: Addressing Errors in Ajit Kanagasundram’s Recollections

Gerald H. Peiris



I knew Ajit at the time he was an undergraduate at Cambridge, and remember meeting him on and off at the ‘Arts Theatre Restaurant’ at lunch-time. The image that comes to mind is a mild-mannered and gentle youth  ̶-  younger than my circle of post-grad ‘Ceylonese’ pals  like Uswatte, Mahes, Shan, Gunda or Dharmawardena  by, say, 6 or 7 years. I haven’t met him since that time, but it seems from what he has written that he has not lost his gentleness, and has remained almost entirely free of “racial” (ethnic?) prejudices, probably impelled by personal experiences since that time.

While I particularly like the ‘autobiographical’ segment of his essay, I have to refer to several errors  ̶  some, important, others trivial  ̶  that could be attributed to excessive reliance on memory and ignoring what serious researchers have documented. These I specify below under sub-headings numbered 1 to 7, referring in red to highlighted extracts from his essay.

gal-oya-44 Pic from Sumal Fernando Blog wordpress



The project was done and paid for within our own resources, managed by local administrators and completed on time and all major objectives relating to the clearing of forest, settlement of colonists and irrigation of land were accomplished”.

Ajit’s observation has to be qualified with the observation that in the halcyon early aftermath of independence, we did have a large ‘sterling balance’ of external resources used for large projects such as the ‘Gal-Oya Project’ and the  ‘Ceylon University Scheme’ which were also buttressed by our windfall earnings during the short-lived Korean Way boom. In the latter stages of the Gal Oya project (especially settlement development in the ‘Right Bank Channel’ segment) it because necessary to seek foreign aid.

Ajit’s observations on ‘JRJ – Mahaveli Programme – Racism’ shows more that all else that he has completely lost touch with Sri Lankan affairs.



“My father when he was Chairman of the Gal Oya Board and building his house in Colombo, would not order building supplies under his own name as he feared unsolicited discounts from suppliers. Very different from later projects like the Mahaveli where it was a standing joke that the Mahaveli had been diverted from Trinco to Finco”.

While Mr. Kanagasundram (Ajit’s father) was certainly reputed for his integrity, commitment and efficiency, these qualities, I think, were norms in the higher rungs of government service at that time (which, I also think, had an impact on those of the lower strata). Reference could be made to quite a few personalities whose brilliant careers illustrate my point (Brohier, Alvapillai, Rajendra, Baku Mahadevan, Raju Coomaraswamy, Ernest Abeyratne are among the veterans that come to mind). My purpose here is certainly not that of detracting anything from Mr. K’s achievements and his exemplary services at Gal Oya.

The “Mahaveli flowing to Finco instead of Trinco” was a reported in Aththa (Communist Party newspaper) as a statement made by Mano Perera (my former Geography colleague, later, the Director on Plan Implementation when Wickrema Weerasooriya was his immediate boss) on alleged fraudulences being committed at that time by Wickrema and their family owned finance company, allegedly in collaboration with minister Gamini Dissanayake.

3= The Genesis of the Gal Oya Project

“The genesis of this projects, and indeed all other projects that followed it like the Mahaweli, was our first Prime Minister D S Senanayake’s vision to settle the dry zone with Sinhala colonists from the Kandyan areas, provide them with cleared land, irrigation and housing and redress in some way the historical injustice done to them when the British expropriated their ancestral lands – especially after the Kandyan revolt of 1848 (under the infamous Waste Lands Ordinance ) and then cleared the land and cultivated coffee and tea with alien Indian Tamil labourers. This was the first “ethnic cleansing” in Sri Lanka.

Was there an anti-Tamil racist element in DS’s thinking? Historians who have studied him will not agree and my father, who knew him well, confirmed it to me. DS was pro-Sinhala not anti-Tamil. It was the Sinhala people who had their traditional homelands expropriated by the British and who suffered from endemic land hunger especially in the Kandy and Kegalle areas. Furthermore, the lands to be colonized were in jungle areas (albeit within the “historical homelands’’ of the Tamils (according to the Federal Party) and during the project not a single Tamil farmer was displaced. On the contrary there was generous provision for village expansion in the Purana lands cultivated by Muslims and Tamils. The Sinhalese settled were for the most part, true farmers – goviyas – and were able to make full use of the government largesse. If DS had any prejudice it was to favour the goigamas and vellalas!

when JR Jayewardene settled the issue once and for all, this time with an overtly racist motivation and used the Mahaveli project to settle tens of thousands of Sinhalese in the North-east and forever changed the demographic balance in the East and destroyed forever the Eelamist dream of a Tamil Ealam in the North and the East. This time the colonization was not accompanied by village expansion schemes for the Tamils in their traditional lands and many were evicted from their ancestral lands.

By 1953 the dam, power station and irrigation system with cleared lands and colonist cottages were ready. A record breaking feat by any measure! And colonists were brought by train to Batticaloa and thence by truck to their new homes – in their tens of thousands. It was an encouraging sight to see so many eagerly looking forward to their new lives, and carrying their meagre worldly possessions with them. The early colonists were pampered lot and got two acres of high land and five acres of paddy land – together with cooking utensils and farm implements. This was later reduced to two acres of highland and three acres of paddy land. There was a Colonization Officer to look after the wants of every 100 families and their progress was measured. Never before or since was so much care taken to ensure the welfare of colonists. By 1957, 70% the colonization process was completed”.

Herewith  my points of disagreement on the points made in these paragraphs

  • The Gal Oya Valley as the venue of a large multipurpose development project was mooted in the late 1930s. In fact a technical survey was conducted on harnessing the development potential of the Gal Oya catchment in 1936 (The report is referred to in the State Council Hansard).  World War II  delayed its implementation. A more detailed ‘Gal Oya Development Plan’ which envisaged the construction of a mammoth reservoir at Inginiyagala for irrigating 70,000 acres of paddy land was formulated in 1946 (i.e. soon after the war). Construction work began in March 1949; and a statutory board named the ‘Gal Oya Board’ was established in December that year. The first batch of colonists arrived in Gal Oya in November 1951. (These, I think, happened before Mr. K took over)
  • Records of proceedings of the State Council indicate very clearly that Tamil representatives (especially those from Batticaloa District which, at that time covered the present Ampara District as well) were at the forefront of the agitation for implementing the project of the project almost throughout the 1940s.
  • I do not know how Ajit arrived at the conclusion that “D S Senanayake’s vision [was] to settle the dry zone with Sinhala colonists from the Kandyan areas, provide them with cleared land, irrigation and housing and redress in some way the historical injustice done to them when the British expropriated their ancestral lands.” I can only hope that his intention is not one of deliberate distortion. In the opening up of peasant settlements, DS placed priority on the development of the area fed by ‘Left Bank Channel’ which extends into areas presently in Batticaloa District. Nine ‘Settlement Units’ out of the total of 42 at the completion of the GO Project (including the areas served by the ‘Right Bank Channel) are located in the present Batticaloa District (i.e. after Ampara District was carved out of former Batticaloa District in 1961); and in these units there was no alienation of land to the Sinhalese). Further, as several writers including B. H. Farmer (whom Ajit has referred to) have shown, any deviation from the ‘Land Kachcheri System’ of selecting settlers for irrigation-based settlement schemes of the Dry Zone then in vogue were permitted only in the case of ‘evacuees’ (displaced by the project from their home villages) and the construction labourers. Surely, Ajit also knows that production of rice (with about 70% of domestic requirements being met with imports) was the foremost development priority, and that it was the ‘Village Expansion’ strategy initiated in the wake of the Land Development Ordinance of 1935 that was intended to cater to the problem of landlessness among the peasantry in especially in the Kandyan areas.


  • 7-2-michael-1-map-11 Source: G. H. Peiris, Sri Lanka: Land Policy for Sustainable Development (2016)
  • The alienation of land to selected colonists from all parts of the country including the Tamil areas of the Vanni was a staggered process, implemented in the wake of development of the channel system (Main Channels, Distribution Channels and Field Channels, and clearing and levelling the paddy field sites) and did not involve sudden avalanches of “tens of thousands”.
  • “JR Jayewardene settled the issue once and for all, this time with an overtly racist motivation and used the Mahaveli project to settle tens of thousands of Sinhalese in the North-east” is a particularly outrageous comment from the viewpoint of serious research.

The reality of the MDP settlement development up to about the early 21st century was as follows.

  • The main ‘Settlement Systems’ hitherto completed (i.e. System H, C and the Left Bank Channel component of System B) do not extend into the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
  • Settlement Development in the Right Bank Channel Component of System B, designed to extend into the Eastern Province, remained undeveloped throughout the ‘Tiger Raj’. No development whatever had taken place in that area at the time of JRJ’s death.
  • An interesting episode during JRJ’s lifetime in that part of the Eastern Province took place in 1987 at the tile leading up to the infamous Rajiv-JRJ Pact of that year. Under the initiative of the well-known Dimbulagala Seelalankara’s initiative (the monk was assassinated by the LTTE a few years later), and with the connivance of some officials of the MDP, thousands of Sinhalese squatters were encroaching the forested area around Dimbulagala in anticipation of settlement development in the System B Right Bank component. This was also during the early stages of the 2nd JVP insurgency. When JRJ came to know about it he was so furious that he directed a military operation against the encroachers at which, according to eye-witnesses, the encroachers were treated quite brutally. Four senior officers of the MDP (one of them a former student of mine – Karunatillege whose MPhil research I supervised) were arrested and kept incarcerated for almost a year. As far as I know, this was the largest ever operation in Sri Lanka against “land grabbing”; and anti-JRJ writers have referred to this episode as his “war against the Sinhalese peasantry”).
  • What Ajit is probably referring to is the Weli Oya catchment at the northern border of Trinco District where, in the 1990s, the commanding army officer of the area started settling peasants of the Padaviya Schemes (established in the 1950s in the northern periphery of Anuradhapura District, displaced by frequent Tiger attacks – including several massacres, or to borrow a phrase from Ajit, pogroms – in localities adjacent to a fairly large military encampment. Years later, this locality has been brought within the purview of the Mahaveli Authority as ‘System L’, because the ‘Mahaveli Master Plan (UNDP/FAO 1969)’ which covered almost the entire northern Dry Zone plains designated it as such. Sinhalese migrants into this area were never more than a few hundreds, and have, in any case been outnumbered by Tamils.
  • 4=On GAL OYA COMMUNAL RIOTS  Gal Oya Communal Riots

End of the Dream: In 1956 the government changed and the SLFP took over with necessary but different priorities to peasant colonization. The communal bogy raised its ugly head and the Gal Oya workers, instigated by Minister Philip Gunawardane after the Galle Face satyagraha by the Federal Party politicians, rioted against the Tamil staff in GODB. The 1956 riots were the first of many later pogroms against the Tamils. Later it was revealed that about 100 Tamils were killed”.

Dr. Usvatte Aratchi( later on the Committee to Evaluate the GODB) , then an economics undergraduate at Peradeniya University, was engaged with other students in a socio-economic survey of the Gal Oya valley under Professor S.J.Thambiah . The Sinhala and Tamil students involved escaped in a GODB lorry – driven, in Dr.Usvatte’s words, ‘by a madman’- along the same route! The few East Europeans in Gal Oya also escaped to the hills of Nuwara Eliya by the Siyambalanduwa road and shortly after sailed back to Europe”.

The Report of the Commission was suppressed and, I presume, it is still gathering dust in some government archive waiting for a future historian. Maybe the new Freedom of Information Act can be used to unearth it”.

There is a huge mix-up in these three paragraphs. How do I clear it?

  • First of all, there is S. J. Tambiah’s extremely authentic and detailed account of the Gal Oya riots of 1956 which he wrote as an Assistant Lecturer at Peradeniya for Jennings, the VC (which, incidentally, I discovered in the ‘old documents store-room’ of the Arts building, copied, and sent across to him) that has been reproduced in his book Leveling Crowds (University of California Press, 1996: pp. 87-94).
  • The list of undergraduates who accompanied SJ which I have with me does not contain Uswatte’s name. In any case, SJ’s account shows that the research group from Peradeniya was quite safe – the story of daredevil driver notwithstanding.
  • There was no Commission of Inquiry on the Gal Oya riots. There was an inquiry conducted by the IGP in collaboration with the GODB. The report is probably available at the Police HQ. But in the huge turbulences of 1958 and the chaos that followed the SWRD assassination, the Gal-Oya riots faded into oblivion.
  • 5 = ON CP DE SILVA

“After a desultory Civil Service career, he had joined SWRD in politics and was rewarded by being given the plum Ministry of Lands portfolio. Later CP suffered a stroke, and was in London recuperating in our house – at this time my father was the Acting High Commisioner in London when these events took place.

“Kanaks – I couldn’t help it. Philip spoke to Banda and said we can’t have a Tamil in such a powerful capacity as Chairman Gal Oya Board. If you don’t change him I will bring my unions out. Banda, being weak, gave in and that is why we dissolved the Board.” The government realized that they had done an injustice to a highly effective and respected Civil Servant and so offered him the London post as Deputy High Commissioner. My father, after a short break in London, where he sat for and passed the Bar exams with honours, accepted the offer for the sake of his children’s education, but he was broken man. His heart was in dry zone peasant colonization and above all in Gal Oya which was near to his heart. The glamour of dinner at Buckingham Palace and endless diplomatic cocktail parties bored him, and he died five years later of a heart attack during a game of tennis, while he was our Ambassador in Jakarta”.

Among the vintage Civil Servants, CPdeSilva is the only person who, according to stories I have heard in 1960 soon after I became Asst.L in Geog (while assisting my guru HNC Fonseka in his field investigations at the Parakrama Samudra Scheme, viz PSS), has a blemished record, allegedly involving a huge financial fraud committed as GA Polonnaruwa. Several old settlers referred to it as the story of the “nethivunu colaniya” (the “lost colony” of the PSS Scheme) Although CP was one of DSS’s favourites, Dudley (M of Ag and Land who discovered evidence of this fraud) wanted him interdicted and transferred out of Polonnaruwa, but DS remained hesitant – probably because CP was a stalwart of the Salagama caste? This is said to be the reason for CP becoming one of the early recruits of SWRD’s SLFP. I am not at all surprised at CP placing the entire blame on Philip for Kanagasundram’s removal from the GODB, because Philip was one of CP’s sternest critics who accused him of a caste-bias in selecting allotees for DZ colonization schemes (specially PSS), and the fraud at PSS referred to above (on which no inquiry could be held because all related documents were destroyed when the vehicle transporting them caught fire at Habarana).

BHFarmer, incidentally, was a victim of ethnic discrimination – at least he felt he was when he did not garner sufficient support to become the Master of St. Johns despite the highly acclaimed services he had rendered to the college especially by way of raising funds for the new building. I remember his confiding in me on one occasion, saying: “Gerald — no ‘Gerry’ despite three years of close guru-gōla association — I am from the Vanni. There is no place for me here, But that is in the nature of things” (referring specifically to the fact that he was a native of Wales – the British backyard). I remember this vividly because it so happened that I was reading C. P. Snow’s Masters at that time; and it seemed as if the novel was written about Farmer’s experience.

Now, to come back to this issue, of course, there is discrimination of minority communities, and/or discrimination based on group identities – here in SL as it is all over the world. But how is it that the scion of the highest ranking Tamil elite who has had the best of everything his country could offer claim that his eminent father was a victim of discrimination.  


“Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge; author of ‘Pioneer Peasant Colonization in Ceylon’ and ‘Ceylon – A Divided Nation’; leading authority on South Asia’; former Chairman, 1965 Land Commission”

“At the outset the Committee decided to confine themselves to a strictly technical approach eschewing the political dimension as many of the people involved were now with the government. The Committee would do a cost-benefit analysis of the project, agricultural policies and the secondary industries started etc”.

The ‘BHFarmer Committee’ which Ajit refers to was invited by the government to review a large-scale evaluation of the Gal Oya Project, conducted in 1965/66, because the team of field investigators (mostly Peradeniya students awaiting results of the final exam) hired for that evaluation had done a shoddy job – filling their questionnaire schedules at picnic spots along the reservoir banks and having a grand time. Farmer, during his short stay here (one of many since WW II), decided to depend largely on the records he could access at government offices, supplemented by a hurriedly conducted small ‘sample survey” of households with the assistance of Usvatte and a few others. As Farmer’s latest doctoral student I had quite a lot of contact with him, but because of the heavy load of work at Peradeniya, no reimbursement of expenses from the university, and a wife + infant at home, it was not possible for me to help in the field work. There was, of course, no question of his venturing into “political dimensions”. 

Note also that there was no ‘Land Commission’ in 1965. BHF was a member of the Land Commission of 1957.


“After a year of intense work the Committee published their findings [Sessional Paper 1/1968] … * From a purely cost/benefit point of view the project was a failure. However, from a colonization, paddy production point of view the project was successful…. * The Committee chose to ignore the fact that the main objective was Sinhala colonization in the East – and this was achieved

See my earlier observations. Farmer’s second and revised edition of ‘Pioneer Peasant Colonisation (parts of which I read, as requested by him, in its manuscript form) has not referred to any ethnic discrimination (if that is the “political dimension” Ajit was looking for) in the establishment of irrigation-based settlements in the Dry Zone, although he was quite knowledgeable about SL’s inter-group relations of that time and was, in fact, deeply saddened by the increasing estrangement of Sinhalese-Tamil relations. If he wants foreign scholars to cite as authorities on this accusation, Ajit should look to Patrick Peebles or Amita Shastri.{Peiris is referring here -sarcastically — to articles in the Journal of Asian Studies in the late 1990s which he, Peiris, panned in, I think, the Ethnic Studies Review, Editor Thuppahi]

****   ****

LIMITED BIBLIOGRAPHY inserted by Editor Thuppahi

Ajit Kanagasundram: Kanagasundam:

Gerald H Peiris: “An Appraisal of the Voncept of a Traditional Homeland in Sri Lanka,” Ethnic Studies Report, 1991 Vol, 9: 13-39 –originally presented aa s  mimeo papr at an ICES Workshop in 1985.

Gerald H Peiris: “Irrigation, Land Distribution and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: An Evaluation of Criticisms with Special Reference to the Mahaveli Programme,”  Ethnic Studies Report, 1994, Vol 12: 43-88

Gerald H Peiris: Development and Chnange in Sri Lanka: Geographical Perspectives, Kandy, ICES with Maacmillan India, 1996,  SBN 0333 92431 2

Michael Roberts  “Narrating Tamil Nationalism: Subjectivities & Issues,”   South Asia, April 2004, 27: 87-108.and pp. 82-04.

Stanley J. Tambiah: Leveling Crowds, New Delhi: Vistar Publications, 1996, e


Filed under colonisation schemes, economic processes, governance, growth pole, historical interpretation, island economy, land policies, landscape wondrous, life stories, modernity & modernization, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, unusual people, world affairs

3 responses to “Gal Oya: Addressing Errors in Ajit Kanagasundram’s Recollections

  1. chandre Dharmawardana

    It is obvious that the Galoya project should be the topic and title of a major symposium, and at least a whole book. It is not only the colonization, hyrdo-electricity aspects, flood control etc., that needs to be looked at, but also the ecological impact that HAS BEEN TOTALLY IGNORED by scholars. I don’t know if there were such studies at that time since environmental chemistry etc., did not exist in the 1950s, and the vision of D.S. was to follow the vision of the Sinhalese kings, i.e., to harness the water and grow paddy. After nearly 7 decades, we can look at its economic, ecological, engineering and other impact parameters and learn a lot, except that the MPs don’t have any education or capacity to learn.

    [I personally believe that large-scale irrigation to be the wrong policy. But in 1950, we did not any know better. Today we would propose to replace most estates, farmlands etc by forests, and grow food by modern biotech methods which take very little water, very little fertilizers and hence at lowered costs (e.g., Aerial farming in food-grow towers which cost less capital than owning an estate. We already have such towers running in New Jersey, Missouri, etc., providing vegetables to New York restuarants, and similar towers also in Japan and elsewhere). The forest cover in Sri lanka has dropped to something like 16%.. Critically low. ]
    I heard from a number of top irrigation engineers about how areas in the Galoya were denied water for technical reasons, as the head water was not enough. But a decade or two later this was misconstrued as denying water to Tamil villages, by the ITAK propagandists. D.S.Senanayake may surely have had some caste prejudices (as was typical of that era) but he was not racist and did not try to discriminate against minoritities. Even the Indian citizenship act was said to be largely drawn up by Kandiah Vaithiyanathan and the government. They (arch conservatives) were driven by the fear of Marxist penetration into the estate sector (after the Bracegirdle affair), and of course the Kandyans did not want to loose their electorates to the estate trade union leaders. Ponnambalam was the minsiter of Industires and he set up industries mainly in the North and this was used by southern polticians, while the Northen polticians would say that “all the opportunities are in the south and we are being discriminated. This is still the same lament.

    People like N.M., Colvin and particularly Philip had embraced the ideology that “the end justified the means”, and they were sure that the conservative governments and the “Menshevik – like” government of SWRD will be quickly replaced by their Bolshevik-Leninist revolutionary government. Philip was in the Cabinet but led strikes in the port almost everyday, undermining Banda to create a militant political atmosphere. So, Philip using his union man to undermine the CEO of the Galoya, and using the communal card against Mr. Kanagasundaram were nothing. The old civil service cannot survive under such assault.

    It was unfortunate that Dudley, a “gentleman in politics”, never had the guts and the political cunning of D. S. Senanayake. The latter would have sidelined Philip, and indeed would never have accommodate him into a position of power. DS and Oliver would have found some legitimate-looking means to checkmate him! Banda’s coming to power would have been delayed by at least 5 more years if DS had not met his accident.

    So we have to blame the “end-justifies the means” morality of the golden minds of the left, the death of DS, and the weak belly of Dudley, if we are looking for historical explanations of the events in the style of explaining ancient history in terms of Cleopatra’s nose and machinations of Roman senators on their way to the Forum.

  2. chandre Dharmawardana

    The following remarks may not be germane to the main article. However,
    I see a picture of L. H. Meththananda shown here addressing a crowd.
    It is very easy to present Meththananda as a demagougue and extremist. But I think that is a wrong picture of a deeply moral and concerned man.
    He was our principal at Ananda college (before I went to Royal college for the Upper school); and under Meththananda’s watch students in the lower classes had to learn Tamil (the primary tamil reader “Baala Bodhini” was one of the books of the time). There was “Pansil” and “mindfullness” meditation at the school. The latter is now the vogue in American institutions!l.
    LJHM was, unmistakeby a champion of the Sinhalese and Buddhist rights, at a time when speaking out for such things was “just not kosher”. Bandaranaike’s revolution was going to come some day. But unfortunately it was the “faux pas” of JL KOtelawela that precipitated everything, and the revolution came thorugh the hands of Banda and not some other more disciplined leader.

  3. Pingback: Ajit Kanagasundram’s Tale of Lanka and Singapore | Thuppahi's Blog

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