DS Senanayake’s Endeavours in Peasant Agriculture

From KM. De Silva:  DS. The Life of DS Senanayake, (1884-1952)

A NOTE from Thuppahi: printed in 2016  this book of 135 pages is clearly meant to provide a distilled assessment of DS Senanayake’s career.  Our readings of this work by Kingsley De Silva must take note of this precising intent on the author’s part — though we must also be aware of Professor De Silva”s conservative UNP affiliations….. and be grateful to Iranga Silva of the ICES in Kandy for making the text of the whole book available to us in a convenient form.








DS Senanayake on a field trip … at Gal Oya

Part Three: DS: the Maturation of a Legislator, 1931-48

Within seven years of his entry to the Ceylon Legislative Council in 1924 DS was elected to the Board of Ministers under the Donoughmore system in 1931.  From that point to the end of 1947, he was one of seven Sri Lankan ministers elected to the Board of Ministers.  Only one other Sri Lankan politician had a similar 16 or 17-year spell in the Board of Ministers. This was C.W.W. Kannangara (1884-1969), Minister of Education from 1931 to 1947.  DS left his mark on the departments he headed as Minister during the period 1931 to 1947, in regard to policies outlined and defended against critics and in the implementation of policies.  Some of these policies had a continued influence even after his death as Prime Minister in March 1952, as we shall see in later chapters and pages of this biography.  This was especially so in regard to policies on irrigation and on food (rice) production.

Physically DS was so much taller than almost all his contemporaries in leadership levels in Sri Lankan politics.  His body was broad and massive with the chest and shoulders of a pugilist—he was in his day an enthusiastic all-in wrestler—a huge rough-hewn face and swarthy complexion, all of which exuded an elemental strength.  But despite his dignified self-assurance he was a diabetic.  He did not let this problem—which he regarded as a minor one—affect his life as a legislator; he was as comfortable in his travels into the forests of the dry zone—whether in Mahiyangana or Tamankaduwa—as he was in supervision if not control over the areas of the executive he sought to lead, or in the debates of the State Council.

While his well-endowed physical size gave him a dominating presence among his peers in the Board of Ministers and among other members of the political class, his genial personality and his capacity to accept criticism while responding to it without giving too much offence, or as he did on many or most occasions without giving any offence at all, made him a very popular figure in the national legislature.

 Chapter 8 …. DS: The Maturation of a Legislator

The early years under the Donoughmore system marked the emergence to political prominence of DS who had been elected without a contest to the Minuwangoda seat in the State Council in 1931.  DS became a member of the Executive Committee of Agriculture and Lands.  He was elected, again without a contest, as the Chairman of the Executive Committee of Agriculture and Lands; and he became Minister of Agriculture and Lands, a post he held for 17 years.  Of the seven Sri Lankan ministers in the Board of Ministers in 1931, DS was the youngest at 47 years of age.  When he first entered the Legislative Council in 1924 his lack of professional qualifications in medicine or law and lack of years of practice in either of these professions—the most prestigious for Sri Lankan politicians—was seen to be a serious handicap.  From the time he entered the national legislature he used his practical experience in agriculture and the management of mines (plumbago) to his advantage in debates with British legislators many if not most of who were or had been managers of plantation properties. Those who expected him to be embittered by his incarceration in 1915 found that he had moved beyond that to higher levels of political contests.  He would resist every attempt to keep Sri Lankan scientists or officials at a disadvantage in their duties under British officials or scientists.  But he would do it without giving needless offence to the latter.  It did not take very long for him to be regarded as a man who was destined to reach the very top in national politics.  In this part of the present volume we deal primarily with DS the man who stimulated the revival of Sri Lankan agriculture (see below Chapter 9) to a much greater extent than most British governors of the colony in the past; and restored what remained of the ancient irrigation system of Sri Lanka.[1]

As regards colonisation,[2] the Land Commission recommended that prospective colonists should be carefully selected, and while some form of financial assistance should be provided, self-help should be made the guiding factor. Reflecting the views of the government, the Commission concluded that on the whole the problem of land-hunger and congestion could be solved within the wet zone of the country in close proximity to the problem areas. The almost total failure—up to that time—of attempts at colonisation in the dry zone appeared to justify the low priority which officials attached to the dry zone in their calculations.

The Land Commission hoped, and strongly urged, that legislation required to give legal form to its recommendations should be drafted and passed as early as possible. Although the transition from colonial status to semi-responsible government, from the so-called Manning constitutions of 1920-24 to the Donoughmore system, inevitably resulted in delays, the Legislative Council, before its demise, passed the Land Settlement Ordinance in early 1931. This Ordinance, in effect, reversed the colonial government’s traditional policy of rigorous opposition to chenas and chena cultivation.[3]

The recommendations of the Land Commission had a strong influence on administrative decisions on land policy in the early years of the first State Council (1931-35), not least through DS himself.

Chapter 9. DS and The Revival of Irrigation

As we have seen DS reached the top of the political pile very early with his election as Minister of Agriculture and Lands, an unusual elevation in political status in just seven years after his first entry to the Legislative Council: this was testimony to his remarkable political skills in winning the respect and support of peers; indeed of a large number of legislators and officials.

His contribution to land settlement and irrigation policy is best reviewed in terms of three factors: first of all, the drive and energy he provided using his position as Minister of Agriculture and Lands; secondly, an uncanny ability he showed in picking the right men for the job at hand, to egg them on to labour above and beyond the call of duty, and to win their loyalty and admiration through tribulations and setbacks which would have caused problems for most men; and thirdly, his vision of the future—the revival of the Rajarata civilisation which attracted many officials.  No wonder that men like one of his principal administrative aides—C.P. de Silva (1912-72)[4]—remained so faithful to him.

We need to remember that the Land Commission had not been very enthusiastic about a programme of colonisation of the dry zone: rather they sought solutions to the problem of land-hunger within the wet zone itself. Indeed the dry zone had a variety of seemingly insuperable problems which included malaria, drought, scarcity of labour and the depredations of wild animals. In the early years of DS’s term of office as Minister of Agriculture and Lands these problems did not diminish. The great depression of the early 1930s aggravated the problems, but also in a sense focussed attention once more on the dry zone. At last it seemed as though acute economic pressure had assumed the potency of a powerful though not yet an irresistible force.

In 1932 DS had argued that: ” Colonization of the dry zone is the only way out: the distribution of population in the various parts of the country is such that immigration from the over-populous zones to less crowded areas will soon become not a matter of choice, but a grim necessity.”

Characteristically there was a refreshing practicality and common sense in the drive and vigour which he provided in eliminating legislative and bureaucratic obstacles to quick decisions. There was by now a much greater appreciation in official circles of the potential value of the undeveloped dry zone; they endorsed DS’s contention that colonisation seemed the only way out of the economic crisis of the great depression of the early 1930s; and even before the government moved to promote it, there was a steady but significant stream of migrants there with Minneriya as a special attraction—striking evidence of a spontaneous response to economic and population pressure. This was the background to the Land Development Ordinance of 1935, a major landmark in the evolution of policy in land settlement, which DS piloted through the State Council.

The Minneriya scheme marked the beginning of the rehabilitation of the Polonnaruwa district, Senanayake’s great achievement of this period. The process of restoration of the ancient irrigation works and reclamation of the dry zone reached maturity with the fourth large scheme he initiated in the plains around Polonnaruwa—the restoration of the Parakrama Samudra, the largest irrigation ‘tank’ built in Sri Lanka in ancient times. In the years after independence he initiated the construction of an irrigation complex which overshadowed even the Parakrama Samudra in size, the Gal Oya scheme (see Chapter 11 below). The artificial lake that was created there was named after him, the Senanayake Samudra, after his death.

As early as 1935 he drew attention to the need to “render useful to the nation the waters of the Mahaveli and its tributary streams”.  The emergence of the Mahaveli as the focus of the national irrigation system came under the leadership of J.R. Jayewardene after the United National Party’s (UNP) massive election victory of 1977.  A beginning had been made in his days (DS’s) through a restoration or repair of channels which brought the waters of tributaries of the Mahaveli to the Polonnaruwa region; and there was one which did more than that—the Minipe Ela scheme which he inaugurated in 1934.

We need to see Senanayake’s own achievements in the Donoughmore era in their proper perspective. Although the establishment of viable colonisation schemes in the dry zone and the economic development which they signified were among the major achievements of the Donoughmore era, much more land was alienated in the village expansion schemes in the wet zone than in the colonisation projects of the dry zone.  The fact was that in the dry zone malaria was still a virtually insurmountable obstacle, although—as the experience of the Minneriya settlers demonstrated—no longer as insurmountable a barrier to the extension of the frontiers of settlement there as it had been.  The complete eradication of malaria became possible with the use of DDT in and after 1945, an important point to make in an age when it is politically correct to denigrate DDT.

Again, the introduction of the Land Development Ordinance did not, for a few years at least, accelerate the rate of development of colonisation. There were no new schemes established till 1939 when the decision was taken that the scale of aid given to the colonists should be rather more generous than it was. Experience had shown that the colonists had to face severe difficulties until their allotment yielded their first harvests, and it was felt that they were entitled to assistance from the state in money or services or both during this crucial period. The free services available to them were now extended through government departments focussing on land and agriculture while marketing facilities were provided through the Marketing Department.  Equally important was the provision of community buildings, hospitals and schools.

Two factors contributed greatly to the expansion of peasant colonisation in the dry zone in the 1940s. Of these, one was the successful control if not eradication of malaria which had been the scourge of that region for centuries and one of the most formidable obstacles to the resuscitation of the irrigation civilisation of ancient Sri Lanka. Secondly the outbreak of the Second World War had demonstrated again the need for self-sufficiency in food. Indeed on this occasion the traditional sources of supply, Burma or Myanmar in particular, were disrupted to a very much greater extent than in 1914-19, and it was to the dry zone of Sri Lanka that the thoughts of politicians and administrators alike turned as a source of food supply. This time, however, the response from the peasantry was far more positive than it had been in the past: colonists had prospered, and their prosperity attracted squatters; thus the population of the dry zone increased rapidly, more rapidly than in other parts of the island.  Malaria was still a problem but no longer an insurmountable problem. And above all else there were now powerful market incentives for the production of rice—guaranteed purchase by the state at a substantial premium above prices in the world markets.

Chapter 10: Traditional Agriculture

Traditional agriculture in all parts of the island and not merely in the dry zone benefitted from incentives for food production which were introduced at this time. In 1942 an Internal Purchase Scheme was set up with a guaranteed price for rice set well above the world market rate; originally Rs 2.50 a bushel, it was increased to Rs 6.00 by 1943; the official rate of exchange for a pound sterling was 13 rupees or 13.50 at this time. Introduced as a wartime measure this guaranteed price scheme was retained thereafter as an essential and permanent feature of government assistance to traditional agriculture. Despite these and other measures, however, the island was still as dependent as ever on imports of food.  Although rice imports in wartime remained at about half of what Sri Lanka had imported in the 1930s, the return of normal peacetime conditions in 1945 saw a steady increase in the imports of rice. But if self-sufficiency still remained a distant dream, active support of traditional agriculture became an established feature of post-war policy. And the rapid development of the dry zone came to be viewed as the principal means of achieving self-sufficiency.

In the first decade after independence—1947 to l956 and even beyond—there was a remarkable continuity in policy on land and irrigation and food production. The continuity was due mainly to C.P. de Silva, one of DS’s key civil servants.  He had become a politician in the early 1950s and was a cabinet minister in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) governments from 1956 to 1964.  DS as Prime Minister had sought to ensure a continuity in land and irrigation policies through the appointment of his son Dudley as Minister of Agriculture and Lands, but that continuity would not have succeeded had it not been for C.P. de Silva, one of DS’s most-trusted administrative aides, a man who did not enjoy the same level of trust as DS had given him. C.P. de Silva was eventually driven to resignation from the elite Ceylon Civil Service as a reaction to Dudley Senanayake’s attitude to him.

The Senanayakes, father and son were passionately interested in the development of peasant agriculture and under their leadership the UNP government from its early years of power after independence stressed the building-up of traditional agriculture especially in its extension in area through land development and irrigation schemes such as the massive Gal Oya scheme (see Chapter 11 below), a historic achievement not merely because it was the first major irrigation project in the island since the days of the Polonnaruwa kings, but also because of the example he set for one-time bureaucrats like C.P. de Silva when he took to politics and became minister of Lands and Land Development under SLFP governments led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and later his widow when she became his successor and head of the SLFP.

Chapter 11: The Gal Oya Scheme[5]

In examining the historical significance of this first irrigation scheme since the days of the Polonnaruwa kings, one needs to begin in the mid-1930s and with J.S. Kennedy, then Deputy Director of Irrigation; it was Kennedy who first got his Minister, DS interested in the irrigation potential of the Gal Oya in the Eastern Province. Kennedy saw that a dam erected near the Inginiyagala rock could form a massive reservoir which would serve a dual purpose of controlling floods in the Pattipola Aru area of the Eastern Province, and providing water for the systematic irrigation of at least 30,000 acres. DS had responded to this enthusiastically. Initially only irrigation and flood protection were envisaged, but DS began to think of the Gal Oya scheme as a Sri Lankan and very much a miniature, version of the Tennessee Valley project in the USA, and India’s Damodar Valley scheme; in brief he envisaged it as a multi-purpose scheme which would include the generation of hydro-electric power.

Preliminary work on the project was continued in the years after independence. This included designs, specifications and estimates for the project. The cost was estimated at Rs 42 million—at a time when the official exchange rate was Rs 8.00 for a US dollar—an enormous amount at that time, and the money had to be met from the country’s own resources: there was little—or no knowledge—or hope at that time of the now familiar ‘foreign aid’ either in the form of grants, soft-loans or technical assistance. The government went ahead with the project; the finances were found locally; the American contractors chosen by the government—Morrison Knudsen—completed their work ahead of schedule, and a new administrative structure, a board of management was established. DS himself did not live to see the completion of the project.

The successful completion of the engineering work on the Gal Oya project in the early 1960s marked the end of an era, a momentous 25 years or so, in which land policy and irrigation policy had been formulated and implemented on the basis of DS’s ideas and aspirations. We need to repeat the point that if DS’s political career ended in the 1930s he would have gone down in Sri Lankan history for his initiatives in land policy and peasant colonisation. It was largely through his initiatives that faith in the peasant as an agent of economic change established itself against the grain of the conventional economic wisdom of the intelligentsia who had an almost religious faith in industrialisation as a panacea for the island’s economic ills.  As a result of his efforts there was a greater appreciation of the potential value of the undeveloped dry zone. Land reform and peasant colonisation became integral parts of a dynamic policy of social and economic change. In his visionary zeal Senanayake saw peasant colonisation of the dry zone as a return to the heartland of the ancient irrigation civilisation of the Sinhalese, the basis of a process of national regeneration.



[1]      One of the men who helped in this was R.L. Brohier whose three- volume study of Ancient Irrigation Works in Ceylon was published in Colombo 1934-35 with Senanayake’s encouragement.

[2]      Settlement of agriculturists, generally on government lands; some of these were on irrigated properties transferred to colonists gratis; irrigation water was made available gratis.

[3]      For classic study of this revival of agriculture through peasant colonisation see B. H. Farmer (1957).  A more recent examination of these problems is provided by G.H. Peiris in his Development and Change in Sri Lanka: Geographical Perspectives (1986 & 1996).

[4]      There is at present (2016) considerable interest in the career of C.P. de Silva; a biography has been published by Wijedasa Rajapakse, C.P. de Silva (2016).  See also Sarath Amunugama, “Remembering C.P. de Silva: A Tribute”, The Sunday Times, Colombo, 27 March 2016, a perceptive article.

[5]      On the Gal Oya scheme the most useful short study is G.H. Peiris (1996: 172-78).


ADDITIONAL REFERENCES served up by The Editor Thuppahi

Charles Abeysekera (ed) 1985 Capital and Peasant Production, Colombo, SSA.

Sarath Amunugama 2018 “Chandrikawewa: An Attempt at Colonisation in a Peasant Framework,” in Amunugama, Dreams of Change, pp. 38-89 (pubd earlier in the 1960s)

Benjamin Brown 2019 “Political Currents and Conflicts in Sri Lanka,” ……………….. https://thuppahis.com/2019/04/11/political-currents-and-conflicts-in-sri-lanka-venugopals-new-cup-book/

 James Brow 1996 Demons and Development. The Struggle for Community in a Sri Lankan Village, Tucson, University of Arizona Press

 BH Farmer 1957 Pioneer Peasant Colonization in Ceylon. A Study in Asian Agrarian Problems, Oxford University Press …. now also at Majestic Books, London

Newton Gunasinghe 1996 “Land Reform, Class Structure and the state in Sri Lanka, 1970-1977,” in Newton Gunasinghe Selected Essays,Colombo, SSA.

Siri Hettige 1984 Wealth, Power and Prestige. Emer ging Patterns of Soci al Inequality, in a Peasant Context, Colombo, Ministry of Higher Education.

Edmund R. Leach 1961 Pul Eliya. A Village in Ceylon. A Study of Land Tenure and KinshipCUP.

Mick Moore 1992a “Sri Lanka. A Special Case of Development,” in J. Brow & J. Weeramunda (eds.) Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka, New Delhi, Sage, pp. 17-40

Mick Moore 1992b “The Ideological History of the Sri Lankan Peasantry,” in J. Brow & J. Weeramunda (eds), Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka, New Delhi, Sage, pp. 325-56.

Gerald Peiris  1996 “Agrarain Change and Agricultural Development in Sri Lanka” in P. Groves (ed)  Economic Development ans Social Change in Sri Lanka, New Delhi, Manohar, pp 111-66.

Michael Roberts 2020 “Introducing PUL ELIYA by Edmund R. Leach,” 21 December 2020,  https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/21/introducing-pul-eliya-by-edmund-r-leach/

Vijaya Samaraweera 1973 “Land Policy and Peasant Colonisation,” in KM de Silva ed.) History of Ceylon, Vol III, Colombo, pp 446-60.

Rajesh Venugopal 2022 “Sinhala Nationalism,” https://thuppahis.com/2022/01/23/sinhala-nationalism/#more-58093


Michael Roberts 2020a The Roberts Oral History Project in the 1960s. Origins …. Outcomes,” 4 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/04/the-roberts-oral-history-project-in-the-1960s-origins-outcomes/#more-47446

Michael Roberts 2020b Adelaide University Initiatives-A: Roberts’ Oral History Project 1965-68,” 6 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/06/adelaide-university-initiatives-a-michael-roberts-oral-history-project-1965-68/#more-47494

Michael Roberts 2020c “The ROHP in Ceylon, 1966-70: Interviews and Select Transcriptions,” 11 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/11/the-rohp-in-ceylon-1966-70-interviews-and-select-transcriptions/

Ajit Kanagasundram:

Looking Back at DS Senanayake and the Gal Oya Project

1 Comment

Filed under architects & architecture, British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, colonisation schemes, communal relations, democratic measures, economic processes, energy resources, ethnicity, governance, historical interpretation, irrigation, island economy, land policies, landscape wondrous, life stories, modernity & modernization, nationalism, patriotism, performance, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, transport and communications, welfare & philanthophy, working class conditions, world events & processes

One response to “DS Senanayake’s Endeavours in Peasant Agriculture

  1. Gunawardane

    The greatest Ceylonese of the Twentieth century.
    He had an abiding love for the country.

Leave a Reply