Travails of a Rookie District Officer in Polonnaruwa, 1957-58

Sugath Kulatunga

Fresh from the University of Peradeniya, after a stint of teaching at St. Anthony’s College Kandy, I was selected as an Administrative Officer in the Department of Agriculture in November 1957 with 18 others in a new cadre of administrative officers established in the Department. This cadre was the brainchild of the then Minister of Agriculture Philip Gunawardhane and was operationalized by the then Deputy Director Administration Sam Silva, who Philip called a ‘” human dynamo”. (Sam was also the prime mover in the establishment of the CWE and the Petroleum Corporation).


Philip Gunawardena

CP De Silva


The rationale behind this decision was that the technical officers of the Department must be relieved of their administrative functions so that they could devote their time on their primary technical responsibilities. An Administrative Officer in a District was expected to backstop the work of a number of technical officers. The technical officers were against the scheme as they considered that it was a diminution of their status. However, as the scheme had the blessing of the powerful Minister Philip Gunawardhane, there was no open opposition.

Sam inspired us by calling the administrative officer cadre as the steel framework of the Department. When the immense responsibilities of the post were explained to us, I was frankly taken aback and wondered how a raw graduate could shoulder all that responsibility independent of any guidance from a senior as in most other District Services. We also were aware that we could not expect any help from the technical officers as they were against the scheme and wished that we failed in our job. The normal practice in the public service was that one works as an assistant to a senior officer for at least six months. Here, we were been thrown to the deep end without any life support.

It was not a problem for a few colleagues among us who had worked in staff jobs previously or were practicing lawyers. I gained some confidence after the intensive and comprehensive training of over a month given to us covering the Financial Regulations, the Establishment Code and disciplinary procedure.  As most of us were fresh from the cramming sessions in the University, learning the rules and regulations of finance and administration was not such a challenge. We had lectures conducted by Deputy Director Administration Sam Silva and the Chief Accountant Kumarage. We also had a few training sessions at the Organization and Methods Division of the Treasury. A lecture by the then Secretary to the Treasury, Balasingham, who described instances where he had to disregard Financial Regulations in situations of emergency, reduced considerably the initial fear of FRR. One lecture conducted by the elderly and amiable OA of the Agric. Dept. still rings a bell. At the end of the talk on disciplinary procedures, he stated solemnly “Now gentlemen one should temper justice with mercy.” He pronounced the term temper as tamper which made some of our urbanites to snigger, But the philosophy guiding his statement had been a guiding principle in my dealings with errant subordinates.

We thoroughly enjoyed the time that the group stayed together. We also developed a strong camaraderie, which served us well in the ensuing years. A joint transaction we undertook was the purchase of motorcars. Six of us purchased from the Kandy Car Mart six brand new Volkswagen cars, which cost us only Rs.8750 each. With this group purchase at a discount, comprehensive insurance cover and registration charges were thrown in. The loan of two years of salary advance was just adequate to cover the cost. This proved to be a good investment. I used it for fourteen years from 1957 to 1971 until I proceeded to UK for my postgraduate studies. At the end of the training period we went on a tour of the major Farms of the Department.

On our return we received our postings. I was posted to Polonnaruwa, which had two major agricultural farms in Polonnaruwa and Hingurakgoda and the new livestock development project in Kandakaduwa and Tirikonamadu, off 20 odd miles North of Welikanda. In addition, the Pelwehera farm, which was close to Dambulla, also came under my purview. The technical officers for whom I had to provide administrative support were the District Agricultural Extension Officer, who was in charge of the agricultural extension, the Production Officer (PO) in charge of Farms, Veterinary Surgeon and the Tobacco Officer who looked after the cultivation and curing of tobacco which was an important cash crop in the district. We also had a Sugar Cane Research Station, attached to the Polonnaruwa Farm.





The Public service operated mostly on trust, but there was also distrust mainly when it came to financial transactions. One area of distrust was in the employment and payment of casual labor. It had been not too infrequent that managers in remote locations introduced bogus names in the pay sheets and collected the money. It was the reason that one of the onerous functions of the Administrative Officer (ADO) was the payment of labor wages, which had to be done personally.


The induction to my first posting in Polonnaruwa was not auspicious. Before reporting at the new station, I went to my home in Bandaragama in my new car where my elder brother took it for a drive. In this short drive the car had overturned and was badly damaged and had to be sent to Car Mart for a major repair. The consequence was I had to travel to Polonnaruwa by train. The ADO had no official quarters and I had to rough it up in a small room. My meals were delivered from a nearby house. I survived under much inconvenience and stress regretting being housebound without a vehicle.

I assumed duties in Polonnaruwa in mid-December when the station was having the normal Northeast Monsoon rain. The rains became heavy by the 22nd of December and in the next few days we experienced unceasing torrential rain and strong winds. On the 23rd I missed my lunch, as the meal was not delivered due to the terrible weather. I eagerly waited for the dinner, which also did not arrive. The only eatable I had in the room was a large packet of wafers, which I greedily consumed and later became averse to wafers for a long time.

I realized that I was more or less marooned in my room and decided that I should leave for Colombo by the mid night train. I also expected to collect my car after repairs. When I arrived at the Railway Station, I learned that the train was held up at Welikanda, as it could not pass Manampitiiya due to the rising flood level. In utter dejection I came back to Kaduruwela town where there was a Volkswagen van getting ready to travel to Colombo. Those days these vehicles were called suicide vans as they were driven at breakneck speed. I had no choice but to take that van particularly as there were not too many passengers and that was the only van available. I was in Colombo for a couple of days and found that the car would not be ready for another couple of weeks. I had to take a bus on the way back as the train service on the Batticaloa line had been suspended. At Minneriya we saw that the tank bund had breached, and the passengers had to get down and walk across a temporary bridge to take another bus from the opposite side.

When I arrived in Polonnaruwa it was in a crisis situation. Every tank in the district had breached causing heavy flood damage downstream. The Parakrama Samudra tank had been force breached at a higher and safer point in the dam to avoid it breaching near the lowest point near the Rest House. The machine operators had run a tremendous risk in the act of breaching the dam. All public officials were engaged in flood relief operations. Fortunately, the farms were not affected by the floods. If the Parakrama Samudra had breached at a vulnerable point, the rushing waters would have swept the Kaduruwela town and the buildings and the livestock in the two Farms on to the Mahaveli River. Perhaps one reason that made me leave Polonnaruwa on the night of the 23rd was that I had some kind of premonition of the looming disaster having observed in our tour of the NCP Farms in early December that every tank was full to the spill level.

It took over a couple of months for normalcy to be restored in Polonnaruwa. It was to the credit of the technical departments that the badly damaged roads and washed off bridges and culverts were repaired with haste. The leadership of the then Government Agent Jayasinghe contributed immensely to the success of the rapid rehabilitation of both physical infrastructure and human settlements.

My first encounter with GA Jayasinghe was when I paid him a courtesy call on assuming duties. He welcomed me to the district and extended his cooperation and requested me to contact him for any assistance. I was surprised when he asked me whether I had a gun and when I replied in the negative, he called the OA and instructed him to issue me a gun license. I immediately purchased an expensive a Greener 12 bore bolt action gun which was my insurance during my outstation service. The floods did not seriously affect the assets of the Department of Agriculture and as such there was no extra burden placed on the departmental officials.

My job in management terms was Manager Finance, Personnel and Logistics all in one. A disadvantage in the post was unlike other Staff Officers of almost other Departments in the District, the Administrative Officers of the Agriculture Department did not come under the guidance of the Government Agent of the District. As explained later this was a severe handicap in a crisis situation when even an official priority call to Head Office Peradeniya would take a few hours to be connected.

By this time the sugar cane research had been shifted to Kantale, which was the main sugar cane plantation of the Department, and the spacious building, which was used for research, had been released for my office. Although the office facilities were excellent, I cannot say the same thing of my staff which was up to that time under the command of a very senior Provincial Research Officer operating from Anuradhapura. It was perhaps difficult for my veteran staff to adjust themselves to the management style of a young officer.

Obviously, the Senior Technical officers disliked the intrusion of the new administrative cadre. They mistakenly felt a certain loss of power. In Polonnaruwa my staff who had been handpicked by the technical head did not hide where their loyalties rested. Out of my fourteen clerks 13 were Tamils and only one was a Sinhalese. He was also a temporary Officer and was the target of ridicule by the Tamil officers mainly due to his poor command of English.

The high percentage of Tamil officers turned out to be a critical issue later on. The Tamil officers were openly more accommodating towards Tamil workers. Both the Kaduruwela Farm and the Hingurakgoda Farm had over 90 percent Tamil workers majority of them of Indian origin. I cannot criticize the policy of labor recruitment at that time of history for the distant farms as this was the same circumstances that compelled the British to import labor from South India. It is on record (B.H. Farmer) that even with considerable incentives it was difficult to induce Wet Zone farm labor to move into the new colonies in the Dry Zone. In fact, political parties of the left accused the government of sacrificing Sinhalese farmers to malaria by taking them to the new colonies, which lacked basic facilities. There was no surplus labor in the new colonies and the new farms could not have been started without imported labor.

As there was no Bank in Polonnaruwa the practice was to collect money for the payment of wages, from the Kachcheri, which was one of the functions of the ADO. The pay abstracts were received from the Farms and checked, amounts recorded in the votes ledger and cashbook and cheques written. Entering the cashbook and writing of cheques was done by the finance clerk who was meticulous, but at the same time deliberately delaying finishing the job. He probably got a sense of importance to see everybody waiting impatiently to rush to the Kachcheri to draw the cash. The payment of wages was done on a very tight schedule and on payment days there was also a rush at the Kachcheri. The delaying of the writing of cheques was getting too regular and I felt the rest of the clerical staff was also enjoying the discomfiture of the young ADO. One day, when there was too long a delay I called the finance clerk to my room and asked him to bring the Votes Ledger, Cash book and the cheque book and myself entered the cashbook and wrote the cheques. The Chief clerk who watched what was happening came to me and said that I was violating the Financial Regulations, which stipulate that the different steps in drawing funds should be the responsibility of different persons. I told him and the rest of the staff that I was fully aware of the regulations, but I was prepared to break them to see that the job was done in time and added that I would keep the Chief Accountant informed of what I was doing and the reasons for it. I also told them that during our training no other person than the Secretary to the Treasury Mr. Balasingham, citing a few of his experience told us not to be scared of breaking rules as long as one can justify it and record the reasons for such action. Thereafter there was no delay in not only in the finance unit or in any other unit. The normal practice in government offices was that incoming mail (called tappal) was opened by the OA or the Chief Clerk and distributed among the subject clerks. I was not happy with this procedure, as I was not kept aware of the incoming correspondence as it came. There were instances when important letters particularly which were critical of the office were delayed or conveniently misplaced.

To prevent this, I made the tappal to be opened in my presence.  The fact that I was not getting the cooperation from my staff made me learn the rules and the precedents quickly and thoroughly. In a few months’ time I was able to exert full control of the staff. By this time, they also had come to know my antecedents as a student leader (President of the Students’ Union, who also sponsored the Inter University Federation of Students Unions with his counterpart in the Colombo University) that helped to establish a cordial and productive work environment. My experience in handling my staff had impressed Sam Silva who had advised other ADOs who had similar problems to consult me. I state this background, which to some extent contributed to the events that followed.

Administrative Officers (Ad O) in the district also had two additional responsibilities. They were also gazetted as Assistant Commissioners of the Department of Agrarian Services and called upon to conduct statutory inquiries under the new Paddy Lands Act. Another duty, which was more challenging, was to fuNction as the Secretary to a Village Agricultural Development Plan, which was another ambitious project of Philip Gunawardhana. The implementation of this project was not to the liking of the Minister of Lands C.P de Silva whose home base was Polonnaruwa and the GA who was the Chairman of the ADP ignored it. I was very keen on that pioneering project and was encouraged by G.V.S de Silva who was the author of the proposal. It was another victim of Phillip-CP rivalry.

Another duty of the ADO was to hold disciplinary inquiries under delegation from the Public Service Commission. After the communal riots I was also gazetted as a temporary ASP.

From January 1958 onwards the Sugar Cane Farm (SCF) was converted to a seed paddy farm and a large number of casual workers were recruited. They continued to work till the harvesting time in late April and early May. At this time the government had taken a policy decision to absorb all casual labor with over 180 days of work to the temporary cadre. With very little work to offer after the harvest, all casual workers about 100 of them were discontinued before they completed the qualifying 180 days. Ninety percent of the remaining temporary and permanent workers were Tamil workers. This was the same situation in the HingUrakgoda Farm. This was a pestering problem.

In the first quarter of 1958, life in Polonnaruwa had got into a busy routine. It was working from eight to five and then driving to the Public Service Club, which was next to the Rest House on the Parakrama Sumadra bund and having drinks and playing cards until midnight. For a change a frequent watering hole was the chummery of a number of Land Development and Land Offices. On occasions when the alcohol consumption went over the limit there were midnight unsuccessful hunting trips to remote Damanas off Welikanda and beyond. This was more for adventure rather than hunting animals. It was amazing that not many of us ever got drunk even on ‘barrack’ which was arrack shandied with beer.

In a District like Polonnaruwa where there was so much of pioneering development work taking place, the Kachcheri was the focal point of the functions of government. In the decade of 1950 Land development and settlement were the priority activities. During my time there were 4 Land Development Officers (LDOs) and four District Land Officers (DLOs). The DLOs worked under the supervision of the Government Agent. The LDOs were independent of the Kachcheri other than for banking transactions. There was no Bank in Polonnaruwa, and the Kachcheri served as the Bank. As almost all the DLOs and LDOs were Peradeniya products there was no difficulty for me to establish close relationship with them, which helped me at critical moments.

A few of the DLOs and LDOs had permanent quarters. Others ran an interesting and active chummery in a temporary but spacious house. One of the inmates was DLO Abhaya Jayasundera who had a sharp sense of humor. (Abhaya later became a colleague of mine at the Academy of Administrative Studies). It had been suggested by the majority of the inmates that the place should have a nice name ending with ‘villa”. Abhaya had flippantly proposed that the place be called ‘Kelavilla” (doomed) to describe the state of exasperation of the occupants. Kelavilla was a hive of activity in the evening and the long-drawn-out conversations ranged from the prosaic to the profound. My contemporary at Arunachalm Hall, Peradeniya, Nanayakkara (known as Phil Nana) who did philosophy for his Degree introduced a philosophical angle to more abstruse thoughts. The cheapest alcohol in the form of black arrack laced with beer made these symposiums lively and boisterous. Nobody ever had only beer.

It must be noted that all the staff officers especially the DLOs and the LDOs performed their duties with dedication, distinction and passion in spite of the difficult working and living conditions. I was most impressed with the efficiency and application of the LDOs who took difficult decisions on their own under trying conditions. They had to manage a motley and volatile crowd of labor. Some of the labor gangs exceeded a couple of hundreds. The LDOs were responsible for land clearing and the development of infrastructure to facilitate new settlements. This included roads, bridges and buildings. They had to depend on junior level technical officers for supervision. The kind of work they performed would today entail several Project Mangers, Resident Engineers and of course plush quarters and a fleet of luxury vehicles. To my mind the LDOs are the unsung heroes of the colonization schemes.

The conditions of work of the ADO to lesser extent had a few similar problems. My immediate superior was the Deputy Director, Administration at Peradeniya,  Sam Silva, who was known to be a prompt decision maker who had given us the liberty to consult him any time of the day on any problem. He was very helpful and friendly. At the same time, he expected us to deliver. He set an example for us to follow. I remember Minister Philip Gunawardhana at a meeting described Sam as a human dynamo and urged us to follow his example. In the initial days when one was not aware of precedents and when novel situations arose the need for guidance was felt severely. To contact head office for advice was a nerve-racking experience. One had to book an official priority call, which rarely received priority. I envy the present-day officials who can be on instant contact with anybody anywhere in the country. Most ADOs did experience some unwelcome atmosphere in their new workplaces.

I was fortunate that all the district technical officers were very cooperative and cordial. My problems came from the former Provincial technical head of the Department located in Anuradhapura. Before the District set up was introduced there was a Provincial set up with very senior agricultural officers (AOs) in charge of all the activities of the Department in the Province. They were the persons who felt a loss of power and prestige with the coming of the district set up. The new element of an administrative cadre naturally became the target of their displeasure. The time I started work in Polonnaruwa the Production Officer (Rasiah) was a genial elderly Tamil gentleman close to retirement. He and his family used to invite me for meals regularly as they were aware that I yearned for home cooked food and family company.

PO Rasiah occupied a house inside the Farm in a secluded area. I was keen to get this house for my occupation and had made a request to head office to release it to me, especially as the new PO did not want a house. The moment Rasiah retired the AO Anuradhapura who was in charge of research took over the house though there were no equipment or personnel to commence a research function. Previously the Kaduruwela Farm was a Sugar Cane Research Station. But the Department had already launched the massive Sugar Plantations, in Kantale, which had two research officers specialized in sugar cane research. The Farm was also been converted in to a rice research and seed production station. The action of the AO was merely an empire building exercise. He may have been peeved that the Sugar Cane Research building was taken over as the new District Agricultural Office.

From January to end of May 1958 I had got used to the routine of starting work at least an hour earlier than the usual time and working till at least 5 Pm. Thereafter it was a visit to the Kelavilla or the Public Service Club. On days when labor wages had to be paid in the Farms the day was long and tiring. One day the Farm Manager came to my office somewhat excited and said that a trade union representative from Colombo had come to the Farm and was planning to conduct a meeting inside the Farm to initiate a trade union of the SLFP. He explained that it was against the policy of the Department. When a novel issue like that crops up one would try to get the advice of the Head Office. During those days even an official priority phone call would take a few hours. I booked a call and at the same time invited the ‘intruder’ to explain the official position.

The young fellow, apparently a budding politician, said that it was the policy of the SLFP to establish trade unions in every workplace. When I refused permission to hold a meeting inside the farm, he called me a minion of Philip Gunawardhana and accused me and the Farm Manager to be antigovernment ‘niladhari vadins’ bureaucrats and cut short the meeting threatening to report the matter to the political authorities. Within a couple of hours, I received a call from a person who identified himself as the private secretary to Mr. S.D. Bandaranayake (aka “Imbulgoda Weeraya”) who stated there would be consequences for obstructing the government and insisted that his man be allowed to hold the meeting inside the Farm and also wanted to stop work early to allow the workers to attend the meeting.

“Imbulgoda Weeraya” aka SD Bndaranayake

The conversation developed into accusations and arguments when I disconnected the call. I was feeling annoyed that I had to listen to a political lecture from a Private Secretary to a Minister. I was making a mental note of what I should have told him when the phone rang again. The Farm Manager who took the call said that it was again from the office of Mr. S.D. Bandarnayake. I grabbed the phone from him and uttered in not a very polite tone all that I thought I should have told the earlier caller. The gist of what I shouted over the phone was that public servants are not serfs of any political party and are not there to accommodate political requests and that they have to work within a given set of rules which cannot be swayed for the convenience of politicians. The earlier caller had said the officials are interested only in their salaries and not in the welfare of the workers. That was the point that had annoyed me most and told the new caller that it was the politicians who try to take advantage of the workers and most public servants give their best to be of service to them. I added not to preach to me on trade union rights as I was myself the President of the Students’ Union at the Peradeniya University.  The caller at the other end tried to intervene a number of times, but I did not allow it. Finally, the caller calmly said ‘thank you very much and politely added “I am S.D. Bandaranayake “and disconnected the line. I felt bad not so much at the lecture I had given but the fact that it was a result of a rush of blood and lack of patience. I immediately called Sam Silva and explained the incident. He calmed me down and asked me not to worry as the decision not to allow outsiders to hold trade union meetings inside the Farm was correct, but advised me that I should exercise more discretion when dealing with politicians. Months later Sam Silva told me that there was rivalry between SLFP and Philip’s party for Trade Union power. In Polonnaruwa, which was represented by Philip’s archrival, C.P. de Silva the issue had become more sensitive. He assured me that he would keep Philip the minister informed of the incident. Very much later this incident featured large in my tenure in Polonnaruwa.


EDITORIAL NOTES from Michael Roberts, 7 July 2023

A: I have taken the liberty of imposing highlights within the text.

B: Sugath’s article is quite lenghty and I have divided it into three in order to ease the burden on readers. This is the first section. The second part involves administrative issues in facing the anti-Tamil “riots” in 1958 within Polonnaruwa District. The third describes Sugath’s official expeinces in the months/year after that episodoe ….and covers the early administrative experiences/issue in setting up the Kantale sugar factory.

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