TRIBUTE | Sunday Observer


60 years of DEW politics:

Reminiscences of a friend and colleague

BY Dhammike Amarasinghe

Those were heady days. The United Front government of 1970, under the leadership of Sirimavo Bandaranaike had just been elected to office, after a resounding victory at the polls. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka were partners in the coalition. Many of us in the public service were elated. We had absorbed our left orientation mostly at the then University of Ceylon, Peradeniya – a proud institution which, in spirit, is no more. Some of us had sat, even briefly, at the feet – literally- of Doric de Souza in the cramped house of the LSSP supporter at Hindagala, just outside the Campus. Others had attended the study classes of N.Shanmugathasan of the yet undivided Communist Party. ( I had done both- of course at different times!). Dons such as Dr. S. Gunasekara of the LSSP and Dr. Ian Vandendriesen of the CP were inspirations – though, the gentlemen that they were, they never tried to indoctrinate their students in the class room.

Some time before the 1970 elections I had casually befriended L.N.T Mendis, a senior in our service – the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. He was well known for his left leanings. As it happened, when Pieter Keuneman became the Minister of Housing and Construction, LNT was made the Additional Secretary of the Ministry. Dr. Nath Amarakoon a young engineer who had made a name for himself in the period preceding the elections, in the Socialist Study Circle, as a socially conscious progressive professional had been made the Ministry Secretary.

LNT soon sought me out, then working in the Department of Immigration and Emigration to fill the vacancy of an Assistant Secretary created by my long-time friend Gnanavipula Munasinghe who was going as Additional Government Agent, Polonnaruwa, at the invitation of his friend Ratna Deshapriya Senanayake, Deputy Minister and MP for Minneriya, after a brief stint at the new Ministry. That is how a most wonderful period in my careers began.

D.E.W. Gunasekara was one of the first to befriend me at the new office. He was the Private Secretary to the Minister. I came to know that he had almost been wrested from an unwilling Inland Revenue Department where he was performing an excellent service as the head of the Investigation Unit. It was known that while there during the previous regime he had even raided a businessman’s house where a Minister (who was yet to occupy even higher positions later) had hidden away his ill-gotten undeclared wealth and that the Prime Minister of the day – all due credit to him – had merely verified the information next morning from the Revenue Chief, and allowed the Department to proceed under the law. DEW I think might have ended up as Commissioner General of Inland Revenue if he had stuck on. Anyway I have heard that on his bidding good bye at the old department a Deputy Commissioner had predicted accurately. He had said “You will end up a Minister.”

We soon built ourselves into a close knit team. Of course the Minister was our inspiration. Former Cambridge Union President, spell binding orator, devastating wit and handsome debonair socialite - we were proud that Pieter Keuneman was our Minister. The Secretary was friendly enough but it was LNT and us the lesser mortals that bonded. Besides DEW there was rolly polly Gunasena and several others whose names elude me now, on the Minister’s personal staff. There were Engineers Ganesan ( now Dr. Ganesan, a distinguished academic) and Condrad Tissera, who later became a Ministry Secretary in the Technical Unit. A senior clerical hand Mahalingam (who later became a State Corporation Chairman) was a go-getter. I had my own small staff – Bastian Liyanage who later entered the SLAS and retired as a Head of Department while qualifying himself as a lawyer, Pathirana- another go-getter, Dharmadasa and the girl stenographer Lalitha who later became Bastian’s wife. There was also another old ‘commy’ in another Branch - Somaratna, who was a very well informed and interesting conversationalist. We worked long hours often winding up several hours after dark. Our Minister was a giant, we could not afford to be pigmies – at least in the efforts we put in.

DEW’s office was a favourite post-lunch rendezvous. We discussed many things - some times in lighter vein. Sometimes young politicians of the day dropped in. I remember young Mahinda Rajapaksa and the late Indika Gunawardhana, the latter not yet in Parliament. Once I played host to the whole office gang at lunch at my mother-in-law’s house off Ganemulla where we lived at the time – replete with the stuff ‘straight down from the tree’. Oh! We had good times.

We had fun but serious work went on simultaneously. The low-cost housing program was one of the major initiatives of the Ministry, in which engineers Ganesan and Condrad played a major role. The rural concept of the athkam-selfhelp and community help – was integrated into the athkam nivasa program which was another innovation of the Ministry. As a transitional measure of relief particularly for the slum dwellers the concept of improving basic facilities like sanitation and water supply was also developed at this time. I believe Secretary Nath Amarakoon was also behind the development of some of these ideas. Minister Keuneman who represented Colombo Central abounding in slums, was very keen on the housing program for the low income groups. Owing to some blind spot in my thought process at a certain point in time I made the unpardonable faux-pas of telling the Minister once, that housing as a subject did not interest me much. He pardoned me graciously and I continued in the ministry! (He had even entered a very good commendation in my personal file which I discovered only years later at a promotion interview when Nissanka Wijeratna, still the Civil Servant, asked me what I did to deserve it)

The Building Materials Corporation was set up at this time to enable house builders of moderate means to procure building materials at reasonable prices. The inauguration of the Corporation physically was a dramatic event. LNT accompanied by some others stepped into a big private sector building materials establishment one fine morning, unannounced, and vested that establishment in the BMC. I forget now the precise legal procedure under which it was done but it was all within the law.

Pieter Keuneman was a very hard working Minister, He often wrote his own Cabinet papers. When Budget debate time approached he would shut himself up in a Ministry building far away from Fort where the Main Office was located and prepare his speech for the Committee Stage Debate – replete with facts and figures. We had a monthly strategy session at his house on Inner Flower Road, attended by the Secretary, Private Secretary DEW and a few other select senior officials. I mostly remember these meetings for the nice tea we got! After the meeting ended the Minister would go away for his evening engagement leaving us to enjoy a further non-official ‘discussion’ stimulated by stronger stuff-left by the Minister. Pieter Keuneman was always a genial host. Once at one of his parties he taught me the correct protocol of taking a vodka and also insisted on mixing a soft drink for my wife, himself.

Pieter Keuneman’s Ministry was also known for its non-partisanship in public affairs. Once there was pressure for the property of a certain affluent ex-MP of the UNP to be acquired for a housing purpose. The ex-MP appealed to the Minister saying that although he once had much property he had lost most of it in the nationalisation of estates and that he had nine children to take care of, with the property in question being the only means available to him. In spite of pressure from the highest quarters, the Minister saw to it that the poor man’s property remained with him regardless of the fact that he was politically in the opposite camp. Once the Minister told me that JR had spoken to him (I am sure he referred to him as ‘Dickie’) about some problem of a constituent of his and asked me get the matter settled quickly. He was not small minded and petty.

DEW played a crucial role in all of this. He was the one who kept everything on even keel. As in any other organisation there were various intra-personal problems between and among people. Individual idiosyncrasies had to be made tolerable to others. Misunderstandings had to be resolved. Frayed tempers had to be smoothened. DEW was the ideal man for that. He had personality - he cut a dashing figure. He was always pleasant and approachable. And he was not unduly excitable. There was a special problem then in the Ministry. On one hand there was this Minister of a radical persuasion – a Communist, no less. On the other hand in the Ministry bureaucracy and among its professionals there were remnants of the ancient regime. The minister of course found no difficulty on getting along with any one - on entering the famous Transworks House office once inhabited by the likes of Sir John he had been asked whether the pictures of his predecessors should be removed. “No, they don’t bother me” had been the nonchalant response. However there were old time officials who felt themselves ill at ease. DEW formed himself a soft front. The old time officials found his friendly interactions with them reassuring. DEW also maintained the high reputation of the Ministry for integrity, at a time when the personal staff of Ministers were suspected of various underhand dealings. He also shielded his Minister from assorted good-for-nothings.

The period I spent at the Pieter Keuneman/ DEW Ministry of Housing is one of the happiest in my life. Unfortunately most of those in that close knit team are no more. DEW and I are among the handful of survivors. I wish the friend of my youth, long life. Sukhee Deeghayuko Bhava.

The writer was a Former Advisor to the President