Remembering Hon. Philip Gunawardena
Posted on January 10th, 2012

By Garvin Karunaratne, former SLAS,.

 The year 1956 marks a watershed  in Sri Lankan politics. That was the year when the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, the coalition of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by Hon SWRD Bandaranayake and the Viplavakari Lanka Samasamaja Party of Hon. Philip Gunawardena scored a massive victory, ushering the day of the Common Man.
 
Entering the service of the Government as an Assistant Commissioner for Development of Agricultural Marketing in August 1955,  I was just groping in the dark depths of administration when Hon Philip Gunawardena took charge as the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Cooperatives. He was ably assisted by Dr GVS de Silva, Lecturer in Economics at the University of Peradeniya, my Sub Warden at Arunachalam Hall
The combination of GVS and Hon. Philip offered the country a socialist vision that breathed life to the vast majority of people. The Marketing Department came under this Ministry.
 
I had been lured into socialist politics from my childhood because my father held a contract to provide public address equipment for the Lanka Samasamaja Party for years and  with a number of political meetings held on the same day we had no technicians to man every site. I was entrusted with the equipment and I have thus had the occasion to listen again and again  to the orations of Dr NM, Colvin, SA for a few hundred times. They all succeeded in brain washing me. They were very factual and could  convince anyone with ease that the down trodden masses must have their day.  With the entry of Hon Philip Gunawardena into the fray we had the most fiery speaker that one could ever imagine. Dr NM, Dr Colvin and  Dr SA Wicks  were forceful speakers but they did not have the pungent force of a Philip. At Peradeniya I was in the gang that flooded Kandy with leftist posters overnight. A car from a leftist lecturer driven by one of us, another on the watch for the police while one brushed paste and another pasted the poster quick.  We finished the round in two hours.  Hon Philip Gunawardena  spoke of what was dear to our hearts- the well being of the Common Man..
 
I can yet remember the day when the Workers Union at Tripoli Market  where I worked invited him for a meeting.  He was ushered on to the platform by the President of the Union. Hon Philip took the chair and I was seated aside. There were the common greetings of welcome and in the silence a pin drop could be heard when Hon Philip took the floor.  He spoke about the problems faced by the down trodden masses and how they would be actually saved by him.  A few more sentences and then all hell was let loose. He roared like a lion and with that we felt the entire stage with all of us shaking. The emotive words he used, the force with which each word was pronounced, the forceful moves of his forearm, the stern look on his face with his hair disshelved,  the manner he dashed his fist on the table, his spectacles dashing on the table again and again, all activated the audience. Each word was uttered with venomous  force which took possession of those that listened. So many times I have seen him dashing his spectacles on the table, never have I seen it break!
 
We officers all got activated to work for the down trodden masses. It was a vision that the trio Drs, NM, Colvin and SA had repeatedly sounded from the stage. As a child I can remember Dr Colvin marching in victorious melee when he won the Dehiwala-Mt Lavinia Seat in Parliamenton Galle Road at Ratmalana with the crowds chanting:
“Galkissen Yatura aran Hora guhave dora ariya .”  That was when he first won a Parliamentary Seat.
All these ideas  for the first time got into a process of action with Hon. Philip Gunawardena becoming a member of SWRD’s Cabinet   in 1956.
 
There is a fundamental difference in being a powerless critic, where one can make hair raising speeches as opposed to  being a powerful critic when one is at the helm as a Minister. That was Philip Gunawardena from the MEP Victory in 1956 till his exit from the Cabinet on 19 th May 1959.   His Ministry perhaps included  the work of about twenty Ministries of today. It so happened that I worked in his Ministry throughout this period and I can say that the forceful ideas that he uttered in his fiery speeches at last got channeled into action.
 
Throughout his period as Minister he never lost touch with the masses. Many forget those that supported them  when they come into power. Many get carried away from their avowed paths. Hon. Philip Gunawardena from day one  continued his Mission to serve the people.  There were no snakes under the grass. His very gaze was enough to scare them away. 
 
In my words, after independence, “ the effort of the developing nations took the form of becoming self sufficient in agriculture, livestock and industries. This involved the development of the people in development pursuits that brought about production (From:Success in Development, Godages) Hon Philip Gunawardena was the pioneer that steered the economy with the people as partners in development..
 
His main achievements during this period was the Paddy Lands Act that provided security of tenure to the thousands of tenant cultivators who worked on the paddy fields and paid at most times half the crop to the landlord. The Act decided that the landlord’s share had to be limited to a fourth of the crop. Further the paddy lands were to be administered by a cultivation committee elected by the landlords and cultivators where the composition had to be three fourths from cultivators and a fourth from the landlords. The landlords were up in arms, but they were helpless. The election was to be held by secret ballot. A new Department of Agrarian Services was established  to implement the Paddy Lands Act and also in charge of the distribution of fertilizer to paddy cultivators, implement the fertilizer subsidy scheme for paddy farmers,  provide agricultural credit,  provide crop insurance,  purchase paddy from farmers under the Guaranteed Price Scheme and also to take charge of minor irrigation, a subject that had hitherto being handled by the Government Agents of the Districts. Except for the Paddy Lands Act the rest had been done earlier but under Hon. Philip Gunawardena  it had to be done. There was no turning back. Every officer had to work to his best. His staff was all handpicked.
 
He was also the creator of the concept of Multipurpose Cooperatives Societies.  Earlier there were Cooperative Societies for various purposes. There were separate cooperatives for food distribution, for savings and loan disbursement. The functions of each cooperative was severely limited. Hon. Philip Gunawardena  realized that the peasants needed a commercial organization of their own that will tackle all their needs and so emerged the Multipurpose concept.  The village level Multipurpose cooperative was a small unit that  would have to depend on the private sector to get transport  and other facilities and with this task in view in each Division the Multipurpose Cooperatives had  a Union. This Union of Multipurpose Cooperatives had a fleet of lorries and would attend to get goods and distribute to the individual multipurpose cooperatives. The Union of Multipurpose Cooperatives played a major role in the development of the area in time to come, after Hon Philip Gunawardena’s exit. The concept in my words was, “Community Cooperatives where the community leaders play a major role in management “¦This offers the path to development  because both self employed ventures and worker cooperatives when successful can move to areas of affluence leaving the original habitat. It is community cooperatives only  that have the interest of the community at heart.”(From How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka, Godages)
 
He was also instrumental in other important innovations  like establishing the Peoples Bank to handle finance. Banks earn money and it is  State Banks alone that can look after the interests of the country. In  2001,   a foreign bank hoarded  foreign exchange and upbidded the dollar when the State Banks had to pay a large oil bill. The Rupee which was at Rs 85 to the dollar ended at Rs. 106. (See How the IMF”¦p.95)  Hon Philip had the foresight to see that State Banks were necessary in the country’s interest as opposed to foreign banks that take away profits and even cause devaluations. He also was instrumental in the  nationalization of the bus service, all of which did function to perfection.
 All this formed the development infrastructure intended to help the farmer in his march from being a subsistence farmer to become a commercial farmer.
 
The Department for Development of Agricultural Marketing where I worked handled the Guaranteed Price Scheme to buy paddy from genuine farmers(unlike today where the Government buys from anyone) at a premium price so that  the farmer will reap the benefit of his crop and will be encouraged to plough in funds for reaching higher yields, We were extremely strict to ensure that the premium price got to the real producer.  This Department also implemented the  Vegetable and Fruit Marketing Scheme, a Scheme that is unique to  Sri Lanka. Its function was two fold-  to  provide a high price to the producer to encourage production as well as sell to the consumer at cheap rates, a scheme that kept inflation of local produce in check
 
With the establishment of the Department of Agrarian Services all functions dealing with paddy cultivation were taken over from the Marketing Department and I too was transferred to the Agrarian Services Department. The Marketing Department continued with the Vegetable Marketing Scheme, the Fruit Cannery , the  Retail Fair Price Shops in all cities and the Bakery.
 
The Department of Agriculture had the technical staff with a District Agricultural Extension Officer at the District level and an Agricultural Instructor at the Divisional level with a few Agricultural Overseers qualified in agriculture at the village level. It provided a better service than today because in a moment of weakness President Premadasa made the Agricultural Overseers Grama Niladharis and the Niyamakas who took their place at the base know no agriculture. 
 
The Food Department held stocks of rice and flour, imported flour and had ample stocks to feed the people. That was in the days of the food ration scheme where everyone was issued rice at a fair price. This included the work that Prima does today. Prima takes the profits to Singapore while the Food Department worked without charging a profit.
 
Thus the Ministry of Agriculture, Cooperatives and Food contained  the full development infrastructure for the production and marketing of all agricultural produce as well as keeping the people fed through the implementation of the rice ration scheme and consumers been provided with all essential food stuff including vegetables at reasonable rates. Inflation in local produce could not raise its head.
 
Hon. Philip Gunawardena  breathed fire into the Departments that existed earlier and got them working at maximum capacity, like no other Minister known to me in my eighteen years’ service. His Paddy Lands Act was worked with venomous force and a revolution in agriculture was in the offing.  Civil Servant M.S.Perera was appointed the Commissioner of Agrarian Services  and  all Assistant Commissioners were hand picked from the Marketing Department and the various administrative grades. All were experienced officers and I think they were all selected for their experience in handling development work with the people as partners in development. They had all been screened for their aptitude and orientation.
 
Triploi Market was the Headquarters of the Vegetable and Fruit Marketing Scheme and Oswald Tilekeratne and I were together placed in charge in 1956. We actually controlled the prices at which the traders purchased vegetables from producers at the producer’s  fairs all over the island and also controlled the prices at which the consumers got goods in the cities. The latter was done by over fifty  small retail shops in the city of Colombo which were well stocked. This was a Scheme begun during the days of World War II, under Civil Servant Basset. B.L.W.Fernando a Chartered Accountant succeeded Commissioner Basset.  When Philip Gunawaardena assumed duties this mechanism had to work perfect.. Triploi Market was in a large hanger in the Colombo Goodsshed,  The Assistant Commissioner and his staff of Divisional Marketing Officers were always on their feet, but at times certain untoward happenings came known to The Hon. Minister before I got to know. Then there were no mobile phones but the Minister had his own spy system which was very active.
 
To start with,  today one cannot even imagine any Government mechanism controlling the prices of vegetables all over the island.  But we did control the prices very unofficially and very effectively. Today the Consumer Affairs Authority(CAA) handles price control and fines traders and the fines run into millions. Let us not forget that every fine means a trader becoming anti Government. The way the Marketing Department tackled marketing was totally different.  We did not allow any errant traders to charge massive profits.  If any trader jacked up prices he was automatically out of business. We did not create middlemen. We handled the goods from the producer to the consumer just like what the Sri Lanka Army did recently. Therefore on our scheme the traders  all fell into line. Purchasing Units functioned in all the producer areas and in every major vegetable fair the Marketing Department did have a Purchasing Unit. These Units purchased vegetables at a higher price than what the trader purchased. The purchasing price was decided at  Triploi Market which had a 24 hour surveillance on the availability of produce and the prevalent wholesale prices at the Colombo Wholesale Market.  Three to four officers were on duty there. Generally there was a fifty percent mark up between the prices of the trader who purchases at the Fairs and  the Trader who sells at the Wholesale Market. The retail trader who buys at the Wholesale market keeps another fifty percent.  This mark up comprised the handling, transport costs and the trader’s profit.
 
. The Marketing Department was not interested in a profit and fixed a price higher than the   purchase price at the Fair and kept ten to fifteen percent mark up to cover transport and handling.   The vegetables purchased at the Fairs were sent to Triploi Matket overnight by rail and lorry and by ten in the morning the vegetables had to be distributed to the retail units in all corners of the city. With vegetables  been offered at low prices at our retail shops no one would buy from the traders in the Cities at a higher price.  My task was to ensure that we purchased vegetables at the Fairs at a higher price than what traders offered and to ensure that it got in time to the retail depots. We had a staff with a dozen lorries always on the move in the City. The Department  with over a hundred lorries, did purchase only around ten percent of the produce, but that was sufficient to unofficially control the prices.
 
We had a staff of Marketing Officers in every producing area and Assistant Commissioners were always on the move. At Ratnapura where I worked in 1956,  on four days in the week, I was driving on the tortuous roads to the Fairs at Embilipitya, Colombage Ara, Godakawela. I had to be there before six in the morning to ensure that my staff of Marketing Officers did attend to purchases.. The vegetables purchased were packed and sent to Triploi Market overnight. We had to relay the prices at which traders purchased at the Fairs to Tripoli Market and daily discuss prices.  The Asssistant Commissioners contacted major producers and advised them on what varieties were required for the market in Colombo. This was also done through the Divisional Revenue Officers.
 
With The Cannery being established the Department offered floor prices for Red Pumpkin, Ash Pumpkin and Pineapple, turning them into Golden Melon Jam, Silver Melon Jam and Juice which stopped imports from Australia and saved our foreign exchange.  A Floor price meant that we purchased everything offered by the producer. Oswald Tillekeratne being in charge of the Canning Factory went often to Europe to find markets for pineapples and we built up an export  market.
 
I can state that The Marketing Department functioned very effectively under Hon. Philip  Gunawardena with BLW Fernando as Commissioner and succeeded in helping both the producer and the consumer.  
 
The Minister Hon Philip Gunawardena  would somehow know if we faultered.  We never knew how  Later when I worked in Anuradhapura the Minister knew of falsifications in our Stores before us. It was a Gestapo service that no other Minister known to me had, and I have directly worked under twenty or thirty Ministers from time to time.
 
The Paddy Lands Act,  was entirely designed and implemented  by Hon Philip.  That was his concept of Power to the People, the idea for which he had spoken again and again.
His lieutenants, we Asistant Commissioners and an entire staff of Divisional Officers and Overseers got down to demarcate the areas for Cultivation Committees to be elected.
 
I introduced the Paddy Lands Act in the Matara District and was ably assisted by a band of  able Divisional Officers. We had to hold publicity meetings everywhere where we whipped up the enthusiasm of the people through oratory.  All of us  followed the Hon Minister’s prowess in oratory without the fire.  When landlords evicted cultivators we held inquiries and prosecuted the landlords.  With the management of paddy cultivation in the hands of the cultivators we were on the path to advance management. There was provision in the Paddy Lands Act to confer powers to the cultivation committees to make mandatory decisions for better cultivation practices in order to enable maximum production. But this section was not activated in the first instance.
 
We officers became very popular with the masses through the  important work that was entrusted to us. It was Power to the People in a manner hitherto unknown in any other development programme.  We worked hard and became very popular but before we got too big for our boots,  we were always transferred. I was moved from Matara to Kegalla in 1960.
 
Hon Philip Gunawardeena was also the father of socialism in Sri Lanka. He was the first to get it into action as a Government Programme. He was pro nationalization and was a key figure in the nationalization of the public transport system. He believed in the development of the Public Sector and entrusting it with responsibility.  The ills in our economy of today can be traced to following the IMF in its Structural Adjustment Programme which is diametrically opposed to the concepts that Hon Philip held close to his heart.  Nationalisation  was worked in favour of the masses as opposed to the functioning of the Private Sector where the motive is making the maximum profit. The Marketing Department which I have detailed earlier marks the Public Sector  working for the cause of the people.  Today there is an easy 100% mark up between the producer’s price and the sale price in Colombo.  In the days of the Marketing Department I would have bee n hung if I kept a margin of over fifteen percent.  That encapsulates the essence of  the socialist concepts that was always dear to the heart of Hon Philip Gunawardena.
 
However all was not well in the Government. By that time the Rightist Element in  the Government which resented the march towards socialism gained ground and they voiced themselves forcefully against the socialist programmes of Hon Philip Gunawardena. It took on a virulent form of a march on the streets led by Minister Vimala Wijeywardena. Hon Philip could no longer  work in the Cabinet  and left the Government on  May 19. 1959.
 
Hon Philip Gunawardena joined the coalition government of Prime Minister Mr Dudley Senanayake in 1965 and was the Minister for Industries.  He set up the Plywood Factory at Avissawella which is no more. The problem was that we did not step up planting trees and today we import plywood. Many revile him for joining the UNP Government of Mr Dudley Senanayake, but I must mention that Hon Philip Gunawardena actually continued to serve the people he loved. I have worked closely with Prime Minister Mr Dudley Senanayake when I was the Additional Government Agent at Kegalla District,  and found in him a man of the people. Though he was the leader of the UNP, all development programmes were effectively implemented for the welfare of the people. Then the UNP was a political party of the people. It was not a political party that followed the IMF policies and catered to create an enclave of the rich living in luxury while the masses toiled in silence in the depths of poverty- what happened to Sri Lanka after the reign of President Jayawardena  from 1977 onwards.
 
Hon Philip Gunawardena is one of the very few  personages in Modern Sri Lanka who has left his imprint on the sands of time.
Garvin Karunaratne, Ph.D. (Michigan State University)
January 4, 2012
Author of: Success in Development, Godages, 2010
                How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka, Godages, 2006

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One Response to “Remembering Hon. Philip Gunawardena”

  1. Christie Says:

    “The year 1956 marks a watershed in Sri Lankan politics”.
    Very true, the start of the new stream that destroyed the island nation to be gobbled up by IMF.
    Put country back until 2005 to be resurrected by Mahindra. SWRD and the Socialist gang, the lumpenindiebourgeoisie.
    They either destroyed, neglected or came up with devices that were alien to the so called common man. The common man was not a lumpenindiebourgeoisie.
    Before these lumpenindiebourgeoisie got power by misleading the poor rural masses the country was on strong foundation.
    I have commented previously on a similar article by the author.
    1956 gang destroyed the countries culture, discipline, and started the misery They conned the Sinhala poor as well as the writer..
    The Awissawella Plywood factory was a pile of iron from Poland. The cooperative system was destroyed that served the rural masses and coop managers demanded the highest dowry in marriage.
    Ceylon Scientific and Industrial Research Organization was neglected and childish entities like industrial development board were established to make hunukata (chalk). By the way I have heard South Korea copied the CSIRO concept and look at their industrial development, and I hear Australia has a similar organization CSIRO, where C stands for Commonwealth meaning it is a Federal organization.
    They neglected the landless rural masses who were being settled in North, East and Central Provinces that were colonized by Tamils from elsewhere and illegal Tamils from India. Maithri pala was the Irrigation Minister and his wife ran the ministry. Ilangaratne’s films and books were financed by a Bora merchant.

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