Let’s get back to the days when the colonists at Polonnaruwa sold straw and made money.
Posted on April 26th, 2018

by Garvin Karunaratne 

I can remember the days when, on all my visits to Polonnaruwa, Hingurakgoda and Valachenai I was trailing behind lorry loads of straw. . Then the roads were narrow and a straw  loaded lorry  with bales jutting out could not be overtaken. That was in the Sixties. I was a frequent visitor at the Paper Factory when I had all island circuits as the Senior Assistant Commissioner of Agrarian Services. I enjoyed staying at the Paper Factory Circuit Bungalow and was often shown the process where our straw was turned into paper This time in 2018 there were no lorries and that economy of providing farmers at Polonnaruwa an income had ceased.

A few weeks ago I was at the entrance to the Valachenai Paper Factory. The gate had not been opened for ages and shrubs and trees have  had  a field day growing over all the buildings- the entire place was desolate- the ruins of a factory , buildings  with roofs caving in.

It was sad. It was development- jobs for people, incomes for farmers in Hinurakgoda and Polonnaruwa for straw. All that had come to a naught.

The Paper Factory in its heyday had provided around half the country’s requirements of paper and saved foreign exchange incurred for imports. It was a grand success and  a second Paper Factory was established at Embilipitiya. Both Factories worked fine for a while till  the LTTE terrorists controlled Valachenia. It was  sheer mismanagement that caused the demise of the Embilipitiya Factory.

It is interesting to note that under the DDC Programme in the days of Premier Sirimavo, a Paper Factory was established in Kotmale. There the raw material was waste paper. It was a successful industry. The key player was the Divisional Secretary at Kotmale. Thanks to him- I am sorry I have forgotten his name. This success story tells me that we can easily get down to making paper again. I am also told that today there is a paper making factory at Horana.

I dare not speak about resurrecting the paper factory. That task is far beyond my expertise. However I have seen small scale paper and cardboard making units in  Nepal and Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh at our endless  training sessions of the Self Employment Programme where hundreds of youths participated all of them were provided with lunch packets. At the end of the meal the cardboard packing was carefully collected by some youths who used them for making cardboard.

Today easily the most evident industry in Colombo  is the collection of scrap metal and used cardboard and one can frequently see a lorryload of cardboard on its way to the Port of Colombo to be exported to India. India makes cardboard sheets out of it and exports it back  to Colombo. As much as 70 tonnes of used cardboard, I am told, is exported every month and what is interesting is to note that we buy cardboard from India. Can we not make cardboard out of the used cardboard?  Are we that helpless and foolish?

It was the genius of Sri Lankan engineers that found the art of using straw to make paper. Originally the Valachenai Paper  Factory was intended to use illuk grass and when illuk was no more the factory shut down. Then our engineers got down to find the art of using straw. I am told that the pulp from straw comprises short fiber and this  has to be mixed with pulp from discarded paper or paper pulp from trees which have the long fiber. These are details that have to be looked into. Waste paper can easily provide the long fiber.

In nostaglia my mind goes back to 1971, when the Ministry of Plan Implementation refused to allow me to start any new import substitution industry. I had suggested a Water Color Industry, a Cheese and Butter making factory and many more but I was always talking to a wall. I was sick to my teeth to continue with craft industries, making bricks and tiles-what the Ministry advised me to do- the type that we had done very successfully under the Small Industries Department. I had earlier served as a Deputy Director of Small Industry. I cannot blame the Ministry as I happened to be the only Government Agent that agitated for new import substitution type of industries.

Finally I took charge of the situation. I summoned my Planning Officer, a raw chemistry honours graduate of the University of Colombo and convinced him to start experiments to find the art of making crayons. As Deputy Director of Small Industries I had once approved a water colour making industry and knew the ingredients that went into  the making, something of the process , but knew not the proportions. Making water colours was to my mind akin to making crayons.  I authorized buying the ingredients from some katcheri funds and experiments commenced in my residency in the evenings. In a few days of nocturnal activity we realized that we needed more equipment. I met   the Principal at Rahula College,  and requested him to allow us to use the equipment at the Science Laboratory in the evenings. He readily agreed.  Thereafter every day in the evenings from around six to midnight the science lab was a hive of activity. The active players were my Planning Officer and the Science Teachers at Rahula, while the cheer leaders were myself, Development Assistant Palihakkara and a number of interested staff officers at the Katcheri. We were a determined lot that burnt the mid night oil. The days dragged on  with endless experiments that were not a success. It looked as if we were flogging a dead horse. However, the Cheer Leaders saw to it that the momentum was not lost. In around a month, we made crayons that were far from perfect and sought the help of the Chemistry Lecturers at the University of Colombo, but our Planning Officer was turned away. He spent three days going behind them but none of his professors  were interested in helping him. That refusal made us more determined. More experiments were made again and again and finally in another month of experiments, we mastered the art of making crayons. That was equal to the Crayola in quality.

I summoned Sumanapala Dahanayake, the Member of Parliament for Deniyaya who also happened to be the President of the Morawaka Multipurpose Cooperative Union, got him to agree and authorized him to spend cooperative funds and establish a Crayon Factory. I had no powers to do it, but for the sake of national development we administrators always bend rules. Sumanapala was a maverick- he got it done in record speed within three weeks. Recruiting youths, training them, printing crayon packets- it was called Coop Crayon-getting going making crayons day and night went on  under the careful eye of the Planning Officer Vetus Fernando and other katcheri officials who took turns to ensure the quality of each crayon.  Finally crayons were made to fill two large rooms and sales were opened  by no less a person than Mr Subasinghe the Minister for Industries. Minister Illangaratne who gave us an allocation of foreign exchange to import dyes when we were refused by the Ministry of Industries even  wanted to me to establish a crayon factory in his electorate ay Kolonnawa.

Making Paper out of straw is a far easier and a well known process than making Crayons. Therefore I can assure success to anyone that has a hand at making paper out of straw.

Making paper and cardboard out of straw is a well  known process and though it was our engineers in the Fifties that mastered the art of using straw, we do not produce any paper today. Our farmers burn the straw in  order to get rid of it. Many are the countries that make paper with straw. China and India have concentrated and  produce large quantities today.

May I hope that this paper reaches the eyes of our Hon. President.

It is hoped that our President will consider  sending  a group of our engineers to India to inspect small scale factories making paper out of straw and let them be given the authority to order around a dozen machines. I can assure anyone that the cost of the machines can easily be recouped within a year from savings in imports, and these industries will be commercially viable within a year. I authored and established the Youth Self Employment Programme in Bangladesh which is today the premier employment creation programme the world has known, with not hundreds but millions of youths in self employment, a task which the ILO had failed in the earlier three years and my word  therefore carries full credibility. .

It is not necessary to get involved in experiments-what I had to do to master the art of making crayons. However the details of how I established the Crayon Factory which provided islandwide sales, incomes to hundreds of Morawak Korale youths and became the flagship project of the  DDC Programme has been included to show that we can succeed not only in making paper but in making sophisticated items like crayons.(For more details; Karunaratne:Success in Development: Godages)

Let me hope that a Paper Making Factory will be established in each Divisional Secretary Area in the Polonnaruwa District. The cardboard that goes to India can now go to those Fctories to  supplement the straw as a raw material for paper making.

In my days at Kegalla and Matara the Divisional Secretaries were in charge of  PowerLooms and these were cooperatives and the Government Agent had to ensure that the PowerLooms were a success.  I would have wrung their necks if they failed. They knew that and were always a success. The Hakmana Suiting from the Hakmana PowerLoom was even held in high demand in London!

Perhaps on my next visit to Sri Lanka. I may be able to visit some paper factories and I look forward to see the day when the colonists in Polonnaruwa will   get paid for their straw. . Or could it all be wishful thinking, I hope not.

I shall live in hope.

Garvin Karunaratne, Ph.D. former G.A. Matara

21 st April 2018

Author of: How the IMF Sabotaged Third World Development(2017 at Kindle/Godages), How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka and Alternate Programmes of Success(2006 at Godages

One Response to “Let’s get back to the days when the colonists at Polonnaruwa sold straw and made money.”

  1. NAK Says:

    Today in the government no one from top to bottom is interested in developing industry in this country all they are interested are find ways and means to manipulate and make a fast buck and a big buck at that.

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