Posted on March 6th, 2021


Philip Gunawardena was given the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in the MEP government of 1956. The portfolio included peasant agriculture, animal husbandry and the plantations. He was ably assisted by GVS de Silva as Permanent Secretary.  The combination of GVS and Philip offered the country a socialist vision, said Garvin Karunaratne. 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, said Garvin.

Philip   was one of the ablest minister seen in independent Sri Lanka, said Meegama. K. Alvapillai, who was Permanent Secretary to Philip, said Philip was intensely practical with a   desire to see Sri Lanka   achieve prosperity in the shortest possible time. Hs vision was long range. He always looked far ahead but did not ignore the needs of the present and immediate future. Alvapillai found that Philip needed very little in way of guidance.  He was a capable and farsighted administrator.

Philip had got down to work immediately after taking up the appointment, perusing files, talking to officials, visiting state farms, research and experimental stations, talking to farmers, and visiting Pettah to inquire into prices of rice and other food stuffs, said Meegama.

Philip had looked at the village surveys of Das Gupta and Shenoy, done in the 1930s. Also the more recent series of  economic surveys on selected areas, Kegalle, Kalutara, Chilaw, Galle Kurunegala, Matara, Hambantota Puttalam and Moratuwa. Philip studied these carefully.     That is evident from his speeches said Meegama.

In July 1958   Philip Gunawardene published an Agriculture Plan prepared by the Planning Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture. This was a substantial document, said Meegama. It was prepared with the support of a group of dedicated public servants. It had an overview of the Agriculture sector, crop by crop, with   information on each, and what was needed. It covered food and plantation crops, animal husbandry, distribution, credit, crop insurance, multipurpose co-ops. It examined all the problems and was a good starting point for anyone working on an agriculture plan of Sri Lanka, said Meegama. The plan was criticized by his opponents within the MEP.

A new Department of Agrarian Services was established to implement the Paddy Lands Act and also to take 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 minor irrigation, a subject that was till then handled by the Government Agents of the Districts.  All functions dealing with paddy cultivation were taken over from the Marketing Department.

A Commissioner of Agrarian Services was appointed.  All Assistant Commissioners were handpicked from the Marketing Department and other services. All were experienced officers, selected for their experience in handling development work, said Garvin Karunaratne. They were screened for aptitude and orientation.  Philip had the knack of selecting the right person for a job, said K Alvapillai. He knew to assess the capacity and ability of an officer and not put square pegs into round holes.

Elmo de Silva recalls, I was appointed as one of the Administrative Officers in the Agriculture Department in 1957. In addition to my duties as Administrative Officer, I was gazetted as an Asst. Commissioner of Agrarian Services, to inquire into the grievances of the tenant farmers.

 My monthly basic salary would be Rs. 340 plus an allowance of Rs.300, and some other allowances making a total of Rs.740/=, which was a handsome salary at that time when the dollar fetched six rupees and a brand new Volkswagen could be bought for Rs. 8,500.

After I was appointed to this post, I went for an interview held by the Central Bank for an intake of officers. On being questioned whether I was employed, I stated that I was functioning as Administrative Officer, Dept. of Agriculture. The interview board informed me that they had instructions from the Hon Minister Philip Gunewardene, not to select anyone who was functioning as an Administrative Officer in the Agriculture Dept. This was because he wanted a cadre of committed, trained and experienced officers to implement his well planned, futuristic and visionary policies, said Elmo de Silva.

Hon. Philip Gunewardena introduced a new system of Administration, said Elmo. All of us were summoned to the Agriculture Department  head office at Peradeniya for an official briefing. The Hon. Minister addressed the new officers. Among the thoughts he expressed, there was one outstanding statement which has guided me throughout my government  career where I have served in several Departments and Ministries. Philip emphasized ‘that we could violate any Financial or Administrative Regulations, if we could prove that this action of ours was done in the Interests of the country and the citizens we serve’

This exhortation has guided me throughout my public life. To give one example, when I was Administrative Officer for the Matara District, there was a rubber plant nursery to supply clones to peasants given land under the Land Development Ordinance. They were to be given a subsistence allowance till they could get an income from their rubber plantations. Delay in giving the nursery plants to the peasants, would have resulted in extending the subsistence allowances given by the Govt. to the landowners. There was severe a drought and the plants in the nursery would have withered.

 The position demanded immediate action to maintain the nursery. Though I was yet a novice in the public service, in terms of the verbal authority given by the Hon Minister, as referred to above, I hired two water bowsers to water the nursery for about two months enabling the plants in the nursery to survive. I did not seek the consent of any authority or call for tenders. There were no queries from  audit.

Administrative Officers were put in charge of the administrative and financial functions in all the agricultural offices throughout the country. This new system was bitterly opposed by the Technical Officers, as the removal administrative and financial duties, was seen by the Technical officers, as a reduction in their official powers and status. But the Hon Minister would not brook any opposition. They had to comply with the Minister’s very progressive move, said Elmo de Silva.

Philip wanted efficiency. He did not like waste of time, waste of money, waste of effort or poor co-ordination, observed Meegama. Work had to be done well. Every officer had to work to his best .

Philip breathed fire into the departments under him and got them working at maximum capacity like no other minister known to me in my 18 years service, said Garvin Karunaratne. Officers worked as though the Minister was breathing down their necks, agreed Elmo de Silva.

Hon Philip Gunewardena used to make surprise visits to offices, and would fault officers who had not completed their assignments, said Elmo. He somehow knew if we faltered, we never knew how ,said Garvin.   Irregularities   at the Tripoli market were known to the  Minister before I got to know, said Garvin who was in charge there.  Minister had his own spy system which was very active.

When I worked in Anuradhapura he knew of falsification in our store before we did. It was a Gestapo service that no other minister known to me had and I have directly worked under 20 or 30 ministers over time , continued Garvin.

But Philip was extremely easy to work with, and a source of inspiration in the Ministry. Many officials in the district rallied to him, said Meegama, Philip’s  biographer.    Philip did not hesitate to record his appreciation of  the services of competent and hardworking public officers, as for instance when he placed on record the good work done by several officers in formulating the implementing the Paddy Lands Act (Hansard 1961.06.06 Col. 7197-7244).(Continued)

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