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Gamini Dissanayake – the Visionary



In Retrospect

By Nanda Abeywickrama

That fateful mid-night of 24th of October 1994 was one of unbelievable shock and deep sadness. Sri Lanka lost a promising presidential candidate, erudite and dependable political leader and above all a wonderful human being, at the hands of the dreaded LTTE. Srima Dissanayake lost her beloved soulmate and the young family an endearing father and guide. It was the end of a saga and a turning point in national politics. As we commemorate this unfortunate event and going back four decades and more in time brings me to September 1976 when after nearly seven years in the then Ministry of Agricultures and Lands under the leadership of Minister Kobbekaduwa and Secretary Mahinda Silva I left for Cambridge University to pursue postgraduate studies in Land Policy my chosen field as an SLAS Officer. My immediate boss, K H J Wijayadasa, said, “Nanda, you are very lucky to be away at this unpredictable juncture”.

His words proved prophetic; the next few months had been chaotic, characterized by internal dissension in the government ranks, severe shortages of essentials, trade union strikes, agitations and demonstrations.

By the time I returned to the country, in September 1977, Sri Lanka had witnessed a sea change: a change of government, some communal riots and plans for a shift from the parliamentary system of government to an executive presidency and blue prints for an unprecedented development thrust. Gamini Dissanayake, at age 35, was a leading driver in this team. Paradoxically, although my specialization was in Land Policy, I was sucked in to the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs under the leadership of Minister Montague Jayawickrema and Secretary D B I Siriwardana. When I expressed my preference to be back in my Agriculture and Lands Ministry DBI gave a strong warning that SLAS officers had to be fitted in where their services are needed and I was ‘fitted in’ as Senior Assistant Secretary-in-charge of District Administration. I settled down to my task the bulk of which was transferring Assistant Government Agents at the whim and fancy of new local politicians.

My first encounter with Minister Gamini Dissanayake was around March 1978 when Engineer Douglas Ladduwahetty then Chairman of the Mahaweli Development Board introduced me at the makeshift Ministry office at Darley Road. My first impression of the Minister was positive; very positive. He had a charming and calm disposition and a cultured and charismatic personality. He inquired about my background but seemed to know a lot more! the Minister invited me immediately to join his Ministry but there were processes to go through.

As a Member of the Accelerated Mahaweli Project (AMP) Task Force, which met every week and reported progress to the President at an evening meeting every fortnight, I had a ringside view of how the AMP was evolving and the leadership provided by Minister Dissanayake. Although the government had made a formal decision the AMP was not as yet fully accepted by the public or by the financiers. It required a lot of convincing –of opposition parliamentarians and their supporters and equally or more important, the donor community. The then Finance Minister Ronnie De Mel has recounted the massive efforts taken to lobby heads of state and mufti – national donors to garner funds for the AMP.

At this juncture, the AMP had many detractors on grounds of high costs, doability and the risks of heavy foreign borrowing. The task of convincing fell squarely on Minister Dissanayake’s shoulders. Based on professional advice he was able to use his persuasive skills to convince the head of state that the AMP was doable and having got it, to take on the detractors of the calibre of Dr Colvin R De Silva and of Dr. N. M Perera and convince them using his communication and inter-personal skills. He was equally comfortable with testy international and multi-national donors as with local and international NGOs and civil society representatives to get them on board in his fund-raising drive.

Between March and September1978 a massive effort was in operation behind the scenes to reach consensus on the scope of the project, initiate feasibility studies and to engage with international and multi-lateral donors to identify funding. Practically every week at dinner meetings with donors Minister Gamini was in his elements marketing the project with a range of donors who had been evading Sri Lanka in previous years. He was so effective that by the latter part of the year donors were scrambling for a piece of the cake. The legal framework for the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka (MASL) too was formulated during this period.

Unlike in the present day there was a rationale in the assignment of subjects, functions and agencies to the Ministry. Positioning pedigreed departments like the Surveyor General’s, Forests, Irrigation. Land Settlement and Land Commissioner along with related Boards and Corporations was conducive to developing an integrated strategy and work plans which we identified as natural resources management in line with contemporary scientific thinking. MLLD was also positioned to provide technical advice and support to the AMP. I got the Minister’s blessings both to procure the best national and international expertise for advice as well as to hand pick my professional team of senior technical officers and administrators together with reputed managers drawn from the private sector.

We immediately set about obtaining expert advice and assistance from Cambridge University in formulating our scope and from the Indian Institute of Management on implementation in partnership with ARTI, SLIDA and national Universities. Working closely with related ministries Of MMD, Agriculture, Home Affairs and of Planning we developed a mini six year plan and a strategy for endorsement by government in order that the administrative machinery that has to deliver is on all fours with the Ministry’s philosophy and strategy. We established a close rapport with the Government Agents (District Secretaries) who were a critical link in the implementation of our programmes. This worked out very effectively in delivering our programmes to the grass roots level where our target group the rural poor were struggling with the land and water in their immediate environment. Despite his preoccupation with the AMP and other interests as cricket, and trade unions, the Minister paid due attention to the programmes of MLLD to reach out to the rural poor in the rest of the country.

This strategy worked as the Agencies and the District administration adopted a collegial spirit to deliver the services. In a short period of time, we had taken corrective action to streamline the allocation of state land to the landless, to rationalize the management of village irrigation systems and to be very stringent in the use and management of forests that had been heavily over-exploited over a long time. This approach enabled us to raise concessional funds from international and multi-lateral donors to mount a medium term programme for the rehabilitation of practically all irrigation systems starting with the Gal Oya Rehabilitation Project all of which had suffered from years of under investment, introducing sound land management practices and titling culminating in the Swarnabhoomi programme, and above all scientific forest management and planning leading to the preparation of a 30-year Forestry Master Plan. In order to widen the field and bring them up to speed with global trends we were able to host the headquarters of the International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI now IWMI) though an Agreement signed in September 1983 and the Regional office of the IUCN later in the decade.

Minister Gamini provided the leadership in all these endeavours without reservation and at a political level warded off any resistance or distraction keeping to a clearly identified path. He also maintained very cordial relations with our friendly donors and lobbied intensively in Cabinet which helped in no small measure to raise concessional funding for our long term programmes The MLLD annual budget which started in 1978 at below Rs200 Million grew exponentially to over Rs 2 Billion within a decade maintaining staff strength with only a marginal increase yet improving management effectiveness though through capacity building.

The relationship between a Minister and the (Permanent) Secretary is not clearly laid out anywhere since a lot depends on the personality of each except that the Secretary as Chief Accounting Officer for the Ministry and its Agencies is solely accountable for managing its finances. He left this responsibility entirely in my hands with minimum interference such that after 10 years of working together there were no financial probes, adverse reports or scandals in our operation. In regard to man management the situation was rather dodgy because the 1972 Constitution brought most staff under the control of the Minister and not the Public Service Commission that we were accustomed to.

Minister Dissanayake however in his first briefing after my appointment said “I want to do my politics; you run the Ministry” and thus gave me a blank cheque but it was a tall order. I had to reciprocate by contributing my best effort. The Minister allowed me to select my senior team like Additional Secretaries s and Divisional Directors and discretion in the selection of Heads of Departments, most of whom that I selected were the best available and happened to be my close colleagues from the SLAS and from my Agriculture Ministry days. My administrative tasks became easy because all selectees were self-motivated, highly competent and dependable qualified and experienced having held senior positions in government.

Minister Dissanayake’s achievements in designing Mahaweli as a dynamic and futuristic settlement model, and in getting Test status for Sri Lanka Cricket are well known. Beyond that what impressed me most was his eagerness and constant interest in working towards a modernized Sri Lankan society by the year 2000.He was always receptive to new and novel ideas that could march towards that vision. He knew the constraints in working through a slow-moving administrative system and was ever willing to support measures that could overcome them.

Minister Gamini was a champion of parliamentary democracy; he believed in the value of open and intense debate and dialogue to reach consensus as his parliamentary and public speeches would demonstrate; he accepted the role of intellectuals and professionals in the governance and development processes, the criticality of consistency and continuity in administrative and management structures for governance and the imperatives of keeping pace with emerging global trends through the medium of information technology that was beginning to sweep across the world. Armed with his wide knowledge base acquired through constant reading and combined with his remarkable communication skills as a public speaker Sri Lanka would have reached out to a very wide global audience and benefitted from their contributions the scale of which it is difficult to visualize in retrospect.

Going by my 10-year experience with him in the 1980s, had Gamini survived and led Sri Lanka, the country would have been in the upper middle income category, with its economy growing at around 8%; about 50% of the Sri Lankan population would have been enjoying urban lifestyles and moving towards a sustainable development paradigm deeply conscious of the need to handle the challenges of unfolding climate change scenarios and a sound natural resources management regime. Sri Lanka has lost a leader with a vision to transform its economy and society through a smooth transition from a war ravaged, ethnically estranged nation heavily dependent on worker remittances to a tech savvy, modern, dynamic and sustainable society that could match the best of the emerging economies not merely in the Asian Region but anywhere in the world. That was the dream he did not live to realize.

Frequent references to Gamini in the media in different contexts confirm that he still enjoys wide acceptance as a committed political leader who could realize Sri Lanka’s potential in the medium term. As of today, though, we do not see a leader of that calibre in the making. The best tribute to Gamini would be for emerging political leaders to take the cue from him and pursue his political philosophy and strategies for the welfare of our citizens and inspire a new generation of young politicians and professionals to pursue those goals.


Why record export earnings may not be good news



By Gomi Senadhira

The press release by the Central Bank on the external sector performance ,in June 2022, perhaps was the first piece of good news we had received for a long time. According to the press release, “Earnings from merchandise exports, in June 2022, increased by 23.9 percent over the corresponding month, in 2021, recording US dollars 1,248 million, which is the highest ever monthly export earnings recorded. An increase in earnings of both industrial and agricultural exports contributed to this favourable outcome, …. Cumulative export earnings, from January to June 2022, also increased by 14.3 percent, over the same period in the last year, amounting to US dollars 6,514 million.” So, most of us would think we have enough dollars to cover our essential imports. But, apparently, that is not the case.

Earlier, the Central Bank Governor, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, had said that exporters only converted about 20% of their export earnings into Sri Lankan Rupees and the rest was not brought back to Sri Lanka. That amounts to the US $800 million a month! The Governor had also said “… At least 40% of the total export earnings should be added to the formal financial system of the country. So exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system, and if that happens, then we can resolve the fuel crisis comfortably.”

(Diesel shipment that arrived in Colombo, on 16 July, still not paid for want of dollars – The Island July 30th) It appears as if the Governor is pleading with the exporters to bring back at least 40% of their export earnings. More notably, from Dr Weerasinghe’s statement, it is clear that the exporter had only converted 20% of their export earnings to rupees during the last five months. Did they convert their export earnings to rupees during the last year, or in the previous years? For how long has this been going on? When the Central Bank says “… exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system,” does that mean the foreign exchange earned, with the exports, is brought through the hawala network, or other similar arrangements?

Exporters deserve credit for the great service they provide and should be rewarded, appropriately. But not disproportionately. The export earnings are not earned by the exporters alone. These earnings are earned by all those who contribute to manufacturing the export products. All of them should be getting their fair share of the export proceeds. If not, there is something terribly wrong with the system. Is this normal in international trade?

During the last few years, some of the studies by Indian scholars, including Utsa Patnaik and Shashi Tharoor, have placed in the public domain some of the less known facts on the effects of the British colonial rule on India. They explain how the British seized India, “… one of the richest countries in the world – accounting for 27% of global GDP in 1700 – and, over 200 years of colonial rule, reduced it to one of the world’s poorest,” and how during the period British Raj siphoned out $45 trillion from India.

How was this done? Patnaik explains, “In the colonial era, most of India’s sizeable foreign exchange earnings went straight to London—severely hampering the country’s ability to import machinery and technology in order to embark on a modernisation path, similar to what Japan did in the 1870s. …, a third of India’s budgetary revenues was … set aside as ‘expenditure abroad’. The secretary of state (SoS) for India, based in London, invited foreign importers to deposit with him the payment (in gold and sterling) for their net imports from India, which disappeared into the SoS’s account in the Bank of England. Against these Indian earnings he issued bills… to an equivalent rupee value—which was paid out of the budget, from the part called ‘expenditure abroad’.” Patnaik underlines that this was “something you’d never find in any independent country,”

But it appears something very similar is happening in Sri Lanka, many years after the independence! If the exporters do not “bring back their foreign exchange ,through the banking system,” or only bring back 20% of it, then how do they pay for goods and services obtained locally? The local value addition for most of our exports is 70% to 80% or higher! The only major exception is cut and polished diamonds. Tea exporters buy tea with rupees. Some of the imported inputs, like fertiliser, or diesel, are sourced locally! The garment industry had moved up the value chain during the last 40 years and provide many value-added services, like designing, locally.

How do the exporters pay for all these goods and services, if they keep more than 60% of their export earnings outside the country? Do they get it through “hawala” or similar arrangements? During the British Raj, payments to local producers were done with the taxes collected by the Raj. In present-day Sri Lanka, how does one manage to raise a large amount of cash to operate such a system?

If a sizeable chunk of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earnings goes straight to banks in London, New York, Zurich, or elsewhere, severely hampering the country’s ability to import essential items, doesn’t that mean, Sri Lanka’s wealth is getting siphoned out through our exports? And there is not much of a difference between what happened during the colonial period and the post independent Sri Lanka!

So, June’s record export earnings also mean nearly US$ billion was siphoned off during the month! A new record for the month of June! And that means Patnaik was wrong when she said this was not “something you’d never find in any independent country”

That is not good news.

(The writer is a specialist on trade and development issues and can be contacted at

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Improving trend needs to be sustained on multiple fronts



by Jehan Perera

The government appears to have secured political stability in the short term.  So far President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s efforts to restore stability appear to be working. Political stability is necessary for decisions to be made and kept.  It is a necessary element for international support to come in.  One of the IMF’s conditions to provide the country with the multi-billion-dollar loan it seeks is political stability that would ensure that commitments that are made will be kept.  The protest movement has not mobilised public demonstrations on the very large scale of the past after the appearance of Ranil Wickremesinghe in leadership positions, initially as prime minister and subsequently as president. This would be seen as an achievement by the government.  The present governmental line that protests should be within the law is difficult, and also frightening, to challenge when a state of emergency is in force.

The government has shown its ability to wield the emergency law with deterrent effect. Under the state of emergency that President Wickremesinghe declared on July 18, the period that a person may be detained before being brought before a magistrate has been increased from 24 to 72 hours. The authorities have been granted additional powers of search and arrest, and the military has been empowered to detain people for up to a day without disclosing their detention. The state of emergency also gives the president and the police broad powers to ban public gatherings, allows the police or military to order anyone to leave any public place or face arrest, and makes it an offense to cause “disaffection” or to spread “rumours.” However, in a sign that Sri Lanka’s system of checks and balances is still working, the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court has rejected a request by the police to ban a public protest planned by political parties and multiple organisations on September 9.

Human Rights watch has pointed out that “these provisions are vague, overly broad, and disproportionate in violation of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and movement.”  The midnight strike on the protestors who had camped for over three months at the main protest site at Galle Face would make any reasonable person think twice before getting into physical confrontation with the government.  The social media coverage of events that night showed men in black uniform and wearing masks, attacking the unarmed protestors.  As these men did not wear identification badges, there is a question whether they were part of the official security forces or drawn from other groups that work with them.  This response brought discredit to the perpetrators and disturbed both Sri Lankan people and the international community that have the welfare of Sri Lanka at heart.

The government has also used the full power of the draconian law to ensure that the leadership of the protest movement is neutralised. Several of them have been arrested, some of them given bail, others remanded, which would send a chilling message to the others.  The government has also shown its willingness to offer high positions to those who are prepared to join it.  This has led to a situation where two trade union leaders active in the protest movement have been treated very differently.  One has been offered a high post while the other has been put into prison, although he has now been given bail.  In a signal that he is sensitive to public pressure and human rights concerns, President Wickremesinghe had spoken to leader of the Ceylon Teachers Union, Joseph Stalin, after he was remanded and reportedly said he admires the members of the protest movement who talk of a system change.


Apart from the appearance of political stability there is also the appearance of economic stabilisation.  The shortages of cooking gas, petrol and diesel, and the 13-hour power cuts were among the main catalysts of the protest movement.  It was during the period of long power cuts, when staying at home became unbearable, that neigbourhood groups began to converge in urban centres to hold candlelight protests.  However, at this time the supply of gas, petrol and diesel has improved significantly and the kilomere-long lines in front of fuel stations are much less common.  Credit has gone to the QR code system put in place that gives to each vehicle a weekly quota.

The challenge for the government is to ensure that the economic situation continues to be stable without experiencing the acute shortages of key items that causes distress to the general population.  The QR code system can only work if there is petrol and diesel to be distributed.  The current imports of cooking gas, petrol and diesel appear to have been made possible by a World Bank loan which was re-purposed to the purchase of essential items.  However, these funds will dry up soon.  The question is what will happen after that.  There is apprehension that the country will fall once again into a situation of severe shortage.  The government needs to take the people into its confidence regarding the future.  The government also needs to be trusted if it is to be believed.

The World Bank has given an indication that they are still to be convinced regarding the provision of further assistance to Sri Lanka.  Earlier this month, the World Bank issued a statement “expressing deep concern about the dire economic situation and its impact on the people of Sri Lanka yesterday said it does not plan to offer new financing to Sri Lanka until an adequate macroeconomic policy framework is in place.  Issuing a statement, the World Bank Group said it is repurposing resources under existing loans in its portfolio to help alleviate severe shortages of essential items such as medicines, cooking gas, fertiliser, meals for school children and cash transfers for poor and vulnerable households.  To date, the World Bank has disbursed about US$160 million of these funds to meet urgent needs.”  This is extremely concerning as the World Bank is closely connected to the IMF on which Sri Lanka is pinning its hopes for a big loan.


The issue of political stability is highlighted by the government as being necessary to obtain international assistance and also as a justification for quelling the protest movement through emergency laws.  There is explicit blame being apportioned to the protest movement for creating instability in the polity that is deterring the influx of foreign assistance and investments.  However, the fuller picture needs to be seen.  The IMF as much as the World Bank, and indeed other potential sources of donor support, want their resources to be used for the intended purpose and not be squandered or siphoned away corrupt practices and in sustaining loss-making state institutions.

The hoped-for IMF-supported programme to provide assistance to Sri Lanka is being developed to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while protecting the poor and vulnerable, safeguarding financial stability, and stepping up structural reforms to address corruption vulnerabilities and unlock the country’s growth potential. IMF mission team to Sri Lanka last month specifically mentioned the need to reduce corruption stating that “Other challenges that need addressing include containing rising levels of inflation, addressing the severe balance of payments pressures, reducing corruption vulnerabilities and embarking on growth-enhancing reforms.”

Both the international funding agencies and the protest movement are on the same page when it comes to opposing corrupt practices.  The main slogans of the protest movement during their heyday was the ouster of the then president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers, and indeed the entire parliament, on account of the corruption that they believed was responsible for having denuded the country of its foreign exchange reserves. This was not simply the replacement of one set of corrupt leaders by another. There are disturbing signs that some of those accused of corruption are once again on the ascendant.

The underlying demand of the protest movement was and continues to be the very “systems change” that the president has said he admires in his reported discussion with remanded trade union leader Joseph Stalin. Civil disobedience to obtain a government that is transparent and law abiding, that does not steal the wealth of the country, is a noble goal, no less sacred than the civil disobedience struggles engaged in by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States.  The ingredients for a rebound of the protest movement continue to be in place and hopefully the evidence of a systems change will become more convincing.

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Brenda Mendis… ‘Gindara Kellek’



I first got to know Brenda Mendis when she was very much a part of the group Aquarius, before joining Mirage..

With Aquarius, her dynamism bloomed, on stage, when she partnered two other female vocalists – from the Philippines.

And…yes, they certainly did rock the scene; the three girls were the talk-of the-town and they were featured at some of the best venues in the city.

She was also, at one time, associated with the band 2Forty2.

Brenda now operates with an outfit called C Plus Band, and with whatever free time, that comes her way, the talented artiste is now working on originals.

The latest is the song ‘Gindara Kellek’ and this is what Brenda has to say:

“I have known this guy Chathurangana de Silva for a very time and he has been involved in composing certain songs for the C Plus Band.

“We then got down to discussing about putting together a song which could be classified as a fast genre in music, and Chathurangana, along with Sampath Fernandopulle, came up with the suggestion for the lyrics, and they did so, based upon a proper observation of my lifestyle and the personality portrayal of myself, and that’s how “Gindara Kellek’ came into the scene.”

Brenda went on to say that the composing was done during a tight schedule.

“As I am the female vocalist, on a full time basis, with the C Plus Band, it took us more time than what is usual spent at a recording session, because of our public performances.”

‘Gindara Kellek’ is not Brenda’s maiden effort. She has been involved in quite a few other originals, including ‘Tharu Peedena Seethale,’ ‘Obai Mage Thaththe,’ ‘Mage Raththaran,’ ‘Kaprinna (Chooty),’ ‘You Never Know,’ ‘Mea Nilwan Nimnaye, and ‘Sitha Igilee Gihin.’ And, they are all uniquely different to each other, she says.

With the country going through a tough period, Brenda, spends her free time working out and reading.

“I would take this opportunity, through your very popular music page, to thank all those who helped me throughout my journey in this wonderful field of music.

“I shall continue to keep music lovers happy, with my music, and I would also thank my followers for supporting me and for being with me throughout my career in showbiz.”

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