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Running against the Wind: Remembering Engineer Lalith Vidanapathirana

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Phidias, the great sculptor was immersed in work. It was 447 BC, and Phidias was given the mission to sculpt a massive statue of the goddess of wisdom and war –Athena by a statesman of Athens – Pericles. He was working high above ground, behind the head of Athena for a long time. A passerby, who knew little about sculptures wanted to ridicule Phidias and shouted at him… ‘’O great sculptor Phidias..! Who will ever want to know what kind of fine works you are creating up there..? No one is going to climb this massive statue and have a look”. Phidias had a simple answer. “I will…” Men of this nature, who will put everything… heart and soul to a task, given to them when no one is looking are rare. Yet, we at Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) are fortunate to have many such men among us, at every level of the organisation. Men who will silently work under trying conditions to keep the country lit up and active, without craving for attention and glory. Leaving the master sculptor Phidias in the distant past, let me tell the story of one such man from the not so distant past.

I first encountered him at the Deputy General Manager’s office of CEB in Galle in 1987. He was an energetic Construction Engineer and we were a group of trainees from University of Moratuwa, two years into the degree programme. We were comfortably seated around a table, solving various problems. Suddenly we heard a strong voice, which appeared to carry a lot of authority. What are you trainees doing here? It was a command that was so direct and clear. We had no business indoors; we should be outdoors. Thus begun a spell of constant engagement in various projects in and around Galle. We learnt much about electricity distribution and about what to expect in a career as electrical engineers.

Time passed and we met again in 1997 now both of us working for the same organisation, CEB, at a training workshop on Power System Protection. He caught my attention as the most active participant shooting so many practical questions. He instantly recognised me and exclaimed that it is so very nice to have me in CEB. Then our paths crossed again in 2006, this time at a training workshop on wind energy where I was the coordinator. I remember his enthusiastic participation, posing practical questions at the foreign resource persons. Among the trainees, he benefited more than all the younger participants I reckoned, even at that early stage of wind power development in Sri Lanka. CEB then had only 3 MW of capacity from wind power and now, 103 MW capable of providing the annual electricity requirements of more than 400,000 Sri Lankan homes.

This story is about the Engineer Lalith Vidanapathirana who made a massive contribution to make it happen on the ground.

Then he went on overseas leave to assist the newly formed Iraqi Government to rebuild Iraq’s electricity infrastructure. This was a UNDP assignment which benefited Iraq, as he was able to fully develop teams capable of shouldering the massive reconstruction burden, after years of conflict. The battered Iraqi engineers and technicians had great respect and love to Lalith. He rebuilt their skills from ground zero to re-establish and operate the electricity network in those conflict affected regions in Iraq. Most of the tasks he undertook were way out of the narrow scope of the UNDP consultants’ brief. With Lalith’s leadership. Iraqi men were ready to do it themselves.

When Lalith returned to Sri Lanka, I worked with him in a boundary metering project, and we had a lot of time together. This is when we attempted to scale up the success of the first wind power project in Hambantota under the guidance of Mr. Samarasinghe and Mr. Ayiradasa, as a 30MW wind project in Kalpitiya. We did everything in our capacity to implement this, but it wasn’t a success.

During these days I learnt about his early career at Samuel & Sons, the famed engineering outfit of colonial heritage, where he practiced his heavy engineering. I was told that he was a formidable force in many construction projects implemented by Samuel & Sons. With this knowhow, he was a much sought after person in CEB. He caught the attention of his superiors as one of those ‘doers’ who fronted difficult assignments. Actually, it was all Lalith was about – leading. Be it the transmission lines destroyed by insurgents or distribution systems torn apart, he was willing to lead from the front.

Then on a beautiful day in 2016, Lalith called me and asked whether I would join him to build the wind power plant in Mannar. By that time my colleagues Kumara and Thusitha has done a sizable job in Mannar, initiating all-important bird survey and other pre-project development work. I told Lalith, I will join if you agreed to lead the project and train young engineers. Lalith, without a hint of hesitation, agreed.

Here we were, once again in the same boat, but not in the calm seas as during the boundary metering project. Had nothing to start with, but Lalith being the doer, managed to amass all the resources required to initiate this task within a few months. He was very active, and barged into offices of his superiors with impunity and sometimes even to the Board room, to get things done. Not for him, but for the project, for public good.

He stood by his team through struggles and fought for what he believed in with the sincere motive to get things done. He gave all of us absolute freedom to work; in the way we liked, but at his pace. So, we accomplished all pre-project development tasks within a short period of time and more importantly was able to build and develop capacity within the team. We saved a few million Dollars and a whole year of project gestation period because he trusted our ability. He was truly an engineer. He never minced his words or give way to the opponents, standing firm for a public cause, taking a resolute stand on issues. We learnt many things from Lalith, engineering and otherwise, all of which cannot be enumerated here.

The 103 MW, the largest-ever wind power plant in Sri Lanka, was about to enter the construction phase. Then came the devastating news about a serious illness he had developed. The illness reduced his mobility, but he made it a point to attend all important events. He had a dream, just to see one turbine erected “before I go” he would tell us. He did not wait that long, he only lived to see the selection of a leading turbine manufacturer as the main contractor. However, he fulfilled his dream to see his son’s graduation ceremony, albeit his failing health. He left us on 22nd October 2018.

Mannar wind power project is now a reality. I stood diminutive under the massive wind turbines standing tall on the Mannar shoreline and running against the wind, which reminded me of the struggles made by many unsung heroes who genuinely contributed to it. As the sun disappeared beyond the horizon, painting the Western skies in crimson, the beautiful song by Bob Seger started playing deep within me…

We were running against the Wind…

We were young and strong, we were running against the Wind…

Well, I am older now but still running against the Wind…

against the Wind… against the Wind… against the Wind…

This by all means is a feeble attempt to share my memories of a man of integrity, dedication and practical approach. It is also an attempt to appreciate and recognise the lives of many other Sri Lankans, who are still running against the Wind. It is also to remind the young, not to get swept away by Winds. For his impressive run of life was always against the Wind.

May he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana.

Ajith Alwis



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Opinion

In Memorium: Daya and Alfred Wijewardena

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Daya Wijewardena was many things to many people. These included, but were not limited to, being: a wife to her husband, Alfred; a surrogate mother to her nephew, Dayananda; a grandmother/great-aunt to Dayananda’s children; a teacher to countless students at Anula Vidyalaya; a trusted confidante to my mother; and a beloved aunt to my brother and me. In her later years, she greatly supported the work of her husband, spending many countless hours, being a sort of unpaid personal assistant charged with doing, things, like taking down dictation for his planned workshops. Her one complaint was about her own handwriting, which she didn’t consider to be very good since she had been forced in school to write right-handed, despite being a natural left-hander. It’s been a decade since her passing, but the void left by her absence has not diminished.

Alfred Wijewardena – or D.A. Wijewardena, as he was professionally known – was a multi-hyphenate Renaissance man, who lived by the motto ‘plan your work and work your plan’. A qualified Attorney-at-Law, with a Degree in Laws and a B.Sc. in Logic, he was also a Justice of the Peace, but in his early days he’d done a variety of jobs, including being the Game Ranger at Yala National Park and a teacher at Ananda College. He subsequently focused on administrative matters, becoming the first Secretary of the then newly-formed State Services Disciplinary Board (which had replaced the Public Service Commission, where he was an Assistant Secretary). He ultimately set up his own institution known as The Centre for Studies in Disciplinary Management. An avowed workaholic, he worked well past retirement, only stopping in the last two or three years of his life. When he had some free time, he enjoyed playing tennis at the SSC, where he was a Vice President for many years. He left us three years ago, but there’s rarely a day that goes by when we don’t think of or talk about him.

My brother and I called Alfred’s wife ‘Daya Aunty’, although in reality those two words tended to morph into one, creating a brand new descriptor specific to her: ‘Dayaunty’. She loved us abundantly, with that love even extending to our childhood puppy, Shiny, who similarly adored Dayaunty, particularly as she often brought Shiny a succulent bone to chew on when she came to visit. Dayaunty was kind, caring, nurturing and she loved to laugh, albeit very softly… She didn’t ever have a cross word for us.

We never referred to Dayaunty’s husband as ‘Alfred Uncle’, despite our multi-generational age gap. To us he was ‘Alfie’, because he was our pal: someone who was always on our level, someone we could relate to. For years he drove a Volkswagen Beetle, which we referred to as the ‘Alfie Car’. He was such a character that he constantly had us in stitches, giggling until our sides hurt, thanks to the yarns that he spun. Picture the perfect babysitter (or, from our perspective, a best buddy) and that was Alfie. He set the bar very high when it came to fun uncles.

Our childhood was enriched beyond measure for having Dayaunty and Alfie in it. When Alfie (often distracted by other thoughts but still wanting to be a part of the ongoing conversation) would say something grammatically correct but factually unfeasible — like his infamous “You spoke to him when he was dead?” line of inquiry — Dayaunty would titter almost silently, which naturally made us crack up even more.

Dayaunty had a sense of adventure and would have happily travelled the world if only Alfie wasn’t tethered to work. (“Inquiries, baba, inquiries” is how he explained his professional life to us.) So, a solitary trip to India on pilgrimage notwithstanding, Dayaunty had to make do with escapades in-country. These included one memorable visit to Yala during which her quiet chuckling threatened to actually form sound when someone, on seeing a herd of elephants, queried incredulously: “Why does that elephant have five legs?!” Dayaunty was much quicker on the uptake than the rest of us, but when the penny finally dropped, it was a wonder that all the wildlife in our immediate vicinity didn’t run for the hills, such was the laughter emanating from our vehicle!

On the singular occasion that our parents were unable to have us join them when they went abroad for a conference, they entrusted us into the care of Alfie and Dayaunty — and we had a ball. Even though we loved and were used to spending time together, and they treated us like their own children, both Dayaunty and Alfie must have felt the weight of responsibility that came with such a serious undertaking; however, we never saw any hints of anxiety from either.

When Dayaunty unexpectedly had a stroke 10 years ago, I thought she would soon recover. So, when Alfie called me to convey the news of her passing with the words “the firecracker has gone”, it took a long time for the reality of the situation to sink in. Dayaunty’s departure was a seismic event and it felt as though she took a part of our childhood with her when she went.

Then, in 2018, after bemoaning his loss of productivity and his perceived lack of usefulness to society as a result of stopping work, Alfie decided to follow suit. Never again would we hear him recite ‘Inky, Pinky, Polly’ incorrectly, just to make us laughingly (and somewhat exasperatedly) exclaim: “Oh, Alfie, you don’t know anything!” Gone were the tales of his exploits on the tennis court (“I have bad knees now because my doubles partner used to make me run for all the drop shots!”) and his adventures in emailing (“I was worried about writing to you too much because I thought I’d fill up the computer!”). If part of our childhood went with Dayaunty, the rest accompanied Alfie.

How does anyone recover from — or at least mitigate — such grief, devastation and loss? One step is to remember the good times and focus on all the positive things that Daya and Alfred Wijewardena brought to so many people — in their immediate and extended families, amongst their friends, in their lives and in their careers.

As we mark, on successive days, what would have been Alfie’s 100th birthday (7th December) and 10 years since Dayaunty’s passing (8th December), we pause to reflect on two extraordinary lives that touched so many others in a multitude of ways. We will always love Alfie and Dayaunty, and we’ll be forever grateful for the roles that they played in our lives, particularly our childhood. We hope their sansaric journey is short. May they both attain Nibbana!

Dr. Mihirinie Wijayawardene

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Opinion

Need for traffic lights at Pamankada junction

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Now that the Havelock Road is open to traffic on both sides up to the Pamankada bridge, the Pamankada T-junction has become a real bottleneck, especially during the rush hours in the morning and again in the evening. There were no problems when it was one way. With unruly drivers manning private buses and three wheelers and the motor cyclists, it is indeed a hassle for the law-abiding drivers to manipulate their vehicles in a melee.

As Havelock Road has been opened to vehicular traffic both ways, there is a large number of buses belonging to the CTB as well as private buses on route numbers 120( Horana and Kesbewa to Pettah) ,162 (Bandaragama to Pettah), 135(Kelaniya to Kohuwala) and 141 (Wellawatte to Narahenpita) that ply up and down passing this T- junction.

It would be good before some serious motor accident takes place to install traffic lights at this junction. Every driver tries to get out of the melee as quickly as possible and ultimately all vehicles get stuck and take a longer time to move on. Installing the lghts would instill some discipline to the reckless drivers especially during the time that school children are transported.

HM Nissanka Warakaulle

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Opinion

Lessons learnt from outrageous power outage

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The countrywide power outage that took place on Friday 03 November, 2021, shook the nation.

As everyone is suspicious of everyone else in this country, most people suspected that it was sabotage masterminded by the Engineers of the CEB Unions. The engineers have threatened the government that they will resort to a strike if their demands, particularly on the subject of the New Fortress Energy agreement are not met.

It became quite clear that the 21 million Sri Lankans living in this country could be held hostage by the union leaders, even if, in this instance, they had not been responsible for it. Public spiritedness which has to be the basis of any national action had in any case been ignored by the CEB Unions when they threatened the government a few days back.

The situation has shown how delicate our predicament is. A small group of people could hold the entire country to ransom if they disagreed with the authorities. Both the country and the Government has now taken cognizance of this. This can also be a massive security risk.

Continuation of the outage could have even led to a violent uprising of the public against the Union officials who would have been targeted. Fortunately, the government held its nerve and better judgment prevailed on the side of the Engineers to correct the situation.

However, like with all adversities, several new opportunities have surfaced. One is how to diminish the monopoly that the CEB, which is a bane of the country. Here one option could be to decentralize the generation and supply of power to the districts. A study should be undertaken to enable every District to control it’s electricity supply and, over a period of ten years make it into a viable profit-making undertaking. This will be particularly endorsed and greeted by those of the Northern and Eastern Provinces who are agitating for more decentralised powers. Also, the other Districts will support this proposition. Engineers from the Districts will be able to use their ingenuity in working out techniques for cheaper and more cost-effective generation of electricity and giving assistance to the multiple industries that will commence in the future.

With regard to the security dimension of electricity supply it is imperative that the armed forces are made conversant with every aspect connected with the running of the Electricity facilities. In this way, the country can never be held to ransom by any group. The armed forces will be trained to move and take over the operations in case of sabotage or even if one day an attack takes place by external forces.

In all this it seems evident that the New Fortress Energy Agreement is not acceptable to the general public and not only to the Unions. The Government has to take this into account and if necessary call for a plebiscite on this issue. If Parliament and the people of this country want the government to proceed with it so be it. However, if the people reject it the government has a valid justification to withdraw from the agreement.

A. Jayatilleke

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