by G.A.D. Sirimal (Sunday Island)
Reclining in my hansiputuwa, my thoughts go back to the past. As a poet once wrote ‘for oft in my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood, they flash upon my inward eye..’ of my Public Service days where I experienced some happy incidents and also others that were humiliating and bitter that now make me laugh. Here is one many etched in my mind.
In the early 1960s I worked for the then Public Works Department [PWD] housed in that grand old red brick-walled building in Colombo Fort, earlier the Surveyor General’s office and a landmark of the colonial regime. One of the subjects assigned to me was Improvements to Ex-DRC, PRC and Minor Roads for which funds were provided in the estimate under a block vote. It was left to the discretion of the Executive Engineer to decide what roads were to be improved.
However, when Mr. Michael Siriwardane was Minister for Public Works, Post and Telegraph, he decided to allocate funds on an electoral basis. Thus it became a political matter with Members of Parliament sometimes using the money to improve roads leading to their friends’ and relations’ homes and not according any priority on public importance. Each MP was allocated Rs.10,000/= a minister Rs.15,000/= and a reserve of Rs.20,000/= left to meet expenditure on minor roads considered essential. These sums were enough to widen over a mile of road, about half a mile of metalling and tarring and also build a few culverts – then done by PWD Road Overseers unlike today when the cost runs into millions to metal and carpet a mile of roadway by foreign contractors. With these arrangements, I had to work closely with the minister and also meet MPs who come with various problems, expediting the sanctioning of estimates sent by area Executive Engineers, delays to work etc.
It was during this period a Member of Parliament from the Sabaragamuwa, came to my office to have an existing foot-path improved as it cuts the distance between two important towns by almost six miles. The first estimate for Rs,10,000/= was approved. The next year another length was to be improved as the MP’s wish was to improve the track on the same trace. With his knowledge, the estimate was held back to inquire from the Executive Engineer whether improving the road on the same trace is acceptable as a special project. When the reply was received that the present estimate could be sanctioned, immediate action was taken to release funds. The day after I had sanctioned and released the funds, the MP stormed into my room with two others, and without speaking a word, held me by the collar and bawled ‘Mu thamai apey vada kada kappal karanne. Tho balaganai, tho maru karanawa etc. – (This is the fellow who is sabotaging our work. I will get you transferred etc.]
Even my dear dead mother was not spared in his outburst. That was the beginning of the period where the apey anduwa was ushered in by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. It has now degenerated into fisticuffs and Mariakadey language in Parliament, not to speak of squeezing a Buddhist monk/MP’s privates resulting in his having to be hospitalized.
Soon after the MP left, I rushed to Minister Michael Siriwardane’s ground floor office and complained of the incident. He pacified me and said he will meet the MP concerned in Parliament and take necessary steps to avoid similar situations in the future. The next day the minister called to say he had told the MP not to contact me direct. If there was a problem or information required, he should contact Mr. Siriwardane.
About three weeks passed. The MP walked in to my room with a broad smile. Placing a parcel he had brought by the wall, he embraced me addressing me as Obathuma asked me to forget the incident and said that it was only a ‘Javanika’ – a drama enacted which had a salutary effect. When they went back the next day they had seen the Road Overseer transporting metal to commence work. The two others who came with him were the Chairman of a Village Council and the President of a Rural Development Society. The talk had spread in the village of the incident in my office and the resulting expediting of the work. He once again shook hand and pleaded that I forget the incident saying that I was one of the finest government officials he had met. When he was leaving, without the parcel he had brought, I pointed to it thinking he had forgotten it. He said it was a present of a bottle of kitul treacle, two bundles of kitul jaggery and half bottle of bees honey – a specialty in his area.
When I politely refused to accept the gift saying that I was a bachelor and a boarder, he left the package anyway without a word but with a broad smile. The next thing to decide was what to do with the gift. The beneficiary was my devoted old peon, Edwin. I asked him to take it home. It was Avuruddhu time, he had made full use of it to make kavun and other kevili. He retired about a year later. I must pay a tribute to Edwin, who with his vast experience sometimes guided me on action to be taken on certain matters as I was new to the public service and needed to be shown the ropes. He also tactfully stopped me from being enticed by the charms of the young and beautiful stenographers and typists whom I had to work with in my official capacity.
I still can’t decide whether the gift was a bribe to have his estimates and work expedited or a genuine apology. In fairness to the MP, I take it as an apology and satisfy myself thinking I have in my small way served honestly for the development and wellbeing of the people of this country. Incidentally that MP was defeated at the next General Election.