by Gamini Peiris
This article is written to evoke and revive the memory of two outstanding gentlemen who were responsible for the establishment of Sevanagala sugar industry under the Sri Lanka Sugar Corporation (SLSC).The present staff at Sevanagala have not even heard of them and some of them seem to believe that Sevanagala was always like what it is now, No sir, a few people have shed blood ,sweat and tears to make it what it is. Before Sevanagala the SLSC owned and managed two more factories at Hingurana and Kantale.
Mr M L J Wickremeratne (MLJ) was chairman SLSC till 1978 and left after the general election. The period under his tenure was known as the golden era of sugar. He was a civil servant and a visionary. He had taken over an ailing sugar industry and turned it around its head.
He had a glimpse of a sugar factory at Uda Walawe where we had a small unit of 500 acs producing jaggery and syrup. By mid 1970’s Technisucre a leading French company made a very comprehensive feasibility report which supported the establishment of a sugar factory.
MLJ was succeeded by an ex-tea planter for a short spell till MR EHW Jayasekare (EHW) better known as Earl took over. He invited Tate and Lyle or TLTS a leading sugar consultancy firm to commence work on the Left Bank of Walawe tank. KCP an Indian company was selected to put up a 1.250 ton factory under the supervision and guidance of TLTS.
EHW was a pioneer in the sugar industry from the 1960s working at Polonnaruwa and later at Kantale. He retired as the Director of Agriculture. From now on this narrative will be in the first person singular as it cannot be avoided. EHW had been a board member during MLJ’s time and the two of them got on very well. MLJ was known as an empire builder and EHW applied the brakes whenever necessary. EHW was technically very sound.
I was appointed Plantation Manager Sevanagala in 1981. Total land extent to be developed was 7,518 ha of wich 1,820 ha under irrigation and 2,395 ha rain fed. At that time nothing was known about rain fed cane in Sri Lanka.
All senior hands in SLSC thought we were doomed. We had no alternative but take the plunge. There were three young research officers attached to me and we conducted monthly planting trials to find the best planting time to raise rain-fed cane. Our finding was that Yala was the best. However today we find Maha better. A clear case of climate change in 40 odd yrs,
I raised excellent nurseries under irrigation in Walawe. I had two executives and a surveyor for land development and road construction. One such executive has to be mentioned by name Mr S K Guneratne who was in charge of the machinery unit and rendered yeomen service.
We had 13 bulldozers and two motor graders as our fleet. There were no operators. EHW wanted to transfer some from other industries but I resisted as I preferred to start with new hands. We recruited untrained youth as operators and got them trained at Galkuama in a project under the National Apprentice Board. I myself got trained by them to operate the machines. We worked till almost midnight on most days to reach our goal before the rains. We lived under trying conditions in makeshift dwellings with no electricity or running water. We were happy with what we were doing.
There were some 4,500 odd squatters on the land and about 50% of them were selected to remain as farmers of cane The rest could not be accommodated. They had paddy in the low lying areas and banana and maize on the high lands There were also plots pf marijuana hidden within the banana. There were trap guns too to contend with.
We commenced planting in 1983. EHW was removed in 1983 and so was I. I went back to Kantale but by then most development work was complete including the irrigated sector. Irrigated sector had lined channels going up to individual plots. We had the longest chain of lined channels in SL Today these channels are in shambles. There is ample evidence of wanton damage Sevanagala crushed cane in 1986. I was back in 1987.
We by then had a fully fledged factory. In 1989 I became General Manager and soon left as advisor. Some people did not like the shape of my nose.
In 2002 a flourishing industry was handed over to the private sector on a platter till 2011 when it was taken back .Every acre we had developed had a story to tell. On the lands we had painstakingly developed for cane there now stands storied buildings. Motels, racing tracks, fruit processing factories. finance companies etc. Sugar recovery which was 8,5 -9% has dropped to 5% or so. Explanations that are offered are not acceptable to an old warrior.
I started life in an old tin house and ended up in a semi-aircondioned house. there were 10 such units and today not even the foundations are seen.
YO HO HO AND A BOTTLE OF RUM!
Messers MLJ and EHW, you knew a lot. A damn lot but not enough politics to survive. Is it too much to ask that at least their photographs be displayed?