Ivan Samarawickrama: A Man for All Seasons

Wilfred Jayasuriya

Ivan died in his sleep at the age of 95 a couple of days ago. He was buried that very day, according to his wishes, by his sons, Anil, Malik and Lalin. His wife Nellie died a decade ago. In his day, Ivan was one of the best known and best loved public figures in the country. He was a “public servant,” as understood by that description in the English language, in the context of the recent history of Ceylon / Sri Lanka.

He had very clear-cut chiselled features and moved about with grace. In his University College days he was a quarter miler (400 metres, which was a test of both speed and stamina) and held the Ceylon national record for that athletic distance.

Why and how do I write about Ivan?

I worked with him and was his close friend. This friendship began when I joined the Land Commissioner’s Department in 1960 as a District Land Officer (DLO). Ivan was the Senior DLO, then working in Kandy at the Kachcheri, assisting the Government Agent in managing Crown land and its occupants. Crown land, since land was the primary factor of production, was the most valuable physical asset of the government and District Land Officers, who were a special category of administrators specialised in this field, though the titular OIC was the Government Agent, the pillar on which the colonial and post colonial structure rested. To become a DLO was a great and gratifying, fulfilling experience, giving you authority over land and people and filling you with the sense of the “real”. The “real” consisted of working with farmers, both landless peasants and middle class, who were the “salt of the earth” in Ceylon / Sri Lanka up till 1977, when the change brought about by the “open economy” also changed the world views of both officials and the public.

By 1977 however Ivan had become a Commanding Officer in the army volunteer force and a Government Agent. He was the first non CCS guy to become an AGA, which was done by stepping into the line of succession headed by Leonard Woolf, who became AGA Jaffna in the first decade of the 1900s. Ivan had the bearing and figure of an army officer combined with the gravitas of a learned man.

He had very clear-cut chiselled features and moved about with grace. In his University College days he was a quarter miler (400 metres, which was a test of both speed and stamina) and held the Ceylon national record for that athletic distance. When he wrote a report on a land matter it had the air of a well made, elegant essay focused on real world issues and a persuasive proposal for action. They were models of scholarly judgement and technical writing, with a practical purpose.

Because of his army status and his academic and administrative skills, he rose in the estimation of politicians, of fellow bureaucrats and of those who knew him as an acquaintance, as a man of both credit and renown, and of outstanding judgement and ability in practical matters. He was the first Controller of Prices and Warden of Standards, when that position was resurrected from the rubbish bin of war time devices, to deal with the economic crisis of the 1970s, when Ms. Bandaranaike was Prime Minister and T.B. Illangaratne was Minister of Trade. I was his first deputy. We enjoyed working together in the same manner as we did when he was Government Agent, Polonnaruwa and I was his Senior District Land Officer. Of course, Polonnaruwa, at the time of Minister C.P. de Silva was all land work. C.P. de Silva sometimes treated officers with scant respect, himself having been one before he became a politician. One of his memorable comments was about another particularly enthusiastic official (NOT Ivan), who didn’t exactly tow the line, but seemed to have some ulterior motive. “I am building a road to the expanding cultivation area. He is building a road to Nirvana.” But Ivan bore himself with sufficient self respect and bearing to neutralize those attitudes. Working in Polonnaruwa was exciting and fruitful.

Ivan went on to become the Secretary of the Mahaveli Ministry and was for sometime the Commercial Counsellor in Bonn, after having held the position of Director of Commerce. Because of his wide experience and standing, Ivan was later a consultant to the Cabinet in economic affairs.

A narrative of his work in the government does not convey at all the kind of man he was. He was respected as well as loved by those who knew him for his personal qualities of goodness, as a private individual, and as a public figure. To combine such a mix was not easy.

May he rest in peace.

– See more at: http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/A-man-for-all-seasons-130069.html#sthash.c88qpGjV.dpuf

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Filed under education, governance, life stories, sri lankan society, unusual people

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