Bulathsinhalage Sirisena Cooray, or Sirisena Cooray as he was popularly known, would have been 91 years old on 29 April this year, had he lived. Unfortunately, this great personality was taken away from us, in a most unexpected manner, on 30 November 2021.
I first met Sirisena Cooray in 1978. In the aftermath of the general election which brought in a new Government, I had been uprooted from my former position and had found refuge in the Housing Ministry under the aegis of the all-powerful Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa. Sirisena Cooray was his trusted lieutenant. But despite his official role in the Ministry, as the Chairman of the Common Amenities Board, I had very little interaction with him then.
I met Sirisena Cooray again after he returned from a spell as the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Malaysia to contest the mayoralty of Colombo. I was then the Chairman of the National Housing Development Authority and had to interact officially with the new Lord Mayor. I came to know him well, as we worked together to advance the Urban Housing component of the Million Houses Programmeme, the innovative lead Programme of the Ministry. The interaction was especially in the formation of Community Development Councils within the Colombo Municipality. He was nothing like the political strongman of public perception and of my imagination, but an amiable, objective, far-seeing and a practical person committed to the improvement of the quality of life of Colombo’s poor.
He ran the Colombo Municipality, always a hot bed of politics and riddled with lethargy and idle labour, with a firm but a gentle hand, and turned it into a well-functioning entity as never before. Much had been written about his superlative transformation of this notoriously unwieldy, tradition bound entity. His innovative leadership role enabled the construction of the Khettarama (R. Premadasa) International Cricket Stadium. He was also responsible for the subsequent installation of lights for night cricket, for the first time ever. Until 1989, our interaction was close but official. Our enduring friendship began only when he stepped into Ranasinghe Premadasa’s shoes as the new Housing Minister in 1989. I was appointed as the Secretary to the Ministry, and it was then we came to know each other closely and became trusted friends. For me, that period in the Housing Ministry, was the happiest and the most rewarding period in my long public service career. Under Sirisena Cooray’s leadership, and with the unstinted cooperation of his two Ministers of State, Chandra Ranatunge and Imitiaz Bakeer Markar, we turned the Housing Ministry into an extremely efficient, well-oiled, highly responsive machine, capable of detailed planning and efficient delivery of any type of assignment. At the same time, we built a camaraderie amongst ourselves, rarely seen in a public institution.
The Housing Ministry then was a vast entity with over twenty institutions under it. Its responsibilities included housing, urban development, water supply; sewerage, land reclamation, construction and building materials. We, together, built around us a band of committed and efficient professionals and managers, men of proven calibre. The foremost among them included Micheal Joachim, Conrad de Tissera, T. B. Madugalle, Susil Siriwardena, Willie Mendis, Sarath Obeysekera, Prasanna Gunawardena, Gemunu Silva, N.D. Peiris, Micheal Pereira, Siri Hattotuwegama, A .C. A. Jabbaar, T. Ratnasabhapathy, Manik Nagahawatte, Thilak Hewawasam, Y.M.I. Bandara and B. Danwatta. We worked as a closely knit team, with trust, understanding and interdependence, and delivered without fail. Sirisena Cooray’s leadership did not leave room for intrigues or petty jealousies within the team, as often happen in a large and widespread organisation. The Minister was the kingpin around whom this machine turned.
Much had been written and recorded about Sirisena Cooray’s stewardship in the implementation of the 1.5 million Housing Programme, the successor to President Premadasa’s Million Houses Programme,- that radical and much acclaimed breakthrough in participatory housing development. Housing projects were commenced all over the country, in rural, urban, and estate sectors alike. The programme was uninterruptedly carried out even in the war-torn North and the East.
Many are also aware of the coordinating role played by Sirisena Cooray in unenviable tasks assigned to the Housing Ministry from time to time, tasks such as the raising of the Maligawila Buddha Statue and the restoring of the Mirisawetiya Chaitya. So I wish to limit myself here to his little known and unspoken contributions to national development through several other people-oriented innovative projects – they all were development breakthroughs by themselves.
The first amongst those innovative projects was the implementation of the very extensive and complex Japanese funded ‘Colombo Canal Development & Flood Control’ Protect. Its aim was to clean-up the numerous clogged canals within the City and enable the water-flow, minimising clogging and stagnation. But a more important and complicated aspect was the relocation and resettlement of a large number of mostly poor families, living in shanties and makeshift accommodation, along canal banks for years, These underserved settlers were building in to canals, dumping waste, blocking the canal flow and polluting the water and the environment. There were around 8000 such families to be resettled or relocated– a number even comparable of those resettled under bigger irrigation schemes.
The Project with Sarath Obeysekara, as the Director, was implemented with no fanfare, no publicity, using the ‘Three Cs’, Consultation, Compromise, Consensus. Sirisena Cooray undertook the unenviable responsibility of having a dialogue with shanty communities, their leaders, and the local political leadership. He did it so expertly and thoroughly but unobtrusively, that the implementing agencies had no problems with the affected families or their communities. There were no forcible evictions; only consensual resettlements. The only little opposition came from the upper classes who had properties along canal banks and in low-lying areas and from those illegally filling the marshes, which the Minister overcame with tact and patience. The long-term benefits of this innovative project can be observed today. Subsequently, the Japanese Government expanded the project to include Attidiya, Ratmalana & Lunawa areas, in the Colombo District.
The second major breakthrough, was the application of the participatory principle (which was so successful in the housing programme) to the provision of drinking water and sanitation to far-flung villages and small towns. The extensive housing effort itself had been hampered by the inadequacy of drinking water in many remote areas. A Community Water Supply & Sanitation Project, based on the principle of the participation of the beneficiary families and their communities, was thus formulated in 1992, with Thilak Hewawasam as the Director, This World Bank-funded project marked a paradigm shift in the delivery of water supply and sanitation, especially to far-flung rural communities. In its first phase, the project established sustainable community water supply schemes reaching approximately 650,000 people in rural areas, implemented sanitation schemes in 3800 hamlets and set up a School Sanitation Programme covering about 3000 schools in the Districts of Badulla, Ratnapura and Matara.
A third landmark project
A third landmark project was centred on a dire need of earth-moving machinery at local level. It was conceived and implemented as part of President Premadasa’s 15,000 Villages Development Programme. Neither private contractors nor major State institutions undertaking earth-moving work, like the Irrigation Department, had machinery to spare. Consequently necessary machinery was not available in time and place for the envisaged Village Development Programme.
The President handed over the task of overcoming this obstacle to his trusted Minister Sirisena Cooray and to the Housing Ministry although the implementation of the 15000 Villages Programme itself, was the responsibility of another Ministry. A Japanese credit line was hurriedly obtained by the Finance Ministry, and the procurement process immediately commenced.
The next issue was to decide on the best means of deploying the machinery and equipment. Provincial Councils or Local Authorities were ruled out due to possible misuse and mismanagement in unknown hands. A new institutional framework therefore, subsequently named the National Machinery & Equipment Organisation was created under the Housing Ministry to resolve this issue. The new institution was initially headed by the Additional Secretary to the Ministry, Michael Joachim, with Gemunu Silva as the General Manager Fifty depots were established, two per district, including in the North and the East. Each Depot was to be equipped with a bulldozer, a motor grader, a backhoe loader, a tandem roller and a five-ton lorry.
The President stipulated that the required 600 machine operators be selected from Janasaviya recipient families. They had to be trained. Fortunately the Institute of Construction Training & Development under the Ministry had an already established a heavy equipment training centre at Galkulama, Anuradhapura. The establishment of this extensive district implementation framework within a short time, in time, was a logistical achievement.
A fourth breakthrough project was making renewable energy an integral part of development projects. The Ministry of Housing had already established a solar village on a pilot basis in Pansiyagama, in the Kurunegala District with Australian assistance. This pilot project, implemented at a time when the use of solar power was not well known, provided a simple photovoltaic solar home lighting system to 500 families, supplying a village family’s minimum power requirements – 4-6 lamps, a radio and a small television. With the experience of the pilot project, the Housing Ministry under Sirisena Cooray, embarked in 1991, on a follow-up solar power project, much wider in scope, much more innovative and ambitious.
This project aimed to improve quality of life of remote human settlements in the lower Uva region, one of the poorest, least developed areas in Sri Lanka. Solar power was provided to rural hospitals and maternity clinics, doctors’ quarters in rural hospitals, rural schools and school laboratories, teachers’ quarters, vocational training centres and most importantly for community water pumping. In addition, midwives were provided with portable solar lanterns to help in their night rounds and deliveries.
The benefits derived from this innovative project appears now forgotten, with the National Grid reaching even the remotest areas , But three decades ago, when 70 per cent of the rural population did not have access to electricity through the National Grid, it provided immense benefits to the improvement of the quality of life in the remote Lower-Uva region. More importantly, this pioneer Project demonstrated the applicability of solar technology in rural areas remote from the power grid.
I should not fail to refer to the leadership role played by Sirisena Cooray in the development of a model village in Bodhgaya, India. President Premadasa, on a visit to Bodhgaya had observed the squalid lives of the extremely poor and deprived communities living close to the Sri Maha Bodhi, and initiated, with the agreement of the Government of India, to construct a model village for them through the participatory process which was being successfully implemented in Sri Lanka. Money was provided from the ‘Sevana Fund’ and issued in instalments to the participating families. The target was to complete the construction of one hundred houses and a community centre in 110 days. Sirisena Cooray took personal charge of the Project, went to India with a team of selected professionals led by Anura Dassanayake, a young Architect from the Housing Authority.. He and the team lived in a pilgrims rest in Bodhgaya for most of the project duration. He personally undertook liaison with the Government of India, the State Government and the local Collector, and waded through all the red-tape and the maze of local procedures. All logistical requirements of the construction, from funds distribution, procurement and transport of building materials, house designing and the organisation and training of participant families. were addressed by Sirisena Cooray and his team. The project of the construction of the Model Village was combined with another project to install a Ranweta around the Sri Maha Bodhi and a Ran Viyana over the Vajirasana, again coordinated by Sirisena Cooray. The Project was completed in time and to the great satisfaction and jubilation of the participating poor families.
Sirisena Cooray was one of the most endearing human beings that I have ever met. Kind and sensitive, calm and unruffled, but firm and determined, he was completely different from the normal politician. Actually, in my eyes, he was a reluctant politician who shunned publicity and the media glare, who was reluctant to reap political mileage himself for the immense contributions he had made and for the unenviable tasks he shouldered. He was essentially a family man who enjoyed the simple things of life and avoided gossipers and ‘yes’ men. He was a devout Buddhist who undertook an annual pilgrimage to Buddhist shrines in India until the Covid pandemic prevented him. A very few are aware that he built a pilgrims rest in Saranath with his own resources. He was a wildlife enthusiast who enjoyed visiting national parks and sanctuaries, whenever possible, with his family and friends. The time I worked with him was challenging, productive and was the most satisfying ever in my public service career. On his birthday, we, his friends and colleagues, deeply miss him.
(W.D. Ailapperuma is an Honours graduate in Sociology from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, with post-graduate qualifications from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, is a career public servant who held several important posts, including the post of Chairman, National Housing Development Authority, Chairman & Director- General, Central Environmental Authority & Director-General, Urban Development Authority. During the period that Sirisena Cooray was the Minister of Urban Development, Housing & Construction from 1989 to 1994, W.D. Ailapperuma was the Secretary to the Ministry)
By W.D. Ailapperuma