It was refreshing to see a distinguished Sri Lankan personality being honoured with the release of a stamp recently. In the past we
were used to seeing mainly faces of politicians – some deserving to be recognised while others were not – with an occasional face of someone really worthy to be on a stamp. If the Postal Department has changed its policy in the selection of ‘Distinguished Personalities’ for stamps, well and good!
The person who well deserved the honour on 31 October was Dr. Ray (Revata) Wijewardene (1924-2010), whose contribution in several fields has won recognition here and abroad. The illustrious Sri Lankan engineer was an inventor and specialist in both tropical farming and renewable energy.
It was fitting that the official release of the stamp took place at the opening of the annual exhibition of the Inventors Commission of which he was head at one time.
Working on a script for a documentary on Ceylon Tobacco Company (CTC) a few years back, I remember visiting several areas to see the work done by CTC on the advice of Dr. Ray W in using the Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SLAT) using gliricidia to stop soil erosion in the hilly areas where tobacco was grown. The technique promoted by him involved terracing of land, use of leaf mulch, and reintroducing perennial trees into rain-fed farming.
I also saw the 1MW Dendro Power Plant in Walapane set up with his advice using glyiricidia to produce power. The plant demonstrated the technical aspects of cultivating, harvesting and converting glyricidia wood into electricity which could be supplied to the national grid.
World’s first two-wheeled hand tractor
Dr. Ray W, the silent worker, got into the limelight when he designed the world’s first two-wheeled hand tractor to help farmers in the tropics to mechanise their work. It was the time when in Sri Lanka buffalos were used to prepare the paddy fields. He came up with the design in 1955 and soon the Landmaster Company in UK started mass production of the machine.
Dr. Ray W toured Asia, Africa and Latin America promoting the easy to manage tractor to the farmers and governments.
Today the two-wheeled tractor is a common sight in the rural areas of Sri Lanka not merely for farming activity but to transport people in the trailers attached to them. It has become the most popular form of transport used by the rural folk to get about particularly in areas where buses or vans do not ply regularly. Of course, they do not know who the ‘father of the two-wheel tractor’ is.
Ecologically sustainable agriculture
Being a lover of agriculture, he then moved on to researching and promoting ecologically sustainable agriculture. As an authority on tropical farming systems, he worked for the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in the 1970s first as Head of Agricultural Engineering at the Mechanisation& Automation Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur and then as Head of Agricultural Research and Engineering at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria. The improvements and innovations introduced by him, including the SALT technique, to help the small farmer were greatly appreciated.
‘A Man for all Elements’
Identified as ‘A Man for all Elements’, he was not a theoretician. He was a practical man. Back in Sri Lanka in 1980, he continued experimenting with rain-fed farming and agro forestry on his coconut estate in Kuliyapitiya. He also did field tests for dendro thermal power, the generation of electricity from firewood. He also introduced inter-cropping gliricidia with coconut which vastly increased the yields.
Dr. Ray W served in numerous boards and official committees linked to business, research and policy. He was Chairman of the Tea Research Board and was Chancellor of the Moratuwa University (2002-07). Two Sri Lankan universities (Moratuwa and Sabaragamuwa) conferred the honorary degree (Doctor of Science). He was awarded the highest honour of Vidya Jothi (Luminary of Science) and Desdhamanya (Pride of the Nation) by the Government.
As a sportsman he excelled in water sports. He represented Sri Lanka in competitive sailing events and, competed in the Mexico Olympics (1968) and won a Silver Medal at the Asian Games in Bangkok (1970).
He held pilot licenses to fly fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and autogyros. He experimented with building and flying ultra-light aircraft and helicopters, and trained a generation of pilots and aircraft technicians. He was also an accomplished violinist and oil painter.
One year after his death, in 2011 the Ray Wijewardene Charitable Trust was established to promote his vision and deeds in Sri Lanka. The Trust supports innovations that were close to his heart and awards the ‘Ray Award for Innovation’.