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Saluting a veteran journalist

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Just as much as veteran journalist D.F. Kariyakarawana continued writing a weekly column right up to his nineties, there is at least one other media personality who has a wealth of knowledge and reference material to write a weekly column. It appears in one of the Sinhala dailies every week. The writer is S. Piyasena, who reached the ripe age of 94 recently. 

SP has had a varied journalistic career ranging from being a reporter to feature writer, broadcaster to interpreter in Parliament and then on to freelance writing. Being proficient in both Sinhala and English (possibly even Tamil), he was much in demand even after he stopped doing a fulltime job. 

I got to know him in the latter part of the 1960s when I was with the Observer. He was quite friendly with Editor Denzil Peiris, who got him to write political features, making the best use of his comprehensive knowledge of politicians and political parties having been actively involved with leftist politics. 

In later years, in addition to being the parliamentary reporter in the ‘Dinamina’ after independence (1948), his stint in Parliament as the first Sinhala-English interpreter (1956-59) would have certainly helped him to make contact with parliamentarians and access to library material. 

His weekly column in the ‘Divaina’ recently was on local government politics from the days of ‘Gam Sabhas’ (Village Committees/Councils) when village leaders provided voluntary service after being elected by the public to serve on these committees. The system was as old as the Indian ‘Panchayat Raj’ where respected rural leaders were selected to administer their areas, he states.

Hailing S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike as a pioneering leader in local government, SP recollects how SWRD served on the Executive Committee on Local Administration after getting elected to the Veyangoda seat in the first Sate Council in 1931. Charles Batuwantudawe was the chairman of the committee (under the Executive Committee system, a chairman was equivalent to a minister). In 1936 SWRD became chairman of the Executive Committee and continued to hold the local government portfolio in the UNP Cabinet of 1947 until he resigned and left the party in 1951.

SP describes how SWRD became a member of the Egodapatha Peruva village committee in Veyangoda and also became its chairman in order to encourage rural leaders to accept responsible positions in the village committees. His example was followed by a couple of members of the State Council including D.P. Jayasuriya (Gampaha) and D.G. Athulatmudali (Matugama) who served as chairmen of the village committees in their areas. 

Elaborating on SWRD’s continued interest in uplifting the rural culture and traditions, SP describes how he started rural industries at village level. He was a firm believer that the country’s future lay in protecting the rural culture. His concept was that textile industry and agriculture should go hand in hand. Following Mahatma Gandhi’s concept SWRD promoted the setting up of weaving centres. To lead by example he wore a national dress (white long cloth/long banian/shawl) woven locally for his wedding in 1940. He attempted to impress on everyone that villages should not be urbanised. 

As chairman of the Executive Committee in the second State Council (1936 onwards), he had a free hand in guiding local administration. Apart from village committee, he set up Town Councils for small townships and got the people to elect members. Thus the people were given the opportunity to select whom they wanted to serve them on a voluntary basis. 

SP goes on to analyse how urbanisation set in by the 1980s and how Pradeshiya Sabhas (PS) came to be established by amalgamating a number of village committees and urban councils. That marked the end of voluntary service by rural leaders and the beginning of members of Pradeshiya Sabhas paid by the state. SP laments on how the democratic framework in the rural administration has broken down and corruption and thuggery have set in with 90% of allegations on corruption are against PS members.

Having spent some years in Australia, SP has returned to Sri Lanka to spend a quiet life.

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