Reminiscences of a public servant

Book facts: Sesata: by H.A.P. Abhayawardhana.Taranji Printers, Maharagama. Reviewed by Haris de Silva. Price Rs. 400

Sesata by Abhayawardhana (Abey) recalls some significant activities/achievements by him during his service in the public sector from 1955 to 1987. He also mentions the assignments he held after his retirement, once again in the public sector, up to 1998 and also refers to his publications.
In the genre of writing, there have been a number of publications in Sinhala by officers in the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Apart from them, Tilak Iddamalgoda, a retired Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police, has also published in Sinhala, in 2003, recollections of his tenure in the Police Service, giving it a catchy title ‘Mehemat Policekaarayek’. They are all autobiographical in nature, and naturally would say what they wish the public to know about themselves and of their careers.

In his book, Abey gives a short account of his school days at Mirissa, at Rahula College, Matara, and then at the University of Ceylon. He had been in the first batch of students who moved to Peradeniya in 1951, when some of the faculties were transferred there from Colombo.
After his graduation he had sat the Ceylon Civil Service Examination. Unfortunately, he had failed to secure a place in the CCS, as he had been placed seventh in the list, and there had been only three vacancies that year. However, he had been offered a position as an Assistant Commissioner of Local Government. He had accepted the offer, and his career in the public service starts from that point, in 1955.

In his narrative he recalls the provinces he served in, mostly North Central, Central, Sabaragamuwa and Southern, the variety of duties he had to perform as an ACLG, interacting mostly with people in suburban towns and villages, through various local level government organizations. The activities he had decided to include in his book gives the reader, a fairly clear picture of the involvement of a staff grade public servant of his era, especially in the area of local government.

A continuous thread that runs in the book is his dedication to Buddhism, Sinhala tradition and culture. With his erudition in Pali and Sanskrit, he quotes appropriate stanzas he had recited at public meetings, I believe, to direct the meetings to his way of thinking and life, but, I suppose, working within the larger framework of the government structure. A vegetarian from his early days, the book brings out his humanity, humility, dedication to work and his honesty and integrity.

He recounts incidents where people of standing in local areas had crossed swords with him, where he had taken measures in the larger interest of the public, to correct wrongs done by them: such problems are part and parcel of a public servant's career, and facing them squarely, with steadfastness, and within the framework of the law, are qualities for admiration in a public servant. It was also pleasant to note the non-interference by politicians in his official duties.

Over the years, he had also been Special Commissioner in a number of local bodies, Additional Government Agent and Government Agent Matale, Director Cultural Affairs, director Credit Councils, Director Local Government Service, Additional Secretary Local Government, Housing and Construction, and lastly Additional Secretary, Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

Some activities which had given him great satisfaction had been the way he had liaised with the officers in the Matale area, during the JVP insurrection in 1971, the establishment of a public library in the Star Fort at Matara, which building he had got renovated in a remarkably short period of time, and his establishment of the Department of Credit Councils.

All these show his remarkable ability of organization and his excellent qualities of personal relations. Reading such accounts would certainly benefit young public servants of today.
He also speaks of benefits he had received as a public servant, such as foreign training and participation in various programmes abroad, mostly in the cultural sector, which was a special area of interest to him.

On two such programmes he gives an interesting account of his trip to Berlin, and almost a log-book account of his visit to Japan, where he details a day from the time he awoke to the time he went to bed!

Recording how his public service career came to an end, he states with some regret, that his extension of service at the age of 57, when he was Additional Secretary Cultural Affairs, had not been approved by the Cabinet of Ministers. Thus, he had left the public service with some disappointment.

Basically, a person with a scholarly bent, he had earned an MA and Ph. D during his service period, which he proudly asserts to have been accomplished, without obtaining any leave of absence from duty. Those dissertations had been subsequently published as Boundary divisions of Mediaeval Sri Lanka (English version) 1999, and Lekam Mili Vimarshanaya (2009). Sesata also contains a list of other publications he had done, and no doubt will interest the reader.

In an era where regular publications of annual administration reports by all departments and institutions, are somewhat erratic, and public servants no longer have to maintain diaries, this genre of writing would interest the readers of today and those who would read them decades later.

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