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Lalith Athulathmudali - a great son of Lanka

T.M.S. Nanayakkara - DN Sat Apr 21 2007

REMEMBERED: Fourteen years have passed since the death of Lalith Athulathmudali. He belongs to the rare few who adorn the history with their distinct contributions in the fields they trod, to the causes they espoused.

Having enjoyed the distinction of being the first from the remote Pasdunkorale to enter the hallowed profession of law as a Barrister, D.D. Athulathimudali wished Lalith, his elder son, to follow him.

Young Lalith was sent to the Royal College where he excelled in both studies and in sports. At Oxford he secured the rare honour of being elected the Treasurer, the Librarian, the Secretary and to cap it all, the President of the Union. This is ample testimony to his oratorical prowess, debating skill and to his leadership qualities, which he displayed and put to abundant use in later life.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the great liberal democrat and intellectual watched the dazzling star that enter into the ken and quickly recognized the talents by awarding a scholarship, which, perhaps, was the innovating factor that prompted him to establish the Mahapola Scholarship Scheme, to award thousands of scholarships to university students.

He obtained B.A. (Jurisprudence) from Oxford and enrolled as a Barrister of Gray's Inn. After a short stint as a lecturer in law at the Singapore University, University of Alahabad and the Hebrew University, he entered the prestigious Harvard University, where he obtained his LL.M. His performance at Harvard was so brilliant that his thesis was accepted to the permanent collection of the University.

In 1964 he was enrolled as an Advocate. With all the endowments that go to make a successful lawyer (i.e. the ability to master facts, profound knowledge of the law, swift and ready wit, command of the English language, oratorical prowess and debating skill and capacity to do hard work) he was quick to gain recognition and rise in the profession.

He was versatile and was quite at home in any court, civil, criminal or labour - original or appellate. In 1985 he was appointed a President's Counsel.

His dabble in Union politics at Oxford was an indication that he would take a plunge in it when once he returned home. The State Councillor father too, would have kindled such interests in his formative years.

In 1973 he answered that inner calling and began organising the Agalawatta seat for the UNP. He was no stranger to Agalawatta, but the seat was a Marxist stronghold represented by a brilliant lawyer and an intellectual (Dr.Colvin R De Silva, a veteran politician).

He traversed the length and breadth climbing rugged mountains, descending steep hills and crossing muddy streams. People flocked around him, for they were happy to have one of their kind. The foundation for the UNP victory was laid.

For some mysterious reason the party leadership shifted Lalith from Agalawatta and planted him in the newly carved out Ratmalana; for him it was alien soil. It was a seat in which there was a great concentration of workers at that time.

The workers of the Railway workshop, and of many factories resided there. He, being an able labour lawyer, had the disadvantage of having appeared for the employers in many labour cases. His opponents were quick to pick it up and brand him as a capitalist.

Caste too cast an obstacle, which it was not too easy to surmount. However he secured a convincing victory at the 1977 General Election and entered the Parliament. In 1977 he was given the Ministry of Trade; he had no choice.

The Ministry of Trade, hitherto, had been a veritable doom. No Trade Minister, except perhaps R.G.Senanayake, enjoyed popularity. All the sins of government,(i.e. rising prices, shortage of goods, malfunctioning of the distributive network etc.) are heaped upon the Ministry of Trade.

It was only the combination of academic brilliance and adroitly deployed pragmatism that could deal with such an intricate situation. He was a great protagonist of the open economy. This fluid concept is being variously defined and loosely applied.

For him it was not the unbridled freedom of the wild ass but a disciplined march of a harnessed horse. Human effort cannot be circumscribed within the pages of Financial Regulations and Administrative Rules. Government officers who are sticklers for adherence to such rules have stifled their innovative faculty; they should not be assigned the running of a business.

Liberalization was the answer. Entrepreneurial skill and capacity of the private sector had to be mobilized. Business was thrown open. Market abounded in commodities.

The State-run institutions like the CWE, the State Trading Corporation and Salusala revamped their management systems to be in line with the advancing private enterprise. Thus having reciprocated the State institutions geared themselves to render service as efficient as the private establishments: the consumer was the ultimate beneficiary.

Insurance was a stumbling block in the march towards economic recovery. Having enjoyed two decades of monopoly, lethargy had set in, in the Insurance Corporation of Sri Lanka. This is too technical and sensitive a subject to be thrown open, unblinkingly.

There must be an assessment of the availability of capital and more so the technical know-how. The market was not yet ripe for a throw open. This is the hour when creative talents should be tapped.

A new concept was mooted; fusion of capital and security of the State with private sector expertise: thus was born the National Insurance Corporation with the selection of seven reputed companies as partners in canvassing business and settling claims.

Innovations set in. The service was quick and courteous. A sizeable slice of the market share was wrested by the infant corporation. The ICSL, the giant, felt the pinch. It was loosing its business and moreover its men.

It awoke from its long slumber and mustered its energies to meet the challenge. There was acute competition that created an awareness among the people. The market boomed.

In 1983, when the July fire raged, destroying thousands of residential premises and business establishments insurance industry was ready to investigate and settle those claims promptly; this to a considerable extent cushioned off the rigour of the riot.

Consequent upon the boom, the demand for insurance technicians expanded. Many students opted to enter the new field. When insurance was ultimately liberalized, the private sector had acquired sufficient resources to enable the smooth takeover.

The Lakspray factory was an organ of the CWE. Feeding the market with milk powder regularly and at a reasonable price was thought to be the duty of the Ministry of Trade. Except for a few rich and sophisticated consumers who were loyal to foreign brands, the great majority had opted for Lakspray, chiefly because it was cheap. The factory caught fire in 1979.

Lalith Athulathmudali rushed to the scene of devastation. The fire-brigade rumbled without water. Flames rose sending up thick black clouds of smoke. Everything, the stock and machinery was engulfed by the conflagration.

The buffer stock for months ahead was in ashes; the factory was a heap of rubble. Milk powder will be in short supply; the black market will thrive; children will be starved; such apprehensions loomed. "We will not starve the market.

There will be sufficient milk powder" he assured the panic stricken mothers. He galvanised the support of the private sector, co-operatives and government institutions. Many small milk powder packing units were set up. The market was fed. Thereafter arose, at the same premises, the greatest milk powder packing factory in South Asia, as the Phoenix from the ashes.

July 1983 was the blackest period in our history. Curfew had been imposed and rigorously implemented. The country laid immobile for a few days. Shops were closed. Stocks depleted. A threat of a food riot loomed.

The Ministry of Trade was quick to respond. Lalith mobilized lorries from government institutions, co-operatives and from private sector; stacked them with goods from the CWE and sold them at the doorstep of the consumers. Every such lorry became a veritable mobile CWE outlet. Thus a great danger was averted.

In recognition of his performance, the distressed Shipping Ministry was towed to the Ministry of Trade, as it was not keeping pace with the advancing open economy. The harbour cannot be a bottleneck; there has to be a free flow - outwards and inwards.

The Colombo harbour was the bastion of Marxist militancy where various Marxist groups vied with one another to wrest some benefit to boost the flagging morale of its members by launching strikes on flimsy grounds.

Thus the spate of strikes went around and round in a vicious circle. Goods remained in ships and stored in warehouses. Ships awaited in queues in the outer harbour. The line of lorries lengthened in their wait to enter the harbour. Goods rotted. Exports dwindled. Orders frustrated.

Handling the workforce in the harbour was a formidable task. He brought his managerial skill to bear on the administration of the harbour. The workforce had to be won; not subdued.

An incentive scheme that richly rewarded the workers was introduced. The worker units competed to put out the best output. Goods moved. Queues were eliminated. The Colombo harbour that lagged low at No. 139 when he took over, ranked No. 26 among the world's best harbours during his tenure.

His greatest achievement and the lasting contribution is the establishment of the Mahapola Higher Education Scholarship Scheme. Many university students come from low income groups. The parents of such children either pawned their valuables or mortgaged their lands to sustain them. Those who did not have at least that, just gave up. Thomas Gray's Elegy, that epitomizes the waste of such talents, had struck a deep note in him.

'Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear.

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness in the desert air.

Such talents should not be hidden and wasted. It is to bloom such flowers for the benefit of mankind, to relieve the indigent student by facilitating him in the pursuit of his studies without financial worries, that this benevolent scheme was introduced. Today, almost every poor university student is a recipient of this award.

By 1984 the security situation in the country had deteriorated. A skilful dynamic minister was needed to steer the war against the LTTE, to protect the non-combatants, to calm the South and counter international propaganda.

The President could think of only one man and it was Lalith. He was appointed the Minister of National Security with the privilege of overseeing the Ministry of Trade and Shipping. The personnel were trained and the war was pursued with military precision.

The Vadamarachchi where the Sri Lankan forces inflicted a crushing defeat on the terrorists is eloquent testimony to the skill with which he manouevred the operation to victory.

Had it not been for foreign pressure to which the Sri Lankan government had to succumb, the war would have been fought to a finish, history would have been different and Rajiv Gandhi's and many other precious lives would have been saved.

The memorable performance that he gave in the BBC debate where he faced a triumvirate of LTTE theoreticians, over the situation in the country and grievances of the Tamils was the pinnacle of his achievements. He braved the fusillade of propositions and questions that were hurled at him.

Unflinchingly and serenely did he give cogent rational answers to the questions that were put; backed by incontrovertible facts demolished the propositions. Having thus consolidated his position by an impregnable defence, he launched his charge, which was brilliant and convincing that the triumvirate was gasping for words, they were constantly shifting their positions in their seats, in the glare of the world, betraying their uneasiness and the falsity of their propositions. He emerged unscathed and victorious.

At the 1989 election he polled the highest number of preferences (235000 votes) in the Colombo district and was appointed the Minister of Agriculture. Soon he was shifted to Education. He could not agree with the style of government and the policies pursued.

He felt that the old mansions were being dismantled, democratic institutions were being demolished, education and talents were derogated and law did not rule. Those who dared to oppose risked their lives.

He could not compromise on principle, resigned the portfolio and made a vain but a valiant effort to change the leadership with a view to salvage the party. He lost the legal battle and lost his membership both in the party and in Parliament. He had no alternative but to organize a new party.

Thus was launched the DUNF. Within a few months the new party, under his leadership, gained popularity, its membership soared. It was quite obvious that at the 1993 Provincial Council Election his party would have gained control.

He would have been the Chief Minister - Chief Minister with all official security that the government cannot deny. His opponents had to hasten before the events occurred.

As the twilight fell on April 23, 1993, an assassin's bullet pierced through his heart when he was addressing a rally. That was the most heinous crime of the century. It was so appalling a crime that it sent shock waves throughout the country. Millions walked the queues for long hours to pay homage; grief writ all over their faces.

The massive crowd, the largest of all, that thronged to Kanatta and stayed there to brave the whiffs of teargas that were sent at regular intervals, on the day of cremation bears out the love and esteem in which people held him. Thus was lost a great son of Lanka.