A.M.A.  Azeez’s Agricultural Feat in the East

by A.I. Marikar

A.M.A. Azeez and Hon. D.S. Senanayake in 1951

A.M.A. Azeez was born on 4th October 1911 to a traditional elite family of Vannarpannai in Jaffna. He had his childhood and entire schooling in Jaffna. He attended leading Hindu schools and was a brilliant student. He passed away on 24th November 1973.

The legacy of Dr. Azeez, I sometimes think, is like an iceberg. What is visible is miniscule and the profound part is just submerged in history, which has to be carefully extricated through time consuming and methodical research. Quite often, when we revisit the life and times of Dr. Azeez, we remind ourselves of the mature and astute political leadership he practised as a Senator, his profound contribution for the advancement of the education of Muslims and the active role he played in the upliftment and reform process of Muslim society. Overeaching all these achievements, is his distinction of being the first Muslim to be recruited to the very prestigious Ceylon Civil Service of the bygone era.

His Senate and other speeches are erudite and have all the hallmarks of a visionary, a true statesman and a patriot. The mere reading of what he said in his speeches and writings are an inspiration to its readers, with his forward looking thoughts that transcend time. His contribution in the field of Muslim education is there for all to see even today. The grandeur and splendour of Zahira College and the Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund that he founded, continue to invigorate generations of Muslim youth to forge ahead in life and strengthen their role in Sri Lankan society. The YMMA movement he founded has energized the aspirations of many Muslim youth island wide, and this has over the years helped young Muslim men to play an honorable and dignified role in society.

There is another more profound facet to Dr. Azeez’s legacy which is quite often forgotten by many people. This is his outstanding achievement in introducing major agrarian reform in the Eastern Province, which has resulted over the years, in the Ampara district being elevated to the rank of a major rice bowl of Sri Lanka. As the architect of this ground breaking reform, he virtually opened the flood gates for economic prosperity of the people in the region where large numbers of Muslims live.

I was a student at Zahira College during the stewardship of Dr. Azeez.  As my Principal I had the rare opportunity of getting to know first hand the fine qualities of this refined gentleman. During my student days I also learned a lot about Dr. Azeez’s other accomplishments. I also moved very closely with Ali, the eldest son of Dr. Azeez.  Ali has been my dear and close friend for over fifty years starting from our University days. Despite all my close links with the Azeez family, I was never alerted to the role Dr. Azeez played in the economic upliftment of Muslims in the Eastern Province.   

I discovered this quite accidentally when I was given a part time teaching assignment at the South Eastern University at Oluvil. Oluvil is 400 kilometers from Mount Lavinia where I live, and my long journey by car usually took about 8 to 10 hours. The tail end of my travel was through predominantly Muslim areas like Maruthamunai, Kalmunai, Sainthamaruthu, Sammanthurai, Nintavur, Oluvil and beyond that Addalachenai, Akkaraipattu and Pottuvil.

As I entered Maruthamunai, I would always see the glorious sight of vast, in fact very vast, expanses of paddy fields stretching from the main Pottuvil road up to and beyond the horizon. This carpet of verdant green paddy fields encircle the predominantly Muslim areas, bringing enormous prosperity to the people of the region.


These vast paddy lands extending over 100,000 hectacres, irrigated by the plentiful waters of Senanayake  Samudra at Inginiyagala, Ampara, has transformed the Ampara district into a granary of the Eastern Province. These lands are owned almost entirely by Muslims and large scale paddy production has been the source of financial empowerment of this Muslim community. Whenever  we reflect on matters concerning food security of the nation, we must remember with gratitude the remarkable contribution made by these  people, who  year after year have helped to feed the nation and eradicate famine and extreme  poverty from our country.  In the process, these people have also improved their economic status. The Muslims of this area enjoy robust and strong cash flows and the prosperity they enjoy is externally very visible. Home and motor car ownership, is very broad based, the ubiquitous motorcycle has invaded the precincts of nearly every household in the region and people generally enjoy a very high quality of life .

Several good schools in the region have sent large numbers of students to Universities and Ampara district continues to produce significant numbers of professionals including engineers, University lecturers, accountants, Administrative officers, doctors, teachers, erudite ulemas and an army of highly entrepreneur businessmen.

This road to prosperity obviously has been the result of the dedication, tenacity and sweat  of these  hardworking people. At the very early stages of this agrarian revolution there was also an important catalyst who planned, energized and put together the vital ingredients of development. The role of this catalyst is what many of us have forgotten. My contemporary at school and at University, the Late S.H.M. Jameel has highlighted in his excellent and well researched article in 2007 titled “Contribution to Eastern Development 65 years ago”, this catalyst of change, who was none other than the illustrious Dr. A.M.A. Azeez.


When the Japanese bombed the port of Colombo and its suburbs on Easter Sunday 5th April 1942, Dr. Azeez held the responsible post of Additional Landing Surveyor, H.M. Customs. The country was placed on a war footing by the Governor. The Southern region of the Batticaloa district was chosen as a key area to boost food production.

I would like to begin my narration of the pioneering efforts of Dr. Azeez by quoting from Jameel’s article,

“Civil Servant Azeez  arrived in Kalmunai and assumed duties as Assistant Government Agent on 16th April 1942. It was the period of the Second World War and all foreign supply lines of rice and other foodstuff faced blockades by the Japanese. …. The Government of the day had to find ways and means of accelerating local food production ….. Azeez was specially selected by Hon. D.S. Senanayake and transferred at short notice with specific orders to produce more food especially rice“.

Hon. Senanayake had confessed that he selected a Muslim from the Civil Service, who would have the co-operation of the Muslims and Tamils. What he did not say but had in his mind, was that Dr. Azeez was a Tamil scholar, fluent speaker in Tamil and was well respected by the Tamil community. He went to Kalmunai within ten days and set up the Emergency Kachcheri. 

The land mass brought under Dr. Azeez’s jurisdiction was vast, it stretched from Paddiruppu in the north to Kumana in the south, the entire Ampara district. As a dedicated civil servant, Dr. Azeez went into action almost immediately realising the urgency and importance of producing large amounts of food, he placed the entire mission on, what can be termed, a war footing.

Within a month of his arrival at Kalmunai, the new AGA convened a meeting and got into action without wasting precious time. Without even a proper office, this meeting was held at the Kalmunai rest house. It was a marathon session which lasted almost 10 hours and many down to earth landmark decisions were taken without much argument or debate.  

It was resolved and action was immediately initiated to distribute large extents of state land, most of which was barren waste or just jungle, for clearance and cultivation. In the first phase of this operation more than 12,000 acres were distributed to be brought under the plough.  At that time there were no reliable arrangements for irrigated agriculture and human habitations in the area were few and spread thin on the ground, largely because of the jungle setting and desolate nature of the location. As a result only Muslims  in the surrounding areas  responded to his call and were the first beneficiaries of the land allocation. The Muslim farmers did not let down their benefactor, Dr. Azeez. With a lot of help, both financial, technical and plenty of supervised guidance from the AGA, they toiled hard and gradually brought more barren, jungle and fallow land under the plough. Like the proverbial snowball, this process set in motion the organic expansion of the paddy revolution in the Eastern Province.

It was also resolved at the meeting, that cash grants be made for jungle clearance and land preparation and to release seed paddy for the next cultivation season. Small tanks and irrigation channels which had been abandoned for years, were rehabilitated. The AGA meticulously planned and developed all related critical infra structure to successfully achieve the goal of increased food production.

He also set up goat farms in Nintavur, Thirukovil and Malwatta and poultry farms in Maruthamunai, Sainthamaruthu and Palamunai and provided farmers with financial assistance and technical advice. He also established a model agriculture farm to provide technical knowhow and planting material for all agricultural endeavours in the region.

 As pragmatic administrator, a week after this meeting, action commenced on all fronts. Lands were distributed, money was released and a 475 acre model farm with a labour force of 1,000 started taking shape in Nintavur.

Such was the meticulous planning of Dr. Azeez. His mission was a resounding success. The newly cultivated paddy fields brought forth bountiful harvests, and at a time of war when the country was plagued with food shortages, AGA  Azeez’s food production drive was like welcome rain after a long and painful drought. Ampara district had now entered the fast lane in paddy production and  had also earned the well deserved reputation of the granary of the East. An overwhelmed Hon. D.S. Senanayake, as the Minister of Agriculture, applauded AGA Azeez on the great achievement and expressed his gratitude for helping to avert starvation and famine in the country.


 To celebrate the successful food production drive AGA Azeez organized a harvest festival at the model farm in 1943. It was the first of its kind anywhere in the country. The chief guest was Hon. D.S. Senanayake. The Minister wanted to showcase the success of his trusted civil servant AGA Azeez and the people of Kalmunai. Those were not the days of four wheel drive vehicles or intercoolers. AGA Azeez had to endure the discomfort and exhaustion of travelling on bumpy sandy tracts when supervising the vast area under his administrative jurisdiction.  His modes of transport quite often were bullock carts or just his feet. He just walked vast distances through jungles and plains, whenever necessary. He however had a different plan for the Minister’s transport in the festival grounds.

”The Minister was conducted on a five mile procession along bumpy agricultural roads in a cart drawn by an elephant, followed by hundreds of gaily decorated bullock carts carrying a large number of people. The Minister said that he thoroughly enjoyed it and would never forget the memorable event.

Ceremonial scythes made by expert Kandyan craftsman were used to reap the first ears of paddy by the visitors, at the auspicious time of 10.45 in the morning on 27th March 1943. The harvested sheaves were handed to AGA Azeez and the Minister then pounded the first sheaves of paddy.  He then mounted an elephant and was taken in procession through the farm. A field lunch was served, prepared from rice and other produce grown in the farm.”

( S.H.M.Jameel ).

This was the time of the colonial administration, and the head of government of the country was the British Governor, Sir Andrew Caldecott. Impressed by the performance of AGA Azeez, the Governor sent a personal hand written note to AGA Azeez congratulating him and the farmers of Kalmunai for the rich harvest. The country had also been spared the agony of famine and starvation for which the Governor was very grateful.

 The road map to agrarian prosperity in the Ampara district, resolutely chartered by AGA Azeez, was now firmly in place. A few years later when the Inginiyagala reservoir was commissioned under the Gal Oya scheme, the paddy fields in the Ampara district blossomed beyond expectations when copious quantities of water became available to farming communities. The extent of land under paddy cultivation increased exponentially and this region now produces over 62% of paddy grown in the Eastern Province, with approximately 100,000 Hectares of land under the plough.

The pioneering endeavour and the yeoman service rendered by Dr. Azeez to make all this happen, must remain etched in the annals of history, as one of the finest contributions made by this  legendary administrator, to the people of the Ampara district and to the country. An exemplary technocrat Civil Servant, who was deeply committed to his official duties blended with a great love for his country.


My journey to Oluvil was always through Habarana, Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa. As I took the turn at Habarana on to Polonnaruwa road, I entered the majestic Habarana jungle stretch, which led me to Minneriya. I then go past the Minneriya reservoir which nestles like a mini ocean in the midst of virgin jungle. It is surrounded by thousands of acres of fertile paddy fields producing vast quantities of rice to feed the nation. I then drive past Giritale and Parakrama Samudra reservoirs which irrigate vast extents of paddy  lands. This region has been energized to become a major granary of the North Central Province.

Around the same time when Dr. Azeez was assigned the task of accelerating food production in the Eastern Province, Hon. D.S. Senanayake, picked on another eminent Civil Servant, C.P. De Silva and assigned him the similar task of increasing paddy cultivation in the Polonnaruwa district. Incidentally, Dr. Azeez and C.P. De Silva sat and passed the tough Civil Service exam together. Dr. Azeez was placed 2nd in the merit list with C.P. De.Silva being ranked 8th.

C.P. De.Silva restored the ancient glory of Polonnaruwa district by renovating the ancient tanks, rehabilitating irrigation channels and bringing thousands of acres of neglected jungle land under the plough for paddy cultivation. During the immediate post war years, the rich harvest from these vast paddy lands was like God given mercy, with food shortages being slowly relegated to the backwoods.

The people of the region benefited immensely from this new agricultural reawakening and profuse material prosperity came to them like in tidal waves. The grateful Sinhala people of Minneriya never forgot their  benefactor C.P. De Silva. His name still reverberates in local folklore and he is reverently referred to even today as the “Minnery Deviyo” the Deity of Minneriya.

When the Gal Oya scheme was completed, Hon. Senanayake picked another Civil Servant of the same batch, K. Kanagasundram (ranked 1st), as the first Chairman in 1952. He did a splendid job. The others in the batch, H. Jinadasa (ranked 3rd) and M. Rajendra (ranked 6th), attained the highest posts before retirement. Some of the post CCS administrators say that the Civil Servants of yore were revenue collectors and did not contribute to development. This is not so looking at the above CCS batch of 1934.

Apart from agriculture, Dr. Azeez established institutions for the educationally backward Muslims in the district,  encouraged by Poet Abdul Cader Lebbe and Swami Vipulananda.

God made some humans with major structural flaws, Forgetfulness and No Gratitude. The good that people do is either trivialized or quite often forgotten. This is the fate that has befallen Dr. A.M.A. Azeez’s legacy in the Ampara district. Dr. Azeez’s name is now unsung and unheard of in the predominantly Muslim areas of the Ampara district. Recorded history will perhaps be the only silent sentinel of the achievements of this fine gentleman, educationist, thoroughbred professional administrator and an Iconic Nation Builder.

The Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi has stated that “a community that fails to honour its heroes tends to lose its capacity to nurture heroes in its midst”.

(A.I. Marikar hails from Negombo and was a student at Zahira College during the Azeez era. He graduated from the University of Ceylon in 1965 and was a leading banker in Sri Lanka and overseas. He is an authority and a consultant in Islamic Banking)

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