DR. W. ARTHUR DE SILVA

My first meeting with Dr. W. A. de Silva took place on the 21st day of March 1931, when I had the privilege of an uninterrupted conversation with him for nearly an hour. I was officiating as Chairman at the Seventh Annual Dinner of the Union Hostel Society and he was our Chief Guest. He had consented to reply to the Toast of Ceylon – an unorthodox convention peculiar to the Hostel and significant of the distinctive political trends obtaining there.
Some of our guests regarded this toast as mischievous, others as superfluous; and a few yet felt that the toast was a necessary ritual in the nascent cult of patriotism, a kind of anti-colonialism alien to the preceding decades. To many of the Hostellers this toast was the most important event of the year. Never were qualifications so well weighed as in respect of our Chief Guest. The dinner Committee on this occasion unanimously held the view that Dr. W. A. de Silva was most eminently qualified to grace the function, even though there were among us a few adherents of “poorna swaraj” who did not quite approve of his appeal for the acceptance of the Donoughmore Scheme, on the ground that it contained seven tenths of Swaraj. To them this arithmetical formula was fallacious, for swaraj was single and indivisible, whole and entire.
His claims to be our Chief Guest were undisputed and indisputable. He was a gifted child of the Buddhist Renaissance, that characterized the closing quarter of the Nineteenth Century. He had given lavishly of his talents and time, money and materials to every nationalist cause that truly reflected the aspirations of the people towards freedom, whether in the sphere of education, economics, politics or culture. He was the President of the Buddhist Theosophical Society and for nearly seventeen years functioned as General Manager of the B.T.S. schools. He used private funds for public purposes; thereby did he become that rare bird – a rich man becoming poor through philanthropy. He was a peculiar kind of Money Lender. To Ananda College and allied institutions, he lent in sums of enormous proportions, knowing full well that they were not finance-worthy; from them he expected no interest, not even the return of his capital. Thus did he perform in some measure the functions of the Government in a Welfare State. His agricultural ventures were likewise promoted not for private profit but for national gain. Their returns were calculated not in terms of the additional rupees accumulating in the Bank but of the families settled on the land and the extra food produced for the good of the country. When his friends had confronted him with the relevant balance sheets, he taunted them in return – that he would yet not give up his scheme which had amply provided for 156 peasant families and produced on an average 150 more bushels of paddy per day. He did not wait for the threats of a second World War, to work for self-sufficiency in food. When a dear relation of his, out of deep concern for his future, assumed the role of an unpaid Financial Adviser and Accountant-General and remonstrated that he had already squandered several lakhs on Sravasti, several on national journalism and education and yet more on agricultural enterprises, he patiently explained to him the difference between wealth and welfare. The philosophy of life implicit in this attitude naturally earned for him the title of ‘the Sage of Sravasti’-  Sravasti Rishi – among the unsophisticated and underprivileged of his contemporaries.
He was closely associated with Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy, then directing the Minerological Survey of Ceylon, in the activities of the Ceylon Social Reform Society formed to “encourage and initiate reforms in social customs amongst the Ceylonese, and to discourage the thoughtless imitation of unsuitable European habits and customs.” Among its objects was the promotion of “sympathy and mutual respect between men of different nationalities, and in particular to emphasize the natural bonds of fellowship uniting the various Eastern races in Ceylon.” Dr. W.A. de Silva was joint editor of the journal of this Society, The Ceylon National Review, and contributed several learned articles on the religion and literature of the Sinhalese.
Throughout all the subsequent years, I have felt specially privileged that I did meet Dr. W. A. de Silva on that day, under those propitious circumstances, and thereby had a glimpse of Ceylonese leadership. I was convinced after my conversation with him that Ceylon was not bereft of dedicated men.
The kindliness and geniality, which I discovered in him that day, emboldened me about an year thereafter to stray into Sravasti for an interview with him in his attractive residence with a view to bringing to his personal attention some of the pressing parochial problems pertaining to the Urban Council of my area. He was then an influential member of the Executive Committee of Local Administration having been elected to the First State Council of 1931-36. He cordially received me in his impressive study which was so betokening of his inquisitive mind and ripe learning. He spent with me a good deal of his time, discussing with me not merely the problems I had taken to him but giving me the benefit of his views, born of his wide experience, in the fields of education, religion, administration and legislation. Several other matters, all concerning the future of the Muslims of Ceylon were dealt with by him. I returned to the hostel, quite happy and with greater admiration for this Sage of Sravasti.
The next meeting was on a day in June 1937. I was a member of the Ceylon Civil Service having completed my cadetship of two years, five months earlier. He was the Minister for Health and Chairman of the Executive Committee of Health of the Second State Council. I met him in his office at the New Secretariat. In fact I reported to him for duty as his Additional Secretary. That was however not my substantive post, for I was the Administrative Secretary to the Director of Medical and Sanitary Services. I was thus, in the Hostel parlance, ‘a pillar of the British Empire’ and he was His Excellency’s “My Minister.” I was happy to note that the change of status had brought no change in his attitude of cordiality towards me. He feelingly spoke to me of the hopes entertained by the elders that the New Entrant Civil Servants in particular would regard their offices as avenues to serve the people of Ceylon and not as steps to climb the ladder of success. He was confident that the young men would respond, for they had the added advantage of not being influenced by the “fifteen rupees to a pound” kind of legal fiction.
He did not suffer from any pet aversion to the Civil Service as such; for he regarded its members not as super average but as the most fortunate and also the most useful in that by the early exercise of authority they did necessarily gain the capacity for taking decisions. And he hoped that this reservoir of talent would adequately meet the needs of the country.
His exhortatory conversation was so refreshing to me, having become quite accustomed to the worldly-wise chats peculiar to the socialite clubs of provincial and district capitals where in  those days the G.A. was deemed “god almighty” and the Civil List Officers his angels, required to sing hymns of praise. In that context, the Kachcheri was the House of Bliss and the M.S.C. a mere man, at best an intruder, often a trespasser.
As a cadet at Kandy, my principal task was to make payments of Malaria-relief moneys to needy peasants for work on roads. I came then to understand what the Planter’s Raj exactly meant and also gain a glimpse of the life of the rural folk generally ill-nourished malaria-stricken and poor and yet hardworking good-natured and unsophisticated. The pervasive and healthy influence of the Minister did encourage me to study and understand, to the best of my ability, the problems of Health in Ceylon, highlighted by the Great Malaria Epidemic of 1934-35 which cost the country over one hundred thousand lives.
The New Malaria Control Scheme covering the whole Island came into operation during the month of October 1936. By this Scheme, the niggardly attitude of the Government adopted during previous years in matters of Preventive Medicine was once and for all abandoned. To this result the Minister’s contributions were decisive; his understanding of Rural Ceylon and his innate sympathy with the Common Man made him defy the Treasury on more than one occasion and goad his officers, used to a different pace, to speedy action. Among fashionable circles he even earned the sobriquet of the Minister Obstinate; he was contemptuously regarded by some as perverse and ill-educated, a Veterinary Surgeon turned Health Doctor due to the erratic election of an Executive Committee. That he was the best student of his year obtaining the coveted scholarship on merit to the Bombay Veterinary College, the finest institution then available, and thereafter earning the eulogy of his Principal and the prize day encomium of the Governor were achievements either unremembered or by them ignored. The Minister however was neither ignorant of science nor of scientific method “He was the specialist who has a wide outlook, broad knowledge and warm enthusiasm outside his own subject as well as in it, and more particularly, a man, he was, whose mind has been trained in the splendid discipline of science, but whose heart and eyes also take delight in the triumphs of art, in the history of man, in the beauties of nature. Such a man is about the best thing that our modern civilization can produce.”
Having been an administrator himself – he was for some years employed as Colombo’s Municipal Veterinary Surgeon – he was well acquainted with the dead hand of Government routine whose grasp he had successfully eluded; he also knew the ways of the bureaucracy and therefore did not make the mistake of being too, sanguine – of conceiving a project and then imagining it is done. He knew that policy without administration was a tree without fruits. He could not be baffled by Financial Regulations or overawed by General Orders. To him they did not partake of the nature of the Laws of the Medes and the Persians; as an elected Minister he was conscious of his right of appeal to the Governor against any arbitrary decision made by one of his Officers of State. He could even move for a change in the Regulations and the Orders; they were thus not possessed of any divinity in them. As they were promulgated, so could they be annulled, by the same  Government. For me that was indeed a special training received; I had been previously well indoctrinated in the ways of the Kachcheri, where General Orders and Financial Regulations were more deferentially viewed. The Retrenchment Commissioners appointed in September 1938 found that Dr. W.A. de Silva was not an easy Minister. They had a fear of his fiery zeal for Health Services; his expensive projects did not conform to their patterns of slow and even snail paced development. He was too ripe in experience and knowledge and too religiously inclined to be an overawing and aggressive superior. He disproved the popular belief that such a personality was needed to win the good will of those, both in his ministry and in his departments, who worked under him or infuse them with his own spirit and dynamic drive.
Therefore did I feel thrice happy when I found myself appointed, with effect from the 1st of October 1938, Secretary to the Minister for Health – a post I held for exactly three years. The Ministry had only two departments in its charge with a single Head for both – the D.M. and S.S. Now I held a dual-office – Secretary to the Minister and Administrative Secretary to the D.M. and S.S. – which logically portended a conflict of loyalties with complications to follow. Such a situation was fortunately averted, largely on account of the special circumstances surrounding the appointment some months earlier of the then Director. He was the first Ceylonese to occupy this high office; the Minister had, in his characteristic manner, refused to succumb to the subtle blandishments of the Higher Establishment and rejected unhesitatingly the offer of a Non Ceylonese from the Colonial Medical Service.
And the Minister was fortunate in his Executive Committee; so was the Executive Committee in him. A good team-spirit prevailed throughout and there was general unanimity as regards goals and aims, methods men and materials.
During this period many reforms were zealously introduced, many changes speedily effected and many schemes boldly undertaken – all for the benefit of the Common Man. Some of them may listed: Recruitment Schemes wit impersonal methods of selection, Re-organisation of the Head office as well as District Health Administration. A New Service for Mental Diseases, A Separate Division of Nutrition, Establishment of Cottage Hospitals and Rural Maternity Homes, and Schemes for the training of Specialists and of Auxiliary Medical Personnel.
The Minister was not satisfied with the scanty recognition that was being accorded by the State to the Indigenous systems of Medicine. He piloted successfully through the State Council, despite powerful opposition, the Indigenous Medicine Ordinance, No. 17 of 1941. His insistence upon a change in designation – from Sanitary Inspector to Sanitary Assistant – was indicative of his conviction that Preventive Medicine should rely not on prosecution but on persuasion. Similarly he did not believe that the patient was invariably wrong. He was prepared to entertain complaints provided they could be substantiated with evidence at an inquiry.
Thus did Dr. W.A. de Silva, the Minister for Health lay firmly the foundation on which the present Health Services, so highly spoken of in countries far and near, are being securely built. He functioned as Minister till he resigned on grounds of age and health on the 18th of February 1942. A few weeks later, the War Council was constituted by Admiral Layton with full representation given there to the Board of Ministers. Then began a new chapter in the history of the Donoughmore Period – its final phase.
He was a gifted child of the Buddhist Renaissance, and one of the Founding Fathers of the Nationalist Movement. Dr.W.A. de Silva had throughout a soft heart for religion and culture, with a strong head for science and scholarship. He was a scholar-politician who toiled assiduously for the Common Man, even, before the dawn of his Age. His house was in Colombo, but his heart was throughout in the village. He was indeed a Selfless Servant of Sri Lanka.

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