Eng. S. Senthinathan

A dedicated engineer

Eng. Seenivasagam Senthinathan, fondly known as ‘Senthi’, passed away recently at the age of 77 in a fatal accident at his residence in Toronto, Canada. Senthinathan received his primary education at St. John’s College, Jaffna, and entered the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Peradeniya in 1963. He passed out of the institution in 1967.

Senthinathan joined the Irrigation Department in 1968, and served there until 1999 before migrating to Canada in 2000. He was a down-to-earth person who was approachable to anyone, especially farmers, and did not allowed anybody to leave without a solution for any and all irrigation problems or other issues. He was a very smart man with a good knowledge of Engineering. Senthinathan took quick and appropriate decisions without any hesitation. He loved his job and worked with his colleagues for the betterment of the farming community in Sri Lanka.

I first encountered Senthinathan in 1980 when he came to the Anuradhapura Regional Irrigation Office as the Chief Project Engineer of the Tank Irrigation Modernisation Project (TIMP), back when I was the Irrigation Engineer of Mahakanadarawa. Later, he was appointed Acting Chief Irrigation Engineer of Anuradhapura. Senthi was a comparatively tall and lean person, wearing beige trousers mostly and folded long-sleeved shirts. He married Ranjini, a beautiful woman from Batticaloa whom he had met in the Director of Work Office of the Territorial Civil Engineering Organisation (TCEO) in Batticaloa. He was serving as the Executive Engineer at the same office at the time. I met him by the time they had their daughter Chitra, who looked just like Senthi.

Senthi was appointed to TIMP, which was funded by the World Bank, when the project was lagging behind and showing low progress due to various implementation issues. At the time, the World Bank requested Director of Irrigation to appoint a devoted and experienced senior engineer to guide the Irrigation Engineers handling project in Mahakanadarawa, Mahavilachchiya, Padaviya in the Anuradhapura region, as well as in the Vavunikulam and Pavathkulam schemes of the Killinochichi and Vavuniya regions, respectively.

He was a special envoy to our project to give momentum to achieve the targets set by the World Bank. Before his arrival, work was carried out entirely on forced account, with hired labour and machinery provided by the World Bank. The visiting World Bank missions instructed the Director of the Irrigation Department to expedite the construction work without hindering the ongoing cultivation. TIMP was the first irrigation modernisation/rehabilitation project implemented by the Irrigation Department in the country’s Major Irrigation Systems. It was a new experience for all of us in comparison to other construction projects.

The major issue in these systems was carrying out construction work without hindering the ongoing Maha and Yala Cultivation Seasons. Construction was, therefore, limited to off-season periods; and hence, careful planning was required. The challenge to Senthinathan was proper planning of the modernisation work in these five systems with innovative approach. After many deliberations, Senthi came up with a new approach to expedite work by rearranging the implementation plan through small-scale contract packages in carefully-selected sites; hired labour and departmental machinery was used at the rest of the sites.

Heavy work, such as the construction of Main and Branch Channels, was implemented by hired labour and department machinery, and the construction of Distributory and Field Channels was carried out with the help of small-scale local contractors and farmers’ organisations. After Senthi’s arrival, the progress of TIMP spiked, and the visiting World Bank missions and other colleagues appreciated his work. During this period, I lived in the Mahakandarawa Irrigation Engineer’s Bungalow, which faced the Mahakanadarawa Reservoir. My wife, too, was an irrigation engineer working at the Anuradhapura Regional Office that Senthinathan worked at. One rainy night, he came to our bungalow with his daughter. He told me to get ready to go to Japan for a three-month scholarship. “The ministry asked me to send you to Colombo tomorrow morning as the closing date is the day after tomorrow. That is why I came to meet you,” he said.

Senthi told me not to miss the opportunity. He told me to get a jeep and go to Colombo the next day. It is rare to see a Chief Engineer visit you personally just to deliver a message, instead of conveying the message through someone else (there were no telephone facilities at the time). It was my first experience abroad after four years of service at the Irrigation Department, all thanks to Senthi.

My next workstation was Ampara, as the Engineer-in-Charge of Operations at the Gal Oya Irrigation Rehabilitation Project (funded by USAID) in 1984, after attending a special postgraduate programme in water management in the USA. At the time, Senthi was Regional Deputy Director of Irrigation (DDI) in Ampara, and Project Director of the Gal Oya Rehabilitation Project (GORP). Senthinathan was familiar with the Gal Oya Irrigation Scheme, compared to many other engineers at the Irrigation Department. Furthermore, his fluency in both Tamil and Sinhala was an added advantage when dealing with the farming communities in the area. Senthi was very popular among all farmers near the Gal Oya Scheme.

The Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM), commenced at the Gal Oya Left Bank under the project, was successful under his guidance. The Agrarian Research and Training Institute (ARTI), in collaboration with Cornell University, USA, also launched an Institutional Development Programme under PIM at the Gal Oya system. According to Professor Norman T. Uphoff from Cornell University, who was leading the Participatory Irrigation Management programme in Gal Oya, said, “Senthinathan made a great contribution to his country while serving as the Irrigation Department Director of the Ampara District in the 1980s, when I had the pleasure of working with him on the Gal Oya Irrigation Rehabilitation Project. One of its objectives was the introduction of participatory irrigation management. Unlike his predecessor, Senthi gave exemplary assistance that transformed Gal Oya from a poorly-functioning irrigation system to one of the best-managed ones.”

A post-project evaluation of the project conducted by IWMI concluded that rice production in Gal Oya per cubic metre of irrigation water issued rose from 5kg to 20kg. However, without the leadership, goodwill, and active assistance of Senthinathan, this transformation of Gal Oya, which benefits the entire country, would not have been possible. In 1988, the then Government, through its Cabinet, made farmer participation in the management of major irrigation schemes the national policy for Sri Lanka, citing Gal Oya as the model for the rest of the country. Senthi took his stewardship of the Gal Oya Irrigation System seriously, both professionally and personally, aiming to achieve best possible use of its land and water resources to ensure the greatest benefit for its residents. It is hard to imagine a better model for engineers and professionals in any country.

As the Operation Engineer, my duty was to improve water management at the Gal Oya system, with the computer-aided water management model developed for the first time in Sri Lanka for System Operation and Water Management with the support of ongoing participatory irrigation management progamme of GORP. The model worked well at Gal Oya due to Senthinthan’s wide experience and knowhow of the area, as well as my hard work on the computer model as a decision support tool for irrigation water management and system operation. Before launching the water management programme in Gal Oya under the project, intermittent/rotation water flow was operated in the main and branch canals, which caused immense problems to farmers in the far end of the system. My responsibility was to operate the main system on continuous flow using the model developed as all main and branch canals had been designed for continuous flow under the project. The critical challenge was to pass water in the Left Bank Main Canal at the Uhana Saddle, in which water flow had been restricted for many decades. However, this problem was solved under the project with deep excavations. I requested Senthi’s permission to practice my model and his immediate reply was “Do it and take responsibility, and I will support you.”

I implemented it and, after several days, the irrigation difficulties that existed for decades at the Gal Oya system, was resolved. Senthi was dedicated to his work; wherever he served, he got the highest recognition, especially from farmers. It was a pleasure to work with him. My wife Chandra, who has high regard for this gentleman, served as the Design Irrigation Engineer in his office during that period and resolved irrigation difficulties at the Kaloi Odai Channel in Right Bank area outside GORP. He commended her work and always he spoke of it whenever we met.

My last personal encounter with Senthinathan was on March 25, this year, two weeks before his death. We had a short conversation after several years on a phone call; he was in a hurry, on his way to work. He told me we could chat at length on a free day, but I missed that chance. I hope this appreciation article shows some real qualities of this professional engineer who devoted his life to the farming community of our country. Senthi left the country twenty-one years ago due to the previous unrest and lived in Canada until his death.

Dr. (Eng) G.G.A. Godaliyadda, Former Irrigation Director-General


Air Vice-Marshall P.B. Premachandra

He was daring and brave

“Taking shelter in the dead is death itself, and only taking all the risk of life to the fullest extent is living.” - Rabindranath Tagore

In war, in peace, and in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life. Just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding; his example was as edifying to all around him.

The late Air Vice-Marshal P.B. Premachandra was born on May 1, 1957, to parents the late Pon. Balasuntharam, a village headman and a Justice of Peace, and the late Rasanayaki Balasuntharam; as the last of thirteen children in Thondamanaru, Vadamarachchi, Jaffna. He had his early education at Hartley College, Point Pedro, and later at S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia, where he made a mark as an exemplary student.

Completing his secondary education at the latter, he left school to train as a pilot, which was his childhood dream. Despite an early setback resulting from an accident as a trainee pilot, he did not give up. Driven by a passion to serve Mother Lanka, he chose to join the air force, rejecting the lucrative alternative to be a commercial pilot. The Sri Lankan Air Force was made richer with his choice to be an Officer Cadet in 1979, and the rest was history. Thus began an illustrious career until his retirement in 2011, after 32 years of loyal service, with tenacity of purpose to his motherland.

Within the SLAF, his rise was meteoric, with numerous achievements. Premachandra was a skillful and versatile Airman, learning the craft quickly while receiving training locally, as well as in the United States, India, and Pakistan. Following his commissioning as a Pilot Officer in 1981, he was tasked with numerous responsibilities, rising to become Air Vice-Marshal and taking up command positions at Anuradhapura, Ratmalana, and Katunayake, culminating as the Chief of Staff at the Headquarters.

In the early ‘70s, the nation had to contend with the turbulent insurrection in the South, and in the ‘80s began the unprecedented protracted war against terrorism with a very heavy toll of lives to both civilians and security personnel. Challenging times, they were; the forces were stretched to the limit with severe losses. Being a man of valour and courage, Premachandra’s mission was uninterrupted: he was focused and persistent in fighting the enemy, an arduous task in comparison to conventional warfare where one knows the enemy. In the war he fought, there was no way of knowing where a bomb would hit, nor in which direction a missile would come from.

In those circumstances, the Forces had to adopt novel tactics with speed, instinct, and sharp situational analysis. Premachandra had the intuitive skills not only to fly, but also to plan and manage the battlefields, whether it was to do with raid, rescue, or reconnaissance. One of the speakers delivering the eulogy at the funeral recapitulated a situation when, instead of retreating amidst enemy fire, Premachandra went on to rescue two of his injured Airmen. Another related an incident when he continued to fly his helicopter, despite being hit by a bullet to an airfield further away. Such was his selfless service that saw him decorated with several awards for valour.

Premachandra was a man who stood up to many challenges, always following the most important lesson one learns as a soldier: to serve the motherland in the true spirit with virtue, honour, patriotism, and subordination, irrespective of personal interests or political ideologies. An officer and a gentleman, he was a man of principle.

The accolades, medals, and bars he received were legion. To name a few, he was the recipient of ‘Rana Wikrema’, ‘Rana Sura’, and ‘Desha Putra’ medals for acts of gallantry, as well the service medals ‘Vihista Seva Vibhushanaya’, ‘Uttama Seva’, and the cherished Sri Lanka Armed Services Medal for Long Service. Entering matrimony with Vasuki Ananthasingham and settling down in Colombo saw young Premachandra being required to fulfill an additional role as a family man to his wife, as well as his three children: Barathy, Arjuna, and Pathanjali . Notwithstanding the call of duty to serve in different parts of Sri Lanka, he made sure that his role as a loving husband and dedicated father were fulfilled in difficult and dangerous circumstances that prevailed due to the war, as he was also a target. Knowing that he put the country first, Vasuki, his beloved wife, stood by him at all times, taking the responsibility of reciprocating his contribution through thick and thin to look after the children, in adversity and uncertain times.

Premachandra, the reticent and quite man, was not only an officer safeguarding the security of the country, but also for his strict sense of discipline and vigour. He also displayed ample qualities of humanity and compassion, especially in his capacity where he was required to oversee the training of young recruits. He was kind, caring, considerate, and affable, earning much popularity and respect among his peers. A talented connoisseur known for his hospitality, he enjoyed cooking to the extent that many of his colleagues and relatives recall the numerous occasions he presented them with sumptuous menus combined with culinary delights.

His demise followed a short illness in the UK, while on transit to his homeland from the US. His premature death was a shock and the irreplaceable loss to his family, relatives, and friends. In retirement, he had a lot to offer the country, particularly in the field of internal security, but, unfortunately, his early departure means that Mother Lanka will not be able to receive his wisdom anymore. Among the dignitaries paying their last respects was Samantha Pathirana representing the High Commissioner for UK, Saroja Sirisena, on behalf of the Government of Srilanka. The Sri Lankan Ex-Service Persons Association in the UK was also represented at the funeral.

The cremation took place on February 16, in the Hindu tradition, with a limited number of mourners due to the restrictions on large gatherings. One may think that it was rather unfortunate for an officer of his calibre to have the final send-off without military honours, but the floral wreath from his colleagues bearing the words ‘Sri Lankan Air Force’ lining the pathway at the crematorium said it all. Moreover, it must be remembered that in death, the best blessing a Hindu could have when his remains are presented to nature would be to have the entire family present, which was the case at his send-off. It was a fitting farewell, indeed, in the serene surroundings of Forest Park Crematorium in London.

He meant so much to the country that his epitaph read: Say not in grief he is no more, but in thankfulness that he was. May his soul attain Moksha!

Capt. Dr. Sati Ariyanayagam, Emeritus Consultant Physician, UK