By Devanesan Nesiah –
The Principal of St. John’s College, Jaffna, in appealing for contributions to a memorial fund in the name of the late S. P. Jeevanantham, has described him as a great educationist and humanist who taught two generations of students under six principals over a period of thirty-two years. Mr. Jeevanantham has been closely linked to four generations of my family in diverse ways. I know him best as a social activist who had contributed significantly to my initiating a socio-economic programme that covered my three years as Government Agent and District Secretary, Jaffna which, in turn, was a source of inspiration in my selection of a theme for my doctoral dissertation at Harvard University, leading to my book titled Discrimination with Reason? The Policy of Reservations in the United States, India and Malaysia (Oxford University Press, 1984).
Shortly after I assumed duties in Jaffna in mid-1981, I received a delegation headed by Mr. Jeevanantham urging that the Jaffna District Development Council adopt a policy of quota reservation for the “Panchamar,” the five untouchable castes in Jaffna in the recruitment of staff. I advised the delegation that what they were asking for was neither possible nor even desirable and, in any case such a drastic policy was way beyond my authority even to initiate. Instead I would, subject to the approval of the District Minister and the Chairman of the Jaffna District Development Council, and with the help of some of my colleagues and others concerned, embark on a sequence of socio-economic projects with the objective of at least minimally raising the socio-economic status of sections of the “Panchamar” population of Jaffna. Hopefully, further positive developments would follow.
Accordingly, the first project was to benefit the section of the caste category ranked lowest, the Parayar. This Tamil word, unfortunately, has gained international currency. The members of the caste preferred to be referred as to “Valluvar” (weavers), which is a subsidiary occupation of that caste in addition to sanitary work, funeral drumming and related tasks. There were many cotton handloom weavers in the Valluvar community, but no silk weavers, of whom there were very few in all of Jaffna. I met Victor Santhiapillai, then Chairman, Export Development Secretariat, and he agreed to get down an expert silk handloom weaving from India. That expert, in consultation with the leaders of the Valluvar community of Jaffna, selected an exclusively Valluvar village, trained the weavers to shift from cotton to silk, purchased the required equipment, secured the yarn from the South since the climate of Jaffna was not suitable to produce silk yarn and got the project going. The scheme was an instant success since the silk cloth produced was of excellent quality and in high demand.
The second project was a medium scale mechanised Palmyrah Arrack Distillery, of which there were none in the Island and, perhaps, none anywhere. It was an urgent need because every year there was a glut of palmyrah toddy in the peak months of the season and the price of palmyrah toddy dropped so low that it was hardly worth tapping it. Since there were no blueprints for the kind of palmyrah arrack distillery we were seeking to establish, we met several Sinhalese coconut arrack distillers and they generously helped us with their blueprints and advice. In consultation with the leaders of the Nalavar (Toddy Tappers), a central site was selected and the distillery was constructed, modelled on coconut arrack distilleries of similar size. Since Palmyrah toddy is critically different in composition from coconut toddy, the palmyrah arrack produced was satisfactory but not optimal. However, there was an immediate demand for the produce and the project was very successful. The distillery has continued virtually uninterrupted over the decades and is yet functioning. Conditions are now favourable to upgrade the distillery and to improve and diversify the products to meet an international market. We may need help from the private sector that already produces coconut arrack products for export. This should be a priority for the planners.
The third project was to benefit a section of the “Pallar” (skinning and leather work, and related occupations). Again Victor Santhiapillai was helpful and involved in making arrangements to get down an expert on leather products from Italy to train local workers to produce first quality leather and a range of leather products to meet the local demand, and also designed to capture an international market. On account of the July 1983 pogrom this project was abandoned even before it started. Conditions are now right to re-initiate this project, whether as a state venture or a private sector initiative.
While acknowledging Mr. Jeevanantham’s indirect role in all three of these projects, my involvement in these projects also inspired my choice of theme for my doctoral dissertation at Harvard University. Mr. Jeevanantham was a modest man and may have not anticipated any of these developments when he led the deputation at the District Secretariat in mid-1981. I have referred only to what I have been involved in on account of the initiative of Mr. Jeevanantham’s. Much of what he did was when I was out of office. The memorial to Mr. Jeevanantham envisaged by the Principal of St. Johns College, Jaffna should reflect the full extent of his contribution, direct and indirect, to the many initiatives that he set in motion, even if he was not fully aware of or even anticipated all the consequences. His family has much to be proud of in respect of his achievements; in respect of the outcomes of what he set in motion. His passing away is a loss not only to the family but also to Jaffna’s civil society.
The account opened by the Principal of St. John’s College Jaffna,is titled S.P. Jeevanantham Memorial Fund, Commercial Bank Jaffna, Account No: 8060120141, Swift Code: CCEYLKLX.