27 June, 2022


T. Sivagnanam CCS, An Exemplar Among Public Servants

By S. Sivathasan

S. Sivathasan

S. Sivathasan

The Ceylon Civil Service was much coveted. Young men of promise sought entry because of its prestige. The syllabus and the question papers were forbidding. Marks were weighed more meticulously than by an electronic balance. High caliber of non-selectees itself added to the mystique of the Service and an aura to those selected. The exam assessed intellectual capacity and versatility. The interview tested mental flexibility and language fluency. The very system of objective choosing through competition brought the cream to the centre of administration and into limelight. No less to responsibly share power and to join in governance. Among the better ones, thoughts of power and prestige faded against the opportunities that were offered. To those yet higher, achievements of the best ones were more alluring to emulate.

The first Ceylonese to enter through open competition was Ponnambalam Arunachalam. About 72 years later, T. Sivagnanam entered its portals around 1950. Born in far off Tellipalai in the North, he made St. John’s College proud with his performance. My Father was elated then, having taught him Tamil and Latin. Twenty years later a benign destiny brought me to his Ministry of Land Irrigation and Power. The time was February 1970. CP de Silva was Minister and M. Srikantha was Permanent Secretary. T. Sivagnanam was Senior Assistant Secretary, on whom much responsibility devolved. Yet it sat very lightly on him.

In May the same year, the government changed. Maithripala Senanyake became Minister and the Ministry got transformed into Ministry of Irrigation, Power and Highways. In all its seven years it was the largest single Ministry and a technical one at that. It handled 35% of the capital budget and managed Departments such as Irrigation, Highways, Water Supply and Land Development. In addition TCEO with 9 Provincial Directorates and a sprawling 125 Divisional offices managing construction and maintenance. The Boards were for: Mahaweli, Electricity, River Valleys and Reclamation and Development. There was also SD&CC a Corporation for construction and development.

What were the attributes specific to Mr. Sivagnanam that made him stand out? Primarily intellectual capacity of a high order for absorption and retention. Intelligence is discernment of the essential according to Jiddu Krishnamurthy. Blessed with that capability in good measure, he never loitered in a book or report. He journeyed to the core straight and swift. His sense of responsibility by the positions he held made him read and study. He had built a good library which was in his own room and was accessible to all in the Ministry. Knowledge is power and it made him powerful. Hydro power is for transmission. An official’s power is for judicious exercise.

Sivagnanam handled authority with modesty and restraint. I saw him exercise it only in the use of facts and figures in Cabinet Memoranda and at conferences chaired by him. All what he did were for the success of what he touched and for the nation’s good. With achievement and self-effacement he went on the ascendant. Foibles which can be traced to leanings personal or mundane, he had none. “He had no friends” implying impeccable impartiality in all decisions was fulsome praise of Gamini Dissanayake at his farewell function.

In senior management particularly in a Ministry in Sri Lanka, work is akin to the functioning of a transformer substation. Political power is transformed into administrative authority. This does not happen according to formal structures or list of duties. The assessment of our political masters of the senior manager and his immediate team, the trust they repose and the confidence they place count for much. Technical and infra capacity apart, capability and integrity of top personnel mattered. Even foreign institutions like World Bank went by these considerations. (I refer to better times in earlier decades.) In this respect Mr. Sivagnanam enjoyed the trust of everyone, local and foreign.

For 20 years 1962 – 1982, he worked with three Ministers; CP de Silva 1962 – 1970; Maithripala Senanayake 1970 – 1977 and Gamini Dissanayake 1977 – 1982.

Mahaweli drew on his services and he left his imprint on Mahaweli. He had the distinction of handling issues pertaining to surveys and investigations for Mahaweli Deveopment, in such areas as land and irrigation from the very outset. In 1962 when he was posted to the Ministry at age 37, he had 12 years   of experience in a Ministry or two and in Kachcheri administration including as Government Agent. The Minister and the Secretary had also had spells as GA; all three in the best of times.

By 1969, the World Bank funded, multi-million dollar, Multi-Purpose Project took off. From then on there was no relenting. Onwards from mid-seventies, all those engaged in the project were beginning to see   physical results. People were deriving benefits from then on. About that time he told me, Mahaweli will change the face of the country. Mr. Sivagnanam’s labours did not cease with his retirement in 1982. A grateful Gamini as Minister and an appreciative JR as President, in a welcome gesture posted him as Minister Counsellor in the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington. With his reputation for honesty and prestige deriving from achievement, he continued to liaise with funding agencies for the cause of Mahaweli.

In early nineties Dharmasiri Peiris told me of his unceasing services despite the creeping illness. His labours ceased in December 1994. Having worked in the Ministry and quite closely with Mr. Sivagnanam for seven years and more till December 1977, I left. Now with a gap of 37 years, I have ventured to assess a personage of integrity, honour and dignity.

*The writer is a Rtd. Secretary of a Central Ministry

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Latest comments

  • 1

    S. Sivathasan,

    Nice article. it was nice to note that your dad taught Latin and therefore your verbal verbosity.
    It is the life of an administrative officer and there are many like that good men I have met there on my short visits. You find them in other colonies of the British.
    Simple folk and when they retire they end up only with a small pension.Their kids have not joined the government service but gone professional the hard way and are doing very well in their own right.

    “Knowledge is power and it made him powerful”. (Bombastic Johnson days it was correct when we stayed indoors)
    Without imagination all knowledge is useless. Look at most commentators they have neither read or refer at a reference library or travel to see, touch and believe. I am no school teacher and neither am I planning to live there I am OK.

    “Political power is transformed into administrative authority.”

    Under Mahaweli many luxury items and some only 1 in 1000 in the world were siphoned in with the ministers verbal approval and the sec/asst signing under pressure.

    “”Even foreign institutions like World Bank went by these considerations. (I refer to better times in earlier decades.) “” -Until the closure of the Suez Canal. Now it’s whom you know not what you know.

    But there are exceptions and new trends where engineers study finance and management at post graduate level and end as CEO cooperation’s . The Governor Reserve Bank India is one such. This trend picked up mid 80’s.

    Everyone is into innovation and that is where the money and peace of mind lies.
    Of course there are others who merely buy and sell like what is happening there now. Remember Richard Branson the cost of a sandwich, tubular bells and the millions.

  • 0

    Yes, Sivganam was a great colonial servant – wasted on the Sinhalese.

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