By Wickrema Weerasooria –
In this article I place on record for future reference some significant facts and events about three institutions which have over the years become household names amongst our people. Firstly, I speak of the President’s Fund, next the Development Lottery and third the Mahapola Higher Educational Scholarship Scheme. Financially, all three are closely connected to each other.
During the ten year period 1977 to 1986 I was the Secretary to the Ministry of Plan Implementation. That Ministry came directly under the Executive President Mr. JR Jayewardene and it was the only Ministry that the President kept under him. As the Secretary of that Ministry I was privileged to work towards the development of all the three institutions referred to above.
As regards the President Fund, with my endeavours I was able to augment its funds considerably. As regards the Development Lottery, it was I who started the lottery and developed it to be the success it is today. As regards Mahapola it was also I who spoke to Mr Lalith Athulathmudali who was then the Minister of Trade and Shipping and the founder of Mahapola and persuaded him to take a fifty percent share in the Development Lottery. Now I turn in greater detail to my involvement in the three institutions referred to above.
The President’s Fund
The President’s Fund as we know it today was created by President JR Jayewardene. It was established by an Act of Parliament entitled the President’s Fund Act No. 7 of 1978 and came into operation on 24 November 1978. As the number of the statute indicates, it was one of the first pieces of legislation to be enacted by the Jayewardene government which won the General Elections of July 1977. Prior to this there appears to have been an informal President’s Fund and all monies credited to that Fund were with the Central Bank. That amount was small. The new President’s Fund created in November 1978 is under the control of a Board which comprises of the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition, Secretary to the President and two others appointed by the President.
Photo – Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria selling the first Development Lottery Ticket in January 1983 to President JR Jayewardene in the presence of Mahapola Minster Lalith Athulathmudali and Menikdiwela, Secretary to the President
Under the statute establishing it, the President’s Fund can give monies for (i) relief of poverty (ii) advancement of knowledge or education (iii) advancement of religion (iv) making of awards to persons who have served the nation and (v) any other purpose of benefit to the public as decided by its Board.
The statute establishing the President’s Fund also provides that its accounts be audited by the Auditor General and tabled in Parliament through the Finance Minister. Today, it is well-known that many Sri Lankans get financial assistance from the President’s Fund for medical operations. The President’s Fund Board is entitled to so decide as long as the amounts given for medical assistance are not large in individual cases. From Questions raised in Parliament we are aware that during the previous regime the President’s Fund had granted large sums to assist a few individual politicians (Ministers) but thankfully that unsavoury practice has been abandoned by the new President.
My Contribution to the President’s Fund
The President’s Fund established by Mr. JR Jayewardene had little money. The monies lying at the Central Bank were very little. Also, the Parliamentary statute establishing it mode no provision for the Treasury to give any monies to the President’s Fund through the Consolidated Fund. Thus the President’s Fund as established by Mr. Jayawardene depended solely on donations and grants made to it by the public to carry out the objectives which I set out above. As the Secretary of the Ministry of Plan Implementation I soon realized that it was a Fund without any money. Then an event occurred which enabled me to get money into the President’s Fund.
The Batticaloa Cyclone of November 1978
On 23rd November 1978 a cyclone hit the sea coast of Batticaloa. It was no way like the Tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in December 2004. The “Batticaloa Cyclone” as it was called only devastated property (coconut trees) and some houses and buildings in that area. However, it was the first natural disaster to affect the country after the new government was elected in July 1977.
Many foreign diplomats, NGOs, businessmen and individuals contacted me as Secretary Ministry of Plan Implementation and wanted to assist in relief. They knew I was close to the President. They also wanted to donate money to the government to help those affected by the cyclone. However, they all wanted to give their donations to the President. I immediately thought of the President’s Fund. It had never accepted donations before. So I contacted the President by telephone and asked for his approval to open the President’s Fund for relief donations.
Initially, President Jayewardene did not think it necessary to do so but he ended his telephone conversation telling me “to talk to Putus about it. If Putus agrees you can then tell Menik to do so”. Here Putus meant Mr. GVP Samarasinghe who was then the Cabinet Secretary and the Chair of the Development Secretaries and Menik meant Mr Menikdiwela the Secretary to the President. I immediately spoke to Mr GVP Samarasinghe and persuaded him to agree. I next informed Mr Menikdiwela of the steps I had taken and the President’s Fund was opened to the public for any cash donations. Cash donations poured in and many corporate bodies, individuals and NGOs (both local and foreign) contributed monies to the President’s Fund for relief measures for the Batticaloa cyclone. To my memory, that was how the President Fund was opened up for funding. To my recollection the Fund got about Rupees Thirty Million which at that time was a large sum of money. There was no television then and the newspaper photographs of that period show pictures of persons donating cheques to Mr Menikdiwela and myself both at the President’s office which was then in the Senate building and at my office which was at the Central Bank building.
Having got the President’s Fund opened to collect donations and grants I found other ways to bring money into it. One instance I clearly recall is when a foreign investor (Indonesian) had to declare open a huge project in Trincomalee. The foreign investor showed me a budget of about Rupees Five Million they had set aside to spend on decorations, flowers, dance troupes etc. which were to be used at the opening. I persuaded them to limit the ostentations to about Rupees One million and to donate the balance Rupees four million to the President’s Fund. They agreed. After this money was donated to the Fund I spoke to the President and he gave it to my Ministry for the use of the Children’s Secretariat which was headed by one of my best officers Ms Malsiri Dias, who regrettably passed away a few months ago.
The Development Lottery
Subsequently, because I was working directly under President Jayewardene as head of his Ministry of Plan Implementation, I made it my job to obtain as many financial contributions I could for the President’s Fund. The windfall occurred in December 1983 when our Ministry started the Development Lottery. I vividly remember how that lottery started.
One morning in early December 1982 I got a telephone call from the President’s residence. The President then came on the line and asked me whether I could accompany him to Kelaniya to the funeral house of the mother of a Buddhist monk. I obviously said “Yes”. After all he was my boss and his wish was my command. On the way to Kelaniya and on the return to his office, the President discussed the political situation in the country. When we got back to his office which was then at the Senate building he asked me to wait and soon introduced me to three American gentlemen. He said that they had come to see him to see whether we can start an Instant Lottery to augment the President’s Fund. After a brief discussion he asked me to take them to my Plan Implementation Ministry office at the Central Bank and to work out the details and report to him.
While attending to my daily Ministry work, for two continuous days, a handpicked team of my senior officials and I analysed the lottery project the American company proposed. It was a new computerized Instant or Scratch lottery hitherto not seen in Sri Lanka. At that time (1982) we had only the National Lotteries and the Sevana and Mahapola lotteries. The latter two generated very little profits.
The decision I took at my Ministry was to commence the Instant lottery. The word “Instant” was discarded and the name “Development” was chosen. One million tickets were to be air-freighted and the startup capital (including cost of the tickets) was estimated at Rs Three Million. With the President’s approval I called a meeting of all heads of ten leading private sector companies to the National Operations Room of our Ministry. For three to four hours we outlined the lottery and asked the private sector to operate it and take seventy five percent of the profit and give twenty five percent to the President’s Fund as the licence fee. After much deliberations over a period of two days they all turned it down. Not one private sector firm felt that the lottery would be a success.
I was disappointed with the captains of our private sector. So was the President. He then told me to take Rupees one and half million from the President’s Fund and seek the balance to make up the Rupees three million from either Minister Gamini Dissanayake or Minister Lalith Athulathmudali’s. I asked Gamini. I knew him well. He was also my brother-in-law. Gamini Dissanayake opted out. He told me that he was too busy with the Mahaweli programe and the Mahaweli was also well funded by foreign countries and he did not require a lottery to assist his Ministry.
Development Lottery and Mahapola
I then asked Hon Lalith Atulathmudali. I knew Lalith also well. He was senior to me at Royal College by two years and studied with my brother Norman. We had worked together in the July 1977 election campaign. Also, his father and my father were close friends. I had also met him at Oxford University where he was later studying and where he became President of the Oxford Union – a signal honour for our country.
Minister Lalith Athulathmudali “jumped” at the idea I put before him. The Mahapola lottery was not at that time making any visible profits. The moment I spoke to him and requested Rupees one and a half million for a fifty percent share of the Development Lottery, he immediately agreed. He gave me a handwritten note addressed to his Secretary (Mr Lakshman de Mel). I recall the words he used. He wrote “Lakshman, Wickrema wants Rs. 1½ million to start a lottery where the President is giving an equal amount. Give Wickrema this money from Mahapola funds and Mahapola will then be 50% owner of this lottery”. This was a historic decision for both the President’s Fund and Mahapola.
The Rupees Three million we wanted as seed capital was found
Now that the Rupees Three Million we wanted to start the lottery was found, we decided to operate the lottery as a Project of the Ministry of Plan Implementation. We also decided not to employ new staff but to use existing Ministry staff. For premises, we selected the old Bishops House on which premises “Crescat” now stands. We air-freighted one million tickets in January 1983 and commenced selling the tickets (priced at Rs.10/- each) through an island-wide network of Dealers we had earlier selected and appointed.
The Instant / Scratch lottery suitably titled the Development Lottery became a success the first day itself. Two jackpot winners of Rs.100,000/- each (in today’s terms about Rs. One million each) were found before twenty four hours. So many others were winners of prizes of lesser amounts. If one reads the newspaper of those days they will learn what a frenzy the lottery caused in the entire country. It was a roaring success. We got all the money we needed for future consignments of tickets from the profits we earned. All that the President’s Fund and Mahapola spent was Rs 1½ million each. In the first year (1983) we gave the President’s Fund as profit Rs. 400 million half of which went to Mahapola.
Television came to Sri Lanka for the first time about end of 1982 just before the Development Lottery was launched. We made use of TV and were the first lottery to show the draws on TV. This boosted sales.
I end this account about the President’s Fund, the Development Lottery and Mahapola by stating that it is the Development Lottery (which I had the privilege to start and lead) that now funds bot the President’s Fund and the Mahapola Higher Educational Scholarship Scheme. In 2014 and 2015 the Development Lottery gave about Rs.2000 million (each year) to the President’s Fund of which close to fifty percent was given to Mahapola. What a large return for a small investment ! In 1993 the Lottery Centre operated by the Ministry of Plan Implementation had been taken over by a Trust established by the then government and in 1997 the Trust was converted by an Act of Parliament to a Board.
All United National Party governments have recognized the contribution I made augmenting the funds of the President’s Fund and Mahapola Trust Fund through the Development Lottery which I founded and made a success. In that context and also because of my personal friendship with Hon Mr. Lalith Atulathmudali (the founder of Mahapola) all such governments appointed me a Mahapola Trustee. Hon. Ravi Karunanayake did so when he was in charge of Mahapola between 2002 – 2004 and Hon. Jayawickrema Perera and Hon. Malik Samarawickrama have done so now.
In conclusion, I note that when Mr. Lalith Atulathmudali created the Mahapola Trust by a private deed in 1981 be stated in the deed itself that he saw “education as the true answer to alleviating poverty”. In 2002, the World Bank also funded large educational projects and gave poverty alleviation as the main object. The World Bank experts who came to Sri Lanka were surprised when I showed them Mr. Atulathmudali Trust Deed of 1981 (over 25 years earlier) where he had said the same thing ! That Trust Deed which contains these famous words of Mr Atulathmudali’s that “education is the true answer to poverty alleviation”, is found in the Schedule to the Mahapola Higher Educational Scholarship Trust Fund Act No 66 of 1981.
In my retirement from public life I find solace and comfort in the memories I have of starting the Development Lottery and how the then Minister I served – President JR Jayewardene and my friend from school days, the Mahapola Minister Mr. Lalith Atulathmudali, provided me with the seed capital of Rupees Three Million to purchase and air-freight the first consignment of tickets. Also since President Jayewardene was too busy with other work, I always looked to Mr. Lalith Atulathmudali to preside at all the administrative meetings related to the Development Lottery and its day to day operations. He gave me the political leadership and strengthened my hands to make the lottery a great success.