25 June, 2022


The President’s Fund, The Development Lottery & Mahapola

By Wickrema Weerasooria

Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria

Dr. 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.wickrema-weerasooria-president-jr-jayawardene-lalith-athulathmudali-and-menikdiwela

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.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Are money’s collected properly accounted and used?

  • 5

    Dear Dr wickrema Weerasooria,

    You have said,

    “As regards the Development Lottery, it was I who started the lottery and developed it to be the success it is today.”

    I have nothing against YOU personally, and I don’t challenge anything of what you’re saying. However, for me these lotteries are a form of gambling, and do immense harm to our social fabric, and especially to the poor and gullible. The amounts spent on each occasion are relatively small, but it causes addiction – and it’s not just the purchasing, but all the time spent viewing meaningless programmes – is it necessary for me to expatiate?

    AND now there is a great deal of noise pollution etc. Well, what would you be able to justify these lotteries, except perhaps to say that SOME of the money is spent on supposedly worthy causes? Could you please skip that part of it, and justify this madness?

    • 5

      This man was not one of JRJ’s foot-soldiers. He was higher up the chain of command according to his own account of the times.


  • 4

    Lotteries and other forms of gambling , even poker machines are used by the Governments to obtain revenue or funding for ‘humanitarian ‘ projects ..this seem an awful way of recycling the poor mans money into the coffers and also creating sadness in the families addicted to gambling ..I have known of people lured by the winnings of another buying more than the one lottery ticket to increase their chances in the draw ..Some are reinforced by small wins to try their luck again and again .the psychology of conditioned behavior may be causing a hole in the purse of the family pay . ..so for me gambling is a vice and even races are sports for the Kings as an entertainment but leaves a poor pensioner minus the few dollars that come with her paltry allowance ..Must we as a welfare state e at the receiving end of such funding how ever laudable it sound on paper ? lottery win is one in a million and this is why the its a a good way to take in money but how humanitarian is it ?Is there no other way of funding these laudable projects ..like less perks for the mighty .

  • 3

    Dr Weerasooria may be a nice individual as a person but taking credit for a lottery such as this may not be the nicest and wisest thing to do. The name “Development Lottery” itself was a joke to start with. It didn’t create any additional wealth or development within the economy other than some voluntary transfer of funds between individuals and creating some unproductive chain of employment. If it’s justified on the basis of the part of proceeds going to some charities, why not open up some regulated brothels under the brand name “Development Girls” or something and channel the profit to charity?

    This lottery was in fact run as an “illegal” operation for a long time, though with strong political backing – it didn’t have any legal footing to operate a as lottery in the country. Admittedly, the original ticket supplier was handpicked by his big boss JR which itself was a very questionable and fishy affair.

    The lottery office was a “goldmine” for a few handpicked people who worked there. It was housed later on in a private premises that was taken on lease on a very high rent with conditions uncharacteristically favourable to the landlord. This came to haunt the lottery at the end of the lease period but as usual, no one was held accountable.

    The list can go on…

  • 2

    DR. Weerasooriya, please don’t play the innocent academic! we know your connections to Minister Gamini Dissanayake and Finco/RDC which your brother ran and how it diverted the Mahaweli project through the 5th lane in the late 70’s.(these are not my words but his excellency the president JRJ)

    • 1

      Dear Dr W.W.,

      I agree with NAK in toto.We remember the “Hathavurudusapaya” that the then “H.E.” himself mentioned that you manufactured, diligently. Did you and your brother-in-law practice what you all preached ? When your UNP won in 1977, you thought that it was owing to the popularity of the party men, women and people like you. You won because it was a PROTEST VOTE against the then SLFP. I am not criticising your 3 projects for which you remind the whole nation that you deserve full credit.

      Your revered father the late Mr N.E.W. Sr Q.C. used to tell us how he walked from home at Thalawathugoda via Pita Kotte to Nugegoda to take the “Small Train” to Maradana, and then probably the rickshaw to Hulftsdorp. The late Mr H.V. Perera Q.C. told us that Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike upon hearing from Mr Perera Sr , the latter’s land surveyor that his son (H.V.P.)won a scholarship to Cambridge U. in England , commented that Oxford and Cambridge were for Bandaranaikes and Obeyasekeras. Those two Queen’s Counsel never lost the common touch even though they came from upper middle class families, and worked hard to achieve their unique respected positions in the country.With absolute power “GA” and “Lalla” both lost their heads. It was known how like 2 small brats Gamini and Lalith poked fun at their own P.M. Premadasa’s English. Over the years, was there any one instance where a Sri Lankan laughed at Mr D,S, Senanayake’s English or his pronunciation and his 8th standard education.Lalith has a Mahapola reputation, but as one of his own lieutenants living abroad used to say, from where did he get the money that he had when Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel got the tax officers to raid his home?

      Dr W.W., when some see Gamini’s and Lalith’s statues in Colomo 7 they think more of misuse of funds,how Mahaveli was diverted to Finco Ltd, fraudulent bets, bribes, hoarded money,acid throwing, how the Dissanayakes were ready leave the country in chartered plane just before an election, the sad tragic deaths. As a learned citizen by this time you must know that SRI LANKANS HaVE A GOOD HEURISTIC MODEL IN THEIR MEMORY AS TO WHAT EXTENT OUR POLITICIANS,and their stooges have enriched themselves at the expense of Mother Lanka and its poor masses.THEY DO NOT NEED REMINDERS FOR THE PAST IS STILL FRESH!

  • 3

    Dear Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria,

    Three days since I asked you a question

    “Could you please skip that part of it, and justify this madness?”

    No response!

    Why do you write stuff that you cannot take responsibility for?

    • 1

      Dr Weerasooria,

      Yes, Education alleviates poverty in one way, not always. Not all educated are rich as influence peddling is also necessary for good jobs.

      Besides, do educated people behave well after being educated – sans robbing, taking , misappropriating Sri Lanka’s public wealth, torching libraries like the Jaffna Library and hurting minority groups (not LTTE)like hypocrites, as in the way Jt Chief of Staff Cyril Ranatunga wrote in his book, arranging to throw acid at citizens to take revenge when defeated in love ? Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali had qualifications from high seats of learning, but were they really educated when we think of their misdeeds? The honest, exemplary politicians/statesmen some of whom even genuinely gifted their wealth to the country were individuals like Gamini Jayasuriya, M.D.Banda, U.B.Wanninayaka, Sir D.B.Jayathilaka, E.W.Perera and Senator A Ratnayaka whose action remind us about the Shakespearean saying,” Ceaser’s wife should be above reproach.”

  • 1

    Is This Retribution ?

    It was mentioned in Parliament and also by President Premadasa himself , and as some in Jaffna had witnessed, it became common knowledge that Minister Gamini Dissanayake directed thugs to set fire to the Jaffna Library. The LTTE went after him for that reason. After his statue had been erected at Viharamahadevi Park, people have witnessed individuals coming on foot, by cars, vans and buses spitting at it during day time and urinating on the pedestal purposely when dark; the stench is obviously due to that.

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