November 22, 2015

Eng. S Arumugam’s Birth Centenary Oration

Lecture given at

Eng. S Arumugam’s Birth Centenary Oration

On 31st August 2005


The Wimalasundera Auditorium,  Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka

It is a great pleasure for me to stand here today, representing the family of the late Mr. Sanmugam Arumugam. We wish to thank the members of the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka, for organising this Commemoration day to honour my late father on his one hundredth birthday. We wish to thank the president Mr. Chula de Silva, the secretary, Mr. Russel de Zilva, the president-elect, Jayantha Ranathunge for organising this event. We specifically wish to thank Mr. D.L.O. Mendis for the effort he has taken to compile the Arumugam Commemoration Volume, “Water for People and Nature” and for setting up today’s events. We would like to express our gratitude to Dr. P.R Anthonis for chairing the meeting and for the long friendship and support he, and his wife, Ruby, have given us. A warm thank you too, to Deshabandu Dr. A T Ariaratne for his detailed and informative oration on Science and civilization in Sri Lanka. We also wish to thank all the members of the engineering fraternity and friends who have gathered here today to celebrate this occasion.

In 1983 when my father arrived at Heathrow airport from Sri Lanka in an old, torn suit, having lost most of his belongings during the ethnic violence, I had tears running down my cheeks. I could not comprehend how someone who strived so hard for his country could be treated in such a manner. But today, I want to shed tears of joy to see how his memory is being honoured by this distinguished gathering.

Standing here today, my thoughts go back about 50 years, when my father was actively involved with the IESL and the Engineering section of the Association for the Advancement of Science. He produced many papers, including his Presidential Address on ‘Development of Water Resources, Conservation and Utilisation in Ceylon’. In those days the audiences consisted of about 20 to 30 eager engineers and a handful of engineering students from the tin-roofed ‘Thakaram’ faculty at Thurstan Road. I remember the bright young engineering students, the best in the country, who were picked for their superior mathematical brains and turned into efficient engineers. It is no wonder that Sri Lankan engineers have a good reputation, not only in Sri Lanka, but also around the world.

Your President garlanded my father’s portrait. This was a portrait of his physical features. I now want to paint a verbal portrait of his character and achievements.

My father will always be remembered as a man of great character, intelligence and integrity. He lost his father at the age of three and was brought up by his mother, who did not speak a word of English. It was his intelligence and capacity for hard work that enabled him to excel in school, gaining Distinctions in Mathematics and English at the public examinations. He was one of the pioneer Ceylonese Irrigation engineers.

He was the 3rd Ceylonese engineer and the 1st engineer with a Bachelor’s degree from a University in Great Britain, to be recruited to the Irrigation department; this at a time when the highest position that a Ceylonese was promoted to, was as Assistant Engineer, however well qualified he may be.

I now wish to quote a passage from Mr. Arumugam’s memoirs where he refers to Director J.S. Kennedy’s presentation which I think was made at the Engineering Association, the forerunner of this Institution.

‘I remember Director J. S. Kennedy’s forceful presentation of the unique and sole privilege of the irrigation engineer in assisting the humans in their quest for food and water, the essentials for man’s survival on earth. Of all the natural resources, the single asset possessing maximum bearing on the life and welfare of a nation is water. In their search for this precious commodity, people have strived, from time immemorial, to live close to streams and rivers. To all this, I listened, that was in June 1933 and decided once and for all to effect my little contribution also to this noble and lofty service.

He then speaks about the dangers of Irrigation life. He adds,

‘But little did all the above help when I lay stricken with malaria, helpless and shivering in that Overseer’s two roomed quarters, the Official Residence of the ‘Engineer in Charge’ of the Subdivision. The servant, my sole companion, kept on murmuring of the visitations by my predecessor’s ghost, every night. He (my predecessor) had collapsed and died, although young, of cerebral malaria in that very room. In those years, Irrigation life was synonymous with malaria and dangerous jungle existence’.

Such were the dangers of Irrigation life.

My father was a diligent worker, actually a workaholic. I remember how he used to remain in the D.I.E’s office in Vavuniya long after other employees had left, chain-smoking Capstan Navycut cigarettes, pondering over Ordinance survey maps and working out sites for spills and anicuts for the disused ancient village reservoirs (tanks). He obtained information from Henry Parker’s papers of the early 20th century and R L Brohier’s work on ‘Ancient Irrigation works in Ceylon’. He would, on his off days (Sundays), after a hearty breakfast would go out to meet village elders to seek clarification and then go into the jungles to identify the actual sites for irrigation works, with a labourer to clear the way and an enthusiastic T.A as an assistant. I remember only too well the muddy boots and dirty khaki shorts that returned and the stories that we heard about close encounters with wild animals.  Some of the Irrigation Works that come to my mind were, Vavunikulam, Akkarayan Kulam, Thannimurippu Tank, Pavatkulam, Kathaan Kulam (which I’m told was later named Mugathan Kulam after him). Later on, he was actively involved in the restoration of tanks in Kirindi, Kumbakkan Oya, the Udawalawe project, and many, many more.

He was dedicated to working for the Irrigation Department. He had rejected lucrative offers of jobs from abroad. To him irrigation was synonymous with food production, and hence the welfare of people in Sri Lanka. Even now I remember the grateful faces of the villagers as they approached my father’s car, jubilant after the successful harvest using water from the newly restored tanks.

My father’s outlook on life was broad, reaching beyond the narrow confines of a stereotyped existence. Any problem was thoroughly investigated, its history looked at and then, using his intellectual capacity, his scientific skill and power of lateral thinking, he would come up with a solution which was far removed from what the average person could produce. This was exemplified by his ideas for the Elephant-Pass Lagoon scheme and the River for Jaffna and also the Uralu project for the so called bottomless well. He took his time to make decisions and once made he stuck to them even to the point of obstinacy.

While serving in the Directorate of Irrigation, he was noted for his administrative skills, his straight forwardness, his impartiality and his integrity. He may have offended some by for failing to give preferential treatment when it came to transfers, which was a job he never enjoyed doing. He was especially noted for encouraging young engineers and T.A’s to advance their academic and professional skills.

One of the initiatives he took to improve the image of Irrigation engineers was to encourage all forms of sports; be it cricket, soccer volleyball, badminton, table tennis or even carom. He organised several departmental tournaments and was the President of the Departmental Recreation club.

He was a man of few words; often mistaken for being aloof or even arrogant. Mr H de S Manamperi described him as the ‘Master of silence’.  His wisdom was imparted to others through his numerous articles and books, which were never published for financial profit. . There can only be a few in this audience who would not have come across his works. The most noted of these was ‘Water Resources of Ceylon’ which gives the hydro data of all Irrigation works. Another was ’The Lord of Thiruketheswaram’ which is a textbook for H.S.C students. Any problem my father faced was turned into a Manual or Paper after detailed study. Noted examples were: The guidelines for Maintenance of Irrigation Works, the Manual on accounting procedures and that on stores procedures for the Irrigation department.

Having been a fatherless child he made it a point to bring up all seven of his children with love and affection. He never even once raised his voice in anger, not even when we set fire to almost the entire back garden of the quaint D.I.E’s bungalow in Bandarawela, and he, with the help of servants, had managed to prevent it spreading to the bungalow itself. When we were mischievous he would call us aside to explain the gravity of the situation, and we would not re-offend through sheer respect for him.   He recognised each child’s individual talent and encouraged us to expand our knowledge and views on life.

I would like to quote from his memoirs again:

‘Sitting back, now in my 93rd year in 1999, recollections are made of J.S.Kennedy’s ramifications in June 1933, when I was hesitant to enter the Irrigation Service; other Civil Engineering vocations meant easier life, but would not have entailed the satisfaction of something done, which I enjoy today’.

It is satisfying that my father  died a contented man; contented with the service he had given his nation through untiring work in irrigation and water resources;  to the community through his numerous works on Hindu temples  and biographies and to his family with his words of wisdom and support. I would have liked to have told him ‘Daddy, you would have excelled in any capacity you worked in, not only in irrigation and water resources, because you were blessed with a high degree of intelligence and the ability to use that intelligence for the benefit of others. You are someone very special, a really amazing person. You have been my inspiration in life, and, I am sure, a shining example for many others to follow’.

Dr Vimala Gunasingham

பொறியியலாளரும், எழுத்தாளருமான எஸ். ஆறுமுகம் (Sanmugam Arumugam, 1905 – 2000) பற்றிய விக்கிப்பீடியா பதிவுகள்:


ச. ஆறுமுகம்


S. Arumugam