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Random reflections on some conversations

Prof. Lakshman Jayathilake

It is a year since the passing of Professor Lakshman Jayathilake, a Peradeniya University Emeritus Professor in Mechanical Engineering.

Apart from his professorial role, he was also Vice-Chancellor of Peradeniya University, Chairman of the University Grants Commission and Chairman of the National Education Commission. He was an educationist to the hilt. Although in a different engineering faculty and from a different engineering discipline, and also junior to him by over a decade, the limited number of interactions I had with him were always thought provoking. Even before I met him, I was aware of his impeccable engineering pedigree, having worked for his PhD at Imperial College, London, under Professor Brian Spalding, known then as the Grand Old Man of Computational Fluid Dynamics.

Later, he became interested in the Systems Thinking and Practice pioneered by Peter Checkland at Lancaster University. It is this interest in systems that first brought us together, after I heard one of his talks on the subject – I now happen to be an Associate Editor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Systems.

We once had to travel to Anuradhapura and back in a day, to inspect the Jethawaranamaya, which was exhibiting large cracks at the time, for Prof. Jayathilake to comment on the moisture movement within the structure, and myself to opine on its structural integrity.

While passing Kurunegala on our return, he mentioned that there was a village school in the district where students were trained to speak very good English. He was quick to point out however, that English proficiency alone would not guarantee employment or upward mobility, since that depended on social connections as well. It is not that he did not see the great value of learning to operate in English, but he was well aware of the various divisions that language brought within our country. When I once wondered aloud at a meeting in his presence whether the teaching of engineering solely in English stifled student creativity, he was quick to acknowledge the problem. At any rate, we need our collective wisdom to tackle our language problems in Sri Lanka – something that Prof. Jayathilake was keenly aware of and did his best to ameliorate.

Also on our return from Anuradhapura, Professor Jayathilake pointed out a police station from which he had to effect the release of some JVP affiliated student activists – ‘so called heroes’ he called them. Many Vice-Chancellors have had to spend time in police stations to rescue JVP-oriented student activists. Very few, if any, have done that for LTTE oriented ones. And there lies a difference that still haunts our land. Both the JVP and LTTE were branded as terrorist organisations during their ‘active’ days.

However, largely as a result of ‘Colombo Society’ becoming aware of the impoverishment of southern JVP youth (recall the phrase Kolombata kiri, Gamata kekiri: ‘Milk for Colombo, (lowly) melons for the village’), they have largely become integrated into mainstream society – causing the JVP revolution to be seen not as an aberration of, but a corrective to, the body politic, with many of today’s JVP MPs commanding widespread respect.

This change of perspective was due in no small measure to the Report on the Presidential Commission Youth (1990), in fact chaired by none other than Professor Lakshman Jayathilake. Together with him, Professors G.L. Peiris and Arjuna Aluwihare were also involved in discussions with these southern youth who had been ‘left behind’ by society. As a young academic at that time, I looked up to them as genuine heroes – academics who left their ivory towers to solve the messy problems of our nation. In my opinion, however, we missed the opportunity to have another Youth Commission to hear the grievances of the northern youth after the crushing of the LTTE uprising.

Days after the Boxing day tsunami of 2004, when I was wondering how an engineering academic like myself could be relevant at that time of national calamity, I had a phone call from Professor Jayathilake, urging me as a structural engineering academic to study the performance of tsunami affected structures, so that we could ‘build back better’. That led to me and other colleagues documenting and analysing such tsunami induced structural failures.

The Society of Structural Engineers, Sri Lanka was able to issue its Guidelines for Buildings at Risk from Natural Disasters as a result of this work, later adopted by the Disaster Management Centre and the National Building Research Organization. One of the resulting technical papers won a prize from the Institution of Civil Engineers, U.K. – Professor Ranjith Dissanayake, the current President-elect of the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka, was a co-author. Two other young graduates who helped me with this work are now engineering professors at Peradeniya (Hiran Yapa) and Moratuwa (Chinthaka Mallikarachchi).

Tsunami resilience work in Sri Lanka continues to this day, with significant Sri Lankan contributions to the global knowledge base, among which is a University College London initiative led by Professor Tiziana Rossetto and involving Dr Ajith Thamboo (South Eastern University of Sri Lanka) and Prof. Kushan Wijesundara (Peradeniya University), with logistical support from the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka. I should also mention my Moratuwa University colleague and good friend from school days, the late Professor Samantha Hettiarachchi, who spearheaded the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System. Professor Dilanthi Amaratunga, based in the U.K., has given leadership in the socio-economic resilience aspects.

Towards the end of his career, Professor Jayathilake identified himself with two emerging universities, serving as the Dean of the Engineering Faculty at the University of Ruhuna, and as the Chancellor of the Wayamba University. That was typical of the man – using his not inconsiderable stature to help emerging institutions. Lakshman Jayathilake has gone the way of all the earth, but those whose lives were touched by his have doubtless benefitted through their engagement with a multi-dimensional human being. I am blessed to have interacted with him, even in a small way.

Prof. Priyan Dias