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The Batticaloa floods of 1957-1958: A personal account

Jan 16, 2011 9:57:33 AM- transcurrents.com

by L.C.Arulpragasam

The months of November and December of 1957 were marked by torrential rains in the Batticaloa District leading to the biggest flood of the 20th century - till the floods just now of January 2011. I was at that time (1957) Assistant Government Agent of the Batticaloa District. Around December 20th 1957 (just before the flood), the Commissioner of Agrarian Services, Mr. M. S. Perera, rang me to say that the Ministry of Agriculture was asking for my appointment to the post of Deputy Commissioner of Agrarian Services in charge of the Paddy Lands Act. He wanted me to assume duties immediately.

It was finally agreed that I should come down to Colombo to work over Christmas Eve and Christmas day (24th and 25th of December) in order to draw up the administrative regulations under the Paddy Lands Act. I was thereafter to assume duties formally on December 27th. Since this was too good an offer to lose, I consented, although it was going to be personally very difficult for me and my family to move at such short notice.

We were on the train going out of Batticaloa on the night of December 23rd 1957. (We did not know at that time that it would be the last train that could get out of the district.). We hardly made it through Polonnaruwa Station where the Guard, holding a lantern over his head, had to wade waist-deep in water in front of the train, guiding it at two miles per hour through the station. We made it to Colombo in time for me to work on December 24 and 25th on the needed administrative regulations under the Paddy Lands Act. Late that (Christmas) night I heard the Government Agent of Batticaloa (my boss) calling on the radio for the evacuation of Kalmunai.

Although this may not have made sense to anyone else, I realized that this was based on the fear of a possible breach of the Inginiyagala (Gal Oya) dam. If this were to happen, at least one million people in the densely populated Kalmunai area could be swept out to sea. Unfortunately, the Government Agent was new, having assumed duties only one month previously. So there was no official in the district to cope with a crisis of this magnitude.

It was now midnight on Christmas day. I am a Christian and we were staying with a Christian family in Colombo. Unfortunately, I had a throat infection with a slight fever while my wife was also sick. The next day (December 26th already dawning) was our wedding anniversary and I was to take up duties in Colombo on the following day, December 27th. Meanwhile, all road and railway links to Batticaloa had been impassable for the last three days. I was in a quandary: I was still legally Assistant Government Agent of the Batticaloa District although I was in Colombo under official instructions to assume duties in Colombo on the next day, December 27th.

It was supposed to be impossible to reach Batticaloa. Even if I set out immediately, I could not hope to arrive there (if at all) before December 27th the date on which I was supposed to start work in Colombo. Thus the rational thing to do was to remain in Colombo and assume the duties of my new post (a promotion for me) on the next day (December 27th ). Being blessed (or cursed?) by an absurd sense of duty, I felt that it was my moral duty to get back to Batticaloa, even if it meant disobeying official orders.

The question now was how to get there. By chance, I had seen one of the Divisional Revenue Officers (DROs) of the Batticaloa District in Colombo that day. I knew that he was in Colombo without authorized leave, away from his post at this time of crisis. While normally I would have had to take disciplinary action against him, I now seized upon the opportunity to force him to take me back to Batticaloa in his car.

But first I had to decide what route I should take, since I knew that the road to Batticaloa had been impassable for over one week. So I rang the Automobile Association (AAA) and enquired about the road to Badulla which runs through the hill country. The AAA officer replied that it was impassable due to landslides and wash-aways. I then enquired about the road going south to Hambantota, from where I could possibly make my way northwards into Batticaloa. At this point, the officer interrupted me saying: "I thought you were trying to go to Badulla (in the hills); but now you are asking about going south to Hambantota. Where are you trying to go?" "To Batticaloa" I replied, not without some embarrassment.

The officer guffawed with laughter saying: "All the roads to Batticaloa have been impassable for the past week and there is no way that you can get there!" I was so embarrassed and annoyed that I replied: "I shall get there… and I shall let you know!" and banged down the phone. I decided to take the high road through the hill country despite the odds.

Having decided this, I managed to trace my way to the DRO’s house in a suburb of Colombo. It was past midnight on Christmas day and he had had more than one too many and was fast asleep on a sofa. His wife balked at the danger of his travelling to Batticaloa and refused to let him go. But I pointed out that the only way for him to avoid dismissal was to get back to his post with me. So I bundled him into the back seat of his car (where he immediately fell asleep again) and I set out driving to Batticaloa. I decided to take the hill country road through Badulla.

Once I got into the hills, I was stopped by landslides obstructing my path at every turn. With each deviation I encountered more landslides, with the same result. By around 5.30 a.m., completely exhausted and completely lost, I stopped at a small waterfall to freshen up. Fortunately the DRO woke up and recognized the place, having worked in this area before. He was thus able to show me another route through which we reached a major causeway over which the Gal Oya River was flowing at full speed. Cars were packed on both banks of the river for almost half a mile. They had been waiting more than four days for the river to subside. It was very risky to cross the river in this condition. In fact four passengers in a car had plunged to their death the previous year in trying to do so.

I could not, however, (like all the other cars lined up) accept that the river could not be crossed. But I needed to know whether the river was rising or falling. Fortunately I had experience of rivers like this since I had done many river trips by canoe in our schooldays. So I planted a few sticks on the bank to mark the water level. If the water level fell, it could be expected to continue falling, making it safer to wait longer before crossing. On the other hand, if the water level were rising, then I had to cross immediately or give up the idea of crossing altogether.

After two hours (during which I slept) my sticks showed me that the river level was rising, probably due to heavy rains upstream. Under these circumstances, I decided to cross straight away, despite the protests of my colleague and the advice of the crowd. To cut a long story short, we did manage to get across the river amid cheers from the crowds on both banks! The other cars would have had to wait for at least another five days before they could cross.

So we were able to continue our journey by car. However, it was not long before we were halted by massive mara trees that had fallen across the road. Their trunks alone were about eight feet wide (lying horizontally across the road) while their roots jutted up in the air for another eight feet. We could not sidestep the trees by going off the road because the ditches on either side of the road were full of water over five feet deep. So we had to abandon the car, creep under the trunks of the fallen trees, and walk. Thereafter, we got a mini van1 which took us some distance till we came across more massive trees obstructing our path.

We abandoned the van and continued further on foot. Then we commandeered a couple of bicycles since my colleague had only to identify himself to get anything he wanted! Thereafter more trees again: so more walking. Then we commandeered a tractor which took us a few miles, followed by more trees across the road and more bicycles, until we finally reached my DRO colleague’s headquarters in the western part of the Batticaloa district. After lunch, he got me a bicycle and someone to accompany me. So I cycled to the Unnichchai Colonization Scheme, deeper into the Batticaloa District, where I was well known.

The Colonization Officer was very fond of me and begged of me not to go on because no one knew whether Batticaloa was still there or whether it was completely inundated– in which case I could possibly be swept out to sea! Since it was about 6 p.m. and already getting dark, he persuaded me to wait till morning, when he promised to get me a boat and someone to accompany me. At 5.30 next morning, we set out going as far as the road could take us. Meanwhile a small crowd had gathered since it was known that the AGA was trying to return to Batticaloa from this point that morning. But my heart sank when I saw what was before me. Apart from the heavy rains, two dams (of Unnichchai and Rugam Tanks) had breached, unleashing a wall of water which had gouged open the main road to Batticaloa, kicking up a wave of water over ten feet high across the road which I was trying to follow, with water beyond as far as eye could see.

My instincts and knowledge of water told me that it would be suicidal to try to cross here. (In retrospect, I realize that I was foolishly trying to follow the course of the road to Batticaloa, whereas the flood waters had covered everything, making the road completely irrelevant).The Colonization Officer (CO), who was worried for my safety, started crying, scaring me even further! He then called for volunteers from the crowd to accompany me. Although many of them had received land from me as AGA, there was not a single volunteer – for which the CO berated them all as ungrateful wretches! Fortunately for me, I chickened out at this time and requested an inflated tube to wear around my waist in case I capsized. We had to go back a few miles in order to get the tube.

This move saved my life that day. Although the swollen lagoon water was moving rapidly there, I realized that it was more navigable from this point. The problem was that there was no land in sight (normally one could see Batticaloa in the distance from this place) or any sign that Batticaloa was still there – in which case we would be swept out to sea! Anyway I decided that I would cross the lagoon starting from here - a decision which almost certainly saved my life.

As soon as I announced this intention, two men immediately volunteered to come with me. They were fishermen who knew that whereas my first plan was suicidal, my present plan was feasible. They dismantled the outriggers from two canoes, then joined the two canoes together with three planks across, so as to create a stable twin-hulled craft. We set out with the CO intoning prayers while the crowd cheered us on.

To get us some idea of direction, I tried to follow the course of the road to Batticaloa. We could sometimes make this out by the tips of coconut trees which (we knew) skirted the road. Sometimes we would hear unearthly howling like people dying of pain. They proved to be from dogs marooned on roof ridges with six days of hunger in their belly. After rowing for some hours (aided by the flowing current of water) we reached what we thought was highland adjoining Batticaloa town. We left the boats and started walking - only to find that we were surrounded by water again. So we had to return to the boats and row farther towards where we thought Batticaloa to be. Again we left the boats and started walking.

We could now see the outskirts of the town but we encountered water once more. At this point we started swimming from tree to tree until we reached high ground and entered Batticaloa town. When the people saw me wading in (in four feet of water) they started cheering and shouting "The AGA has come, the AGA has come". It was late afternoon on December 27th (the day on which I should have started duties in Colombo) when I finally reached Batticaloa. I had taken a little more than one and a half days to get there. I say this with some pride since a combined army-navy amphibious team sent to relieve Batticaloa took seven days to do so!

The first problem was to get to my own home. It was a very old British up-stair bungalow with thick brick walls (about 1.5 feet thick) with very high ceilings (at least 13 feet high) and a long verandah around three sides of the house, both upstairs and downstairs. It was built on the bank of the lagoon and the garden and floor level were now at least 15 feet under water. I could not approach it from the lagoon side lest I be carried away by the current. So I had to approach it from the higher ground at the back of the bungalow. This involved swimming from higher ground across the PWD yard (which lay behind my house) to reach my back boundary wall which although over 10 ft high, had been topped by the flood waters.

Feeling (melodramatically) like Tarzan, I had to dive into my own backyard and swim directly into my up-stair verandah! While doing so, I came upon a large fish which seemed injured or dazed. So I trod water, grabbed the fish by its tail and threw it into my upstair verandah. I had it fried for dinner that night. Standing on my upstair verandah (at more or less water-level) I could see the lagoon engorged with flood waters rushing past me like a torrent, carrying all before it. Trees, fences and bits of houses whizzed past me. There were animals too: bloated carcasses of cattle, buffaloes, goats, dogs and even a couple of deer.

Getting sleep at night was also a problem. Since a rise of the waters by even two feet would flood me out of my upstair bedroom, I had to be constantly vigilant. Meanwhile our piano which was floating in the living room downstairs was thumping on the 13 ft high ceiling of that room (which was the floor of my upstair bedroom) playing "tunes" made by the lapping waters.

Meanwhile, conditions in the town were chaotic. The people were demoralized because communications had broken down and food supplies were short. Although the Government Agent was in town, he was new, knew nothing of the district, and was marooned in his house. Almost all the district governmental heads (health, public works, irrigation and agriculture) were out of the district for the Christmas holidays and no civic organization or leadership was evident. Hence my return proved to be a rallying point both for the government services as well as for the people. I immediately started several measures to cope with the situation.

First, because food hoarding had already started, I took over food supplies from the traders and ensured a ration to every household. Second, I ensured the burial of dead bodies, mainly animals. Third, I ensured the decontamination of wells and drinking water supplies. Fourth, as the flood waters began to recede, I undertook the emergency repair of roads and infrastructure. Fortunately, the PWD Engineer returned with the army-navy amphibious team and took over his functions. Fifth, I organized the farmers to stack layer upon layer of sandbags to save whatever water was left in the irrigation reservoirs.

But the biggest problem was the most immediate. The water level in the lagoon kept on rising, fed by the continuing rains and the collapse of the two reservoirs upstream. Although the lagoon mouth was wide open and discharging masses of water into the sea, the rate of discharge was not enough to prevent a dangerous rise in lagoon levels due to the greater incoming floods. Quite fortuitously, I had a historical key in my hand to solve this problem.

About a year earlier while fishing in the sea with the turn of tides at midnight, I was told by a fisherman that in his grandfather’s time, the white men’s ships used to come into the lagoon through another mouth much farther south. Because my father had served as a medical officer in this district when I was a boy, I was able to identify this place as the so-called "Dutch Bar" (just south of Batticaloa, across the Kalladi Bridge). I summoned as many workers/volunteers as I could (about 25 men turned up) to open another outlet to the sea.

With a free flow of arrack (from supplies requisitioned by me!) our volunteers worked through the night to cut open another outlet to the sea near the old "Dutch Bar". This was an experience in itself: for the little trickle of water through the new outlet increased to a flood: and then with a roar the sand bar burst, releasing volumes of water into the sea. By this lucky chain of events, I was able to dramatically bring down the water level within a few days, thus saving the town from devastation.

Looking back, I marvel at the number of coincidences that made this possible: that I was AGA in the district at this time, that I met a fisherman at midnight who spoke about his grandfather’s time, that I happened to visit Batticaloa as a boy and knew where the "Dutch Bar" was, and that now (as AGA) I was able to realize its significance for saving the town of Batticaloa. The problems of relief and rehabilitation were great. We had no communication with Colombo or any instructions from headquarters. Hence, I had to start work (with the approval of the Government Agent, Mr. Douglas Misso) to restore needed rehabilitation and development work.

With the help of volunteers, we sandbagged entire stretches of the damaged reservoirs so that they could retain at least some water for the next cultivation. Most paddy fields had been silted with mud while most field ridges and channels had been destroyed. I authorized the farmers to de-silt their fields and channels, rehabilitate their fields and reconstruct their irrigation channels, promising to pay them at usual government rates.

I did this without obtaining any authority from the Ministry, thus risking a personal surcharge for these costs later on. It was marvelous to see this flood-stricken district humming with activity with the farmers working to put their fields back into shape before the next cultivation season. Apart from rehabilitating their fields, we were in effect funding relief works which would provide them with food and employment until their next crop.

Meanwhile, I had to face the problem that I had defied official orders in coming back to Batticaloa on the day on which I should have assumed duties in Colombo – for which I could have been reprimanded or (theoretically) sacked. So it was a great relief when about three weeks later I received a telegram from the Secretary to the Treasury and Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Finance, Mr. S. F. Amerasinghe, who was the head of the Ceylon Civil Service to which I belonged. It had been sent from Colombo by plane to Gal Oya and from there by boat to Batticaloa, reaching me about three weeks after it was sent.

It said: "Your transfer to Colombo postponed. Remain in Batticaloa, repeat: remain in Batticaloa as Assistant Government Agent". It had obviously been written on the wrong assumption that I had been in Batticaloa all the time, forgetting that I had been officially ordered to work in Colombo on December 24h and 25th. So I just laughed and put the telegram away.

The biggest problem now was that the Maha paddy crop (the main crop for the year) which had been planted one month previously had been entirely washed away. Although I got the farmers to de-silt their fields and channels for the second Yala season crop, I found that their seed paddy for this crop (a three- month variety) had been destroyed by the rising floods.

Thus, while their first crop had failed, their second crop could not be sown, which would result in widespread famine for at least one year. I suddenly realized, however, that although we had lost one and a half months of the main (4 ½ month) season, we could still pull off a three-month crop during the balance of this season - if only we could find adequate quantities of three month seed paddy, since their shorter term would enable harvesting at the usual time. In order to obtain a supply of such seed, I opened up emergency "roads" to the north (to the Polonnaruwa district), to the south (to the Hambantota district) and to the west (to the Badulla district).

I then commissioned our DROs to go out and buy as much seed paddy as they could from the adjoining districts with money supplied freely from the Kachcheri vault. By this means we managed to re-sow almost the entire extent of Maha paddy lands despite the earlier loss of the entire crop. The problem was that we had done this by using government funds without obtaining any approval at all.

Fortunately these problems were solved in short order. After about one month, a helicopter was able to land in Batticaloa with the Minister of Agriculture Mr. C.P. de Silva, accompanied by the leader of the Opposition, Dr. N.M. Perera. They came to visit our flood-torn district with promises of relief. The Minister read out a small proclamation authorizing the de-silting and reconstruction of channels, de-silting of paddy fields, etc. at government-approved rates of subsidy.

I smiled with relief because he was giving retroactive authorization for something we had already done more than a month ago without approval. However, when the Leader of the Opposition visited the field, he was surprised to see lush paddy growing in all the fields instead of the devastation he had expected. After he found out how we had accomplished this, he was lavish in his praise of our initiative (which he later recorded in Parliament) in bringing about this reversal of fortune in our flood-torn district. However, he did berate the Government for allowing the initiative of one district to deplete the seed paddy reserves of others!

It took me some months to settle accounts for all the monies that I had disbursed from government funds. Some of this was made up of loans which farmers had to pay back. But most of them were in the form of subsidies which I had given out at approved rates, which were subsequently blessed by ministerial sanction. By this time I had been working non-stop for almost four months with intermittent fever, continuing to take shots of strepto-penicillin under the doctor’s orders.

Meanwhile my family (and all our furniture) had been moved to Colombo on the basis of my officially ordered transfer there. So after a period of four months, when the flood situation and its consequences had been brought under control, I asked my boss (the Government Agent) to fix the date for my assumption of duties in Colombo with the Secretary to the Treasury/Ministry of Finance who had ordered my transfer. The reply from the latter was terse. I was to be told that there had been a flood in Batticaloa and that in any case I was too junior for this post; hence my transfer was cancelled!

I was in a state of physical, mental and nervous exhaustion and in a highly emotional state. Distraught, I asked for an appointment with the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Finance (who was head of the Civil Service) and went to Colombo to see him. He was curt and offhand, saying: "I suppose you have come to see me about your transfer. I am sorry the transfer cannot take place because there has been a flood in Batticaloa" - and then he added gratuitously "besides, you are too junior for this post".

On hearing this, I was ready to explode. I had never asked for the post and, in fact, had not even known of its existence. But he had appointed me to it four months previously! (The post was that of Deputy Commissioner of Agrarian Services in the Ministry of Agriculture, in Colombo). Besides, if I was too junior for the post now, how come he appointed me to this post four months earlier when I was even more junior for it? Now he was telling me (who had gone through the flood) that there had been a flood in Batticaloa!

Being in a highly overwrought state I burst out: "You are telling me that there was a flood in Batticaloa? Do you know that I had moved to Colombo on your instructions and had already started work in my new post at the express request of the Government? Meanwhile, my family too had moved to Colombo on the basis of your instructions?". Taken aback, he then asked: "If you were in Colombo then how could you have been in Batticaloa?" To which I replied; "I went back". He then interrupted: "But how you could have gone back when there was this big flood". I replied: " I just went back". To which he again asked: "But how could you have gone back?" I asked: "Do you really want to know?" He nodded. So I told him: "I went by car, I walked, I went in a van, I walked, I went by tractor, I walked, I went by bicycle, I walked. Then I went by boat and then I swam and reached Batticaloa!"

He was so taken aback that he asked: "You really did that?" "Yes". I replied. By this time both interested and curious, he questioned me more about it and then asked: "If faced with the same choice, would you do it again? Do you regret that you did it?" To which I replied: "Yes, I would do it again. As for regrets, I have no regret that I did it. My only regret is that I belong to a service where you can do this to me – and this is easily remedied because you can have my resignation." Now it was his turn to get agitated, saying: "Young man, don’t get excited. Calm down, sit down. I agree to your transfer. When can you take up duties in Colombo?" And so my problem was solved - by my emotional outburst - and I was able to take up my new post! However those four months of working with fever took their toll on my body.

I developed pleurisy in both my lungs. After barely three months in my new job, I had to be sent on two months’ leave in order to recover. Even to this day (at age 83 years) the patch in my lung shows up in x-rays!

When news of my transfer to Colombo was received in Batticoloa, the Members of Parliament from the district came to see me in my bungalow in Batticaloa. I was so sick by this time that I was lying on a mat on the floor, since even my furniture had been moved to Colombo. I remember that the MPs brought me copies of some thirty telegrams addressed to the Prime Minister from all the Members of Parliament as well as from the Chairmen of all the Village Councils in the district protesting my transfer and requesting that I be kept on in Batticaloa.

They brought these to me partly to show their appreciation of my services but partly because they thought that they were doing me a favor, being convinced (due to my work for the district) that I wanted to stay on in Batticaloa! I had to plead with them to please withdraw these telegrams (but it was too late to do so) asking: "Can’t you understand that I want to go?" They were really amazed and even hurt that I wanted to leave the district of my own volition!

It is now more than 50 years since I left the Batticaloa District. Since then I have been working abroad for over 40 years. I write this now because the district is again facing devastation by a similar massive flood. Fortunately there are more resources to cope with its consequences than were available at that time - but the issues are likely to be the same.

The Gal Oya Dam may be in danger – in which case Ampara, Karativu and Kalmunai would need to be evacuated. In order to save Batticaloa, the Dutch Bar will have to be kept open – if this has not already been done. Reservoirs that may have been breached need to be sandbagged to prevent further loss of water. All needed relief and emergency measures will have to be undertaken. In this respect, the presence of the army and their helicopters are a boon. After the floods recede, the longer-haul tasks of relief and rehabilitation will have to begin. I wish them all success.


1 My DRO colleague was well known in this area since he had previously been DRO in charge of this Division in the Badulla District and was treated with great respect. So he was able to "commandeer" any vehicle we needed!

2 The seed paddy for the next crop is usually stored on the paddy field in bins covered on all sides by straw. With the long inundation by the flood waters, the seed had not only germinated but also had rotted.


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