Mahapola Scholarships: they survive the great man, Lalith
Athulathmudali who created them to salvage
education from the monopoly of the privileged class and bring learning
within the grasp of the poor.
I heard the shocking news over the radio while lying in a hospital
bed: Lalith Athulathmudali gunned down. The assassin’s bullet tore into
his heart while he was addressing a meeting at Kirulapone. Devastated I
left hospital to visit the man, now dead, whose Publicity Officer I had
been for ten years. It was an edifying association with the brilliant
Oxonion and I was never fettered in my work; I sensed a new press
freedom not vouchsafed to me before.
As the new Trade Minister, Lalith Athulathmudali soon after he was
sworn in at the former Queen’s House pledged to end the infamous closed
economy and usher an open market economy.
Perhaps in his first encounter with the Press as Minister,
Athulathmudali told me (the palatial room was chock-a-block with the new
ministers, their families, friends, well-wishers, and, of course
hangers-on, we had to talk standing) that the people had been
economically sick, deprived of basic essentials, strangled by an
alarming shortage of consumer goods.
I recalled the agony of not being able to buy a bun for my
school-going children. Armed with a Janatha Committee card I used to
join the bread queue at 4 am and move up with the others until 6 am and
as I reached the counter, the Janatha Committee president, a politically
powerful man in the village and town bellowed that bread was over adding
sympathetically with a smile - “you can try tomorrow.”
Long after 1977 I preserved the bread card with me as a historical
Open market economy
As the sluice gates that had kept the economy constricted burst open
the market place was flooded with goods but initially the happy exercise
welcomed by the consumer public was confined to the city. Not even a
trickle of imported goods flowed into the rural areas and naturally
people in the villages were resentful. Was the open market economy a
blessing only to the town folk?
Lalith Athulathmudali was quick to realize this and the concept of
the Mahapola was born.
Mahapola was a 'big fair' and initiated by the Trade Ministry each
electorate in the backwoods would have a Mahapola once or twice a month
replete with consumer goods transported from Colombo within easy access
of the villagers. Mahapola was a huge success. It was called 'a super
market on the move.' Villagers flocked the Mahapola not only to buy
consumer articles but enjoy the variety entertainments. It was as if
goods were delivered at their front doors. At the end of a week long
Mahapola on the last night there were musical shows where reputed
Mahapola also offered a political platform where Athulathmudali and
others had the opportunity to address the people.
Mahapola was also a popular carnival. After a long lapse rural folk
were treated to some fun and entertainment.
The gate fee was minimal. Brightly lit stalls put up by various
departments under the ministry beckoned a people who had been starved of
consumer goods for seven long years.
Posters put up to announce the coming of a Mahapola proclaimed: “Gemi
Nogemi hema thula, Maha pubuduvak ehtikala. Nava velanda prathipala,
Labagatha Heki thenai Mahapola.”
The first tentative try-out of a Mahapola was held in the Ratmalana
electorate of Lalith Athulathmudali; it was a very modest affair. Nobody
knew how the new concept would work. But Athulathmudali fired by the
great potential of the open market economy had a vision and the optimist
he was though tempered by his pragmatism he was convinced the concept
would be successful; and it did.
He allowed his deputy M.S. Amarasiri to have the first fling and hold
the inaugural Mahapola in his electorate in Hungama. Curious crowds
thronged it and Mahapola came to be known as a national event. As the
Shipping Ministry was added to his portfolio, Athulathmudali had the
additional advantage of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority which he had
created by the amalgamation of the Ports (Cargo) Corporation,the Ports
Tally Services and the Port Commission.
With every new Mahapola more and more consumer goods and services
were added. Almost every electorate clamoured for a Mahapola and
Athulathmudali’s hands were full. Every fortnight in his ministry he
held Mahapola review meetings. For him it was a full-time job.
Then somewhere in 1980 he hit upon the idea of Mahapola scholarships.
There would be a Mahapola Lottery with attractive prizes and the
proceeds would go into a Mahapola Scholarship Fund.
Scholarships would be granted on the basis of merit (10 percent) and
economic need (90 percent). In the first year 423 scholarships were
granted. The rest is history.
With Athulathmudali education was a passion, an obsession. He knew
the rigours of poverty how poverty deprived abled, skillful children
from acquiring a higher education. Mahapola Scholarships were one way of
meeting that challenge; he was grateful to his parents for affording him
the opportunity to reach the peak in his academic career. And very
appropriately and in great filial duty he endowed a Mahapola Scholarship
in memory of his parents.