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Tuesday, 13 December 2011

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Government Gazette

Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama – living simply atop an academic citadel


Professor Kshanika Hirimburegama

 

A few days ago I walked into a splendid old mansion to interview the Vice Chancellor of the Colombo University, Professor Kshanika Hirimburegama. At present, this magnificient building is called the 'College House,' but originally it was known as 'Regina Walauwa,' a family house that belonged to Arthur de Soysa, the grandson of the philanthropist Sir Charles Henry de Soysa.

Now it is considered a national heritage site. As I ascended the stairway, I observed the ornate wood carvings. As I walked through the foyer into her office, I could not help but notice the airiness and the openness of her office. There was an air conditioner, and I casually asked her whether she uses it. She said that she never used it since she became the Vice Chancellor. "No need of an air conditioner. There is a cool breeze coming through the windows. I like to see outside and get fresh air." I immediately realized that I was going to interview a unique person who enjoyed simple things in life and who wants to be in harmony with nature.

Her father, Professor Punchi Bandara Sannasgala, was a renowned scholar in Oriental studies and a trained lexicographer who served as the Chief Editor of the Sinhala Dictionary. Professor Kshanika chose her vocation in the field of Science. She recalled that her father never tried to influence her in the selection of her academic discipline.

Academic orientation

“Those days they wanted us to do well in our studies; other than that, they were not worried about the subjects we were studying. We had complete freedom in selecting our academic orientation. Rather than dissecting animals, I preferred plants and physics and entered the Science Faculty. My sister entered the Medical Faculty. My father never tried to force me into medicine.”

Prof. Hirimburegama recalled her childhood as enjoyable. Her father practically lived with his books; therefore, in her day-to-day activities, she and her sisters were very close to her mother whom she admired as a very rare type of housewife. He instilled many values in her such as simplicity, and saw that she and her sisters were well educated. She recalled her time at Visakha Vidyalaya, her alma mater, as a lovely time.

To go to Visaka Vidyalaya, we always had to pass through Royal College in our Moris Minor car. The three of us (sisters) were in spectacles, so the Royalists used to say: ‘Three Blind Mice’ and my father was very worried that we knew them. Of course we didn’t know them but they were making comments.

Kshanika mentioned her encounters with other scholars in the Arts Faculty of the Peradeniya university. “I remember Professor D.E. Prof. Hettiarachchi very well. I remember his house in Kandy very well. I also remember Professor W. S. Karunaratne.

I remember something unique about their conversations. They spoke of the subject; I didn’t hear them gossiping. I did not understand most of what they discussed but I was impressed how they were engrossed in discussing philosophical type of subject matter. I thought they were great scholars.”

Her maternal grandfather was Senator A. Ratnayake who was a Cabinet Minister in D. S. Senanayake’s first Cabinet and the last President of the Senate, when it was abolished in October 1971. Simplicity and kindness were the qualities she learnt from him. Kshanika remembered him as a very honest politician who did not earn wealth through politics. “My grandfather was a lovely person. He was very kind. My father had only his salary, so my father, being the father of five daughters had to save money. It was my grandfather who gave us a lot of extra comforts. He passed away when I was in the first year at the university. Even though we were small we knew him as a great personality,” stated Hirimburegama.

“After I did my first degree, my father was the one who asked me to do a post graduate degree. I joined the Post Graduate Institute of Agriculture. For the interview he took me by bus from Colombo to Peradeniya. That was on animal nutrition, and I casually asked him; “What do cattle like to eat?” and he said if you put some salt to the straw they like to eat. At the interview they asked me the same question and I gave the same answer. My project was on a similar aspect and I got the scholarship. For my Ph.D, I got a scholarship to Belgium and he said go. But because I was single he was very worried. And the day I left, he nearly cried. And every week he used to send me all the information.

During her stay in Belgium she worked with Banana cultivation. Hirimburegama who knew how important the crop is in Sri Lanka started doing research.

She remembered some deficiencies of the Department of Botany of the Colombo University during her young days. “It was a great department but there was no tissue culture course or tissue culture research in the department and no facilities were available to develop that branch of studies. So I started developing. We constructed a tissue culture laboratory and started a tissue culture

She also fondly remembered her work at the Weligatta-Hambantota Agrotechnology Project and community service centre. She was the Founder-Director of this project. It was started when Prof. W.D. Lakshman was the Vice-Chancellor at the Colombo University.

Rural sector

“Hon, Chamal Rajapaksa (at present the Speaker of Parliament) and the late General Anuruddha Ratwatte helped us a lot in acquiring land and other facilities but they never interfered in carrying out the project. This is a project which is instrumental in transferring technology to the rural sector in Sri Lanka. For tissue cultivation, what we use is a very simple conventional technology which can give a lot of money to our farmers. The plus point in this country is that people like to get educated and like to get knowledge and apply knowledge. Right now we are giving an online diploma program to farmers. They have their own dongle and computer. The first two months they are taught IT and English. The age difference in the first batch was 22- 60 years. They are doing wonderfully well. Our famers are good. If knowledge is given they can do wonders,” explained Professor Hirimburegama.

In recognition of her contribution to the national development in the country, she was awarded the “Zonta Woman of Achievement in 2006.”

When asked about her feelings on this occasion, she said: “I was both sad and happy about the event. I was sad because my father was not there in the audience. But my mother and aunties were there. I was happy because it was in recognition of the people who are products of the free education system in Sri Lanka.”

Later she was a recipient of several other international awards such as the Ariyabhata International Award from India.

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