Late Engineer A.J.P. Ponrajah, Scholarship Award Inauguration
On November 27, 2011, the Irrigation Department Ex-Officers’ Association (IDEA) with a membership of more than 300 inaugurated a scholarship award programme to benefit deserving students to follow a Sri Lankan University course. The scholarship is named in honour of a former Director of Irrigation who lived and died more than a quarter of a century ago.
A.J.P. Ponrajah was a fairly hot tempered man who would sometimes openly scold us when some mistake was detected. Well, that does not seem to qualify him for such an honour! Then what was Ponrajah’s secret that made IDEA bestow this rare honour after 25 years? He was one who stood by his staff and Department against any pressure. His motto was, “Honesty, Integrity, Efficiency, — Plus, Plus”. We knew that he was outspoken and honest and in spite of his sharp tongue he would not hold anything against his officers or workers. We knew that he would stand by us, and readily welcomed his scolding, and subsequent fatherly advice. We loved him. Still do.
He joined the department in 1951 and served in Huruluwewa, Ampara, Colombo and Head office. From 1970 to 75 he was seconded from ID to the newly formed Mahaweli Development Board as Chief Engineer (Designs), and rose to DGM. In January 1976 he returned to ID as Senior Deputy Director (Designs). In Sep 1980 he became Additional Director of Irrigation and in Oct 1981 Director of Irrigation
He realised the need for updating our design standards. He started writing his (now famous) “Technical Notes” and “Technical Guidelines” which were handwritten, with calculations done manually and later with a pocket calculator and typewritten (no computers then!) by his secretary and issued in small stapled booklets. These notes were hungrily devoured by the staff. Those notes, and his, “Data for Costing” became a source of invaluable data and knowledge which was sorely lacking not only in the Irrigation Department, but all allied users of water, earth, cement and steel.
Here is Ponrajah’s next secret. He made it a point to sit almost every night, even while on inspection, with a cigarette in his left hand, and a pencil in his right hand and write in his very steady, legible small handwriting on pads of paper, which his secretary later typed out.
In 1981 the Village Irrigation Rehabilitation Programme (VIRP) under World Bank funding was implemented to rehabilitate 500 village tanks in the next few years. Using the existing design standards, it was found that some of the tank spillways became extremely long and not practicable. The design practice then was to use storm durations of 24 hours to calculate the spillway length. Ponrajah found that storms of even a few minutes or hours could be critical to the design of a spillway. He tapped the computing capability of the newly acquired Radio Shack computer to calculate the peak discharges for storm durations differing by one minute to identify the critical storm. His method enabled us to design the 500 tanks in a record time with the computer churning out up to 50 reservoir designs in a day. Ponrajah took the trouble to make his design methods available to all of us and for posterity by writing his famous Booklet, “Design of Irrigation Headworks for Small Catchments”. This booklet is a design standard used in the department even now.
Murapola Reservoir in the Kandy District was the first major reservoir that benefitted from his new design methods. By reducing the original 12 feet diameter morning glory spillway to a five feet diameter Hume pipe spillway, the construction time was significantly shortened for President J. R. Jayewardene to inaugurate it on schedule in August 1984.
Irrigation Department paid tribute to Ponrajah by putting together all his Technical Notes and posthumously publishing a hard-cover book in 1988.
Ponrajah, on February 4, 1985 (his 58th birthday) cleared his desk and retired from the Irrigation Department. This was a great loss to the department. We all feel that if he remained for at least another year, the Irrigation Department and our country would have been richer by his further contributions.
He passed away on January 26, 1986. He is no more. But his memory and his works will live long in all of us. With these scholarships in his honour the Irrigation Department Officers are ensuring he lives forever amongst us.
by N. Madusuthanan
(Retd. Senior Deputy Director of Irrigation