Don Gunasena Athukorala: An old school engineer with impeccable character and integrity – by Emeritus Professor Lakshman Jayathilake

Don Gunasena Athukorala: An old school engineer with impeccable character and integrity – by Emeritus Professor Lakshman Jayathilake

Courtesy Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

A Birthday Tribute

Don Gunasena, an eminent Sri Lankan, now 96, lives with Irangani, 94, in Sydney, Australia. Irangani was always by Don Gunasena’s side playing a strong and supportive role.  She was the calming force in Don Gunasena’s life always willing to ride the challenges that were thrown his way and provided steadiness through the ups and downs.  She took charge of the home front, brought up three children that allowed Don Gunasena to focus on his career. 

I would like to pay tribute to Don Gunasena Athukorala for his contribution to Sri Lanka’s civil engineering profession as an early practitioner, setting high standards for engineers technically and ethically.

Don Gunasena was one of the pioneering engineers who joined the State Engineering Corporation (SEC) at its formation in January 1962.  He soon rose to become deputy to the eminent A.N.S. Kulasinghe, founding chairman and general manager.  Together with other engineers, the Kulasinghe-Athukorala duo grew the Corporation to become the most admired employer-of-choice for aspiring young engineers.  Don Gunasena went on to become chairman of the SEC himself.  He was also the founding Director of the Headworks division of the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka.

Don Gunasena with wife Irangani

Don Gunasena was born in Aruggoda, Panadura to Don Hendrik Athukorala and Dona Carolina Athukorala in 1924.  Don Hendrik and my grandmother were brother and sister, and as such my father and Don Gunasena were first cousins and had a remarkably close relationship. I got to know Don Gunasena very well from my childhood days. He married Irangani Seneviratne, the only sister of a school friend of mine, Nihal Seneviratne, former Secretary-General of Parliament and the late Nissanka Seneviratne, Professor of Physiology, Faculty of Medicine of the University of Colombo, founding Director of the Post-Graduate Institute of Medicine (PGIM) and Director, World Health Organisation (WHO) in New Delhi.

Although I did not have contact with Don Gunasena on a professional basis, as I was an academic and he was a practitioner, I had a strong personal relationship with him.  In 2010, I wrote the foreword for his book the Buddha’s Principle of Relativity that is based on the doctrine of Paticca Samuppada or dependent arising.  This book is a bold attempt to throw some light into solving the mystery of the combination of thought, memory, emotion, intellect and consciousness that we call the mind. 

As a person with an interest in science and technology, it appealed to me as a fruitful effort. He authored and published the book on Amazon at the age of 86 years – a noteworthy effort.

Don Gunasena gained his Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering from the University of London in 1950.  He obtained his professional qualifications and membership of the Institution of Civil Engineers (MICE) of the United Kingdom in 1955 after completing his practical training at Willment Brothers and Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick & Partners. Upon his return to Sri Lanka, he joined the Department of Industries as an Assistant Engineer and worked there until he joined the State Engineering Corporation on its formation in January 1962.

During a programme of rapid industrialisation by the Sri Lanka government in the 1960s, the SEC built large industrial complexes such as factories for steel, tyres, cement and so on throughout the country.  The SEC also built the iconic Colombo Planetarium and the hemispherical shell Chaitya in Kalutara that had interesting designs.  However, with the change of government in 1970, the then Housing and Construction Minister, Peter Keuneman, required that leadership roles of corporations within his ministry were given to members of the Communist Party.  This was the beginning of a brain-drain that set off a series of departures of senior engineering talent to foreign countries, in some cases, permanently and to the private sector in Sri Lanka. Don Gunasena, too, left for the United Kingdom and worked for Sir William Halcrow & Partners that included a stint as a Field Civil Engineer with Esso Petroleum in Libya.

He returned to Sri Lanka in 1972 to work for the Mahaweli Development Board.  In 1977, he re-joined the State Engineering Corporation, this time as Chairman, to oversee the constructions for the accelerated Mahaweli River diversion scheme and public housing programmes under the Gam Udawa initiative.  He later established the Headworks Division of the Mahaweli Authority and undertook the management of all completed constructions for management, maintenance, and administration.

Senior civil engineers in Sri Lanka will recall Don Gunasena’s name with fond memories.  He was an innovative engineer that introduced modern construction techniques to the country, was competent and carried his engineering tasks with flair. He also took an unstinting interest in developing the professional capabilities of young engineers who worked for him.

Above all, Don Gunasena will be remembered for his pristine character with uncompromising integrity and good intent.  His technical competence combined with integrity made him exemplary for future generations of engineers.

I wish Don Gunasena and Irangani well.

(Emeritus Professor Lakshman Jayathilake was Dean of the faculty of Engineering and Vice Chancellor, University of Peradeniya and Chancellor, Wayamba University.  He served as Director General of the National Institute of Education, the Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technical Education and was chairman of the National Education Commission, Presidential Commission on Youth and a faculty consultant of the Colombo Plan Staff College in Manila.)

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