A Dedicated and Outstanding Senior Sri Lankan Engineer who loved Engineering Challenges and Innovations – Dr A.C. Visvalingam
This is the story of an individual who spent sixteen years overseas studying and working to become a professional Engineer. He gained invaluable experience on some landmark projects and returned home in 1970 to try to fulfill a boyhood dream of his to develop the river basins of Sri Lanka but was totally frustrated in just over three years of government employment. Moving out from state service, he engineered and managed several challenging projects in the private sector. He also gave freely of his time and other resources to help advance the standards and standing of his younger fellow professionals.
Visva was born in 1935 in Hatton. By 1946, he gained admission to Kingswood College, Kandy, which had a tradition of the Principal addressing its students at morning assembly as “Gentlemen of Kingswood”. The need to act in an honourable, civil, considerate and patriotic manner at all times was emphasized unremittingly. Throughout his life, Visva has adhered strictly to this ideal.
He did so well at school that the 24-member Headmaster’s Conference selected him in 1950 to represent Ceylon at the 8th Annual Daily Mirror Youth Forum in New York.
Visva passed the Senior School Certificate examination with five Distinctions, which was rather rare in those times. In 1953, he joined the University of Ceylon but found that taking notes and passing examinations was the favoured routine there, at the expense of thinking things out from first principles. He left the University in early 1954 and, after a few months, won a Japanese Government scholarship to study Japanese and, later, Agricultural Engineering at Tokyo University.
In 1955, Dr Ray Wijewardene arrived in Japan to study how the Japanese went about manufacturing two-wheeled tractors. At this time, fewer than one in a thousand Japanese could converse in English, though many could read English. As requested by the Legation of Ceylon, Visva agreed to act as pro deo interpreter for Dr Wijewardene for nearly a month as it was vacation time. Dr W, after returning to Sri Lanka, had felt compelled to go to Kandy and see Visva’s father to convince him that Visva should be sent to Cambridge University to follow the Mechanical Sciences Tripos course there.
Cambridge, London and Ghana
Visva entered Cambridge in late 1956 and graduated in 1959 with Second Class Honours. His first job was as an Assistant Engineer at W.V.Zinn & Associates, who were doing a number of high-rise buildings in Hong Kong. In 1961, by an unexpected turn of fortune, Visva was called upon to design most of the temporary works and also the main structural elements of the 30-story plus 3-basement Park Lane Hilton Hotel, which was to be the tallest reinforced concrete building in the UK then. The designs done by Visva were challenged by the Owner-Contractor’s Technical Director. The dispute was referred to the Director of the UK Building Research Station, an expert on tall buildings, who held that Visva’s approach to the designs was perfectly in order.
For his field experience, Visva joined Kaiser Engineers & Constructors, a US firm, in 1962 and went to Ghana to work on the 768MW Volta River Project as a Site Engineer to supervise construction of the main rockfi ll dam and the intake structure. The Contractor was the world-renowned Impregilo of Italy, most of whose personnel did not speak any English. Visva, thanks to his school Latin, was able to learn enough Italian within six months to communicate with the construction workers quite easily. There was also a Japanese engineer there to install the turbines who could read English but not speak it. He was delighted that there was at least one person at the site who could communicate freely with him.
Back to London
Visva returned to the UK in 1964 and joined Balfour Beatty & Co which was the Consulting Engineer for the 960MW Niger Dams Project. His main responsibility as Senior Designs Engineer was the checking of the designs of the mid-river penstock section of the 5km long rockfill/concrete dam and to design monitoring instrumentation.
In 1968, having obtained corporate membership of the IStructE (1962) and ICE (1964) and relying on his seven-plus years of post-graduation experience, Visva joined the Imperial College of Science & Technology as a Research Assistant to study “Flow through Partly-lined Conduits”. At the end of 40 months of a very heavy experimental program, Visva submitted his thesis and secured the DIC and PhD(Lond).
Return to Sri Lanka
Visva returned immediately to Sri Lanka to get down to making good on his boyhood goal. However, all his job applications to government departments, boards and corporations, made over a period exceeding eleven months, were summarily rejected.
During this period, Mr Maithripala Senanayke, the Minister of Irrigation & Power, invited Visva to be a member of a high-powered committee to advise on whether the Polgolla tunnel, under construction then, should be lined with concrete or not. Mr (later Dr) A.N.S. Kulasinghe and all the most senior engineers were insistent that the entire tunnel should be lined. The Chairman of the Mahaweli Board, Mr Manamperi, his officers and Visva were against indiscriminate lining. After much vigorous disagreement, Visva presented a solution based on simple risk analysis that Mr Kulasinghe magnanimously accepted as providing a sound reason for omitting the lining which, in 1970, would have cost Rs.22 Million (Today worth Rs.660 Million without any interest, based on conversion rate).
In April 1971, the Asian Development Bank had just given a big loan for the Walawe Project of the River Valleys Development Board at Embilipitiya and no senior engineer in government service wanted to serve in this difficult station. Visva, however, willingly agreed to be appointed Deputy General Manager (Investigations, Planning and Designs) there. About six months later, as no one was prepared to accept the post of DGM(Water Management) and get into squabbles with aggressive colonists, Visva was asked to take responsibility for this work as well. After a further six months, the DGM(Construction) resigned and went abroad and no senior engineer was willing to take on his job either. Thereupon, Visva’s post was re-designated as DGM(Civil) and all the functions referred to above were brought under its ambit. DGM(Civil) was directly in charge of 8,000 employees of many different skills and categories. When the GM was away, the number went up to 14,000 or so.
One of the most rewarding aspects of Visva’s work was the monthly meetings that he had with the Farmers’ Committees. A rare, honest politician, Mr P.O. Wimalanaga, MP for Kolonne, joined Visva in persuading them to be frugal in the use of water, to adopt rotational irrigation methods, maintain the water tightness of the individual paddy terraces, and convert from rice cultivation to subsidiary food crops wherever the soils were too permeable. However, in early 1973, the Deputy Minister in charge of the Walawe Project came to a local political rally and announced: “Don’t worry about engineers who try to control water issues. If there is not enough water in the Walawe Ganga, I shall turn the water of another river into it!” This is when Visva sent in his resignation and decided to move into the private sector.
In the Private Sector
Owing to the economic environment being highly unfavourable during 1970-1978, there was a severe shortage of investments to build new infrastructure. However, Visva found that there were many problems related to differential settlement, flooding, excessive noise, river bank erosion, ground water uplift, lack of fire escapes and so on that needed solving. Most professionals did not like to deal with these because there was a lot of finicky detail to be considered and not much fees to be earned. However, Visva enjoyed resolving such challenges and built up a reputation for problem-solving. He took no fees from individuals who consulted him about shortcomings that affected their houses and only charged fees from business entities that consulted him, starting at Rs.30/- per hour in 1974!
By 1980, the government decided to undertake several urban building projects of which Liberty Plaza was planned as a 3-tower, 17-storey project. As the Architects for the project had engaged Visva as their structural consultant on account of his high-rise experience, the government awarded this job to them. After the construction had reached the basement floor level, the Ministry concerned appointed a high-powered committee of three engineering professors and the chief engineer of the Buildings Department to look into Visva’s designs. They condemned the raft foundations as being unsuitable and predicted that the building would settle 5-8 inches (13-20 cm), which would not be acceptable. Visva, on the other hand, had estimated that the building would settle around 2 inches (5 cm). As neither side was willing to accept the other’s view, it was decided to monitor the settlement as the work progressed. During the growth of the building from basement floor to the third floor, it was found that the total settlement was only one-quarter of an inch (0.5 cm) and the negative opinions were abandoned.
Some years later, Visva was appointed Project Engineer for the 17-storey Ceylinco Seylan Towers designed by an Australian architect. The main contractor was South Korean and the building services contractor was Danish.
In 1996, the LTTE attacked the Central Bank with a powerful bomb from which flying debris set the nearby Ceylinco House on fire. The blast also caused extensive damage to the exterior façade, interior finishes, fittings and furniture of the 32-storey Bank of Ceylon HQ Building, where Visva was already busy rectifying problems of severe flat roof leakages, falling external tiling and so on.
In respect of Ceylinco House, a UK consultant and a Singaporean specialist contractor were engaged to deal with the severe fire damage suffered by the structure. A Sri Lankan Architect was engaged to upgrade the design and other features of the building. Visva was appointed Project Engineer to manage the entirety of the repair and reconstruction work.
As for the Bank of Ceylon HQ Building, the external façade, the ceilings, air-conditioning ducts and many other items had been severely damaged. This building was occupied by over 2,500 employees and had many hundreds of clients every day. The highly experienced and hardworking Maintenance Manager, Mr Earl Perera (now retired in New Zealand) very rapidly provided temporary cover to prevent the entry of rain and wind into the building. Visva worked out detailed designs and the appropriate procedures to enable the Bank to function without interruption whilst being repaired and restored. Unfortunately, after just over half of the repairs had been completed, the LTTE exploded a bomb in the Galadari Hotel premises. As the bomb was closer this time, almost all the restoration work carried out over the previous two years were damaged very badly and the repaired and restored areas had to be repaired and restored once again.
Visva’s repair scheme called for the purchase of four large, curved working platforms. As all inquiries to purchase these drew negative responses from over 30 specialist companies in eight or so countries, Visva was compelled to carry out the designs himself and have the platform fabricated locally. The design was the subject of a paper published in the December 1993 issue of the IESL journal ENGINEER.
In February 2002, Visva decided to give up his professional work entirely and devote all his energies to promote good governance in Sri Lanka.
Engineering Profession, Public Service, Arbitration, Good Governance Work
Visva was the President of the newly-formed Society of Structural Engineers, Sri Lanka, from 1991 to 1998.
Visva has functioned as a member of the Ceylon Tourist Board, a member of the Public Service Commission and the D.G. Dayaratne Committee on the SLBC.
He has also been a member of several Arbitration Tribunals with co-members who had been Supreme Court Judges (including a Chief Justice and a Lord President of the Court of Appeal of Malaysia).
He was the President of the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) from 2005 to 2018. The scores of articles he wrote on behalf of CIMOGG may be found at www.cimogg-srilanka.org.
IESL NSW Chapter would like to express their heartfelt gratitude to Dr A.C. Visvalingam for sharing his outstanding and valuable experiences with fellow engineers. This article explains that how truly challenging and beautiful engineering is once engineers put their theoretical knowledge, experiences, heart and soul into it. Sharing this maestro’s story, we would like to inspire more engineers to follow his footsteps. Dr Visva is a true Gentleman Engineer as his Principal addressed them at the school assembly back in late 1940s.
IESL NSW Chapter Executive Committee