One man's crusade against a falling cement plant
By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando
A local Sunday paper, on 18 June 2017 carried an article on the (Galle) Ruhunu Cement Plant's (RCP) Golden Anniversary, quoting several of the old employees' memories and experiences from the time of its beginnings as a State-owned enterprise. RCP was initially set up under the Factories Act of Parliament in 1954; today under a private company name 'INSEE', it has become the manufacturer of premium brands of cement, which have the highest market share and the largest customer base in the South.
While going through my archives of old newspapers, I came across an editorial in a Sinhala newspaper of 31 May 1989, which focussed on the Ruhunu Cement Plant that was described as a State Corporation that has had an increase of 35 per cent in production due to the management-worker cooperation, unity and dedication, introduced by a new dynamic and young General Manager who devised and introduced new concepts of organizing 'working committees' formed out of the workforces that induced the progress as much as stimul
ated the workers, thereby improving worker attendance towards a mutual advantage.
The young General Manager referred to in that editorial was Ananda Karunarathne, who is known to the writer. Ananda having read the Sunday article headlined "INSEE Cement's Ruhunu Cement Plant marks 50 years" was disturbed to detect unpardonable inaccuracies and omissions in the history of the cement plant. A foreign private company (INSEE) currently owns the Ruhunu Cement Plant.
The Sinhala editorial's comments on the satisfactory progress, associated with its increase in production of the Ruhunu Cement, focused on the rare techniques adopted by the new General Manager. The article however managed to bring out Ananda's nostalgic memories of the plant, from the time he was appointed as a Works Manager in1985. Since the Sunday article did not elaborate much of its history as much as he knew about it, before and after the privatization, Ananda Karunarathne decided to part with some of his personal experiences and knowledge, going back to 32 years, and contacted the writer to accomplish this task.
In 1980 Ananda Karunarathne joined the Sri Lanka Cement Company as a Grade 1 Mechanical Engineer. He was posted to Puttlam Cement Factory initially. Within four months of his appointment, he had to take over as the Quarry Manager at Aruwakkuru site, which was bordering Wilpattu 25 km away from the Puttlam Plant at Palavi. The sudden decision to transfer him, according to Karunarathne, was due to an abrupt management decision of the corporation, when the Quarry Manager decided to throw in the towel overnight, causing the plant to come to a standstill, and due to the unavailability of raw material (limestone) supplies quarried at Aruwakkuru.
The limestone is the key ingredient to make the clinker that is later milled and produced into cement. Ananda who had zero experience was exposed to the art of quarrying and faced a new challenge to find a solution when the quarry staff had declared that there was insufficient raw material for the plant. This became the biggest challenge Ananda had to face, but he resolved the problem to the entire satisfaction of the workings of the quarry and also ended up achieving the Fellowship of the Institute of Quarrying (FIQ) of Nottingham, United Kingdom. His efforts have made the Puttlam plant and the quarry operate up to date.
According to Ananda Karunarathne, the Ruhunu Cement Works (RCW) was the brainchild of Dr. Wijayananda Dahanayake, one time Sri Lanka's Prime Minister, and a popular Parliamentarian who held numerous portfolios in the government. Ananda remembers W. Dhahanayake’s ambition to initiate the Galle Harbour project long years ago, as there was a dire need of a port to bring clinker to the plant. The Galle plant did not have the integration, as in the case of Puttlam Works, except for grinding and packing.
In Sri Lanka there are two integrated plants available for cement manufacture, one at Puttlam and the other in Kankasanturai (KKS), which was built in 1956. In the 1980s another plant was built at KKS but did not last long due to the Eelam war. So, currently, only the Puttlam Plant is operating as an integrated plant in Sri Lanka that too being 100 per cent owned by foreign nationals.
Prior to the transformation, Ceylon Cement Corporation was under the purview of the Ministry of Industries. When R. Premadasa was the Minister of Housing (during President J.R. Jayewardene's era) he managed to get the corporation under his umbrella and turned a loss-making establishment into a profitable enterprise.
The first thing he noticed, when Ananda took over the Ruhunu Cement works was the sluggishness of employees without any specific work to do. He then figured out the most important aspect of running a factory was to motivate and deploy the workforce towards productivity. He was also astonished to observe the entire plant in an exquisite slumber, while the surrounding environment around the plant that consisted of approximately 100 acres of land, part of which embraced a neglected coconut plantation with a heavy growth of weed and grass, had turned into a free haven for local folk to drive herds of cattle into the plant premises for feeding, without them having to spend a single cent on animal feeds.
As the first reaction, Ananda authorized the employees to allow cattle into the works premises on the premise that owners first had to pay Rs. 500 to the corporation (for which an official receipt was issued), plus having to pay Rs. 300 to the individual employees of the corporation for their efforts of tying the herd. In trying to eradicate such problems, several petitions against him reached the MP for Galle Dr. Dahanayake, who was the then Minister of Co-operatives. Minister Dahanayake, in his informal fashion, forwarded the petitions back to Ananda, with a footnote remark stating, "I see something is happening there." When the problem was completely eliminated, it was found that a few of the employees themselves were responsible for driving the cattle into the plant area as a lucrative business.
Ananda's prime concern was to find ways and means of increasing the revenue at the Galle Plant. Once he was struck by the presence of some concrete sleepers in an abandoned area of the premises. It was later revealed that his predecessor had launched a project to produce concrete sleepers for the Ceylon Government Railways but had not been successful in convincing the CGR authorities. Simultaneously a sales representative advised him about a Japanese contractor's interest in sourcing ¾ metal for the construction of a hospital in the Galle District, and the Japanese was willing to pay an advance of Rs 500,000 towards the contract. Ananda did not dilly dally, but immediately accepted an advance payment of Rs 500,000 to supply the requisite metal and issued an official receipt.
This made the sales representative hit the panic button thinking as to how on earth they could meet such a challenge? Ananda, as cool as a cucumber, pacified all those who were panic stricken and managed to accomplish the task and deliver the order on time, which managed to raise a few eyebrows of course, and the rest is history.
A decent area of the Galle Cement Plant was scattered with piles of concrete sleepers, concealed by overgrown weed, due to a decision taken by a former chairman of the corporation, under the Ministry of Industries, to make concrete sleepers with the idea of negotiating with the CGR to replace the existing wooden sleepers, but the CGR having rejected the offer on the basis they were not up to their specification. The worthy intentions of the previous chairman to make the idling workforce industrious had turned into a disaster having spent a good sum of money and resources, which only ended up littering the yard with concrete sleepers. In such a hullaballoo, the Ministry of Transport, by then, had entered into an agreement to set up a company in Sri Lanka with an Australian investor. This gave rise to a political battle between ministries, and a final decision was reached to discard the Australians by the CGR.
Political Ping-Pong game
The whole saga then became a highly political Ping-Pong game so that no one was willing to touch it, even with a barge pole. However, Ananda plucked up courage to seek an appointment with an extremely powerful Secretary, Mahinda Ilayapperuma to try and explain the situation. Beyond everyone's conviction Ananda managed to persuade the Ministry Secretary, and he ordered the General Manager Railways to commence transportation of concrete sleepers to the railway yard from the Galle factory. The operation was complete within three weeks. In addition, Ananda received a cheque for Rs 2 million being the initial price quoted by the Ruhunu works with a commendation from the Secretary to the Ministry of Housing R. Paskaralingam, who happened to be the Chairman of the Cement Corporation concurrently.
Another eyesore was a quantify of 5,000 metric tons of clinker lying for nearly one year due to seepage, spreading over the yard at the plant premises. It is a well-known fact among experts that seawater (NaCl) is an archenemy for cement for expansion, but Ananda had a different opinion from that of the experts.
Since clinker had been in the open yard for quite a long period of time, subject to rain and wind, it had well and truly weather-beaten or crinkled. However, despite a lot of resistance and opposition from the laboratory staff, Ananda decided to experiment with it by studying its chemistry and grinding the residue.
To be continued….
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