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Negotiating Power and Constructing the Nation: Engineering in Sri Lanka

Witharana, Bandura Dileepa

This book argues that engineering is not just an object of science, an artifact or a technical programme, but also a symbol, a worksite, a conceptual space, a community or even a myth. It is within this broader understanding that three very diverse engineering sites in Sri Lanka are used as case studies to discuss the way in which Sri Lankan engineering is enmeshed with Sinhala nationalism. The three sites are the Aberdeen-Laxapana Hydro Electric Scheme — the first ever hydro electric project implemented during the British colonial times; the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project — the mega multi-purpose engineering project implemented in post-Independence Sri Lanka with a focus on River Mahaweli, and the popular discourse on King Ravana that is widespread among the Sinhalas in recent times that showcases the character of Ravana from the Hindu epic Ramayana as a Lankan engineer.

Using the three case studies, the book illustrates how an understanding of Sri Lankan engineering is used to facilitate the members of the ‘Sinhala nation’, as an imagined community, to look back towards a perceivably grand past, as well as to look forward to visualize a common future.

At another level, Negotiating Power and Constructing the Nation is about the material study of technology and the social study of nations and nationalism that can be placed at the crossroads of Sri Lankan engineering and Sinhala nationalism. The popular claim by Sinhalas that they are collectively a nation of engineering excellence is a common thread that cuts across the chapters, and proceeds to look at how and why this perception has been constructed, modified and revised over time, and also to examine the people and projects that have been included and excluded in this process.