Lowlites, Splitties, Thous and Millions Lowlites, Splitties, Thous and Millions
Lowlites - Splitties - Thou's - Millions

The Buddhist, The Businessman and the Morris Minor

Profile: Dhanapala Samarasekara

The material that follows first appeared on the People and the Planet website in 1995.

Buddhist businessman Dhanapala Samarasekara has built a car factory like no other in the world - dedicated to hand-crafting body parts that will allow Morris Minors to keep on going.

Bishakha Datta, People and the Planet's correspondent in South Asia, travelled to Sri Lanka to meet him.

It makes little sense at first. Why start a spare parts factory for a car that hasn't been manufactured for more than 30 years? Because there are still 300,000 of these cars on the roads. Because if spare parts can shore them up, these Morris Minors will go on forever. And keeping these handy humpbacks going is one way of breaking the cycle of buying cars only to dump them a few years down the road.

"Broadly the idea is one of sustainable development," says Dhanapala Samarasekara, a retired Sri Lankan diplomat who started the Durable Car Company to make body parts for Morris Minors. "We cannot do away with transport. But we should use it in a meaningful way."

Samarasekara feels that current car production and consumption patterns are inherently wasteful. The lifetime of a car in the West is 7 to 10 years, he says, not because the car has outlived its purpose - but because "there are new innovations coming up. The manufacturer has to sell out the previous model." While the automobile industry calls this phenomenon 'planned obsolescence,' Samarasekara calls it what it is: a waste. "What a wastage of human effort it is," he says, with unusual vehemence, as he talks about his company.

Basking on the edge of a green Sri Lankan rice field, the Durable Car Company must be the only one of its kind on this planet. It was started in partnership with Charles Ware, an Englishman who has been concerned with the conservation of useful things since the early 1960s. He started restoring cars after a bankruptcy made him lose his Impressionist paintings and three luxury homes. "We were two idealists in a way," says soft-spoken Samarasekara.

While he oversees the factory, Ware markets the parts in England. If this footloose collaboration allows Ware to give shape to his belief that cars - like houses - should be seen as permanent and conserved over a lifetime. Unlike modern cars, he argued they can provide people with a means of getting from A to B at only a fraction of the depreciation and replacement costs of owning a 'high-tech' car with its built- in obsolescence. The partner also values the opportunity it gives to bring jobs to Sri Lanka. "Employment was one of my primary aims," says Samarasekara, whose factory employs 35 people, all recruited by verbally spreading the word in the high-unemployment area where he grew up.

The three-year old factory - located in an area where the Sri Lankan youth revolt started - is itself a revolt against industrial convention. Traditional automobile factories are high-tech, computerized, even robotized operations. But the Durable Car Company looks like an airy shed, sounds like a giant kitchen, and is supported by ageing coconut palms that double up as pillars. "The coconut trees were already there in my land," says Samarasekara. The rambling village house where he grew up - and indulged a boyhood passion for bee-keeping - stands bang in front of the factory. "The trees had come to the stage where they had outlived their economic life, and would have had to be replanted. So we re-used them." 

Such home-spun wisdom has allowed the factory to be built at a fraction of the cost estimated by a Colombo architect. "This should be a model for the types of factories built here," Samarasekara says, with quiet pride. "We used local materials that were already there."

Manufacture is similarly rooted in an abundant local resource - labour. "There is so much tinkering talent here," says Samarasekara. A labour-intensive method is ideal also because the limited monthly demand of 1,500 spare parts makes automation unviable. "Our handicraft approach allows us to take on small orders," says Samarasekara. Each finished product - moulded out of metal by hand - bears the proud emblem "Hand made in Sri Lanka."

The handicraft approach also allows workers to escape assembly-line drudge. "In the typical factory, the human being is made part of a machine," feels Samarasekara. At Durable, a worker is not a cog in the production process

This transformation from worker to innovator is in keeping with the humble origins of the Morris Minor - which was designed by a man who tinkered his way from sweeping garage floors at William Morris to a position as a top mechanic. With its pleasant road manners, light steering, and low fuel consumption, the sturdy Minor soon became a car to swear by. Today, the car that was once called a "post-war poached egg on wheels," remains a cult classic.

For Samarasekara, the road to keeping a cult classic going has been an unusual one. Even so, he has managed to cart some of his personal beliefs along on the ride. Like Robert Pirsig who in his best-selling novel linked the art of motorcycle maintenance with Zen, Samarasekara ties the philosophy of manufacturing with Buddhism. "I believe in the Buddhist philosophy of following the middle path," he says, walking around the factory. A bunch of mechanics are hammering metal. He points to them. "There's no need to hammer the sheet for hours and hours just to say it's fully hand-made," he says. "That's ritualism." The way of the middle path? Use a machine where it saves time, advocates Samarasekara, who has written two books on Buddhism.

Such moderation also governs other arenas of Samarasekara's varied life. Like farming. This gentle Sri Lankan grows practically everything from pepper to passion fruit on his hillside farm. And although it is grown on organic principles, Samarasekara will throw in a little urea if needed. "I'm not a purist. I don't go for extremes," he says, crushing a fragrant clove leaf in his palm.

Extreme in his beliefs or not, Samarasekara's path through life does seem to have swung between polar opposites: Buddhism and Marxism, diplomacy and activism. The second son of an upper-class Sinhala family, he got involved in socialism at an early age. His Trotskyite connections proved profitable for his family tea-estate: they would receive advance warning every time a labour strike was to cripple the neighbouring estates.

Growing up on a leafy tea-estate naturally led to concern for the environment - a concern that Samarasekara also attributes to Buddhist influences. "I firmly believe what Buddha said," he says as stars start peeping out from a velvet sky. "There is no dividing line between man, tree and mountain. So everything must be protected."

In line with this belief, he has recently became involved in an effort to protect a freshwater lagoon that can be seen from his farm. The view from the hilltop farm falls away in breathtaking layers of green, blue, green, blue: paddy fields, Koggala Lake, coconut palms, Indian Ocean. "But pollution from paddy cultivation is spoiling Koggala," says Samarasekara, whose daughter has done extensive doctoral research on pollution in the lake.

A heron swoops seamlessly into the lake as a boat rows us across to Vimuth, an island that Samarasekara hopes to turn into a vegetable sanctuary.

Koggala's silent waters are worlds apart from Durable's workshop - which sounds like a perennial kitchen protest of clanging pots and pans. Yet the 60-year-old Samarasekara spans the two worlds with amazing grace. He is as excited about the prospect of setting up a wetland research centre in a wetland area, as he is that his mechanics have finally mastered the mudguard. Koggala and Durable are one in his mind