RANASINGHE PREMADASA: THE PEOPLE’S PRESIDENT | Sunday Observer

RANASINGHE PREMADASA: THE PEOPLE’S PRESIDENT

The opening ceremony of 68 house Model Village - Rajasisugama in the Nivitigala Electorate on 16 August 1984 with President J. R. Jayewardene, Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa and Education Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as chief guests. This Model Village was developed with the participation and support of students and teachers of Royal College, Colombo.
The opening ceremony of 68 house Model Village - Rajasisugama in the Nivitigala Electorate on 16 August 1984 with President J. R. Jayewardene, Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa and Education Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as chief guests. This Model Village was developed with the participation and support of students and teachers of Royal College, Colombo.

Today, we commemorate the memory of the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, a visionary and a leader of our time, who, during his whole adult life worked indefatigably to improve the quality of life of the people of his country, especially the poor and the disadvantaged.

President Premadasa was a man with a singleness of purpose. He devoted his whole life to serve the people and to realize his vision of a better and prosperous Sri Lanka. He never faltered from his chosen path in spite of all the obstacles he had to face and the challenges he had to overcome. One of the greatest qualities that the late President had, was his determination - the determination to carry through his mission for the country and her people. He was always in a hurry because he felt there was so much to do, and only so little time to accomplish them. In his effort to accomplish the tasks envisioned by him, he became the most motivated leader of his time, a leader who set targets and achieved them, a leader who inspired all around him, a leader who was methodical and disciplined, and above all, a leader who kindled hope among his people.

Modernization

The Government which came to power in 1977, on a platform of modernization and economic liberalization, launched an unprecedented human settlements development effort under the initiative of the then Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, which reached all sections of people even in the remotest areas of the country. This effort earned great credibility, especially, among the rural and the urban poor and eventually, received high international acclaim for its commitment, equity and innovation.

Its hallmarks were courageous leadership - a leadership provided by the Prime Minister and afterwards President Premadasa, political commitment, innovation, decentralization and competent implementation. This commitment of Sri Lanka of human settlements development, especially, for the poor and the disadvantaged, was recognized by the international community and on a proposal mooted by President Premadasa, then Prime Minister, the United Nations declared the Year 1987, as the ‘International Year of Shelter for Homeless’.

The unprecedented human settlements development effort launched throughout the country, inevitably led to one of the most remarkable achievements by Predident Premadasa, the “Million Houses Program” (MHP). The MHP was a radical departure from the conventional shelter programs of the past. It was one of the first programs, anywhere in the world, to adopt an enabling strategy”. The ambitious goal of the President in this, a program of both, the public and private sectors, was to reach far greater numbers than ever before, a million or more mainly poor families - at a lesser cost to the nation, but with far greater satisfaction to the actual families and their communities.

In launching the MHP, Prsident Premadasa expressed his confidence in the self - reliance and the initiative of the people themselves, rather than continuing with a much more politically attractive direct construction program. The abandoning of the conventional direct housing program, which would have provided enormous opportunities to serve political supporters, was a rarely seen courageous act by a political leader in the world.

When we usually think back of President Premadasa’s achievements, what immediately comes to the fore is his enormously successful housing development program. Most people little realize that it was only the core of his all encompassing effort in rural development, which he termed the ‘ Village Re- awakening Movement”. He believed that successful Governments had followed urban centered policies and as a result, thousands of villagers in the country had been more or less neglected.

The villagers remained poor while the lion’s share of development benefits went to urban areas. The slogan he adapted, “ build the village to build the nation”, was therefore, not a mere propaganda jargon, but the very core of his vision for a better future for the poor and the downtrodden, the vast majority of who lived in villages and rural areas. His other innovative development efforts like the “Janasaviya” and the garment factories program carried forward this same vision for the improvement of the quality of life of Sri Lanka’s poor.

Memories of President Premadasa also bring memories of the annual “ Gam Udawa” program, which at that time was not adequately understood or appreciated, and was often misinterpreted. Actually, it consisted of the implementation of a comprehensive development program embracing a selected district at the annual commemoration of the launching of the “Village Re- awakening Movement”. The general objectives of the “Gam Udawa,” as President Premadasa envisioned, were to accelerate the improvement of the quality of life of the people with the satisfaction of their basic needs. This was achieved by providing urgently needed infrastructure and services in these under developed areas.

Principal strategy

The participation of the whole Government and mobilizing of all available resources within the selected district towards this objective was his principal strategy. Of course, the rural people benefited immensely and participated happily and willingly in this effort of their beloved leader to provide them dignity and self respect.

Much has been spoken and written on President Premadasa’s successful people oriented programs like the “Janasaviya”, the Garment factories program, decentralization of the administration to divisional secretariats, etc. But it is essential that he also be remembered for the legal and institutional framework he created to take Sri Lanka on the road to development. He is the founder of most of the present institutions in the human settlements sector.

He realized at the outset that there is little point in developing sophisticated policy instruments which cannot be implemented, because the required organizational capacities are absent. The institutions that he established for this purpose include the National Housing Development Authority, Urban Development Authority, Central Environmental Authority, the “Janasaviya” Trust Fund, the Housing Development Finance Corporation and the Institute for Construction Training and Development, among others. He was never hesitant to amend laws, introduce new legislation or set up new institutions in his quest to usher in development benefits to his people.

Today, his unenviable contribution to the protection and management of the environment seems to have been forgotten. When the 1977 Government came into power, serious preoccupation with environmental problems was a relatively new phenomenon in Sri Lanka. While there had been certain expressions of concern for issues relating to the environment, it was only with the massive development effort launched by the new government in 1977 that fresh problems arose, and others, which existed before, took on an entirely new dimension.

President Premadasa, then as Prime Minister provided leadership and pioneered the framing of legislation and established the institutional framework for the protection and management of the environment in the country. It was under his leadership that the environmental dimension was introduced to the development planning process for the first time in Sri Lanka.

President Premasasa’s determination, courage and resourcefulness to achieve the objective of uplifting the quality of life of his people encompassed all fields, and spheres of life.

He was particularly concerned about religion, culture, the arts and sports. He directed the establishment of a large number of sacred cities, notable of which were in Kandy and Kataragama and personally co-ordinated the Cultural Triangle activities. The old Tower Hall at Maradana, which was in a dilapidated state, was renovated and the Tower Hall Theatre Foundation established, to foster theatrical arts and assist artists.

Cricket stadium

A very significant task carried out under his direction was the raising of the fallen and shattered giant Buddha Statue at Maligawila. In the sphere of sports, the late President was instrumental in the renovation and modernization of the then dilapidated Sugathadasa Stadium, the construction of the Sugathdasa Indoor Stadium and the construction of the International Cricket Stadium with floodlights at Kettarama, which today bears his name. Thus, Sri Lanka became the second country after Australia, to have a cricket stadium with facilities for day-night matches.

President Premadasa was an extraordinary human being whose sole ambition was to lead the country on an unprecedented path towards prosperity and a higher quality of life. He did much to change, not only the lives of the people, but also the way they think and behave.

He had implicit trust on the willingness and self reliance of the people- especially, the ordinary folk, unsung and unheard. He was committed to safeguard the country, the nation and the dignity of the people. Today, he is no more with us and the lasting tribute that can be paid to his exemplary leader is to contribute selflessly towards the realization of his vision for the people of the country.

The writer is a former Secretary to the Ministry of Urban Development Housing and Construction, and Chairman of the National Housing Development Authority

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