The legacy of President Premadasa :


The twenty-third of June every year is remembered and commemorated as the birth day of that great visionary leader of our time, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who kindled the hopes and aspirations of the people of this country, especially of the poor and the disadvantaged.

But to us, veterans in the Housing Ministry, it was more than his Birthday. It was the opening day of the annual ‘Gam Udawa’ exhibition. The ‘Gam Udawa’ exhibition, which commenced in Ampare on a modest scale, grew and expanded over the years to become not only the major showcase of the Government’s development effort, but also the major annual attraction for the people around the country, especially the rural people who were rather starved of leisure and entertainment. It became the event to look forward to, and the people flocked in their thousands to the exhibition. Its grandeur and the exhilaration persisted from the end of one to the beginning of the next. For the few of us, who were involved in its planning and operation, its detail and glamour, it was an unparalleled and exhilarating management experience, marked with vision, innovation, precision and delegation.

The ‘Gam Udawa’ exhibition grew in its might and variety and expanded every year. During its celebrated history, it went on adding new items, new features and novel ways of reaching the ordinary people of this country. It achieved unheard of prestige to an extent, that participation in the ‘Gam Udawa’ was considered a signal honour amongst public servants as well as those from the private sector. Public institutions as well as private sector firms fought with one another to get a better exposure for their stalls. It attracted all types and kinds of artistes–musicians, dancers, dramatists, painters and poets. It displayed exquisite taste in arts, music, and dancing and a thorough understanding of our culture. Renowned singers like Amaradeva, Jothipala, Mohideen Baig and Latha adorned the stage. The rural population was provided an opportunity to watch stage drama like “Maname.”

‘Gam Udawa’ movement

I remember that the exhibition even attracted a puppeteer to hold daily performances. But the ‘Gam Udawa’ exhibition never degenerated in to a gaudy or the noisy ‘Bajawwa.’ It never attracted hooligans or thugs. The cultural traditions of the country were always given the pride of place. One of its most noteworthy achievements was its discipline and decorum. During the almost one and half decades of the exhibition, there have never been fights, scuffles or drunken disorderliness; neither have there been even thefts, harassments or other infringements of the law. Cleanliness and orderliness were given the pride of the place.

The ‘Gam Udawa’ may have achieved such a state of discipline and decorum because the whole ‘Gam Udawa’ movement was based on the principle, the Premadasa vision, of trusting the people, or it may have been due to the extra vigilance paid by the police and the law enforcement officers, with the President of the Nation gracing the exhibition almost every day.

The last exhibition, the ‘Gam Udawa 1992’ held in Buttala in the Moneragala District, I believe, culminated all previous exhibitions and became the best and the most extensive ever. I myself was fortunate to be a member of its core management team as the Director responsible for harnessing private sector participation, and play a major role in its organisation. For me, it was the most challenging but most enjoyable managerial task that I ever experienced.

Over the years, the Gam Udawa core management team evolved as a very tight knit, high calibre structure. Its planning and management came under the personal guidance and monitoring of President Premadasa and the direction and co-coordination of the then Minister of Housing and Construction, Sirisena Cooray. The affable, dependable and resourceful Mr. Cooray provided the political leadership and the direction that the exhibition management depended and trusted upon. He always stood as the buffer between the occasional wrath and impatience of the President and us, the ground workers, who were managing various aspects of the exhibition under great stress.

The planning and management of the ‘Gam Udawa’ exhibition was structured around a carefully established system of Committees. Each Committee had been assigned precise tasks and clear lines of delegation. At the apex of this management structure was the ‘Gam Udawa’ Main Committee, chaired by the Secretary to the Ministry, Ailapperuma. He was also the Director-General of the exhibition, with Siri Hattotuwegama, then the Secretary to the Presidents’ Fund as his erstwhile Deputy. Mr. Ailapperuma and Mr. Hattotuwegama formed the pivot around which the whole management structure turned: only they were fully conversant with the total picture of the exhibition and its allied activities. Each Committee under its own acknowledged leadership, had their own precise tasks, and I recollect that there were about fifteen Committees reporting to the Main Committee. The two most important Committees with the heaviest responsibilities were the exhibition ground committee chaired by Dr. Micheal Joachim, then the Additional Secretary to the Ministry and the District integrated Development Committee chaired by Conrad de Tissera, the other Additional Secretary. Other Committees included the ‘Janahamuwa committee chaired at first by Bimal Padmaperuma in his role as Chairmen of the State Engineering Corporation, the construction committee chaired by Y M I Bandara, Director of Buildings, the Housing and Model Villages development Committee chaired by Susil Sirivardana, the Media and Publicity Committee chaired by Lakvijaye Palansuriya, the Processions Committee chaired by T. Mahalingam, the Religious Affairs Committee chaired by K. M. Abeysinghe and the security committee chaired by A. C. Lawrence, a retired DIG who was the Security Advisor to the Ministry. I as the Chairman of the Private Sector stalls Committee, had the responsibility for harnessing private sector participation in the exhibition. My task proved to be quite easy as the private sector was clamouring to participate, but I had to settle their claims for what they perceived to be better turf on the exhibition ground.

The private sector was also much concerned and fuzzy about their facilities, entry passes, servicing their stalls etc. and it was my committee’s responsibility to attend to their requirements, but my Committee, in the end turned out to be one of the highest contributor to the income of the exhibition.

The Exhibition management structure proved to be solid, united and dynamic and worked with a singleness of purpose. I do not remember any single even a minor failure in the complex spectrum of activities, during the period in which I served as a Committee Chairman, and a Director of the Exhibition grounds. There were well tried and well documented procedures for reporting, monitoring, servicing and for occasional ‘fire-fighting’. They never failed. I remember Mr. Ailapperuma issuing what was titled as ‘Orders of the Day’ at mid-night. These ‘orders’ which included each and every activity in minute detail for the following day were distributed to all key-officials. I recollect that the President’s security detail waited to collect the ‘Orders’ and take them wherever the President was physically present on the following day. The Programme, as issued, was strictly adhered to and could not be changed other than by the Director-General or his Deputy. It was a bureaucratic machinery par excellence.

The ‘Gam Udawa’ annual programme was not a lone effort by the Housing Ministry, but a national programme supported by the whole Government. We received steady and ungrudging support from the powerful and respected R. Paskaralingam, the Head of the Treasury, who ensured that resources are made available to the implementing agencies in the integrated District Development Programme. M. B. S. Fernando, the Chairman of the Road Development Authority was a tower of strength, who did up all the roads in the District and within the Exhibition Grounds. Mr. Charitha Ratwatte, then the Head of the Youth Affairs Ministry, extended the total support of the NYSC to the exhibition.

Public and private sectors

It was a treat to watch the glamorously dressed NYSC Bands parading the exhibition grounds at regular intervals. M. Marasinghe Perera, the Colombo Municipal Commissioner performed the unenviable task of keeping the grounds and its environs spotlessly clean. There were many others like Jehan Cassim, Chairman of the Bank of Ceylon, Sunil Jayaweera, the Director of Sports in the Education Ministry, M A G Perera, Chairman of the Electricity Board, Peter Perera, Head of the Insurance Corporation, who were closely associated with the exhibition and spent long hours with us in its operation.

The ‘Gam Udawa’ Exhibition also brought out many innate and hidden talents amongst its vast numbers of workers at all levels, both from the public as well as from the private sectors. They often proved most innovative and creative. I remember the enterprising officials of the Agricultural Department, who under the personal direction of their Minister, Mr. Dharmadasa Banda, successfully installed a paddy field and a vegetable garden, ready for harvesting during the exhibition period. They committed one whole year on this task and ultimately won the prize for the best stall. There was G M H Wijedasa, we called him “Duwana Wije’, then a Director in the Environmental Authority, who as assigned the task of ‘stores Manager’.

He, with the assistance of his daughter, computerized the whole stores management, and could produce any requirement, from a door-mat to bed-room or office furniture at very short notice. One ever-present, non-complaining figure was Sarath Jayatillake, the Working Director of the SEC, who was the sole custodian of the stage, its lights, sound and the decor. Sarath, and his able assistant, Milinda Gunawardena, were also in charge of the dailyflag-hoisting ceremony, which they performed with great finesse. There was Mr. Shelton Fernando of the Town & Country Planning Department, who tended to landscaping of the Gam Udawa site, ensuring that the flowers bloomed and the fountains danced during the exhibition period. One charismatic figure was T. Mahalingam, then the chairman of the Common Amenities Board, the organizer of processions and pageants. I recollect him leading the pageantevery day, in his white suit and white cap, riding a white roadster.

There was Bimal Padmaperuma, Chairman of the SEC, a silent and a resourceful worker, who was tasked with the construction of a “Chaithya” at each site, which proved to be a quite complicated task and a heavy responsibility. He was also the organiser of the annual ‘Gam Udawa’ cycle race. Erananda Hettiarachci, the current Director-General of the SLBC was the ever present liaison with the TV and the media. He was also the untiring compere at all principal events, especially at which the President was present. Lakvijaa Palansriya, the present Chairman of the NHDA was responsible for media coverage and produced quite colorful souvenirs and invitation cards. Mr. Madugalle, the Chairman of the Water Bard, was our elder statesman. He ensured the supply of drinking water and co-ordinated other infrastructure facilities, and was an ever present figure in the Secretariat, always dependable to handle an emergency in the absence of the Director-general or his Deputy. A quite fascinating personality was B. Danwatta, the Chief Accountant of the Ministry, who was the Chairman of the Committee on Accommodation. ‘Gam Udawa’ required vast amounts of temporary accommodation at all levels and Danwatte had a stressful job. His peculiarity was that he always carried his accommodation register under his arm and tolerated no interference even from the high and the mighty.

There was ‘Kodi’ Dissanayake, the Chief Clerk in the Ministry, who was entrusted with the peculiar task of ensuring that all the flags, not only on the site but anywhere in the District, were flying and flagpoles were not slanting. He and his team had a 24 hour job. From the private sector came many innovative individuals: Jayasiri Semage who created classic artworks and pandals and Wimaladasa of the Renuka Electricals who created beautiful and colorful designs with his lights and illuminations. Wijesekara of the Parakrama Radio was quite innovative with the public address system and his tasty and sober selection of music to be broadcast.

There were many others, recounting about whom will take many more pages. The crux of the success was that they all formed a great team, bound, as I mentioned earlier, in a singleness of purpose. Minister Sirisena Cooray and Ministry Secretary Ailapperuma, extremely patient, resourceful and unflappable, were able to identify capabilities, assign responsibilities correctly and eke out the best out of everybody. They always stood by us, the foot-workers.

Much more can be related of that exhilarating experience of planning, organizing and managing the annual ‘Gam Udawa’ exhibition. But I conclude by paying a tribute to those ‘Gam Udawa’ greats who are no longer with us: Michael Joachim, Siri Hattotuwegama, T. Mahalingam, BimalPadmaperuma, Marasinghe Perera, N. D. Peiris, D. Peter S. Perera, Electrical Engineer Gurusinghe, Site Engineer Hemasiri, and Wimaladasa of Renuka Electricals amongst them. May they attain Nibbana.

(The writer is a Chartered Valuer by profession, who joined the managerial cadre of the National Housing Development Authority at its inception in 1978, and rose to be its General Manager. Presently, he is the Chairman of the Condominium Management Authority)


Visit Sri Lanka's Largest online shop. Over 125,000 unique categories such as Fresh Flowers, Cakes, Food, Jewllery, Childrens Toys and other Sri Lankan e-commerce categories. Low delivery cost to most cities here and free delivery in Colombo.

Add new comment