It was the end of 1977, and a new Government, with the promise of economic liberalization, and the removal of controls and restrictions hitherto inhibiting public life, had come in to power, raising new hopes and aspirations amongst the people. The economic policies and strategies of the new Government were a marked departure from those which had pervaded the nation till then.

A star-studded Cabinet of Ministers under President J. R. Jayewardane had taken over the reins of Government. Ranasinghe Premadasa the new Prime Minister was entrusted with key human settlements development portfolio of Local Government, Housing and Construction, and the unenviable task of ‘housing the nation’ as a priority. The Government’s intervention in housing, especially in providing shelter to the rural and urban poor till then had been minimal and the energies of the state had been focused on regulatory activities like rent control and the implementation of a ceiling on housing ownership, bringing in serious disincentives for private sector investment in housing.

Rural, urban and estate sectors

The Government’s intervention in the provision of low and middle income housing on the then prevalent ‘provider’ basis had been meagre, limited to a few schemes like Maligawatta and de Soysapure, while there had been a few experimental efforts in aided-self-help-housing for the urban and rural poor. The new Government had proclaimed from its election platforms that it will immediately embark on the construction of 100,000 houses. But the actual gap in housing was much higher, estimated closer to 300,000 in the rural, urban as well as estate sectors. The task of the new Prime Minister was a formidable one indeed.

Ranasinghe Premadasa was a man of fortitude and vision. He embarked on his daunting task with determination, courage and with a singleness of purpose. He immediately realized that the existing laws and institutions in the human settlements sector were completely archaic and inadequate to reach the envisaged development goals. Thus his first and most immediate task was to form a core-group under the Secretary to the Ministry to conceive, design and establish an appropriate legislative and institutional framework for human settlements development in the country. I had just taken up position as the Secretary to the Ministry. The others in the core-group, if I remember correct, included K. H. J. Wijeyadasa, the Additional Secretary, Dunstan Jayewardene, the then Commissioner of National Housing, Neville Gunaratne, Director of the Colombo Master Plan Project, W. D. Ailapperuma and Disa Weerapana from the Planning Division of the Ministry and Michael Joachim and Chandra Wickremainghe from the National Housing Department.

Human settlements development

The core-group examined the country’s requirements and the past experiences as well as the experiences and examples in human settlements development from other countries. The outcome was two innovative new Laws, the Urban Development Authority Law of 1978 and the National Housing Development Authority Act of 1979, which gave birth to two renowned institutions, which stand tall and mighty to-day, providing an impetus to planned and focused human settlements development in the country. The National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) was officially established in May 1979, with Dunstan Jayewardene as the Chairman, and Messers. N. D. Peiris, Chairman of the National Water Supply and Drainage Board, Jehan Cassim, Chairman of the Common Amenities Board, Ajantha Wijesena, Chairman of the Building Materials Corporation and M. B. C. de Silva, a Director of the Treasury, as the Members of the Board. I recollect that the Prime Minister was emphatic that the membership of the Board should be limited to those from the public sector holding positions related to the objectives of the new institution.

The new institution was not allowed even breathing space. It had to plunge in to the implementation of the ambitious 100,000 houses program and fulfilling the election campaign promise of constructing that number of houses. This manifold programme consisted mainly of the development of several new housing estates, infilling of existing housing projects like Maligawatta, a new urban housing programme for the poor in the derelict areas in the City of Colombo and suburbs, and an electoral housing programme in rural areas.

Presently well established housing estates like Raddolugama, Ranpokunagama, Mattegoda, Rulmalgama, Jayawadanagama, Crow Island and Hantane were all constructed under the 100,000 houses programme. Large urban low-income housing projects came to be established in Goonasinghepura, Dias Place etc. In the implementation of this programme, The NHDA and we in the Ministry faced a problem in the lengthy and time-consuming procedures for selecting consultants and contractors for the new constructions. This obstacle was overcome with the establishment of a novel mechanism to award contracts on a negotiated basis to consultants and contractors nominated by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, which proved quite transparent and fast. Incidentally, this was also the first occasion that the services of the local private sector architects and contractors were harnessed in a coordinated and an organised manner to undertake the Government’s development work.

In the early 1980s, with economic stagnation looming all over the world, especially in the developing world, the Government was forced to prune down its public expenditure, including that on the direct construction housing program. However the Prime Minister was not daunted. Under his direction, we set out to examine the very concept of what the Government should do to increase the housing stock and improve housing conditions. A new Task Force under K. H. J. Wijeyadasa was appointed by the Prime Minister to take up this challenge, which included D. Ailapperuma and Disa Weerapana form the Ministry, Dunstan Jayawardene, Chairman, Conrad de Tissera, general Manager, and Susil Siriwardena, the then Deputy General Manager for Rural Housing, from the NHDA, N. D. Peiris from the National Water Supply and drainage Board and Newton Wijesinghe, Director of Town and Country Planning. It was this Task Force which conceived and developed what can be identified as the world’s first known ‘enabling process’ in housing development. Dunstan and Susil, I recollect played a key role in the Task Force, fine-tuning its concept and developing implementation guidelines and mechanisms. We were rather skeptical of the acceptability of the ‘enabling concept’ as politicians were used to the provision of houses under a welfare state. But the Prime Minster embraced and adopted it fully, and became its leading promoter and advocate. The Million Houses Programme, launched in 1984, and its implementation methodologies, reflected this new ‘enabling’ concept and the historical shift from ‘provider’ with its high public expenditure to ‘enabler’ and supporter of individual, family and community efforts.

The core of the Million Houses programme, which consisted of six sub-programmes, was small housing loans to low-income rural and urban households to enable them to build or improve their houses. In both sub-programmes, a considerable range of ‘housing options’ were made available. The Housing Options and Loans Package developed by the NHDA for this purpose, was unquestionably, an innovative and a unique mechanism at that time.

The National Housing Development Authority, since its establishment, has been in the forefront of the development efforts of the Government. In addition to introducing and nurturing a ‘housing culture’ amongst our people, the Authority gave leadership to many other visionary initiatives introduced by the Prime Minister. There was, for example, the decentralization of decision-making, planning and implementation of housing development to District and Local Authority levels, and to low-income communities themselves, largely through elected Community Development Councils. Such a decentralization process had never been conceived before.

The NHDA, I must say, was the forerunner of many other innovations in reaching the people. The ‘Jana Saviya’ movement, the ‘Gramodya Mandala’ concept, even the garment Factories Programme were inspired by the enabling concepts and mechanisms developed and established by the NHDA to reach people, especially the poor and the disadvantaged. The present HDFC Bank was another initiative by the NHDA and was founded as a Building Society under the National Housing Act, while the present National Equipment and Machinery Organization was launched under the NHDA to support the 15,000 villages grass root level development programme conceived by the Prime Minister. I recollect that the NHDA lent its support to the establishment of the Khettarama (presently R. Premadasa) Stadium to provide open public space and recreational facilities in a highly congested core-city area of the City of Colombo. Several years after the launching of the Million Houses programme, the World Bank emulated the enabling process and the strategies developed by the NHDA to formulate its Community Water Supply and Sanitation Project of the Ministry of Urban Development, Housing and Construction, - another credit to the NHDA.

The role of the National Housing Development Authority, during my tenure as Secretary to the Ministry- I held the post from 1978 for a decade until Ranasinghe Premadasa ascended to the Presidency- has been one of focus, commitment and of unfailing service to the nation and its people.

When the United Nations declared an ‘International Year of Shelter for the Homeless’ in 1987, on a proposal mooted by Prime Minister Premadasa, it was the NHDA which was entrusted with the implementation of the IYSH local agenda. This task, included activities which, ranged from an extensive awareness campaigns on the “Jagath Niwasa Wasara”, through this establishment of IYSH demonstration projects up to the coordination of the erection of the Golden Canopy at the ‘Sri Dalada Maligawa’ in commemoration of the International Year. It was the NHDA which played the leading role in the annual Intergrade District Development thrust (Gam Udawa) launched with great success and acclaim by the Prime Minister. The Authority, in my view, always played its role, not only with competence, commitment and finesse, but with great pomp and pageantry as well.

My decade of service as the Secretary, working with a tireless visionary national leader was an exhilarating experience indeed, and the NHDA was an integral component of that experience. I record here, my appreciation of all those who were at the helm of affairs of the Authority during those fledging years. During my tenure, the Authority was capably led first by Dunstan Jayewardene, the former Commissioner of National Housing as its first Chairman, and then by W. D. Ailapperuma who succeeded him in 1984: both experienced and competent administrators.

Career public servants

The first General Manager was Conrad de Tissera, an engineer specialized in housing, who was succeeded by Susil Siriwardena, another committed senior administrative service officer. They were all career public servants of high calibre and high integrity and I am proud to have worked with them and to have been associated with them, in those glorious days of the NHDA. I recollect that the early staff of the NHDA was carefully handpicked not only on the basis of their qualifications but also on their experience and aptitude for hard work.

Looking back at the history of the NHDA, I do believe that those selections had proved correct in that they all stood up to the relentless drive of the Prime Minister, and to the nurturing of a ‘housing culture’, except for a very few failed the test of time. Some of those early appointees like E. Annalingam, C. A. Wijeyaeera and L. S. Palansuriya are still holding helm in State institutions. Unfortunately, some of the pioneers, including Dunstan and the other Members of his first Board of Directors, are no more. I take this occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the National Housing Development Authority to salute all those who built up and nurtured this mighty institution over the years.

(R. Paskaralingam, an Honors graduate from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, joined the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service in 1960. He was the Secretary of the Ministry of Local Government, Housing and Construction from 1977 to 1989, during which period, he also held the posts of Secretary to the Ministry of Highway and Chairman of the Urban Development Authority. He assumed the post of Secretary to the treasury in December 1989 when the Premadasa Presidency commenced). 

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