Statesman with a singleness of purpose | Daily News
President Ranasinghe Premadasa

Statesman with a singleness of purpose

President Ranasinghe Premadasa was one of the ablest and inspiring leaders that this country has ever known. He was the one man to whom this country could confide its destiny with confidence and hope. He animated everything that he did with passion and intensity. He had uncommon courage, a penetrating, ever curious intelligence, a singleness of purpose in serving his Nation and his people. His untimely death, in the prime of his crusade for his people, was a great tragedy from which our nation has not yet recovered.

But today, almost three decades after his illustrious Presidency, our present generations, especially the emerging young, are not fully aware of the great loss that the nation suffered. Neither are they aware of his brave attempts to reach the people, kindle their hopes and aspirations and usher in prosperity and modernity to his nation amidst the chaos of internal strife, insurrections and political intrigues.

Even, most of his political successors, not to mention the emerging urban middle-classes, seem to overlook the crucial role played by President Premadasa in chartering the course of our nation during the last two decades of the last century. Only the people in the villages even in the furthest corners of the country seem to still remember him, his relentless efforts and his total commitment to their well-being. They still revere him.

Today, President Premadasa is often being identified simply with his extensive housing development effort, his ‘Jana Saviya’ programme which addressed the needs of the poor and the disadvantaged and his Garment Factories programme which brought industry and employment opportunities to the village. It is rarely realized that these were only three components, three vital components of a complex and an ambitious fabric, visualized, designed and woven by him for his beloved people. This paper is an attempt to examine all those components in the fabric designed by him to reach all possible facets of public life.

Housing development

The first and foremost of these components, of course, was the much talked of, the much published and the world acclaimed housing development effort. The Government, which took office in 1977, had identified three priority programmes, the Mahaweli Development programme, the Free Trade Zone at Katunayake and the extensive housing and urban development programme, to take the country out of the prevailing economic stagnation and doldrums. President Premadasa, then the Prime Minister and the Minister of Housing, undertook the challenge issued to him with a rarely seen courage and fortitude at a time when the country had an estimated shortage of 300,000 houses. The rural landscape was dotted with substandard, makeshift and unhygienic shelters. Slums ad shanties were prevalent in Colombo and its suburbs whilst basic services, including drinking water and sanitation were almost non-existent.

However, more than the number of houses constructed or the families reached, what was more important and valuable were the strategies that were designed, developed and launched to reach the objectives. President Premadasa, the great strategist himself, realized quickly that extensive housing and human settlements development could not be achieved through the existing legal and institutional framework.

The housing sector was burdened with restrictive and punitive legislation like the Ceiling on Housing Property Law and the Rent Act while the planning of human settlements was restricted to an outdated Town and Country Planning Ordinance, which focused sacred areas and market bazaars rather than addressing the requirements of planned settlements to meet the emerging needs, especially for managing urban growth. He, with perseverance and determination, rushed through Parliament with two new development-oriented Laws, the Urban Development Authority law of 1978 and the National Housing Development Authority Act of 1979. These two innovative and forward-looking Laws, drafted through the experiences that several other Nations had gone through, laid the foundation for the comprehensive human settlements development strategy implemented since then. For the first time in Sri Lanka’s history, policy and institutional framework were put in place for managing the human settlements sector as a whole.

But President Premadas’s greatest innovation, the innovation that was acclaimed and is still talked around the world, is the breakthrough in designing and implementing the “enabling process in housing development.” This innovation was born out of necessity when it was obvious that the Nation cannot afford the direct construction of houses to meet the increasing demand. It was also born out of the President’s implicit trust in the ingenuity of the ordinary people and their self-reliance. The famed Million Houses Programme and the subsequent 1.5 million Houses Programme were born out of this innovative concept of the “enabling process”. Such an enabling process was not palatable in a country long used to welfare handouts, but the President forged ahead undauntingly implementing it until it became the norm for housing development, not only in Si Lanka but the world over. His subsequent innovations, the vital components in the fabric that he wove, the “Jana Saviya” Programme as well as the Garment Factories Programme, were founded on this ‘enabling concept’ to reach the people.

The establishment of the new legal and institutional framework enabled President Premadasa to redevelop the congested the inner-city core areas in Colombo, which he represented in Parliament. Thousands of poor families who occupied excess houses in terms of the ‘Ceiling on Housing Property Law’ were granted security of tenure, whilst the slums and shanty gardens were redeveloped with better quality housing and the provision of services. Such intensive redevelopment of inner-city core areas had never been undertaken before.

It was President Premadasa, who introduced the development of ‘Housing Estates’, now followed enthusiastically by the private sector. The first housing estates developed under his directions included Raddolugama and Ranpokunagama, in Gampaha District, Mattegoda, Jayawardenagama, Rukmale, Rukmalgama and Maddumagewatta in the Colombo District and Hantana in Kandy District.

Plight of the homeless

With the launching of the “enabling” concept, the President drew world focus to Sri Lanka as a leader in the quest to provide adequate and affordable shelter and improving the living environment of the people, especially the poor and the disadvantaged. He followed up on this initiative by mooting the declaration of an “International Year of Shelter for the Homeless” in the year 1987 as well as the declaration of a “World Habitat Day to draw continuous attention to the plight of the homeless around the world.

Implemented in parallel and association with the extensive housing development programme was the focused effort to provide potable drinking water to the populace. In 1977, when he took office, the potable water supply coverage was only 34%. He laid the foundation for the present extensive water supply system. However, until the large water supply systems became operative, he launched a programme to construct tube-wells, especially in the rural areas and in the new housing developments.

Only a few, today, are aware that it was President Premadasa who first conceived, designed and established an institutional and legislative framework for the protection and management of the environment in Sri Lanka. In 1977, when the new Government came into the office, there had been several expressions of concerns on the environment and a multitude of Laws related to the environment, it was President Premadasa, the then Prime Minister, who initiated the formulation of a National Law on the Environment. This Law, the National Environmental Act, came into operation on August 12, 1981. The new Act created the Central Environmental Authority as the policy-making and coordinating Agency for environmental protection and management and thus filled a wide and a long-felt gap created by the absence of an institutional framework to coordinate environmental policies and programmes. President Premadasa, then Prime Minister issued basic policy guidelines on the environment on August 12, 1981, when the National Environmental Act came into operation, which drew attention to the absence of an environmental dimension in development. The initial Environmental Impact Assessment Procedures in Sri Lanka's, as well as an extensive environmental awareness programme were developed under his aegis. The President also launched the formulation of a National Conservation Strategy, through stakeholder participation, which was finalized and approved by the Government in December 1988.

Another often forgotten aspect of President Premadasa’s effort is the revamping and strengthening of the construction industry. When he took over the responsibility of construction in 1977, the construction industry was completely in the doldrums. Construction output was negligible due to economic stagnation and the private sector contractors had almost ceased to function. First, he devised a methodology to harness not only private contractors but private-sector construction professionals as well, though the Chamber of Commerce, in the Hundred Thousand Houses Programme that he launched immediately after his assumption of office, providing a breathing space for the industry to get on its feet. Then he initiated a programme to systematically strengthen the industry through education, skills training, research and efficient contract management. The World Bank, at his behest, provided financial and technical assistance, first for a Construction Industry Training Project followed by the establishment of the Institute for Construction Training and Development.

Closely related to President Premdasa’s efforts to revitalize the local construction industry was his ambitious ‘15,000 villages’ development programme. In designing this extensive programme, he observed that there was a dearth of earthmoving machinery and equipment at the local level. Neither were local contractors with the skills available to undertake such work. He immediately set about the establishment of a District level depot network of machinery and equipment as well as a programme to train skilled technicians and equipment operators.

President Premadasa, it has to be reiterated, established a Ministry for the Buddha Sasana, for the first time in the history of the Nation. His interventions for the propagation, protection and nurturing of the Buddha Sasana were unprecedented. Special mention has to be made to his brave effort in re-erecting the broken and shattered historic Buddha statue at Maligawila in 1982.

President Premadasa, the locally bred politician that he was, was much concerned with the protection of the Sri Lankan culture, arts and heritage. One of his first tasks after the assumption of duties in 1977, was the repair and the rehabilitation of the dilapidated and neglected old Tower Hall Theater, which was located in the centre of his own electorate. A lover of “Nurti”, he ushered in new legislation for the establishment of the ‘Tower Hall Theatre Foundation’, as a centre of excellence for training and performance of drama and music. Subsequently, he brought the renowned Elphinstone Theater, too under the new Foundation.

But his most significant contribution to culture and heritage was the Central Cultural Fund, the establishment of which, he pioneered and regularly monitored. He, in addition, directed the development of the Dalada Maligawa sacred area, the Kataragama sacred area and the Anuradhapura old city, and ushered in a new dimension in the development and management of sacred areas.

Contribution to sports

President Premadasa was also a great lover of sports and took a keen interest in its development. The Sugathadasa Stadium, in his electorate, once the citadel of football in the country, was neglected and dilapidated. He took early action to renovate it and upgrade it to international standards, mostly funded through donations and contributions. A modern running track was laid and with the SAF games in the offing, a brand new and well equipped indoor stadium was added. A novel implementation mechanism, the Sugathadasa Stadium Board of Management, with him in the chair, was created to manage the stadia without dependence on the Government. He, with the assistance of the Colombo Municipal Council, established a brand new cricket stadium, with all required facilities, on the top of an abandoned garbage dump in his electorate. This international cricket stadium, which now carries his name, is the fourth stratum around the world to install floodlights for night games, after Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, and the first in Asia. He, through the Sugathadasa Stadium Board of Management, provided financial assistance to all other sports associations in the country to strengthen them.

The present generations do not seem to be aware of President Premadasa’s interventions to improve the quality of Governance in the Nation. The first such intervention was the strict implementation of the recommendations of the “Youth Commission” on recruitment to public services purely on qualifications and merit. The second was the decentralization of the administration to the Divisional level and the third was the establishment of ‘Gramodaya Mandalayas’ to harness local and village level participation in the development effort. He also introduced the concept of “Presidential Mobile Offices’ through which, the Government at its highest level reached the people.

The process the decentralization of the administration was linked by President Premadasa, to the planned development of District capitals, which had been hitherto overlooked.

As indicated in the preamble, President Premadasa animated everything he did with passion, conviction and commitment. His wish to serve his people had no barriers and he grabbed every opportunity presented to him, even the smallest. For example, very few alive today would be aware that he sponsored the first solar-powered village in Sri Lanka, perhaps the first in Asia, at “Pansiyagma” in the Kurunegala District. Very few, except the recipients themselves or their families would be aware of the assistance he rendered through the “Sevana Fund” to improve the quality of life of the poor and the disadvantaged. No one seems either to recollect the invaluable assistance he provided to poor schoolchildren through the “Sevana Sarana” Foster Parents’ scheme.

President Premadasa introduced the concept of focused integrated development. The Gam Udawa Annual Programme which focused on the integrated development of a selected District every year brought development to the people and opened a window to showcase the Government's development efforts. This programme covered Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Kandy, Puttalam, Badulla, Matara and Monaragala Districts in successive years.

Another innovative activity conceived by President Premadasa was the construction of gravel roads, improving and expediting connectivity, especially in rural areas.

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