Premadasa: Pioneer of rural progress
REMEMBERED: Today we are commemorating the birth anniversary of
President Ranasinghe Premadasa. A giant among leaders, he spent his
entire adult life working indefatigably to improve the quality of life
of the people of Sri Lanka, especially the poor and the disadvantaged.
President Premadasa was a man with a singleness of purpose. He
devoted his whole life to serving of the people and to realise 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 an all the challenges that he had to overcome.
One of the greatest qualities of the late President was his
determination - his unwavering commitment to his mission for the country
and her people.
He was always in a hurry because he felt that there was much to be
done but only a little time to accomplish them.
In his effort to fulfil the tasks envisioned by him, he became great
leader of his time, one who set targets and achieved them, who inspired
those around him, who was methodical and disciplined. He kindled hope
amongst the people.
The Government which came to power in 1977, on a platform of
modernisation and economic liberalisation, launched an unparalleled
housing development effort under initiative of the then Prime Minister
This programme reached all sections of the people and even the
remotest areas of the country. This effort earned great credibility
especially among the rural and urban poor and eventually received much
international acclaim for its commitment, equity and innovation.
Its hallmarks were courageous leadership - the leadership provided by
Premadasa - political commitment, innovation and competent
This commitment of Sri Lanka to the cause of housing, specially for
the poor and disadvantaged, was recognised by the international
On a proposal made by him, the United Nations declared the year 1987,
as the âInternational Year of Shelter for Homelessâ.
The unparalleled housing effort launched throughout the country,
inevitably led to one of the greatest achievements of President
Premadasa, the âMillion Houses Programmeâ (MHP).
The MHP was a radical departure from the conventional shelter
programmes of the past. It was one of the first programmes, anywhere in
the world, to adopt an âenabling strategyâ.
In launching the Million Houses Programme, President Premadasa
expressed his confidence in the self-reliance and the initiative of the
The abandoning of the direct housing programme, which would have
provided enormous opportunities to serve political supporters, was a
rare act of courage.
President Premadasaâs enormously successful housing development
programme was only the core of his all encompassing effort in rural
development, which he termed the âVillage Re-awakening Movementâ.
He believed that successive Governments had followed urban centered
policies and as a result, thousands of villages had been neglected. The
villages remained poor while the lionâs share of development benefits
went to urban areas.
The slogan he developed, âbuild the village and thereby build the
nationâ, was not a mere propaganda line; it symbolised his vision for a
better future for the poor and downtrodden people, the vast majority of
whom live in rural areas.
His other innovative development efforts like the âJanasaviyaâ and
the garment factories programme carried forward his vision for the
improvement of the quality of life in Sri Lankaâs rural poor.
The annual âGam Udawaâ programme was not adequately understood at
that time. It consisted of the implementation of a comprehensive
development programme embracing a selected District.
The âGam Udawaâ integrated development programme aimed at
accelerating the improvement of the quality of the life of the people
through the provision of their basic needs, such as basic infrastructure
The participation of the whole Government and mobilising of all
available resources within the district towards this objective was his
Rural people benefited immensely and participated happily in this
effort of their leader to give them dignity and self assurance. Much has
been spoken and written on President Premadasaâs successful people
oriented programmes like the âJanasaviyaâ, Garment factories programme
and decentralisation of administration to divisional secretariats.
He should also be remembered for the legal and institutional
framework he created to take Sri Lanka on the road to development.
The important institutions he established for this purpose include
the National Housing Development Authority, the Urban Development
Authority, the Central Environmental authority, the âJanasaviyaâ Trust
Fund, the Housing Development Finance Corporation and the Institute for
Construction Training and Development, among others.
He was never hesitant to change laws, introduce new laws or set up
innovative new institutions in his quest to usher in developmental
benefits to the people.
Today, his enormous contribution to the protection and management of
our environment seems to be forgotten. When the 1977 Government came to
power, serious preoccupation with environment 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 that fresh problems arose and
others, which existed before, took on an entirely new dimension.
Premadasa provided the leadership and pioneered framing of
legislation and establishing the institutional framework for the
protection and management of the environment.
It was under his leadership and direction, that the environmental
dimension was introduced to the development planning process for the
first time in Sri Lanka.
President Premadasaâs determination, courage and resourcefulness to
achieve the objective of uplifting the quality of life of his people
encompasses all fields - all spheres of life in the country. He was
particularly concerned about religion, culture, arts and sports.
He established a large number of sacred cities, notably in Kandy and
Kataragama and personally directed Cultural Triangle activities. The old
Tower Hall at Maradana, which was in a dilapidated state, was renovated
and the Tower Hall Theatre Foundation was established to foster
theatrical arts and to assist artistes.
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 modernisation of the dilapidated Sugathadasa Stadium, the
construction of the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium and the construction of
an international cricket stadium with floodlights at Kettarama, which
today bears his name.
With this construction, Sri Lanka became the second country after
Australia, to have a cricket stadium with facilities for day-night
President Premadasa was an extraordinary human being whose ambition
was to lead this country on an extraordinary path towards prosperity and
improved quality of life.
He did much to change not only the life of the people, but also the
way they think. He had implicit trust in the willingness and self
reliance of the people - especially the ordinary people, unsung and
unheard of. He was committed to safeguard our country, our nation and
the dignity of our people.
Today he is no more with us and the lasting tribute that we can pay
to this exemplary leader is to contribute towards achieving his vision
for the people of our country.
The writer is a former Secretary of the Ministry of Urban
Development, Housing and Construction. As the then Chairman of the
National Housing Development Authority, he directed the implementation
of the Million Houses Programme.