Standing the test of time

By B. Sirisena Cooray

The day President Premadasa died, I lost a part of my life. While on the campaign trail for the Colombo Municipal Council elections I had an encounter which reminded me, once again, however great my loss is, it is not mine alone. I met nearly 400 families living in community centres and playgrounds almost one and a half years after the tsunami. This is not unusual since most of the tsunami refugees are still living in temporary shelters. What is unusual is that these people are not in some remote area but in Colombo itself. They live in Bokkuwatte (Mutwal), Rockhouse camp (Lokupokuna), Bona Vista Park Community Centre, St. Mary’s Community Centre and Wistwyke Park, For these people the promises of shelter have remained promises, broken and forgotten. And because of their presence, other residents of the area cannot make use of these community centres and playgrounds.

Perhaps the publicly stated belief by many tsunami refugees that had President Premadasa been alive they could have had the three month commemorations for their loved ones killed by the tsunami in their brand new houses is a bit of an exaggeration. But every refugee would have definitely been provided with a new house by the first anniversary of the disaster. ‘Shelter for all tsunami displaced by December 2005’ would have been the goal and it would have been set within the first couple of weeks of the disaster. There would have been no foundation stone laying ceremonies since President Premadasa did not believe in them, The only ceremonies he permitted were the ones held at the completion of a project.

And that goal would have been met — because that was the will of Ranasinghe Premadasa. When he wanted something for the people he did not permit any obstacle to stand in the way. Time, money, energy and whatever else that was necessary was found, to reach the stipulated target in the stipulated time.

No postponements were tolerated. Non-achievement was a non-option. All of us who worked with him knew that and that knowledge galvanised us into surpassing ourselves.

For Mr. Premadasa a crisis was not a problem to be solved but an opportunity to be grasped. That is the way he would have looked at the post-tsunami challenge of rebuilding; he would have seen it as an opportunity to build better houses and roads and other public facilities and better human relations.

One of his priorities would have been to rebuild the affected areas in the North and the East as showpieces. That would have been his own way of confronting the LTTE and winning over the Tamil people.

A development army
The country knows that we could have risen successfully to the tsunami housing challenge had President Premadasa been alive to guide us. And yes, to goad us — because he would have done that too. There would have been no time taken off, no holidays, no workshops or seminars. No one would have dared to shirk since none of us knew when he would be around to check things out.

We also knew that nothing escaped that eagle eye. In a sense we were like a development army under the leadership of the most exacting Commander-in-Chief Each programme was a battle that had to be won. Not winning, even a draw was simply not on the agenda.

Whenever I read in newspapers or see on TV about tsunami refugees, braving the monsoon rains or the tropical heat in their inadequate shelters I think of President Premadasa. I thought of him that day as I visited those community centres and play grounds in Colombo and talked to their despairing residents. I could just imagine the plight of any bureaucrat or parliamentarian who permitted such neglect, if Mr. Premadasa was alive. A flurry of calls and everyone even remotely responsible would have been summoned to face the neglected people. A tongue lashing would have been just the beginning. A target date would have been set and within a few months the affected families would have been living in their own houses. Until the target was met none of uswould have been able to relax. Cats on hot tin roofs would have had an easier time than us, until the task was successfully completed.

But then, such neglect would not have happened had he been around. I do not think it was just fear of his wrath which made officials at every level work during his time. He turned each development programme into a collective effort.

As I said we did feel like an army; a fraternal spirit prevailed. And though the work was hard and we were on the edge most of the time, it was also exciting. The challenge inspired us into doing our best. And when it was successfully over we felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction of a job well done. I think what young people nowadays call the ‘feel good factor’ also played a very important role in the Premadasa development effort.

In my book on President Premadasa, ‘Development Adventures’ was the title I gave to the chapter dealing with some of the mega projects of that time. I got the idea from something he said — he said that development should not be tedious, that it should be exciting and adventurous. I think one of the main reasons for the Premadasa development miracle was that he did succeed in instilling a sense of adventure in his development programmes.

As a major participant in almost every one of them I can say with certainty that though they were nerve racking they were never boring. Perhaps all those unalterable deadlines and massive targets brought us closer to heart ailments or ulcers; but they added colour and flavour to life.

Another reason for the success of President Premadasa was that for him the political colour of a person did not matter. You could be UNP, SLFP, a leftist, anybody. So long as you could work, had ideas, knew how to get things done, there was a place for you. And there was work for you. That was one of his greatest contributions — that he gave us an opportunity to work, to make a contribution, to feel that we have done something worthwhile. That ability was unique to him because none of his successors had that.

Immediately after the tsunami I wrote to the then President offering to undertake the task of rebuilding one of the affected districts, including a district in the North or the East. I even offered to find the funds; at that moment it was possible. After many weeks I got a reply from TAFREN which informed me that they will contact me if they needed my services. They did not. Nor did they succeed in building a mere 80,000 houses, a fraction of what was undertaken and achieved during the Premadasa years.

Ranasinghe Premadasa, his vision and his work, has stood the test of time. No part of Sri Lanka, however remote, remained untouched by his massive development programme. And what is not being done in the development field today is what was done and would have been done had he been there to guide us, with his vision, his concepts, his energy and his commitment.

Thirteen years after his assassination President Premadasa stands vindicated. He is missed today more than he was in the immediate aftermath of his dead. What we, those who were close to him, understood him and loved him, knew then, the country is beginning to realise now. The increasingly audible, multi-lingual, lament —

‘Aney Premadasa Mahattaya hitiyanam’ (‘if only Premadasa was alive’) —is the most appropriate tribute to a man who gave his life for the betterment of his people. [Source: Daily Mirror]

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