Posted on May 23rd, 2023


Premadasa took a special interest in housing. The United Nations recognized President Premadasa as one of the Asian pioneers of the Shelter for All programmes, said Pramod de Silva.

It was President Premadasa who proposed at the United Nations, to declare an International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. The proposal was unanimously accepted at the 37th session of the United Nations General Assembly (1982) and the year 1987 was declared as the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless.

Back home Premadasa tried to provide houses for those who did not have any. He planned to provide 100,000 houses   in his first term and a million in his second term. With this in mind, in 1980, Premadasa started his Udagama project. He introduced the slogan Gama Hada Rata Hadamu.

For an Udagama, officials identified the poorest families in a given village. A land area was identified and developed.  The Housing Ministry, then stepped in to build 25-50 housing units with all facilities at this location for these families.  The construction phase was a collective effort of the whole village. While the Government supplied the funds and earthmoving/construction machinery, the villagers had to get together to build each house, using their time and labour. The houses had pipe borne water and a home garden. Each Udagama was also   given a school, post office, health facilities, temple, kovil, or church.   

Premadasa created hundreds of udagamas, said Bradman Weerakoon.  The first Uda Gama” was in Badalgama, a poor village in Yapahuwa electorate, Kurunegala district. .Another Udagama was in Kukulewa   in the Anuradhapura District .Each new Udagama was given an appropriate name that evoked something special about the area.

 Udagama openings became regular monthly affairs. Premadasa personally attended each opening ceremony. There was an elaborate ceremonial opening attended by the MPs of the district, the Maha sangha and Tower Hall artistes. Gam Udawa gained international recognition rapidly and several other countries emulated the programme with success, said Pramod de Silva.

There was also an annual event known as Gam Udawa. Each year in June President Premadasa organized a national Gam Udawa, to showcase the Government’s housing and other development programmes. All Ministries, Departments and State agencies were required to display what they did at each festival. .” It was a week long event staged in different parts of the country. Premadasa usually spent the entire week in the village. He was undeterred by the criticism that the Gam Udawa was wasteful.

Gam Udawas were held in  Yapahuwa (1979) ,  Ampara,(1980)   Tissamaharama(1981)   Dambulla (1982) Nikaweratiya   (1983)  Anuradhapura(1984)    Hingurakgoda (1985)   Embilipitiya (1986) Kataragama (1987)  Anamaduwa(1988)  Mahiyangana (1989)   Pallekelle (1990) Kamburupitiya (1991) Buttala,(1992).The last exhibition, ‘Gam Udawa 1992,’ held at Buttala, was the best and most extensive of its kind,  said CA Wijeweera.

 Gam Udawa grew in might and variety and expanded every year. It went on adding novel features and exploring ways of reaching the masses. Public institutions as well as private sector firms vied one another to get a better exposure for their stalls. Participation in the exhibition was considered a signal honor amongst public servants and those from the private sector.

The annual ‘Gam Udawa’ exhibition which commenced in Ampara on a modest scale, grew and expanded over the years to become not only the major showcase of the government’s development efforts, but also the major annual attraction for the people across the country, especially the rural folks who were rather starved of leisure and entertainment. It became the event to look forward to, and the people flocked in thousands to the exhibition, said CA Wijeweera. A million people attended said Bradman Weerakoon.   

Gam Udawa provided fun and frolic for those who attended. There was the annual Gam Udawa cycle race. There were plays such as Maname and puppet shows. Gam Udawa also gave an opportunity for rural folk to see structures they could not otherwise see. My     recall is that there were models of the Dalada Maligawa, Parliament and so on at these Gam Udawas.

The exhibition structures were planned as permanent structures.  Pallekelle Gam Udawa site was planned to accommodate the Central Provincial Council administration complex, and it is still in use. Kamburupitiya Gam udawa structures at the exhibition site were to accommodate the hospital centre later and Mihintale Gam Udawa buildings were to provide infrastructure for Rajarata University.

All government agencies performed at peak efficiency during that period in the Gam Udawa area, said Bradman Weerakoon.  Roads would be repaired, bridges and culverts strengthened, government buildings painted, and everything for miles around would be spruced up.   Flowers bloomed and the fountains danced during the exhibition period. All flags, not only on the site but anywhere in the district, had to be flying and the flagpoles had to be straight, not slanting.

The exhibition also brought out many innate and hidden talents amongst its vast numbers of workers at all levels, both from the public and private sectors. They often proved most innovative and creative. I remember the enterprising officials of the Agricultural Department, who 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.

 For the few of us involved in its planning, operation, detail and glamour, it was an unparalleled experience. Planning started one year ahead.  Ministers and departments were co-opted by more than gentle persuasion”.

Over the years, the Gam Udawa core management team evolved as a very tight-knit, high-caliber structure. Its planning and management came under the personal guidance and monitoring of President Premadasa and the direction and co-coordination of the then Housing and Construction Minister Sirisena Cooray.

The planning and management of the exhibition was structured around a carefully-established system of committees. Each committee had been assigned precise tasks and clear lines of delegation.  There were about fifteen committees reporting to the Main Committee.

The exhibition management structure proved to be solid, united and dynamic and worked with a singleness of purpose. I do not remember 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, said CA Wijeweera.

 I remember Mr. Ailapperuma issuing what was titled as ‘Orders of the Day’ at midnight. 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 these orders and take them wherever the President was physically present 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 bureaucratic machinery par excellence. 

There was criticism. Nicky Karunaratne observed that at each Gam Udawa Premadasa built a temple, church, kovil and mosque  there.  What was the need to build an additional temple when the place already had a temple? There was a reason.  It provided the cover to build other religious buildings  as well. The intention was to break the monopoly of the Sinhala Buddhist culture. Karunaratne says this was the work of CIA and was funded through Saudi Arabian government. When it came to the Dambulla Gam udawa, the chief priest of Dambulla temple had interrupted the ceremony, kicked the foundation stone and declared that he would not permit the buildings. Till then everything went well with other faiths creeping into the villages, concluded Karunaratne. 

When Gam Udawa started we received a request for a generator to provide electricity at the Gam Udawa grounds, said GAD Srimal. The CEB being a commercial operation, we said that at least the cost must be met. This was not to the liking of the President and his staff.  They contacted the Workshop Engineer of the CEB and got the generators without approval.

When I visited the Gam Udawa site at Buttala, I saw the generators being operated by CEB employees, continued GAD Srimal. On my return made discrete inquires and came to know the Prime Minister’s officers had contacted the Workshop Engineer and had unofficially obtained these generators. The department had decided that it was best to keep silent. The Workshop Engineer was later appointed Chairman of CEB. (Continued)

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