President Premadasa at the inauguration of Gam Udawa in 1985
The twenty-third of June is remembered and commemorated as it is the birth anniversary of the great visionary leader, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who kindled the hopes and aspirations of the people of this country, especially of the poor and the downtrodden.
But to us, veterans in the Housing Ministry, it is more than just his birth anniversary. It was the opening day of the annual ‘Gam Udawa’ exhibition. The 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. Its grandeur and exhilaration persisted from the end of one to the beginning of the next. For the few of us involved in its planning, operation, detail and glamour, it was an unparalleled experience marked with vision, innovation, precision and delegation.
Gam Udawa grew in its might and variety and expanded every year. During its celebrated history, it went on adding novel features and exploring ways of reaching the masses. It achieved prestige to an extent that participation in the exhibition was considered a signal honour amongst public servants and those from the private sector. Public institutions as well as private sector firms vied one another to get a better exposure for their stalls. It attracted all kinds of artistes – musicians, dancers, dramatists, painters and poets. It displayed exquisite taste in arts, music and dancing, and a thorough understanding of our culture. Renowned artistes like Amaradeva, Jothipala, Mohideen Baig and Latha adorned the stage. The rural population was provided with the opportunity to witness stage dramas like ‘Maname.’ The exhibition even attracted a puppeteer to hold daily performances. It never degenerated into a gaudy or noisy ‘Bajawwa.’ It never attracted hooligans or thugs. The cultural traditions of the country were always given the pride of place. One of its noteworthy achievements was its discipline and decorum. During the almost one-and-a-half decades of the exhibition, there have never been fights, scuffles or drunken disorderliness; neither have there been thefts, harassments or other infringements of the law. Cleanliness and orderliness were given prominence. Gam Udawa may have achieved such a state of discipline because the movement was based on the principle, the Premadasa vision, of trusting people, or it may have been due to the extra vigilance paid by the police and law enforcement officers, with the President gracing the exhibition almost every day.
During the almost one-and-a-half decades of the exhibition, there have never been fights, scuffles or drunken disorderliness; neither have there been thefts, harassments or other infringements of the law
I believe the last exhibition, ‘Gam Udawa 1992,’ held at Buttala in the Moneragala District, was the best and most extensive of its kind. I myself was fortunate to be a member of its core management team as the director responsible for harnessing private sector participation. For me, it was the most challenging yet most enjoyable managerial experience ever.
Over the years, the Gam Udawa core management team evolved as a very tight-knit, high-calibre 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 affable, dependable and resourceful Mr. Cooray provided political leadership and direction that the exhibition management depended and trusted upon. He always stood as the buffer between the occasional wrath and impatience of the President and us, the ground workers, who managed various aspects of the exhibition under great stress.
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. At the apex of the management structure was the Gam Udawa Main Committee chaired by the then Secretary to the Ministry, Mr. Ailapperuma. He was also the Director General of the exhibition, with Siri Hattotuwegama, the then Secretary to the Presidents’ Fund as his erstwhile deputy. Mr. Ailapperuma and Mr. Hattotuwegama formed the pivot around which the whole management structure turned: only they were fully-conversant with the total picture of the exhibition. Each committee under its own acknowledged leadership had their own precise tasks, and I recollect that there were about fifteen committees reporting to the Main Committee. The two most important committees with the heaviest responsibilities were the exhibition ground committee chaired by Dr. Michael Joachim, the then Additional Secretary to the Ministry and the District Integrated Development Committee chaired by Conrad de Tissera, the other Additional Secretary. Other committees included the ‘Janahamuwa’ Committee chaired at first by Bimal Padmaperuma in his role as Chairman of the State Engineering Corporation, the Construction Committee chaired by Y.M.I. Bandara, Director of Buildings, the Housing and Model Villages Development Committee chaired by Susil Siriwardana, the Media and Publicity Committee chaired by Lakvijaye Palansuriya, the Processions Committee chaired by T. Mahalingam, the Religious Affairs Committee chaired by K.M. Abeysinghe and the Security Committee chaired by A.C. Lawrence, a retired DIG who was the Security Advisor to the Ministry. As the Chairman of the Private Sector Stalls Committee, my task proved to be quite easy as the private sector was clamouring to participate, but I had to settle their claims for what they perceived to be better turf on the exhibition ground. The private sector was also much concerned and fuzzy about their facilities, entry passes, servicing their stalls and so forth, and it was my committee’s responsibility to attend to their requirements. But my committee turned out to be one of the greatest contributors to the income of the exhibition.
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. 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.
The Gam Udawa annual programme was not a lone effort by the Housing Ministry, but a national programme supported by the government. We received steady and ungrudging support from the powerful and respected R. Paskaralingam, Head of the Treasury, who ensured resources were made available to the implementing agencies in the integrated District Development Programme. M.B.S. Fernando, Chairman of the Road Development Authority, was a tower of strength. He did up all the roads in the district and within the exhibition grounds. Charitha Ratwatte, Head of the Youth Affairs Ministry, extended total support of the NYSC to the exhibition. It was a treat to watch the glamorously-dressed NYSC bands parading the exhibition grounds at regular intervals. M. Marasinghe Perera, the then Colombo Municipal Commissioner, performed the unenviable task of keeping the grounds and its environs spotlessly clean. There were many others like Jehan Cassim, the then Chairman of Bank of Ceylon, Sunil Jayaweera, the then Director of Sports in the Education Ministry, M.A.G. Perera, the then Chairman of the Electricity Board, Peter Perera, Head of the Insurance Corporation, who were closely associated with the exhibition and spent long hours with us in its operation.
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 under the personal direction of their minister, Dharmadasa Banda, 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. There was G.M.H. Wijedasa, we called him “Duwana Wije,’ then a director in the Environmental Authority, who was assigned the task of Stores Manager. He, with the assistance of his daughter, digitized the whole stores management, and could produce any requirement, from a doormat to bedroom or office furniture at very short notice. One ever-present, non-complaining figure was Sarath Jayatillake, the Working Director of SEC, who was the sole custodian of the stage, its lights, sounds and the decor. Mr. Sarath, and his able assistant, Milinda Gunawardena were also in charge of the daily flag-hoisting ceremony, which they performed with great finesse. There was Shelton Fernando of the Town and Country Planning Department, who tended to landscaping of the Gam Udawa site, ensuring that the flowers bloomed and the fountains danced during the exhibition period. One charismatic figure was T. Mahalingam, the then Chairman of the Common Amenities Board, the organiser of processions and pageants. I recollect him leading the pageant every day, in his white suit and white cap, riding a white roadster. There was Bimal Padmaperuma, Chairman of SEC, a silent and a resourceful worker, who was tasked with the construction of a “Chaithya” at each site, which proved to be a quite complicated task and a heavy responsibility. He was also the organiser of the annual Gam Udawa cycle race. Erananda Hettiarachci, the current Director General of SLBC was the ever present liaison with the TV and the media. He was also the compere at all principal events, especially at which the President was present. Lakvijaa Palansriya, the present Chairman of NHDA was responsible for media coverage and produced quite colourful souvenirs and invitation cards. Mr. Madugalle, Chairman of the Water Board, was our elder statesman. He ensured the supply of drinking water and coordinated other infrastructure facilities, and was an ever-present figure in the Secretariat, always dependable to handle an emergency in the absence of the Director General or his deputy. A quite fascinating personality was B. Danwatta, the then Chief Accountant of the Ministry, who was Chairman of the Committee on Accommodation. Gam Udawa required vast amounts of temporary accommodation at all levels and Mr. Danwatte had a stressful job. His peculiarity was that he always carried his accommodation register under his arm and tolerated no interference even from the high and the mighty. There was ‘Kodi’ Dissanayake, the then Chief Clerk in the Ministry, who was entrusted with the peculiar task of ensuring that all the flags, not only on the site but anywhere in the district, were flying and flagpoles were not slanting. He and his team had a 24-hour job. From the private sector came many innovative individuals: Jayasiri Semage who created classic artworks and pandals and Wimaladasa of Renuka Electricals who created beautiful and colourful designs with his lights and illuminations. Mr. Wijesekara of Parakrama Radio was quite innovative with the public address system and his tasteful and sober selection of music to be broadcast. There were many others, recounting about whom will take many more pages. The crux of the success was that they all formed a great team, bound, as I mentioned earlier, in a singleness of purpose. Minister Sirisena Cooray and Ministry Secretary Ailapperuma, extremely patient, resourceful and unflappable, were able to identify capabilities, assign responsibilities correctly and eke out the best out of everybody. They always stood by us, the foot-workers.
Much more can be related of that exhilarating experience of planning, organising and managing the annual exhibition. But I conclude by paying a tribute to those Gam Udawa greats who are no longer with us: Michael Joachim, Siri Hattotuwegama, T. Mahalingam, Bimal Padmaperuma, Marasinghe Perera, N.D. Peiris, D. Peter, S. Perera, Electrical Engineer Gurusinghe, Site Engineer Hemasiri and Mr. Wimaladasa of Renuka Electricals amongst them. May they attain Nibbana.
(C.A Wijeyeweere is a Chartered Valuer by profession who joined the managerial cadre of the National Housing Development Authority at its inception in 1978, and rose to be its General Manager. Presently, he is the Chairman of the Condominium Management Authority).
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