President Kumaratunga and Gam Udawa

by S. J. Anthony Fernando
In an effort to show that the P.A. Government had done much more during its seven year administration than 17 years of UNP rule President Chandrika Bandaranaike in one of her election campaign speeches has cited the instance of the Gam Udawa Programme and branded it as mere planting sods of grass and nothing else. It was a birthday bash wasting large sums of money, she has said.

This statement shows to what extent the President is out of touch with reality which is manifest in most of her utterances in the past few years . It is no secret, except for those who had been living out of Sri Lanka for a considerable period of time, that the Gam Udawa Programme also known as the Udagam or Village Reawakening Programme had resulted in the development of several hundreds of villages, many in the remotest parts of the country with provision of housing, electricity, common amenities and facilities.

Coupled with this the deep wells programme provided drinking water to water starved villages. Even today when one travels about the country one cannot miss some of these villages. The programme which touched the hearts and minds of the rural folk brought fame and popularity to the President Ranasinghe Premadasa and ultimately propelled this man of the masses to be the President of the country With his demise the village reawakening died a natural death with people now longing for his policies and programmes.

Perhaps the President, when she referred to Gam Udawa may be having visions only of the Gam Udawa exhibitions held annually to commemorate the Village Re-awakening Programme. Even taking the Gam Udawa exhibitions into account, it is glib talk that it is merely planting grass. Millions of people who had thronged these exhibitions and the people living in the villages around these Gam Udawa exhibition sites would vouch how these exhibition helped to re-awaken the villages, providing them with avenues of employment and development as well as clean and wholesome entertainment.

Usually an undeveloped and backward area is chosen as the site of the Gam Udawa Exhibition and after the exhibition which lasts around ten days from June 23rd the permanent infrastructure development is used for a public utility purpose of the area.

Whole townships and villages in the district receive massive infrastructure development such as housing, electricity, water supply schemes, renovation of schools, roads, public places, community centres, playgrounds etc. on account of the Gam Udawa. Even the development by other sectors in the area such as renovation of minor irrigation tanks, completion of school buildings refurbishing of public places, are speeded up for completion, construction of roads etc. are speeded up for completion.

If the President were to go to some of these sites she would see that these sites have been not merely areas for planting grass but put to good use for the benefit of the people even today.

The Gam Udawa site at Embilipitiya today is used for a host of community development programmes and the main buildings used for public good. During the period of the anniversary events, the entire township of Embilipitiya developed.

The Gam Udawa site at Anamaduwa too is now a sprawling township. Before the Gam Udawa was held at Anamaduwa almost all shops in the town were made of wooden planks. Thanks to Gam Udawa the town got a major facelift including electricity with all shops and boutiques made of brick and mortar which is evident even to this day. Villages in Anamaduwa also received much development.

A trip to Kataragama would reveal to what extent the Gam Udawa anniversary events have brought out a transformation to the entire area not only in the construction of approach roads, but also elegant landscaping and infrastructure development of the sacred area and its environs.

The Gam Udawa site at Pallakelle in Kandy is also there for everyone to see rendering useful service to the Free Trade Zone.

The Gam Udawa anniversary held at Buttala brought about a new look to many towns and villages of the Moneragala District and the site at Buttala is visible with its landscape and infrastructure development — a sprawling little township with a large garment factory and a large playground in its midst.

There are several other sites which had been similarly developed and put to good use in other parts of the country.

When President Premadasa died on May 1, 1993 he had almost finalized arrangements to hold the Gam Udawa anniversary events including the exhibition at Mihintale in June that year. Work carried out in this connection up to that date had brought about substantial development to Anuradhapura district including the sacred areas. It was President Premadasa’s vision to convert the Mihintale Gam Udawa Exhibition site, with a permanent building complex built on a model of the old parliament in place, as the centre for the launch of a massive export oriented agro-based industries development programme which would give added value and a ready market to produce of our farmers.

Development of agro-based industries was the next major thrust which President Premadasa planned after successfully launching the 200 Garment Factories Programme which provided lakhs of poverty stricken youths employment opportunities. These factories to be set up with help of local and foreign investors were to be located close to the garment factories in view of fact that infrastructure like roads, electricity, telecommunication, water supply facilities are already available. Unfortunately for the country and the people this noble mission was not pursued after his death. In any case the Gam Udawa exhibition site at Mihintale has been utilized for another purpose – to set up a Rajarata University by the P.A. Government.

Thus it could be seen that the Gam Udawa was not a matter of only planting grass as the President tries to point out but a programme which had much wider reach to the people and felt by the people.

Gam Udawa Exhibition itself in a way is a reflection of the open economic system . People from all parts of the country irrespective of race, religion or political allegiances converge in their lakhs each day for ten days causing an economic revival in the area Shopkeepers, small time traders in these areas would vouch for the fact how they have had an economic revival after the exhibitions. The exhibition site elegantly landscaped and designed with several attractions is of international class and give an opportunity for the village flok an opportunity in their lifetime to see the modern technological advancements, and how the various government agencies work; opportunity to purchase the products of our large scale and small scale industries of the state and private at much lesser prices than in the open market.

The planning and organizational work that go into each exhibition is so enormous and complex and it is can materialize only through some dynamic leadership given in harnessing the efforts and capabilities a wide range of experts be they architects, engineers, town planners, administrators down to construction workers, the masons and carpenters. It was due to that forceful leadership given by late President Premadasa that made it possible for him to achieve not only Gam Udawas but also feats in various other fields for the people. And I do not think we could see anything like the standard of Gam Udawa exhibitions again in the absence of such a dynamic leader.