President Premadasa leaving Rastrapati Bhavan after a lengthy press conference. It was packed to capacity with journalists of both the print and electronic media.2.10.1992
Ranasinghe Premadasa was the common man’s President.
Many articles had been written and many had spoken about late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, on his 25th death anniversary, but the writer is the one who covered his entire Presidential campaign islandwide despite all obstacles, the JVP insurrection on one side and the IPKF on the other.
Late President Ranasinghe Premadasa was truly a common man’s President. Never a day passed without his mentioning Magey Dugi Dupath Janathawa.
After he was sworn in as the President his first task was to find jobs for the unemployed youth.
Summoning big-time businessmen he asked them whether they could find a way to give employment to the poor youth. No response for over a minute, he then said: “If you can’t I will show you the way.”
That was how the garment industry programme started.
He requested late Kumara Devapriya to give the start and built the first garment factory in Kurunegala. TriStar Garments of Kumar Devapriya became world famous. That was the start. The President wanted jobs to be given to boys and girls around the locality.
Thereafter, requests started to come from several companies to start garment factories. Mr Premadasa, known for punctuality and no-nonsense, opened the BOI as a one-stop-shop, where an investor could get all paperwork and ready answers to their questions.
No postponement of any sort was entertained. No investor complained of any red tape or lethargy at the BOI.
That was how the 200 garment factories came into being. Not only garments, several other items were made in Sri Lanka. Made in Sri Lanka was found in every shopping mall in Europe. Marks and Spencer shirts sold in the UK were made in Sri Lanka.
"Late President Ranasinghe Premadasa was truly a common man’s President. Never a day passes without his mentioning Magey Dugi Dupath Janathawa"
Journalists in New Delhi once asked the writer, while the latter was in the Sri Lanka Mission, how come Made in Sri Lanka shirts were found in many shopping malls in the UK?
Thanks to the garment industry projects at that time.
Today how many days does it take to get a job done in a Ministry?
President Ranasinghe Premadasa, when he was Prime Minister visited a remote area for an event. There he saw a little girl in the crowd and inquired why she had not gone to school. The little one said
“Sir, we have only one uniform. One day my sister goes to school wearing the uniform that day I stay at home, the next day I go to school and my sister stays at home.”
That made him think over and when he became the President one of the first things he did was to issue free school uniforms to all school children Later on, at his rallies, he said he did not care whether the Colombo schools accepted the free uniforms. He said that he had given them mainly to the children of the poor and the down-trodden.
That is how the free school uniform concept came into being.
The other important programme of his was the Mobile Service Jangama Sevawa.
He was never in Colombo during the weekends. He was far out in the country holding the mobile service. He took the entire Government machinery with him to the remotest of villages to get the problems of the poor sorted out.
He did not want the poor people to come to Colombo to get their birth certificates, and identity cards.
He told the officials before leaving on mobile service to be prepared to rough-out for two days.
The mobile service was an instant hit with the poor people.
They knew their President was physically present and their grievances could be sorted out. No official would tell a poor man to come another day.
Mr L.S. Palansuriya, the present Chairman of the NHDA was one of those who had been with President at all these mobile services and would vouch to more than what is written.
"Sir, we have only one uniform. One day my sister goes to school wearing the uniform that day I stay at home, the next day I go to school and my sister stays at home. "
The writer greeting the newly elected President Ranasinghe at Sucharitha.
A few instances covering his campaign might be of some interest.
President Premadasa addressed meetings islandwide despite many obstacles faced not only by him but also the media crew that covered his meetings.
The then JVP threat on the people not to attend his rallies was a major problem. It so happened at the Rathgama meeting those on stage were Mr Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ranjan Wijeratne. Mr Sirisena Cooray was seated on a chair by the roadside when the van that the media crew went there was not a single person at the grounds, Mr Premadasa spoke for nearly 45 minutes.
“Magey dugi dupath janawata, though not in the ground, will be listening from their homes keeping the doors and windows open.”
He said thanks to the JVP for their threat, otherwise, these poor people would be standing in the hot sun.
He found a solution for the unprotected railway crossings. He wanted the Ceylon Government Railway CGR to employ someone close to the unprotected railway crossings on an eight-hour shift.
“Tell them to have bamboos on either side of the crossings. Later on, those manning the level crossings painted the bamboos to make them colourful and visible. Now they are no more and one hears more deaths at such level crossings.
A lot could be written about what happened during his campaign.
"That was how the 200 garment factory came into being. Not only garments, several other items were made in Sri Lanka. Made in Sri Lanka was found in every shopping mall in Europe. Marks and Spencer shirts sold in the UK were made in Sri Lanka"
Before concluding I shall relate something that happened when President Ranasinghe Premadasa visited New Delhi.
He paid a visit to pay homage at the Mahatma Gandhi Samadhi. Whilst he was there Mr Ranga the Indian Express professional cartoonist as was his practice he used to draw a cartoon of any Head of State who visited the Samadhi and get their autograph.
Now little did Ranga realise that President Ranasinghe Premadasa was himself an artist. Ranga drew the cartoon of the President and showed him.
The President, in turn, asked Ranga for a piece of paper and his pen and drew Ranga and gave it to him with his autograph.
The following day on page one of the Indian Express they carried Ranga’s cartoon of the President and the President’s cartoon of Ranga and titled “Ranga meets with his Waterloo”.
Incidentally, my friend and former colleague Late Lasantha Wickrematunga’s then at the Island newspaper covered Mrs Srimavo Bandaranike’s Presidential election campaign, while the writer covered the campaign of Late President Ranasinghe Premadasa.