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Ranasinghe Premadasa Birth Centenary – An evergreen leader

Giving everyone something to lose was the only true guarantee against societal violence and systemic instability, Premadasa believed.

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Pres. Ranasinghe Premadasa delivering speech on export development. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

“All theory is grey… But forever green is the tree of life.“ Goethe (Faust)

For three months in late 1990’s, American author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich lived the life of a low-wage worker. She wanted to discover, first hand, how President Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms were impacting on the lives of the working poor. Her experiences gave birth to her most celebrated book, Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. In it, she focuses on the phenomenon of employed-homeless, workers who often do more than one job but are still unable to afford a roof over their heads. The conjunction of low wages and high rents create poverty traps from which few workers escape, Ehrenreich notes.

Almost 20 years later, sociologist Matthew Desmond in his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, demonstrated the cardinal role played by housing (or the lack of it) in perpetuating and exacerbating poverty in America. “Fewer and fewer families can afford a roof over their head. This is among the most urgent and pressing issues facing America today… We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty.”

According to Jan-Feb 2024 Household Pulse Survey, homelessness in America increased by 48% since 2015; and an estimated 37% of tenants say they are very or somewhat likely to be evicted in the next two months. The European condition is no better. “Unaffordable rent and property prices are turning into a political battleground,” The Guardian warned in May. The only exception is Vienna. 60% of Viennese live in subsidised housing. The city builds 6,000-7,000 subsidised housing units each year funded by a 1% tax on all salaries.

The Viennese exception is a legacy of Red Vienna (1918-1934 – when the Austrian capital was controlled by the Social Democratic Party) which was defined largely by its housing policy; the city built more than 60,000 new housing units. Sri Lanka, in 1979, embarked on a journey even more ambitious, to build 100,000 houses in three years. When Ranasinghe Premadasa unveiled his inaugural housing programme, it was ridiculed by the Opposition, stonewalled by the UNP cabinet, and criticised by the World Bank and the IMF. The mere thought of building 100,000 housing units in three years, and for the poor, was dismissed as a waste, an inflation-creator, and delusional.

But Premadasa would not be stopped. Like other top leaders of the UNP, he was eyeing the presidency and housing was going to be his ‘qualifier’ for the top job. Those politico-electoral imperatives apart, he understood the nexus between homelessness and politico-social and familial stability. During his tenure as a Colombo Municipal Councillor, he had spearheaded the building of flats in Saunders Place as part of a slum-clearance programme. As the Junior Minister of Housing in the 1965-70 government, he had built the Maligawatte Housing Scheme. As he put it, “Shelter is not charity. It is a necessity.”

Born and bred in Keselwatte, Sri Lanka’s equivalent of the old Harlem, Premadasa knew well the bitter anger and despair of the marginalised. Homelessness was a time-bomb waiting to explode, he understood, especially in the context of the rapid but unbalanced growth which resulted from the opening up of the economy after 1977. He regarded housing as a major stabiliser, a way of giving the poor a stake in the system.

Idealism and Realism

According to the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, homelessness is the ‘social issue of the 21st Century’. The seeds of this burgeoning crisis was sown in the final decades of the 20th Century, with the political de-prioritisation of the issue of housing/homelessness. The category of ‘structural homelessness’ came into being, an ipso facto justification of political indifference and policy neglect. Shelter was left to the vagaries of individual fortunes and the free play of market forces. Homeless encampments became the norm, eviction a super-profitable business.

The Lankan experiment under the leadership of Premadasa in battling homelessness was doubly remarkable because it unfolded against this background of global indifference. And, contrary to the confident predictions of naysayers on the left and the right, the 100,000 Houses Programme worked. “The targets were reached and exceeded by anything between 15%-30% – an unparalleled success in a government Housing Programme in a Third World Country,” wrote Prof KM de Silva. (Sri Lanka and the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless). According to a report by the United Nation’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, “The programme proved to be a success in terms of…target achievement, employment generation through the development of construction industry, and the ‘benign’ effect in the rental market” (Low cost shelter project in Sri Lanka – ESCAP). “Shelter (is) a field in which idealism and realism can blend to the advantage of all,” Premadasa had stated in his 1987 speech to the International Union of Architects. His programme, with its broad vision and hard practicality, certainly fitted the bill.

While 100,000 Houses programme was a success in target-achievement, it also revealed the limits of state as house-builder, especially in a rural setting. It was also too costly and too centralised. These lessons were incorporated into the next stage of the Housing adventure – the One Million Houses programme launched in 1984. Unlike the top-down method of the first phase, the second and third phases (1.5Milliion Houses programme) opted for a participatory model, involving beneficiaries at every stage of the process from planning to construction. The state’s role scaled down to that of assister.

“What we see here is a kind of respect for the poor and their abilities and capacities, or the trust that, if they are given some guidance and resources, they will be able to understand their own needs and respond to their housing needs in a better way…” Colombo Urban Lab researcher Meghal Perera told a regional seminar on shelter in 2022. “First of all, the state allowed the people to design their own houses. There are stories of how every single household in this programme was given a file about the loans they could obtain. They were also given a square rule paper for them to design their own houses in the way they wanted. Secondly, there were community building guidelines and rules specific to particular low-income settlements… This programme called for conversations and workshops where women were able to talk about matters…” (The Morning – 14.10.2022).

According to an island-wide research project carried out by the Premadasa Centre in the mid 1990’s, 34.2% of the recipients of the housing programmes were workers, 22.6% were labourers, 18.2% were cultivators, 9.2% were petty traders, 11.8% were self-employed or salaried employees. Low-wage earners who wouldn’t have been able to afford a house of their own, perhaps ever; employed-homeless turned into homeowners.

“For the last thirty years…when asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad?” historian Tony Judt wrote. “Instead we inquire: Is it efficient? Is it productive? Would it benefit gross domestic product? Will it contribute to growth? This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss—economic questions in the narrowest sense—is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste” (London Review of Books – 17.12.2009).

Ranasinghe Premadasa’s approach to development was conspicuous by the absence of such a purely economistic approach and the conscious incorporation of peoples’ interests as a primary measure of the desirability or undesirability of an economic policy. For Premadasa poverty was not just an economic problem to alleviate, a matter of numbers and percentages. He could look beyond the figures and see the people because he grew up among them, and continued to live with them even as president. Inside the Sucharitha Complex where he lived, there was even a school for the children of the area. Free of any theoretical bondage or ideological baggage, Premadasa was able to mix-and-match, discarding what didn’t work and bettering what did.

As Sirisena Cooray, his political companion and friend of four decades, wrote, “Mr. Premadasa had his own very different approach to developmental issues; his notion of slum clearance is an example of this. Usually slum clearance means the forcible eviction of the people living in slums to areas outside the city and developing these city locations for commercial purposes… This is both a political mistake and a human tragedy. Most of those people would have been living in that area for a long time. They work close by; their children go to nearby schools. If you uproot them from that environment and put them elsewhere they feel alienated; their work, education, and social life get disrupted. What Mr. Premadasa meant by slum clearance was improving the quality of life of slum dwellers by providing them with better housing and other basic facilities” (President Premadasa and I: Our Story).

A necessary aside: Grabbing these commercially valuable land by expelling the residents into the outskirts of the city was a key component of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Colombo Metropolitan Corporation plan. “The government is to demolish housing schemes constructed by former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, officials said,” (The Sunday Leader – 25.9.2011). The Supreme Court’s decision against the Sacred Areas Act compelled the abandonment of this plan. But the Rajapaksas were able to nullify another Premadasa initiative: making public sector recruitment mandatory on competitive exams – a recommendation of the Youth Commission of 1989. In 2007, Mahinda Rajapaksa issued a circular restoring recruitment via political patronage. When the JVP objected, Rajapaksa reportedly told them to provide their own lists (Lakbima News – 9.9.2007).

Radical in conception; conciliatory in implementation

There is a global tradition of developmental programmes which are (in the words of Amartya Sen) ‘good and just’. These are radical in intent but non-confrontational in style and regard economic strategy as a series of compromises balancing the interests of diverse socio-economic groups, for a common good. The Premadasa development projects belong in this category, expansive, yet grounded.

The 200 Garment Factories Programme was perhaps the best case in point. It amounted to a radical departure from the national and global norm of herding low-paid workers into specialised zones. Instead, entrepreneurs were encouraged – via loans and garment quotas – to set up factories in places where unemployment and poverty were rife. The state acted not as owner but as facilitator. The factories had to be new constructions, employ a minimum of 500 workers, pay a minimum wage of Rs 2000 plus meals, medical facilities etc. The success of the 200 Garment Factories Programme demonstrated that export-oriented and labour-friendly industrialisation was eminently possibly. An infamously exploitative industry (with sweatshop-type working-conditions) was transformed into its opposite, not through compulsion (let alone expropriation) but through persuasion (incentives). Development miracles are made on earth, via visions uncircumscribed by labels and political will.

Sirisena Cooray writes how in the at the Kataragama Gam Udawa, Premadasa built a common Buddhist-Hindu-Christian-Islamic place of worship symbolic of the ethno-religiously pluralist nature of Sri Lanka. “It was an interesting concept – you would come in together through a single entrance, branch out to go to different places of worship and once again gather together to go out. But the Buddhist monks opposed it; they did not like the idea” (President Premadasa and I: Our Story). It was another of Premadasa’s dream, a country where primordial differences would not lead to bloody divisions. “Sri Lanka has always had many ethnic groups, many religions and many social traditions… The history or the future of Sri Lanka does not belong to any group,” he said in 1990 and meant it. Lasting unity – be it national or social – could be built only by effecting tangible improvements in the living-conditions of all the poor, Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim.

Giving everyone something to lose was the only true guarantee against societal violence and systemic instability, Premadasa believed. The rich and the poor, the majority and the minorities, all must be made to understand their need of and vulnerability to each other. In the urban housing schemes Premadasa built, flats were allocated via a pluralist policy. Every apartment block was representative of the larger Lankan nation, with Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim householders. During Black July, Colombo North and Central were spared the worst of violence thanks to this foresight. You could not set fire to your Tamil neighbour’s house without imperilling your own, not in some distant future, but in the next few minutes. Gulfs could be bridged most effectively not by stirring slogans or pious utterings, but by tangible acts: shelter, employment, a leg-up out of poverty. The old Premadasa programme may not be replicable in the new times, but his innovative approach remains timeless; and indispensable.

Tisaranee Gunasekara

The writer is a senior political commentator in Colombo.

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