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President Premadasa, a committed human dynamo

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Excerpted from the Memoirs of Chandra Wickremasinghe, Retd. Addl. Secy, to the President

I moved to the President’s Office as Additional Secretary to the President in February 1989. It was indeed a pleasure to work with my good friend KHJ Wijeyadasa who was as enthusiastic a workaholic as President Premadasa. Wije, was a proven, well seasoned administrator, who had shown his administrative ability as GA and in other responsible positions he had held in the public service. But his exceptional organizational prowess was brought out, I think, when the late PM Sirima Bandaranaike assigned him the daunting task of setting up the Land Reform Commission, vesting around one million acres of plantation lands in the State, virtually overnight. Wije, set about this enormous task with alacrity and had within a matter of months, taken over the entire extensive acreage and set up alternative managing Corporations/Boards, thereby ensuring a smooth transition from private to public ownership of all these broad acres across the island. He was at the helm of this gigantic undertaking till the advent of the new political dispensation in 1977.

I was privy to a memorable episode which I feel merits being fully recorded here, as it shows how high level decisions, affecting the history and the future of the country, are being made by certain Executive Presidents. I recollect vividly ,how President Premadasa strode into Wije’s room around 8.30 pm while the results of the 1989 General Elections were being announced. He sat at the head of the table with Mrs. Premadasa seated at the other end, with Wije, the late Gamini Iriyagolle(who was a close confidante of the President), Addnl. Secys. MBC de Silva, Neville Piyadigama and myself seated on either side.

President Premadasa then said “We will now appoint the Cabinet”. We hardly had time to recover from the shock when he said that he does not want to take over Defence as he dislikes getting involved in fighting wars. As I had been in the Defence Ministry, I knew the grave implications of the President not taking up the Defence portfolio and immediately pointed out that under the Constitution the President while being the Head of State and Head of the Govt. was also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and it was mandatory for the Defence portfolio to be under him. With both Wije and Gamini endorsing what I said, President Premadasa agreed reluctantly to have the Defence portfolio and to leave the warring part in the hands of Ranjan Wijeratne.

It was in this manner that the entire Cabinet was selected by President Premadasa. I will limit myself here to recounting the manner in which two particularly surprising decisions he. When it came to the appointment of the Prime Minister, everyone’s expectation was that it would be Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali. All this was belied by President P, when he calmly said ” You know, our DB Wijetunge is very popular, no? He is liked even by people in the Opposition. Everyone speaks well of him. He is the best person for the job”.

Then again,when it came the selection of the Health Minister, President P. said with a straight face, (his very words) ” Renukata dang ingrisi hondata kathakaranna pulluwang ne. Mekata honda eya thamai”. President Premadasa had his own mind and made the selections of individual Ministers for the new Cabinet, exactly as he wanted them to be placed. After selecting the Ministers to head the new Cabinet portfolios, the President directed ,Wije , MBC, Neville and myself to immediately get down to the business of assigning subjects and functions to the newly created Ministries, with Nalin Abeysekera, the Legal Draftsman, assisting us in this exercise. The five of us had to literally work round the clock for two full days to make doubly sure that there were no overlaps of these subjects spilling them over into other Ministries, with related subjects. This was no easy task as the subjects and functions assigned to a particular Ministry, had to be determined, making them into a perfectly integrated whole. Wije had to constantly consult the President whenever certain doubts arose in making these allocations.

During his tenure in office as President, the Presidential Secretariat became the hub of administrative governance. Each Additional Secretary had to oversee six Cabinet Ministries. No Minister could submit a Cabinet paper on any important project without first obtaining clearance from the President. Each Additional Secretary had to study the Cabinet papers relating to the Ministries he was overseeing and submit them with appropriate recommendations to the President via Secretary/President. This only meant that in effect the entire system of governance was highly centralized, with all important policy matters having to be first cleared by President Premadasa before they could be submitted to Cabinet. Although Secretary/President and the four Additional Secretaries to the President had to work at a cracking pace to keep up to the near impossible deadlines given by the President and the exacting efficiency levels expected by him, it was nevertheless a satisfying experience as we knew the impact we were having on policy making and implementation, at the highest level.

Furthermore, Additional Secretaries had to take turns to attend the weekly Cabinet Meetings and brief the President on the concerned Cabinet papers, whenever the need arose. I for one, and I am sure the other three colleagues of mine will concur with me in this, found it easy to work at the Presidential Secretariat as all the Secretaries to Ministries and other high level officials were only too eager to co-operate with us in getting things attended to expeditiously.

As is was overseeing the Ministry of Lands from the Presidential Secretariat, I was selected along with Secretary/Lands for a study tour of the United States in September 1991 on the “Establishment of Wild Life Trusts for Wild Life Conservation.

President Premadasa was a person of incredible verve and energy who brooked no opposition and who wanted the assignments given to Ministers and Officers done in double quick time. The expenditure aspect did not bother him overmuch, as long as the work was completed to his satisfaction. His pet projects were primarily, the ones carried over from his days as Minister of Housing and included the upgrading of sub-standard housing in the city, the construction of lower middle class and middle class flats in the city, rural housing, Gam Uudawa housing schemes, development of infrastructure facilities including rural roads and water supply projects etc.

Coming from lower middle class beginnings, on becoming President, Mr. Premadasa made the alleviation of poverty and the upliftment of the poor one of his abiding concerns. He was ambitious and had exceptional political acumen to match this overweening ambition. He also had in good measure, the rare knack of making the poor identify themselves with him to the extent of making them believe that any successes achieved by him were their successes as well! He did try his utmost, to improve the lot of the poor, the dispossessed and the deprived. He perceived the latent potential of the poor to move forward on their own, given the correct incentives. He combined State assistance with self –help inputs by the beneficiaries themselves, particularly in his rural housing programmes. This was to instill in the poor the virtue of self-reliance.

His Gam Udawa Exhibitions were often itinerant carnivals and florid extravaganza, which however enabled him to get closer to the rural masses while providing them entertainment of a kind rarely seen by people in rural areas. He even toyed with the idea of enlisting the support of the JVP and even of the LTTE to join him in his relentless endeavours to put the country on a course of rapid development rivaling the new Asian Tiger economies. These earnest efforts however turned out to be fruitless and abortive in the case of the JVP who were hell bent on pursuing its own destructive path of murder and mayhem in pursuit of the anachronistic ideological goals set out by them, for which folly, they paid a terrible price by having their youthful members ruthlessly decimated by a Govt. that had totally exhausted it’s patience with them. Despite the hopes of peace and the end of hostilities with the LTTE that President Premadasa had fondly entertained, the former had him assassinated with characteristic insouciance.

President Premadasa known for berating public servants for not living upto his expectations, strangely enough, never upbraided me although I may have failed occasionally to meet his exacting deadlines for completing assignments given to me. All Additional Secretaries had to keep a cracking pace to keep to the near impossible deadlines set by him. On many occasions Neville Piyadigama and I worked till the wee hours of the morning, writing his speeches to be delivered at meetings the next day. He always gave instructions for dinner to be supplied by Galadari Hotel, next door.



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Dangerous rail travel by tourists: Why not create an opportunity?

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Coiling Dragon Cliff skywalk, Zhangjiajie, China

Before the Covid Pandemic hit Sri Lanka, there was some debate and concern voiced about tourists standing at the door ways of trains and even hanging out, while the train is moving. Some pictures of a young couple hanging out of an upcountry train, while clutching on to the side rails, went viral, on social media, with debates of the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ reaching fever pitch. While certainly this is a dangerous practice, not to be condoned, If we ‘think out of the box’ could there be a way to make this seemingly popular, though dangerous pastime among some tourists, into an opportunity to be exploited. This paper aims to explore these options pragmatically.

By Srilal Miththapala

Social media, and even some of the more conventional media, were all a-buzz before the CoVid crisis, when some pictures of a young tourist couple appeared, hanging out of a Sri Lankan upcountry train in gay abandon, savouring the exciting moment. There were hot debates about this form of ‘promotion of Sri Lanka’, with many people talking about the dangers of such a practice, and that it would bring negative publicity for Sri Lanka if something dangerous were to happen. This part of the train ride, along the upcountry route, is arguably one of the most scenic train routes in the world.

And quite rightly so, I guess. I myself was one who joined the chorus who vehemently spoke against this.

However thinking out of the box, I got thinking – Can we create an opportunity here ?

The ‘new’, experience and thrill seeking tourist of today

There is no doubt that there is a new segment of discerning, younger, experience and adventure seeking tourists, emerging and travelling all over the world. They are very internet and social media savvy, seeking more adventurous and exciting experiences, and are usually very environmentally conscious. They are most often seen exploring ‘off-the-beaten-track’ holidays, planned out individually according to their needs and wants.

Through the ages, mankind has been pushing the limits of exploration: We have conquered land, sea and space. We have discovered many hitherto unknown wonders of our planet with our unabated thirst for knowledge.

Tourists are no different. To get away from their daily stressful life, they seek something different, even venturing into hostile or dangerous places to experience the excitement of discovery and the feeling of adventure. No longer is a clean hotel room with a range of facilities, good food and some sunshine good enough to a tourist.

According to booking.com, the yearning for experiences, over material possessions, continues to drive travellers’ desire for more incredible and memorable trips: 45% of travellers have a bucket list in mind. Most likely to appear on a bucket list are thrill seekers wanting to visit a world famous theme park, travellers looking to go on an epic rail journey or visiting a remote or challenging location. ()

Drive-reduction theory in psychology postulates that one is never in a state of complete fulfilment, and thus, there are always drives that need to be satisfied. Humans and other animals voluntarily increase tension by exploring their unknown environments, self-inducing stress and moving out of their comfort zones. This gives them a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction. ()

Therefore, unknown thrills, adventures and the ‘adrenaline rush’ does attract travellers.

What have other countries done ?

As mentioned many countries are developing unique , memorable and thrilling experiences into their product offering.

A few are described below

Walk along Sydney Harbour Bridge

Walk along Sydney Harbour Bridge

Small groups are taken on a walk along the massive, arched steel structured Sydney Harbour Bridge . The dramatic 360 deg. view from the bridge, 135 meters above ground, of the harbour, and the nearby Sydney Opera house, while being completely exposed to the elements, is, indeed, a rare and thrilling experience.

Coiling Dragon Cliff skywalk, Zhangjiajie, China

In the northwest of China’s Hunan province, visitors can take a leisurely stroll along the walkway attached to Tianmen Mountain — 4,700 feet above the ground.

The glass-bottomed walkway is more than 300 feet long and only about five feet wide, providing an experience that is said to be exhilarating and frightening .

The CN tower Edge walk, Canada

The tallest attraction in Toronto lets people stand right at the edge of the CN tower and lean over. It is the world’s highest full circle, hands-free walk on a 1.5 m wide ledge encircling the top of the Tower’s main pod, 356m , 116 storeys above the ground. EdgeWalk is a Canadian Signature Experience and an Ontario Signature Experience.

A variety of unique trekking opportunities, in Rwanda and Uganda, allow you trek into the jungle to gaze into the eyes of the Gorillas in their natural habitat. It’s a completely unique African safari experience. This moment leaves a lasting and unforgettable impression, coming so close to this majestic wild animal.

These are just a few. So there are already a range of unique, visitor attractions that thrill tourists the world over.

The CN tower Edge walk, Canada

Safety – the one overriding condition

All these thrill seeking, and seemingly dangerous tourist attractions have one common denominator that is never ever compromised – Safety.

Safety is of paramount importance in all these activities and are subject to stringent checks and review, periodically. All personnel who guide and instruct these thrill seeking tourists are well trained and disciplined.

Any equipment that is used for safety, such as harnesses and safety belts, are designed to the highest standards and are periodically tested. Nothing is left to chance and if there is the slightest semblance of danger, due to any unforeseen environmental conditions, the attraction is closed down temporarily. ( e.g when there are strong winds the Sydney Harbour bridge walk is suspended).

Such safety measures are an imperative necessity, because any unforeseen accident can lead to serious and grave consequences of litigation and even closing down of the attraction.

Suggested railings

So what about our train ride ?

The attraction of the Sri Lankan upcountry train ride (most often between Nanu Oya and Ella – the most scenic section) is the fact that a tourist can stand ‘on the footboard’ of the open train carriageway door, and feel the cool breeze against their faces while absorbing the beautiful hill country and tea plantations. This is something most western tourists cannot do back home, where all train carriageway doors are automatically shut when the train starts moving.

In fact I am told that some Tour Agents in Australia are specifically asked by tourists to arrange this ‘experience’ for them, when booking their tour.

So why not be creative and make a proper attraction out of this ?

Cannot we modify one carriage to have an open ‘balcony’ along the side where a person can stand ‘outside’ and ‘feel the open environment’? It could be fitted with proper safety rails and each person can be anchored to the carriage with a harness (like what is used in other attractions where the interaction is open to the elements). A special charge can be levied for this experience.

One factor that favours the safety aspect is that during traversing this stretch, due to the steep gradient, the train travels at a ‘snail’s pace’, unlike in foreign countries where speeds could reach 80-100 kms per hour.

This attraction could be used as an income generator for the Railway Department as tourists wanting to experience this ‘thrill’ can be charged a fee, for a specific time period that they could use the facility.

Conclusion

Although this may seem simplistic, in reality there may be several logistical issues that need to be addressed.

But, if there is a will, and the different departments involved can all see the opportunity, and get on to the same ‘wavelength’, cutting through the inordinate bureaucracy that usually prevails, then surely it would not be at all difficult.

But the overall point in this entire treatise, is that we have to ‘think out of the box’ and grasp at all possible opportunities that are available, especially as we gradually open up for tourists after the pandemic. We are quite used to ranting and raving about all the shortfalls that prevail.. But there’s so much that still can be done if there are a few motivated and dedicated people who can get together.

Tourism after all is really ‘show businesses’ and without creativity, panache, actors and showmanship, what is show business?

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Remebering Prophet Muhammad’s legacy – ECOLOGICAL WELFARE

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By Dr M Haris Deen

COVID-19 came and as yet remains, at the same time the world is plagued with another serious issue, that of global warming and other ecological disturbances. While remembering the birth of Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) let us recall the contributions he made towards the applying Islamic principles of Islamic welfare towards protection of the environment.

The Prophet of Islam (May peace be upon him) advocated during his lifetime the stringent application of Islamic principles in respect of ecological welfare. Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) taught his followers to live on less, neither to be extravagant nor to be miserly and to protect animal and plant life and to worship the Creator by being merciful to His creations. He forbade the killing of any animal unless out of necessity to feed the people. Al Albani reports that the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “If the Hou r (meaning the day of Resurrection) is about to be established and one of you was holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it”. Imam Bukhari reported the Prophet (Peace be on him) as having said that “if a Muslim plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, it is regarded as a charitable gift (sadaqah) for him”. It is also reported in Ibn Majah that once the Prophet (peace be upon him) happened to pass by his companion Sa’ad (May God be pleased with him) and found him performing ablution (wudu) next to a river and questioned him “Sa;ad what is this squandering? And when Sa’ad asked in return “can there be an idea if squandering (israf) in ablution?’ the Prophet replied “yes, even if you are by the side of a flowing river”.

In another Hadith narrated by Ibn Majah, the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “Beware of the three acts that cause you to be cursed: (1) relieving yourself in shaded places (that people utilise), in a walkway or in a watering place”.

The Qur’an in chapter 56 verses 68 to 70 states “consider the water which you drink. Was it you that brought it down from the rain cloud or We? If We had pleased, We could make it bitter”.

Prophet’s companion Abu Dhar Al Ghaffari (May Allah be pleased with him) reported the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “Removing harmful things from the road is an act of charity” and in another Hadith authenticated by Albani, the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “the believer is not he who eats his fill while his neighbour is hungry”. The Prophet further cautioned as reported by Tirmadhi and Ibn Majah that “Nothing is worst than a person who fills his stomach. It should be enough for the son of Adam to have a few bites to satisfy his hunger. If he wishes more, it should be : one third for his food, one third for his liquids and one third for his breath”.

Imam Bukhari reported an amazing story narrated by the Prophet (on whom be peace) that “A man felt very thirsty while he was on the way, there he came across a well. He went down the well, quenched his thirst and came out. Meanwhile, he saw a dog panting and licking mud because of excessive thirst. He said to himself. “This dog is suffering from thirst as I did, “So, he went down the well again, filled his shoe with water, held it in his mouth and watered the dog. Allah appreciated him for that deed and forgave him”. The companions inquired, “O Allah’s Messenger, is there a reward for us in serving the animals?” He replied: “There is a reward for saving any living being”.

Animals have a huge role in the ecological welfare system. The tenets of the Shariah Law towards animal rights make it obligatory for any individual to take care of crippled animals, to rescue strays and to guard birds’ nests of eggs’.

Sal Allahu Ala Muhammad Sal Allahu Alaihi wa Sallam. May Allah Shower His Choicest Blessings on the Soul of Prophet Muhammad.

Email: deenmohamed835@gmail.com

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Gypsies…to continue

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The original Gypsies, with Sunil (centre)

Of course, I know for sure fans of the Gypsies, and music lovers, in general, not only in Sri Lanka but around the world, as well, would be thrilled to know that this awesome outfit hasn’t called it a day.

After the demise of the legendary Sunil Perera, everyone thought that the Gypsies would disband.

Perhaps that would have been in the minds of even the members, themselves, as Sunil was not only their leader, and frontline vocalist, but also an icon in the music scene – he was special in every way.

Many, if not all, thought that the Gypsies, without Sunil, would find the going tough and that is because they all associated the Gypsies with Sunil Perera.

Sunil receiving The Island Music Award for ‘Showbiz Personality of the Year’ 1990

It generally happens, with certain outfits, where the rest of the members go unnoticed and the spotlight is only on one particular member – the leader of the group.

Some of the names that come to mind are Gabo and The Breakaways (Gabo) Misty (Rajitha), Darktan (Alston Koch), Upekkha (Manilal), Jetliners (Mignonne), Sohan & The X-Periments (Sohan), and the list is quite lengthy….

Yes, the Gypsies will continue, says Piyal Perera, and he mapped out to us what he has in mind.

They will take on a new look, he said, adding that in no way would they try to recreate the era of the Gypsies with Sunil Perera..

“That era is completely gone and we will never ever look to bringing that era into our scene again.

“My brother was a very special individual and his place in the band can never ever be replaced.”

Will Sunil join this scene…at Madame Tussauds!

Piyal went to say that the Gypsies will return to the showbiz scene, in a different setting.

“In all probability, we may have a female vocalist, in the vocal spotlight, and our repertoire will not be the songs generally associated with Sunil and the Gypsies.

“It will be a totally new approach by the new look Gypsies,” said Piyal.

In the meanwhile, Piyal also mentioned that they are working on the possibility of having an image of the late Sunil Perera at the Madame Tussauds wax museum, in London.

He says they have been asked, by the authorities concerned, to submit a PowerPoint presentation of Sunil’s achievements, and that they are working on it.

It’s, indeed, a wonderful way to keep Sunil’s image alive.

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