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Governtment of Sri Lanka

Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee Meetings - Pursuing Decentralization, Empowerment and Responsiveness

( Created date: 04-Jul-2012 )

I was pleasantly surprised last week at the absence of what seemed serious problems, when we began another round of meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees. Earlier, especially where resettlement had taken place recently, there were several issues with regard to infrastructure, but these seemed to be much less urgent now, with understanding that, even if not immediately, roads were being improved and electricity provided. Water, which I had been most concerned with, along with educational facilities, when I first visited resettled areas way back at the end of 2009, had never been much of a problem, and I was happy to note that the problem had already been addressed, by the Ministry agreeing to expand a project it had initiated, in the one place where a query was raised.

In a couple of areas there were queries about irrigation schemes, though these were to supplement what had already been provided. In general cultivation had been very successful in all areas visited, a total of four Divisions in Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya, though in all places it was mentioned that more planning should have been done with regard to marketing, as well as storage. The need to develop local initiatives in this regard, including with regard to food processing and other value addition mechanisms, was noted, and I believe concerted efforts to promote projects in these areas, with stress on cooperatives, and in particular women’s cooperatives, would be extremely useful. The need to develop more accessible micro-credit schemes, perhaps through encouraging the formal establishment of small and medium enterprises through village cooperatives, was also stressed.

One reason people are still slow to work out solutions for themselves is the continuing dependence on politicians, which is unfair both on the politicians and the people. We were told of a problem about land to graze cattle on, which had been conveyed to a visiting dignitary, with consequent disappointment that nothing had been done. While I doubt that such a matter could have remained at the forefront of the mind of a visitor concerned with other issues, the obvious recourse of bringing the problem to the attention of those able to make decisions locally had been ignored. It was a simple matter to entrust resolution of the problem to the Divisional Secretary, to consult all those concerned and either ensure access to the grounds proposed or else, through the relevant officials, provide alternatives, in line with the current strategy of encouraging the rearing of cattle.

I drew the line however at asking for official involvement in dealing with the problem of stray cattle. That was obviously a matter for villagers to attend to, with consultation of the Grama Niladhari, and the police if necessary. Thankfully, the police have now instituted a process of regular consultation, with usually two officers allocated to each GN Division, and regular meetings. I was delighted by the close cooperation evident for instance in Oddusuddan, as well as in Vavuniya, and whereas previously there had been problems in Puthukudiyirippu, with new personnel in charge it seemed that better relations would be soon established.

I am now increasingly convinced that the answer to most problems lies in better cooperation between local officials and the people, with concomitant empowerment as to decision making, along with very clear guidelines as to reporting and accountability. However I realized that I too had been guilty of thinking problems could be solved centrally, having written several letters to the Ministry of Transport about the massive shortages of buses in almost all rural areas in the North. I had not had a single answer (though I should in fairness add that the letters I sent to Ministries such as Health and Youth Affairs were responded to promptly, which suggests that not all central Ministries are unconcerned with local difficulties) but the Governor of the North responded promptly, and has now succeeded in obtaining buses to provide at least a service for schools and government officials.

That dedication and comparative efficiency are evidence to my mind of a mentality committed to quick solutions, as well as of the need to ensure local responsibility for local needs. Transport, along with subjects such as education and health, needs to be administered locally, with the Central Government, and indeed Provincial Governments, confining themselves to policy issues where essential. Understanding what a particular school needs in terms of personnel and facilities, for instance, is best left to those who can see the problems at first hand, not distant officials whose vision is perforce constrained by very different considerations.

Education, I should note, though this was only on the basis of visits to four of the better schools in the area, two in Oddusuddan and two in Kilinochchi, seems much more successful than in more prosperous areas. The students were all in class, most classes had teachers, and work seemed to be proceeding apace. Most of the schools had a range of extra-curricular activities, and the results were generally good, though clearly there is need for more good English and Maths teachers. Why the Ministry resists the idea of allowing local teacher training, which they can then evaluate, is beyond me, but I suppose those who make decisions on such subjects do not understand the needs of rural students. The Governor does, and is trying to develop mechanisms to meet needs, but he should be permitted to think and act outside the box, instead of relying on the old formulas that have failed so signally to produce enough teachers for rural areas in essential subjects. 

There were less worries about medical facilities, and the excellent work done by the Ministry of Health, and the doctors who serve in these areas, is I think much appreciated. Obviously there are still inadequacies, in part because of the unwillingness of some doctors to serve in those areas, but the commitment of those who do work there is remarkable. A few more mobile clinics would be useful, but the Ministry has been able with the few facilities they have to provide the sort of service that urban areas in many countries would not enjoy.

Vocational and Technical Training, it was noted, could be better, and I believe new forms of service provision should be developed, with encouraging schools to establish centres for select subjects. Given needs expressed to me previously, I have written to a couple of universities suggesting that they set up external courses, leading to diplomas and degrees, with stress on English and Maths and IT and Management and select Vocational Courses (Engine Repair, Wiring, Plumbing). I believe the army could provide training in these last, while a menu of academic style courses would justify high level qualifications for those needing them. Unfortunately our educational establishment still draws a sharp distinction between what they think are academic courses and technical training, and the University set up for the purpose has proved unable to break through this protective net to ensure a more modern approach to education.

Practicality should be the key word in addressing the problems faced in the North, to ensure that human resources are developed in line with the superb progress in physical resources. If more attention were paid to local needs in planning, this might be accomplished, but the radical conceptual changes needed for this purpose still seem far away.


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