When the idea of Reconciliation Committees first took root, I had thought in terms of meetings in Colombo, and others in the Districts, where I had been impressed over the last few years by the dedication and understanding of the various Government Agents of the North. All of them had excellent relations with the Special Forces during the conflict and beyond, but they were also acutely aware of their obligations to the people they served.
But more recently I have worked with Divisional Secretaries, since it became obvious that meetings for large areas did not really permit issues of close concern to particular areas to be enunciated. I have therefore over the last few months been to all Divisional Secretariat Offices in the four southern Districts of the Northern Province, and a couple in Jaffna, where of course the problems are very different in scale and in scope.
On the one hand I have been depressed by the failure of our administrative systems to address what are really very simple problems. The very impressive achievements of government in the fields of infrastructure development and basic social amenities will to naught if a few very basic needs are not addressed.
One of these, as expressed also by one of the aid agencies which works very well with government, is the absence of platforms at which citizens can speak out. This I think explains the satisfaction expressed at our meetings, and the wish that they could happen every month. I have explained that I can solve nothing myself, and can only make suggestions, but I think the opportunity simply to express themselves is welcome.
In this regard to the commitment of most of the Divisional Secretaries I have met is heartening, and also the civilized but yet urgent way several Grama Niladharis expressed themselves. One crying concern is transport, about which one young man got quite emotional – it turned out that he had a few days earlier taken a girl to hospital on his bike because she had been bitten by a snake, but that hospital did not have the required antidote, and the child was dead by the time she had been taken to the main hospital.
It was interesting that the problem as given was not the lack of antidote at the branch hospital. These people are practical, and realize that not everything can be available everywhere. But for that very reason there should be more concern about transport. In several areas the CTB does not operate, and children cannot get to school in time, nor public servants to office.
I have written about this to the Minister of Transport, and had no reply, but I do not think I can blame him. The country is so large, and the problems of transport so huge that of course he cannot pay close attention to every Divisional Secretariat in the North. The Governor has been much more positive, and shares the anxieties of the people about such matters, but he is strapped for resources – and given the vast area he has to cover, it is not easy for him to ensure that at least basic amenities are available everywhere.
This is why I cannot understand why government has not moved towards what the President expressed so eloquently in his first manifesto, namely the concept of village based governance. I could understand that thought was not devoted to this during the conflict, but it is clear that a centralized model of delivery simply does not work.
It does I think work with regard to policy and large scale development, but ensuring that basics are supplied, teachers in schools, transport in rural areas, appropriate training to take advantage of the strengths of particular areas, all require initiatives based on knowledge. Unfortunately, in the wholly theoretical debate now going on about the extent of devolution to the Province, as established in the Constitution, we are neglecting more important principles about empowerment. Surely no one can argue with a concept of devolution based on subsidiarity, whereby the smallest unit possible takes decisions about matters that affect that unit.
For this purpose we need to strengthen the Grama Niladharis as well as the Divisional Secretaries. At present they do not have clear lists of duties, and specifications as to the consultations they should engage in and the reports they should prepare. And yet, when I was worrying about the lack of information about what seemed to me basics, the number that had been displaced, what those who returned had received, what their needs were, I found an illuminating system of records in one Divisional Secretariat, entirely the brainchild of its head. Having the day before explained at another Secretariat what was needed, I wondered why the logical system that had devised had not been replicated – but I suspect few opportunities are given, in a context in which so many things have to be referred to Colombo, for such inspired initiatives.
Amongst the problems the Aid Agency listed were Lack of employment opportunities
Lack of employment skills
Lack of private sector presence
Professional institutes needed to start branches in North
Lack of access to student loans
Need to learn entrepreneurship
Need of counseling on higher education
Perceptions as to public sector jobs, including amongst parents
Drugs, prostitution and violence against women
Lack of access to information and finance
The need for new technology in farming
All these can be looked at, if not necessarily resolved, through local Committees that meet regularly in GN Divisions. A Livelihood Committee, with the participation of the active officials of the Ministry of Economic Development, could discuss many of the points above and ensure action. The fact that in some areas for instance there is hardly any Vocational Training, and that there has been no systematic effort to build up skills as well as organizational capacity for the construction that is planned on a large scale, is symptomatic of the lack of planning.
I should note that such Committees should also liaise with service providers, and prevent what seems endless duplication in some places, total blanks in others. In two places for instance I was told about what seemed a positive initiative by Holcim to help with training, but how this is targeted and how beneficiaries would be best deployed was not clear.
The main point though is that the people of each area would be able to draw up a wishlist, rice mills here, better storage facilities there, a business advisory centre somewhere else. Such proposals should be vetted by the Divisional Secretary who could plan an equitable distribution of the resources available, whilst also rationalizing project proposals. What we now have is lots of agencies working all over the place, with no clear statement of aims and an absence of accountability in terms of SMART goals.
The Agency told me that a strategic plan was not available except in the East. I could hardly believe this. But what I am sure of is that, even if such a plan were available, to be shared with all stakeholders, it would not have been developed through a consultative process.