One of the greatest barriers to Reconciliation, I fear, is the difficulties government has to make its position clear. This springs in part from the systemic failure that will soon overwhelm us if remedial action is not taken swiftly. As it is, I believe we continue to survive only because of the enormous energy of a few, and the general decency of many of our administrators, whom the system however tends to suppress, with no efforts to institutionalize procedures and reporting mechanisms.
Symptomatic of this is the confusion about the guidelines that are issued to Grama Niladharis, the lowest rung of the ladder in the public service, but arguably the most important, for they are the interface between government and the public. Strengthening their administrative capacity would go far towards overcoming many problems government now faces, with more senior decision makers plagued by problems that could so easily – and with much less inconvenience to all concerned, including travel time and money – have been resolved lower down.
When I first realized the wide differences between Grama Niladharis in terms not just of efficiency, but also with regard to understanding of their roles, I asked what instructions were given to them when they were appointed. I was presented then with a Diary, which had in its initial pages a list of responsibilities which seemed to me a regurgitation of what they had been expected to do in the times of the colonial administration. I trust I am wrong, and that amendments have been made over the years, but in general it is clear that a thorough overhaul is essential, not just tinkering. In particular, the ethos should be one of local consultation, with mandatory provisions for this – on the lines of the advisory bodies envisaged in the original Mahinda Chintanaya – rather than the top-down approach that was appropriate for a colonial power co-opting local agents whose responsibilities were to the governors, not the governed.
Some efforts at clarification, if not reform, were made under a recent UNDP project, which was supposedly implemented through the Ministries of Public Administration and of National Languages. This has resulted in a Handbook, which suggests modes of operation and responsibilities, and provides guidelines with regard to the various responsibilities conferred through the document in the Diary.
However I found this document is not well known in the North. I was fortunate enough to see a copy only after I began Reconciliation work in the East, but further inquiries elsewhere drew a blank. I had earlier gathered that, in the familiarization sessions conducted by the Ministry for new Grama Niladharis, there were no written instructions given save for the Diary. Though I may not have understood the whole story, I fear that others in authority are equally unfamiliar with the Handbook.
Leaving aside this omission – and I remember telling UNDP many years ago that they really had to do better on their Good Governance programme to ensure sustainable results – I have also been disappointed at the relative lack of understanding amongst Grama Niladharis about the role of government, and in particular the strategies adopted for the Resettlement programme. In many places the complaint is that Government has not provided the displaced with permanent housing. This shows a fundamental ignorance of the principle that Government adopted, namely that it would provide basic shelter for all when they went back, but that building up houses was not the responsibility of Government. While there have been several initiatives to provide housing, for instance by the army and some NGOs and the Indian government, these are intended for the worst off and the most vulnerable.
With regard to the rest, Government ploughed in massive resources to expedite productive employment. The tremendous achievements with regard to infrastructure, for which an expensive demining programme had first to be implemented, were designed to promote livelihoods, in particular agriculture and fishing. This has succeeded, and should lead to beneficiaries improving their own situations, without waiting for handouts. Unfortunately this philosophy has not been explained so, in characteristic Sri Lankan mode, individuals see others getting benefits and expect that they too should receive them as a right.
Instead of coping with endless complaints about not having got houses, Government should instead encourage the resettled to request better training for more productive livelihoods. In some places I have had suggestions that there should be more targeted vocational training, and the development of skills in marketing and value addition for harvests from land and sea, but there could be much more focus on this to accompany the basic productivity that has been achieved. Similarly, villages should be encouraged to put forward proposals for better irrigation and storage facilities, to parallel what seem coordinated efforts in this regard in the East.
True, the Eastern Province Government, and the massive input by Central Government, operated in a less contentious time and place to establish the foundations of what now seems astonishing prosperity, compared with what I remember from a few years back. But similar achievements are possible in the North, if Government uses all administrative tools at its disposal to make clear its plans and involve the people in putting forward proposals and working within that framework. For this purpose active consultation in a structured manner would be invaluable, and this should be done at Grama Niladhari Level. A couple of months back I sent some suggestions for the type of meetings that should be held regularly. Though of course these can be fine tuned, I believe we are wasting an excellent resource if we do not entrench consultations on the following lines in all Grama Niladhari Divisions, with obligations to report problems and advance suggestions to the next level up, the Divisional Secretariat.
Suggestions for mandatory Meetings on a weekly basis in Grama Niladhari Divisions
Livelihood and Development: This should involve Rural Development Societies and Women’s Rural Development Societies as well as youth groups. Rural Development Officers should attend and representatives from the Ministry of Economic Development should be invited along with Agriculture Extension Officers and others working in relevant areas. Aid organizations contributing to livelihood development should be invited, in particular representatives of the UN Development Agencies and IOM.
Issues discussed should include infrastructural development, technical support, training needs and micro-credit provision. Government officials should make clear what has been provided and future plans whilst encouraging prioritization of requests. The focus should be on ensuring that support is directed towards ensuring the economic empowerment of the population rather then perpetuating dependency.
Protection: This should involve Women’s Societies and the police, with the particular involvement of Women’s and Children’s Desks (which should be established in at least every DS Division). Officials involved in social services should be invited, and the DS should assign at least one such official (from Health, Probation, Women and Children’s Ministry and Organizations, Social Services, Counselling) to each GN Division. Schools should be represented and should provide schedules of drop outs and possible problem cases. Religious personnel should be asked to participate and contribute to support groups actively. Aid organizations contributing to protection should be invited and should share the impact of their work with government so as to fine tune and develop it. UNICEF and UNFPA should be invited on occasion.
Issues discussed should include the provision of adequate awareness raising programmes, at schools and elsewhere, with particular attention to alcohol, drugs and sexual issues. The creation of support groups, for counseling as well as protection, should be considered, with the meeting taking cognizance of those in vulnerable situations. The meetings should lead to closer cooperation with the police, leading to swift redress in cases of criminal activity, but also advice and warning when dangers are anticipated. Particular attention should be paid to former combatants to promote their active integration into community life.
Social and Cultural Activities: This should involve Education as well as Cultural officials. Youth and Sports Groups and the police and Civil Affairs officers from the army may also be invited.
Issues discussed should include the provision of extra-curricular activities in schools and ensuring that education is comprehensive and not confined just to academic learning. Sports and cultural activities should be provided in all schools along with societies contributing to socialization such as Boy Scouts and Girl guides, Cadeting, St John’s Ambulance Brigades and Interact and other similar clubs. The GN Division should also promote voluntary language development classes, with the police and the forces contributing to Sinhala conversation classes whilst also learning conversational Tamil themselves. It should also promote entertainment including regular performances at Divisional Cultural Centres (using school buildings where separate Centres are not available), the development of Public Libraries, and regular film shows, with organizational input from students.