The trailer of Navin Gooneratne's film Siddhartha Gautama was screened at the inauguration by Indian Minister of External AffairsSalman Khurshid of a Conference in Chandigarh on the 'Changing Scenario in South Asia'. The picture shows Navin Gooneratne and the female lead in the film, Anchali Singh, with Minister Khurshid and Rashpal Malhotra of the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development which hosted the Conference. Also in the picture are Ashani Abeyasekara of the Institute of Policy Studies and Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, who made presentations at the Conference.

The trailer of Navin Gooneratne’s film Siddhartha Gautama was screened at the inauguration by Indian Minister of External Affairs
Salman Khurshid of a Conference in Chandigarh on the ‘Changing Scenario in South Asia’. The picture shows Navin Gooneratne and the female lead in the film, Anchali Singh, with Minister Khurshid and Rashpal Malhotra of the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development which hosted the Conference. Also in the picture are Ashani Abeyasekara of the Institute of Policy Studies and Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, who made presentations at the Conference.

Text of a Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP

At the Conference on the

Changing Scenario in South Asia: Leveraging Economic Growth for Collective Prosperity

Held at the Centre for Rural and Industrial Development, Chandigarh

March 30th-31st 2013

I am grateful to the organizers of this Conference for this timely initiative to discuss leveraging economic growth to promote collective prosperity. As the concept note indicates, the discussion is intended to go beyond economic growth and, as befits a Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, it is concerned as much with changing mindsets as with promoting prosperity.

This paper then will look at Security and Ethnic Issues in Sri Lanka in the context of both internal and regional cooperation. In terms of the sub-text of the Conference, the changing scenario in South Asia, I will look particularly at enhancing relations with India in the context of current concerns. I fear that there are a number of forces striving to drive India and Sri Lanka apart and, given the close cooperation we have enjoyed in recent years, and the support we received from India to deal with a grave terrorist threat, we must do our best to overcome these. I trust that, despite recent events in Geneva, decision makers in India feel the same.

The greatest threat to security in the region is internal dissatisfaction which can be used for political purposes by national and international players aiming at destabilization. Whilst usually the reasons for dissatisfaction are economic, they are exacerbated by perceptions of discrimination based on class and caste and ethnicity.

This last is of crucial importance in Sri Lanka, understandably so given policies that seemed to militate against minorities. Unfortunately agitation has now gone beyond practical issues and has led to emotional dogmas that threaten security. Such threats can also affect India, given the current practice internationally of encouraging small national units that are more easily managed for economic as well as strategic purposes.

It is essential then for us, throughout South Asia, to ensure that separatism receives neither encouragement nor excuse. I should add that we also need now to be conscious of the danger presented by what is termed autonomy too. Changes in the world scene have made that a very different kettle of fish now from what it used to be. In the old days indeed, those of us who believed that majoritarian policies in Sri Lanka had led to very understandable grievances amongst Tamils felt that regional autonomy was a solution. We argued that even Federalism was preferable to a highly centralized state that had no mechanisms to look at and overcome local problems.

That easy approach to regional autonomy is no longer possible. When the Cold War concluded with the triumph of the West, the first consequence was the dismemberment of large countries that threatened the now dominant mindset. Of course it could be argued that those countries brought it upon themselves through excessive efforts at domination – as obviously with Milosevic in Yugoslavia – but we can see continuing encouragement of centrifugal tendencies, in South America and Africa and the Middle East, without such excesses. There is no reason to assume that South Asia will be exempt from such maneuvering, and I do not need to remind Indians of the dangers your increasing power and influence in the world will precipitate. The bottom line is that sections of a country that feel themselves distinct see this as a justification to separate if all is not going their way. In short, whereas we used to think of Federalism as a means of binding a country together, we must now recognize that it is more readily used as a rationale for enforcing greater distinctions.

That is why I am sure you are aware of the dangers of the current agitation in Tamilnadu with regard to Sri Lanka. If such pressures are seen as successful, they could lead to similar flexing of muscles with regard to other issues. In the short term, given the manner in which you have achieved economic integration of the more prosperous states in India, and the economic opportunities that larger countries offer, you need not worry too much. But if there were many players in the game, able to offer incentives to the influential, you may find yourself having problems, just as China will, for similar reasons – and remember that the reporting of such a situation will not be to India’s credit, whatever the realities.

But while we in South Asia must then be concerned about regionalism that could militate against national unity, we must not forget the need to ensure that government responds swiftly to the actual needs and concerns of the people. This cannot be done through a centralized system. But the answer lies not in greater authority than now exists for states or provinces, but rather in the principle in accordance with which we in the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka first supported devolution, when it was wholly unfashionable in the Sri Lanka of the eighties.

I refer to the principle of subsidiarity, according to which decisions must be made by the smallest possible unit affected by such decisions. This means that we need to strengthen local government, and also institute consultative mechanisms to ensure that it responds swiftly to local needs. I should note that, when I suggested this during the talks government was holding with the Tamil National Alliance in Sri Lanka, and our team took up the suggestion despite initial hesitation on the part of my colleagues, the TNA reacted positively. Unfortunately, given that our principal negotiator was not really interested in progress, he allowed the matter to lapse – just as he did the suggestion about a Second Chamber, to strengthen the role of regions at the Centre, which again the TNA had been positive about.

That sort of arrangement at the Centre is desirable because, whatever subjects are devolved, there are certain things, in particular those involving security considerations, which must be handled at the Centre. We must therefore develop mechanisms to ensure that the periphery is consulted about such matters and contributes to decisions.

But more important to the vast majority of our citizenry are the bread and butter issues that are best decided locally. We need therefore to encourage local administration of basic services, health and education and transport for instance, in addition to the simple amenities that now constitute their responsibilities. Even more importantly, we need to encourage local input into planning and training for development.

This is vital if the regions are to benefit from the larger projects government engages in. If I might refer in particular to the Sri Lankan situation, we have recently done very well on infrastructural development in the country as a whole, and in particular in the areas affected by conflict. But, in particular in the Northern areas previously controlled by the LTTE, we should have done much more in training to empower the people of the area to take advantage of the opportunities available.

Thus, though generally – this year was an exception, because of excessive rain – harvests have been exceptional, I am asked when I visit the North for the Divisional level Reconciliation Committee meetings that we hold regularly, not only about storage facilities, but also for training in marketing and value addition for the produce. It is also pointed out that, though construction proceeds apace, and many houses are planned, there was no scheme to train youngsters in the construction industry.

It seems clear to me that we should have anticipated such difficulties. Or, rather, since the people concerned are obviously more adept at anticipating potential problems than the central government could be, we must improve mechanisms for consultation, and taking up suggestions. We need in effect to ensure that development is seen as a partnership between people and the government, not a top down process.

As a step towards this, I have recommended that in every Grama Niladhari Division they have regular meetings, one with regard to Development and Livelihoods, the other with regard to protection issues and care for the vulnerable, children and women in particular. But these must involve government officials who can plan in accordance with the issues raised, and ensure remedial measures. And there must be mechanisms for feedback, so that the people feel that their suggestions are taken seriously.

This is not the case now, as I am often informed. The problem is that we have no formal systems, with provision for minutes and regular reports. The result is that decision makers tend to work on their own priorities and predilections – and while I do not challenge the need for streamlined management, which means that they in the end make the decisions they are responsible for implementing, a mandatory requirement to explain decisions will at least ensure that they are made with greater sensitivity to local needs and aspirations.

How can India assist to promote such consultation, with a few to promoting not only development, but also the unity and integrity of the country. Firstly, it can assist with developing better local government systems in accordance with the Panchayats you introduced a couple of decades back. And it can direct aid and assistance towards small scale development projects that empower people at the grass roots. Thus far India has, understandably given the concern with national sovereignty that all nations in South Asia share, provided assistance bilaterally. This should continue, but in discussions with the Sri Lankan government India should encourage local consultation and rapid responses to needs at the lowest level of government. The development of cooperatives, of micro-credit schemes, of minor construction works that include a voluntary labour component, can all contribute to confidence building at local levels, which we sorely need in a context in which development is hijacked for grandiose political purposes on all sides.

And we can go further. We should develop projects that have linkages with rural societies in other areas, so that the experience of working together and sharing best practice goes beyond ethnic identities. I believe this Centre, along with its associates such as the Gandhi Centre in Sri Lanka, have experience of such commitment to community based development. Working on such lines to develop village level decision making, the Gramya Raj that exemplifies democracy at a practical level, is what we should aim at.

This of course requires moving away from the command economy  approach that was thought an essential component of socialism in Cold War days. But whereas we in Sri Lanka controlled and centralized with a vengeance, India benefited enormously from an open economic system at local level that precluded some of the rent seeking that our top heavy statist system engendered. So we must introduce radical change in Sri Lanka to correct the balance, and also improve connectivity nationwide, across communities without the need to go through the centre for pursuing common goals. We need as part of this conceptual change to also encourage common marketing strategies and manufacturing techniques, that will contribute to reduction of the sense of alienation that Sri Lankans of different ethnicities still feel in each other’s presence.

That alienation is exacerbated by language difficulties, and I believe India can contribute even more to language training programmes in Sri Lanka given your own skilful management of the language issues, that threatened to tear India apart in the fifites. I am aware that currently India does support a language training centre in Sri Lanka, but this suffers from the monopolistic approach Sri Lanka has had to education, which much change if we are to produce employees fit for 21st century jobs.

On the contrary, we should encourage variety, and in particular teacher training for languages as well as Maths and Science so that we can get over the decades long problem of teacher shortages in rural areas. These are amongst the common complaints I get and the failure to deal with such problems is perhaps the most obvious example of why central government must allow local authorities to take over in areas of immediate concern to the people. At its simplest, our failure in this regard makes clear the need to engage in planning that is based on consultation, not on age old dogma.

This brings me to the final point I wish to make, which is the need to improve our administrative service so that it goes back to what it was, in the days when both the Indian and the Ceylon Civil Service were repositories of excellence. You have maintained standards, through continuing with the promotion of excellence in education and through constant training. We, though we have done much better on mass education, sacrificed excellence, and are now suffering as far as our decision makers are concerned. The absence of think tanks such as this in Sri Lanka, the incapacity of our administrators, despite much latent talent, to plan and implement policies coherently, contributes to our ongoing problems.

It would be useful then if India as a matter of policy tried to bring together administrators and politicians and journalists as well to exchange ideas and promote effective policy formulation and implementation. In the process we could also work towards policies that will entrench the spirit of cooperation, between our nations and also between communities in each country. At its simplest, we need a wider understanding of the world to appreciate the need for breaking down trade and barriers and promoting greater economic connectivity. Unfortunately we have not studied what has happened elsewhere in the world, nor how a little bit of care in particulars can avoid any dangers, without having recourse to blanket denials. Often enough it is a lack of confidence in ourselves that leads to the rejection of new ideas, and this is something we need to work together to overcome.

Let me conclude then by suggesting that the ideas generated here should be taken further through regular discussion, and the establishment also in Sri Lanka of branches of such think tanks, to promote not only cooperation but appreciation of the benefits to ourselves of understanding the concepts and analysis that have proved so useful to this country in its emergence as a major economic and political influence in recent years.