In discussing the ways in which governmental institutions can be strengthened so as to provide a better service to the people, it is obviously essential to look carefully at what happens at the first level at which officials interact with the citizenry. This is in Grama Niladhari Divisions.

Unfortunately the duties, and the responsibilities, of Grama Niladharis are not clearly defined. Their role was expanded in the nineties by President Premadasa, and there are different views as to the efficacy of his theory of consolidating government input at this basic level. Recently I heard one of our more thoughtful Ministers, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, complaining that the close attention to agriculture paid by officials at village level had been done away with when such positions had been suppressed, and Grama Niladharis given responsibility in all spheres.

This echoed a view I had heard from Asoka Gunawardena, probably the most knowledgeable official in Sri Lanka now about the various layers of government we have and their history. My own view is that a single official in overall charge at GN Division level makes sense, but such an appointment should be accompanied by mechanisms to ensure consultation, and the possibility of referral to professionals in specific fields.

We are far from having such systems. Indeed, as far as I know, and no Grama Niladhari or District or Divisional Secretary has shown me anything to the contrary, the formal instructions Grama Niladharis get are confined to a description of duties that comes in a diary similar to the one that used to be issued in colonial times. The duties laid down there, if I remember aright, are

Initial responses to illegal activities, Assistance in emergencies, Election responsibilities, Excise duties, Census duties, Timber Concerns

Land formalities, Registering of persons, Provision of Certificates, Provision of IDs, Pension responsibilities, Valuations of less than Rs 5,000

I have divided these into two sections, because it seems to me that some duties, those in the first section, are no longer the responsibility of the GM. There are other bodies to deal with these, and while the GN may sometimes have to provide assistance, responsibility lies elsewhere, with professionals.

The second section has responsibilities that in essence require certification. In theory most of this work is formal, with little decision making power. But the work is immensely important to the people for whom it is done. In addition, the type of classification the GN has to engage in has been extended, so that he acts as in effect a conduit for programmes of assistance that government has, for which people have to be assessed and categorized.

In recognition of the enhanced role of GNs, the UN has in recent years been providing assistance and training. Most importantly, a couple of years back it produced a Handbook, which provides invaluable advice on how a GN should function. Typically however I found that in some areas District Secretaries had no idea about this Handbook – though I believe that has now been remedied, and the Handbook has been widely distributed.

However it is not an official document, and there is still no mandatory requirement to consult and to report, which is essential if the GN is to fulfil properly his current role of representing government to the people and also representing the people to the government, at the level at which there is most interaction.

Some GNs I should note do the job professionally. I am told about the consultation mechanisms they have set up, and the lists they prepare to ensure that assistance is received where it is needed. But I fear that, unless Ministries realize the importance of providing better training and entrenching systems, we will continue to have a hit and miss situation in many areas.

At a recent consultation I arranged, with support from UNDP, to look at areas of concern in the National Human Rights Action Plan, it was decided therefore that, to improve the services available, the GN should have a weekly meeting to discuss protection issues, with special attention to women and children.

The type of discussion that should take place, and the way in which action should be initiated and followed up may be seen from the suggestion that ‘the following matters relating to children should be on the agenda each week, and a report on the situation should be submitted to the Divisional Secretary by the official responsible for the GN division –

  1. A Vulnerability Index of children needing care or potentially in need of care (those in single parent families, school drop outs etc)
  2. Reports on arrangements for child care, including institutions where these were unavoidable, and subsidies to ensure children were looked after within family structures where possible
  3. The provision of awareness programmes as required, and adequate counseling services
  4. A review of school services, with emphasis on the need to provide a holistic education (were physical facilities such as toilets and drinking water available, were there sufficient teachers, were extra curricular activities conducted etc)
  5. Training needs to ensure productive employment for children leaving school (this should include vocational training in schools as recommended now by the Ministry of Education)

The GN Division meetings should involve representatives of community organizations as well as Children’s Clubs and Youth Clubs. The police officers assigned to the GN Division should attend together with school principals. Civil Society organizations working in the field should be invited along with a representative of the Civil Affairs Office.’

But, to ensure follow up, we also suggested that additionally, ‘Divisional Secretaries… allocate geographical areas of responsibility to each official concerned with the care of children and related social services.’ In short, what we were concerned with was ensuring that the matters brought up at GN level were looked at also at the higher levels at which decisions could be taken about productive initiatives.

Daily News 18 May 2013 –