The last series of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings in the North brought out even more clearly than before the failure of the various institutions of government to work with each other. At a previous consultation, which the UNDP had funded as part of an ongoing initiative to improve coordination, I had realized what might be termed the political problem in the areas in which development is most essential, namely the Divisions in which local government bodies are controlled by the Tamil National Alliance.

Some of their members, and in particular the community leaders they had appointed to lead their lists in many places, thus avoiding the general unpopularity of those who had been engaged on either side in the confrontational politics of the previous decades, were willing to engage. But they were not sure if this would be acceptable to their more political leaders, given that it is much easier to complain that to try to work. Conversely, government representatives were not sure whether active cooperation with elected leaders from an opposition party would lead to criticism from those who thought government should belong only to them.

But this political problem is exacerbated by the absence of systems to encourage cooperation. Thus I found a vacuum even in the islands of the Jaffna District, where the Pradeshiya Sabhas are in the hands of the government. This could be attributed to communication failures given language difficulties, though that is certainly a reason which could easily be overcome. But then I found that there were problems too in the Vavuniya South Division, which is largely Sinhala, and where there seem to be very good relations between the Divisional Secretary – who the people seemed universally to admire and like for his efficiency – and the members of the Pradeshiya Sabha, at least those who came to the meeting.

At the heart of the problem lies the failure of government to institute productive training for members of local government bodies. But connected with this perhaps is the failure of government to have worked out in which areas such bodies should be encouraged to exercise initiative. Though technically they are responsible for seven areas, clearly the provision of utilities is no longer an area in which they can do much, given the increasing involvement over the years of central government in such activities. That within government there is inadequate coordination, with Water Resources and Water Services for instance coming under different Ministries so that comprehensive planning is not easy, is another question. But clearly, in such matters, local bodies can only make requests and suggestions, with decisions on what must now be large scale initiatives belonging elsewhere.

However there are still several areas in which local government bodies can and should take on primary responsibility, but in few places are these done. Community services, including the provision of parks and libraries, should now be extended to entertainment and communications. Thus I was deeply impressed by the Officer in Charge of the Police in Palai, who was building a large hall in which, because electricity had not yet reached several villages under his purview, he proposed to screen films and arrange other entertainment.

Such activities would also help local bodies to generate revenue. They could also encourage local initiatives by involving senior school students in preparing and presenting programmes. In this regard, given the general breakdown of educational services in most rural areas, local bodies could also take the lead in arranging for vocational training, which certainly qualifies as a vital service for the community.

This can be done in schools, since the Education Ministry had finally decided to encourage such training in schools, having at last got over the dismissive mentality they had developed with regard to anything except academic learning. Connected with this is their failure to develop extra-curricular activities in schools, and that too is an area in which local bodies can take a lead, given the responsibilities they have for what are termed leisure activities. The Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development recently made the very valid point that the Right to Leisure is also vital for children, and this could be an area in which concerted local efforts made a difference – bearing in mind too that the soft skills developed through leisure activities such as sports and cultural performance are immeasurably useful when it comes to seeking employment.

Another area in which local bodies could do more was highlighted by the President in his budget speech, when he talked of entrusting responsibility for transport for school services, as well as markets, to local bodies. Unfortunately no one else seems to have noticed this part of the budget speech, and nothing has been done in this regard. I much fear then that this will go the way of many other excellent and innovative ideas introduced by the President, such as the assertion last year about reforming the prison system and introducing rehabilitation programmes instead of long term remand and sentences for minor offences.

However, unlike the judiciary, which should develop more productive rules with regard to remand and sentencing, but cannot be forced to do this, the institutions which can implement the President’s ideas about transport come under the Executive. I gathered when in Karaveddy that, courtesy of the Indian government, the Jaffna Municipal Council had been working on these lines even before the budget speech, so I have written to the Indian High Commission asking for support for rural areas too. But the response would doubtless be quicker if the Ministry of Local Government also made a similar request, backed up perhaps by the Ministry of Public Administration, since clearly coordination between local bodies and Divisional Secretaries would make the services more efficient. Now that the President has drawn attention to the matter, it can no longer be neglected and left to the Ministry of Transport, since clearly this is about education and community services too.

Daily News 15 June 2013