At many of the Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings I have attended in the last few months, there has been harsh criticism of what are termed District and Division Development Committee meetings. Often I am told that problems are raised at these meetings, but nothing is done. Promises are made, but they are never kept.

More recently, since I have again been in the East, having concentrated for the first five months of this year on the North, there have been many complaints about decisions made at Development Committee meetings being changed by the Chairman. There are also allegations of contracts awarded to Rural Development societies being cancelled and given to other entities. Some of this has to do with the comparatively large sums made available through Deyata Kirula for development projects.

Though the allegations made suggested corruption, on going into details I felt that some changes made sense. However it is clearly counter-productive to make decisions after consultation and then change them without at least keeping all stakeholders informed of the change and the reasons for the change.

The problem is that there is no clear mechanism for consultation and feedback and for ensuring that decisions are not arbitrarily changed. In fact I also found uncertainly about the actual composition of the Development Committee, since some Rural Development Societies felt that they had a right to attend.

This is not in fact the case, as far as I can make out, but clearly the circulars need to be better known. They also need to make clear provision for consultation of the people who are affected by projects, before the Development Committee meets, if indeed it is considered more efficient to have such meetings only for officials.

Such consultations could be entrenched by making it mandatory for Grama Niladharis to ascertain the views of people in their Divisions before funds are committed. But to avoid the problem raised so often, that after much talk nothing is done, it is desirable to establish a system of record keeping, with specific procedures about referring matters upward and then also ensuring that responses are received. Thus, while the priority lists of each Grama Niladhari Division may not find acceptance by decision makers, the latter would have an obligation to explain why their own priorities were different.

Apart from the simple principle that people should have a say in the decisions that affect them, there is a very practical political reason for putting a better system in place. At present Division and District Development Committees are chaired by government Members of Parliament, and this is seen as a mechanism for them to take responsibility for development work and hence reap the political benefits. However, given that the decisions they make cause so much heartache, I suspect that more political damage is done to government than otherwise.

I should add that complaints come from all communities, with the Sinhala Divisions being if anything more vociferous in their complaints, ranging from the farmers in Morawewa who told me that the practical solutions they had propounded for flooding had been completely ignored by the Irrigation Department, to those in Lahugala who declared that at meeting after meeting they were promised electric fencing to keep elephants away, but nothing had been done.

In this last regard I was assured by the officials that plans had been drawn up for the work to proceed. However the failure to keep people informed seemed an unnecessary worry for them. Though I was told that giving out a precise time-table could create problems, since everyone would demand that they be first on the list, I saw no reason why the Grama Niladharis could not be told of the date before which everything would be completed.

Another problem the current system entails is the leeway it creates for communal disharmony. When Ministers belong to a particular group, it is easy for those of other groups to claim that they are discriminated against. And though there are positive instances of the opposite – as when the Sinhala people in Vavuniya South protested about outsiders being recruited to Vavuniya North, which was absurd they said since those outsiders could not communicate in Tamil, which was essential – by and large government is suffering from particular individuals being seen as devoted only to their potential vote banks, which means their own communities. This, I should note, is an offshoot of our current electoral system, whereas had politicians had to concentrate on constituencies, they would have had to work for all inhabitants of the area. Now they look at particular interest groups, since they can build up sufficient preferences from such groups alone.

Given the political dimensions of the manner in which these Development Committees function, we also have another problem since, when elected officials who run local bodies belong to an opposition party – or even a different element in government – rivalries develop rather than mechanisms to work together. Given too that we have not entrenched systems to make sure that elected officials and appointed ones work together, you often have the phenomenon of different authorities pulling in different directions. And even though in the end the government Parliamentarian who chairs the Development Committee meeting has his way, he could be the victim of sustained resentment on the part of other authorities with less power.

Though such problems may persist anyway, they can be reduced by institutionalizing also high level consultation in each Division. Even if the Member of Parliament cannot be present – and I have been told of Development Committees postponed for months on end because the Member meant to chair them has no time to attend – the Head of the local authority could meet with the Divisional Secretary, and all Development Officials, to be briefed on plans and input into them as appropriate. The idea should be to build up teams, to benefit the whole area, not simply to seek individual gains and the favour of particular interests.

Colombo Telegraph 9 July 2013 – http://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/resentments-about-development-committee-meetings/

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