After nearly 100 meetings at Divisional Secretariats, with the participation often of Pradeshiya Sabha representatives, I am more than ever convinced that the future of this country lies in strengthening local government institutions. However, if they are to do more, they also need to consult the local citizenry.
At present there are no formal structures to ensure such consultation. Some local bodies do have provision for Standing Committees, and I have been told that for Pradeshiya Sabhas there is provision for members of the public to participate, but this is not the case with Municipal or Urban Councils. The latter indeed do not seem to have provision for such Committees.
This is quite contrary to the premises on which the Mahinda Chintanaya is based, and I was happy to find that efforts to amend the Acts have progressed considerably in the last couple of years. Unfortunately the same old trend of simply amending earlier Acts has continued, instead of repealing previous legislation and replacing it with a clearly comprehensible new Act. This will mean that those elected to such bodies will find it difficult to understand what their powers are, and lawyers will have a wonderful time interpreting the Acts.
But some of the new provisions are excellent, and I can only hope that these amendments will not suffer the fate of the good changes government wanted, such as the Higher Education Amendment Act, which was destroyed by unnecessary delays on the part of those entrusted with the drafting.
Amongst the most important changes is the introduction of at least four Standing Committees, with mandatory membership in all except the Finance Committee for what are described as ‘knowledgeable citizens’. But there are no details about what these Standing Committees should be about, and these citizens are not permitted voting rights. This last provision is absurd, given that the Committees have no statutory powers, but only play an advisory role.
In my proposed amendments I have omitted that provision, and also specified that two of the Standing Committees should be for Development and Livelihood Issues, and for Social Protection and Welfare. This will help to focus attention on particular areas in which the proposed amendments confer greater responsibility on the local authority.
I have also suggested that those who serve on these Standing Committees should have a clear representative function. At present they are to be appointed by the local authority, with preference given to particular categories. My view is that they should rather be representatives of established institutions such as Rural Development Organizations, with the Women’s Rural Development Organizations having representation on both the Standing Committee on Development and Livelihoods, and the Standing Committee on Social Protection and Welfare. There should also be representatives of Youth Clubs and Children’s Clubs on the latter Committee, since we need to do more than pay lip service to the provisions in other legislation that children should be consulted on matters that concern them.
I have also suggested that the Divisional Secretary should be invited to the Finance Committee, and the Planning Officer, the Rural Development Officer and the Skills Development Officer to the Committee on Development and Livelihoods. For the Social Protection Committee there should be representatives of the Women and Children’s Units and the Social Care Centres of any Division (if they exist, and certainly one or the other should be established in every Division), along with the Head of the Police Women and Children’s Desk.
I believe this statutory provision is essential because, although we can see good cooperation in some areas, in others there seems to be hardly any contact between appointed and elected officials. This can lead to duplication of efforts, which is why we must entrench coordination mechanisms.
I have also fleshed out the section on the functions of local bodies by talking about responsibility, and by expanding public health and utility services and thoroughfares to encompass community services, including libraries, playgrounds, pre-schools, public gardens and recreation grounds and communications and entertainment centres. Elsewhere I have suggested that local bodies should establish and maintain Community Centres, in the broadest sense of the term.
Public Libraries and Reading Rooms, Entertainment Centres, Maternity and Child Welfare Centres and Pre-schools and Day Care Centres should be the specific responsibility of local bodies, and they should try to place them in a single building, which should be fully utilized.
My concern about this has increased since I found in the Batticaloa District that several government buildings are lying unused. Several were built after the tsunami, obviously with no coherent planning. Despite this, all agencies it seems want to continue with construction, and there is no system of consolidation which would allow buildings now going to waste to be renovated and used. I have therefore suggested that local bodies should have the power to acquire with the permission of the Minister unused government buildings in the area and renovate them for public purposes.
But I think it is also important to develop a culture of voluntarism and citizen participation, so I have suggested that local bodies should engage in development work and construction and reconstruction through community participation and voluntary labour, with provision for funding of materials when satisfactory plans have been put forward. In similar vein, I have proposed that local authorities could enter into partnerships with schools and encourage school societies to participate in the management of facilities such as Herbaria and Plant Nurseries and also Playgrounds.
The amendments now proposed do suggest also that local bodies engage in entrepreneurship, and this should certainly be encouraged. But I think it is also important to suggest areas in which they could function fruitfully. Most important amongst these in the current context, it seems to me, is the development of power production plants using non-renewable energy sources, and I hope government will encourage such schemes, which could also be a productive source of revenue.