The recent incidents at Weliveriya raise a number of questions which should not be confused. Most important is the fact that three civilians died at the hands of the army. As the new Army Commander has indicated, this is not acceptable. Measures must be taken for a full and credible inquiry, with appropriate penalties as well as the institutionalization of safeguards to prevent repetition.

But it is also important to look at the way in which a simple problem escalated out of control. The preliminary inquiry of the Human Rights Commission has indicated that there was no coordination amongst the various agencies responsible, both for the technical questions as well as the representational ones.

Several weeks ago I wrote to the President about this situation, and suggested some remedial measures. What I said then is worth quoting – ‘At present there is little possibility of particular shortcomings with regard to basic services receiving the full attention of authorities at a higher level, whether the Province or the Centre. This amendment will focus the attention of local bodies on important services, and allow them leeway to take corrective action if none is forthcoming from other authorities. As Your Excellency has noted, this is vital with regard to transport, but it should also extend to educational and vocational training services, and to basic health facilities.’

 

I was referring to some amendments I had suggested with regard to the Local Government Act. Unfortunately I have not as yet had a response to my letter, or the detailed proposals I made, despite these having been discussed beforehand with the President. I suspect that, like all else I have suggested, they have been passed to others for comment, and been duly buried.

Sadly I suspect those who have been asked to comment have neither the time nor the conceptual skills to understand the structures that I have suggested. Nor, I suspect, would many understand the concept of representational responsibility being aligned with technical responsibility. This will make sure that all matters raised by the people are taken up to the level at which solutions can be reached; and it will make sure that those solutions are based on coordinated technical expertise.

One of the few officials who does understand is the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, who has drafted excellent terms of reference for the Women and Children’s Units he has set up. He notes there that members of the Unit, which should funciton in each Divisional Secretariat, should ‘divide responsibility for each Grama Niladhari Division among the officers so that each Grama Niladhari Division will be looked after by a unit officer’.

They will then discuss issues collectively, with input from other professionals too (Police Women and Children’s Desks, Health Officers, Education Directors etc), and set out remedies for problems. Meetings should be weekly but obviously they can be convened quickly for emergency situations, under the chairmanship of the Divisional Secretary. Meanwhile all officials summoned to such meetings for particular agenda items must be instructed to attend or send an appropriate representative.

Unfortunately such meetings often do not have the desired consequences. One problem is that we have completely lost the habit of keeping clear records and communicating them to all participants at meetings. I found for instance in many Divisional Level meetings that, in several cases where the people complained that nothing had been done about matters they had raised, there were no records of this happening. Though I believe politicians should respond more readily to queries, I defended my colleagues on the grounds that they could not be expected to remember everything, given the range of their activities.

I made some suggestions to one meeting, at Santhaimaruthu, and then wrote to the Secretary to the President that ‘Amongst the suggestions I made, which you might consider incorporating into a basic handbook, were –

a.All meetings should be promptly minuted and the minutes shared with all participants.

b.Participants should keep their own records of meetings, and should draw the attention of those responsible for the minutes to matters that they consider urgent.

c.The convenor of the meeting should be responsible for follow up and should note action points, and draw the attention of those allocated responsibilities to what they should do.

d.Without relying solely on large meetings, administrators should encourage consultation by stakeholders at each layer of administration and request records of such consultations to feed into the decision making process

e.The suggestions agreed on at each level of meeting should be on the agenda at the next level, and responses to these should be provided. Where they have to be rejected, reasons should be given.’

I am still waiting for a reply, but I suppose given that the instructions have to be given by the Ministry of Public Administration, which has still not formally recognized the Handbook UNDP prepared for Grama Niladharis, we cannot really expect swift action.

I hope however that the need for such structures will be recognized following the tragedy at Weliveriya. There it seems that the Water Board was testing for the PH quality of water and issuing certificates that made the people feel the water was sub-standard even though the level the Board has set for pipe borne water is not applicable for water from other sources, and water with a lower PH content is perfectly potable.

When the panic started, no one thought of getting the Ministry of Health to issue a clarification. Nor did the BOI or whoever is responsible for the factory think immediately of testing the water for simply those chemicals used by the factory which might be harmful.

This is where a combination of representational authorities – Grama Niladharis and Divisional Secretaries – could have worked immediately with technical experts to solve the problem and assuage fears. But we have no structures for this, and no one will listen to any pleas about their necessity.

Dailynews 14 September 2013 – http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=features/problem-solving-coordinated

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