I was pleased to find last week a Divisional Secretary who had already put in place consultative mechanisms at village level. I have been suggesting these at other Secretariats, where I found an absence of systems to ensure attention to what people needed. Though some Secretaries seemed to take the ideas on board, I fear they will not be entrenched – and therefore will not be productive – unless clear instructions are issued by the Ministry.

The innovative Secretary was at Dehiattakandiya, where perhaps the difficulties he faces had led to action on the principle of necessity being the mother of invention. He has only 5 Grama Niladharis, for 13 Divisions, which in fact span 46 villages and nearly 60,000 people.

This is preposterous, and I could not understand why action had not been taken earlier to fill up the vacancies. I am assured now that an examination has been held and interviews will be conducted this month and the vacancies filled, but I was bemused that initiating the process had taken so long. However there was a good explanation, in that I gathered there had been a proposal to appoint Samurdhi officials to the post.

That would have been a mistake, since the basis on which those officials had been appointed initially was dubious, and the position of Grama Niladhari requires a certain stature. This is not always present, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the commitment of many of the GNs I have come across, in meetings now at 75 Divisional Secretariats. Were they given clear job descriptions, with a requirement of reporting in writing, I have no doubt that most of them would give excellent service to the people, and also function as the sort of early warning mechanism this country needs to avoid problems such as led to the tragedy at Weliveriya.

Incidentally I should note that this applies also to the Samurdhi Officers, some of whom have served for a decade and more, and to the Samurdhi Development Officers, the post given to many of the Graduate Trainees now absorbed into the permanent cadre. Sensibly, many of these have been assigned to specific GN Divisions, which provides the GN with the support he so sorely required. However, though they tell me that they are engaged in Data Collection, few can explain the purpose of this exercise.

There was a difference though in those trained at a course conducted by the military, who told me – way up in Delft – that, for the first time, they had realized how they should develop their work programmes. This has contributed to my view that we really must make greater use of the professionalism of the military, whilst ensuring that this takes place in civilian contexts. The SDOs then should be requested, on the basis of the training they have received, and the objectives they have identified – based on general aims prescribed by both the Ministry and the Divisional Secretary they serve – to prepare reports on the ground situation in their GN Divisions. Requests for assistance from the military should be based on these reports, and submitted through Civil Military Liaison Committees, which ought for this purpose to be chaired by Divisional Secretaries.

The reports for each GN Division should incorporate minutes of the Consultative Committees that the GN should chair. I have suggested two each week, one to discuss Development and Livelihood issues, the other to deal with Protection, in the broadest sense of the term. The former should include representatives of Rural Development Societies and professional associations such as those representing farmers and fishermen. GNs, together with their graduate support staff, should be able to distinguish between problems that need swift solutions – wild elephants, silting of estuaries, access to safe drinking water, shortages of paddy storage facilities, to cite a few that I have had to write about recently to relevant authorities – and proposals for developing facilities to promote livelihoods – irrigation, electrification, micro-credit, vocational training etc.

The Divisional Secretaries, when sent reports on such matters, should consult with relevant officials including, I have suggested, elected ones. At present there are no mechanisms to ensure coordination between elected and appointed officials, whereas many of the problems raised at our meetings pertain to areas such as utilities which are the responsibility of the Pradeshiya Sabhas. Of course, given the limited resources of these institutions, they are not able to provide remedies, but at present they feel no obligation to even try to use the resources they do have, to initiate action. Thus, instead of awarding one lucrative contract for a road, they could purchase materials and, using the services of volunteers, including the military, expedite essential repairs and improvements.

There are several examples of such developments, but they are not well enough publicized, and do not spring from systematic consultation and involvement of all stakeholders. Thus, while the support the military provides is generally recognized, it precludes the sense of local ownership that a consultative mechanism would have introduced.

Such an approach should be adopted in all areas, and I think this will go far to improving relations between politicians opposed to government and governmental institutions. At present, given the adversarial nature of our political system, I can see why such coordination does not occur where local authorities are under the control of the opposition, and that is why I believe clear instructions should be given by the relevant Ministries to ensure consultation, without in any way taking away from the powers of either elected or appointed officials.

What I find incomprehensible is that coordination does not take place even where the local authority is run by parties that are part of the government. Given however that the training of elected officials is woefully inadequate, I can see that the lead must be taken by Divisional Secretaries, and I hope instructions to ensure this will be issued – whilst ensuring that the authority and dignity of elected officials is respected.

Friday, September 6, 2013 – http://www.dailynews.lk/features/those-elected-and-those-appointed