Soon after I had written last week’s column about improving protection at local levels, I found a structure already in place that was based on a similar idea. This was in relation to the Community Policing that that present Inspector General has instituted.

His determination to establish mechanisms for this is in line with the Mahinda Chintanaya commitment to ensuring consultation at village level. Sadly I don’t think any other government department has moved coherently to implement this idea, and I can only hope that the present IGP does not fall prey, as his most illustrious predecessor Osmund de Silva did, to resentment on the part of politicians who want to provide solutions to all problems themselves. Osmund de Silva found that his efforts to develop a productive relationship between the police service and village communities was looked on with suspicion by the politicians of a newly independent country who thought they were the heirs to all the authority that the British had exercised.

So, whereas the British hierarchichal system, with the police seeing themselves as representatives of a government that was at a remove from the people, has changed in Britain, with greater understanding of the community basis of democracy, it continues in Sri Lanka. And though the IGP has tried to change things, I suspect old habits will die hard in many parts of the country, not least because of the different layers of politicians who insist on controlling things themselves – as was tragically illustrated in the recent reign of terror in Sabaragamuwa.

In the East however I found a very coherent system, with a sympathetic understanding of how society functions. In addition to the Civil Defence Committees which I knew had been set up in every Grama Niladhari Division, there is an Advisory Committee attached to every police station, with representatives from the Health and Education sectors, as well as Religious Leaders and community organizations.

This system is not well enough known, and I am not sure it functions so effectively in other parts of the country. I was in fact lucky to be in Amparai when a Progress Review meeting was held. As I had been urging something similar in every GN Division, I was pleased that I could attend, and address a few issues that had come up during Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings.

Incidentally, I was impressed that the Senior Superintendent of Police there went to the heart of the main problems facing the villagers, when he talked of problems of disposing of and storing paddy, and the danger from wild elephants. I have been writing about this constantly over the last year, but I fear the agencies responsible are still complacent, and will do nothing until some sort of tragedy erupts, as happened in Weliveriya.

The Police Advisory Committees are meant to look at problems holistically, and ensure that authorities pay attention to them. Though obviously, as the continuing problems in the areas mentioned indicate, solutions are slow, I think this type of information sharing and awareness raising is the best long term solution to the sense of neglect many of our rural populations feel. The number of times I am told to draw the attention of the President to particular problems makes clear the lack of faith in others. But we obviously cannot rely on one person to deal with everything, and must set mechanisms in place to ensure subsidiarity with regard to problem solving, if not with regard to governance: ie problems must be solved at the lowest level at which they can be, with things taken further only when grass roots action is not possible.

After that first meeting, I was asked to attend a similar one in Batticaloa, and also a Progress Review of Civil Defence Committees in half the Batticaloa police areas. Despite having work in Colombo in between, I thought it necessary to agree, and I am glad I did, because of the differences in perception between the two Districts, and also the wider reach of the latter Committees. These have been given specific responsibilities, but the last of the tasks allocated makes clear the thought that has gone into the instructions issued.

In addition to ensuring security, and preventing and solving crimes and controlling abuses, the Committees are encouraged to engage in interventions with regard to health and education and religion and sports and culture. Overarchingly, they are also asked to develop voluntary ‘shramadana’ projects, and over the Deyata Kirula period projects worth over Rs 50 million have been implemented. These include building of roads and clearing of cemeteries, health camps and dengue eradication, clearing of playgrounds and sports competitions.

The system could however be improved, and for this purpose it is necessary that the different government agencies concerned cooperated more actively. At Kattankudy I was told that Grama Niladharis often did not attend meetings, and clearly this should be included in their job description – an entity I have long been asking the Minister to institute, to replace the age old tasks they are told to do through the diary which is a hangover from British times.

In turn however I think the police should request the GN to chair the meetings. I have suggested this for the Protection Committees I advocated, with brief minutes being kept by both the GN and the police officer allocated to his Division. Both should pass on the minutes to their superiors, ie the Divisional Secretary and the OIC of the police station. These last should review progress on at least a monthly basis, together with other officials responsible for protection, such as the Child Rights Protection Officer.

Other fine tuning would include specifying that relevant officials, such as principals of schools in the GN Division and the Public Health Inspector be part of the core group of the Committee. And ideally the Divisional Secretary would allocate a relevant officer from the Secretariat to liaise with each GN Division.

Friday, September 27, 2013 –