At the debate on the FUTA demands arranged a couple of weeks back by Eran Wickramaratne, perhaps the most telling complaint made by the FUTA head was about children in a distant village clustering in droves before dawn to get the bus to a school far away. That anecdote seemed to have nothing to do with the FUTA strike, though it should have been if the demand for 6% of GDP being spent on education was about results, rather than simply sloganeering. The failure to respond at all coherently to Eran’s simple question, what should be done with the 6%, made it clear that policy changes which would lead to a better education system for all was not part of the agenda.

This was sad, because I am sure that some at least of those leading the strike are idealists, not concerned with the massive pay hikes that are being demanded on top of already large salaries. But the failure to analyse the root causes in the decline of our education system that they have highlighted, and to suggest radical reforms that ensure greater accountability, simply plays into the hands of those in the government sector who are satisfied with the status quo. I assume therefore that the strike will soon be settled, with yet another salary hike on top of all those the current government has granted so readily over the last few years, with no effort to deal with the problems of children forced to travel endlessly, to distant schools and to tuition classes, to make up for the failure of government to provide decent schools even in small towns, let alone in villages.

One of the reasons for this failure is the absence of coordination between the providers of the various services essential to a society committed to equal opportunities. Sadly it has not yet registered with our decision makers that good transport facilities are an essential component of a just society. It is useless providing schools and hospitals unless access to them is easy.

In the North it seems to me, from complaints at the various Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings I have attended over the last few months, that the biggest problem is with regard to transport. Of course there are complaints with regarding to housing and electricity and roads and irrigation, but in all these cases there is general agreement that the situation is much better than it was a couple of years ago, and also that it is steadily improving. While there is a case for ensuring more responsive planning, and better systems of information so that the people know when they can expect relief, I have also found that people appreciate what is being done, and that everything cannot be provided at once for everyone.

With regard to transport however it would seem that hardly anything had been done. The Ministry of Transport – unlike the Ministry of Health, or the Timber Corporation, for instance, which have replied promptly – has failed to answer any of my letters. I suppose this is understandable since there is simply nothing they can do, given the size of the problem, and they would not know where to start.

The Governor, I should note, has responded actively, and has set up some schemes to provide transport for public servants, which has helped at least in a small way to overcome the difficulties faced by those who travel from Jaffna or even from other major towns to the Divisional Secretariats. But he has not been in a position to do more for the school children who are the principal victims of transport difficulties.

Meanwhile the programme of rationalizing schools is in limbo, because there are no mechanisms in place to ensure ready access to good schools for those in areas where schools are being closed. It makes good sense to close down schools with fewer a dozen children in each class, because children need to learn from each other as well. Besides, providing enough teachers for such schools, so as to ensure good teaching in vital subjects, is difficult when economies of scale cannot be practiced. But, when closure of schools is recommended, there should be strict observance of the principle that transport to a better school is provided.

This scarcely happens. At present there seems to be no coordination between Ministries of Education and Transport Ministries, and I keep hearing horror stories of no buses at all, or buses that arrive much later than the school starts. There are complaints that season tickets are not readily available, and transport officials, pursuing other priorities too, pay little attention to the needs of children. This in turn leads to despair about the closure of schools, rightfully so since ensuring a decent education for all should be fundamental to a decent society. Hence we find the reversal of practical decisions at excessive expense.

There is a simple answer to all this, which is to entrust coordination of such services to the Divisional Secretariats (and to ensure that responsible Educational Divisions are coterminous with these). Each Secretariat should be provided with a number of buses for the purpose of providing transport that is essential, for schools, for public servants, for markets. All this is best coordinated at the smallest possible level that can study local problems and respond to them swiftly, which is why neither District nor Province will be able to help, let alone the Central Ministry of Transport.

The people at the meetings I attended responded enthusiastically to the idea. I did suggest that the service be entrusted to the Local Government authority, but there was almost universal preference for the Divisional Secretariat. Provided officials at that level are trained in responsiveness to public needs, and accountability with regard to the responsibilities entrusted to them, I believe transport, at least with regard to the needs of the most vulnerable, should be arranged by the Division, through dedicated services for the area.

The Island 14 Oct 2012 –