downloadI have been quite critical of Basil Rajapaksa recently, which I gather has upset him. This led him to assume that I would vote against the government in the recent motion of No Confidence, which suggests how emotional he can be, with little comprehension of political principles. But I should be glad that he at least reads, because I was gradually coming to the conclusion that no one in government read anything, and that few listened to anything except adulation.

This is a pity, for there is much they could learn from constructive criticism. Unfortunately the general mindset is oppositional, and I suppose this is understandable given the incapacity of the opposition to do anything but criticize mindlessly. Thus it is natural to suppose that any criticism means unremitting opposition.

This is not the case with regard to my worries about Basil Rajapaksa. I am deeply impressed by his capacity to work, and the way in which he presided over fantastic infrastructural development in areas that had been ravaged by conflict. Indeed, having recently travelled to the North East of India where, despite evident goodwill and much expenditure, there are many deficiencies with regard to connectivity, roads and railways and communications, I am glad that I was unstinting in my praise of what government has achieved in our own North and East.

That could not have been accomplished without Basil Rajapaksa’s drive. But the problem was that he had not engaged in the conceptualization that should have accompanied such a programme, and he paid little attention to the development of human capacity, and the provision of productive employment. So nothing like enough has been done to improve teacher supply to schools, to fast forward skills development for youngsters, to promote small and medium industries through carefully targeted credit facilities and entrepreneurship training.

Basil could well respond that this is not his business, and that would be correct. But the response of the many Ministers who should have done more would be that they have not been given any resources, and that too would be true. Vasudeva Nanayakkara for instance is clearly idealistic and committed, but he has contributed hardly anything to developing language capacity in the north or promoting social integration. And the equally positive Dullas Allahapperuma, despite promising way back in 2010 to do much more in the area, has not been able to respond to the needs of the people in the area and introduce effective vocational training.

But, after my last visit to the North, where these matters are much more the subject of discussion now than the problems of security and land and infrastructure that came to the fore earlier, I also registered that effort had been minimal. The Ministries that should have been working overtime in the North had done little to assess needs or attempt to work productively with whatever resources were available. Those in charge seem quite incapable of thinking outside the box, and though they have been quite positive about the ideas I have given at Consultative Committees, they seem unable to put anything into practice.

Volunteer Language Teaching could have been started in government offices (as I did when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, where a very bright young Tamil girl taught her peers very well, and indeed qualified in time as a teacher for government programmes); small training centres could have been set up in schools to provide youngsters with locally necessary skills such as motor mechanics and tailoring (as I have done with my decentralized budget in five Divisions in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, the largest subvention to those Divisions of any Parliamentarian, government or opposition); a Trust Fund could have been set up to provide loans to former combatants (which I tried to do a couple of years back, but Mohan Pieris, who undertook to produce a draft for the purpose told me after several months that he did not think this would be a good idea); language centres could have been set up in schools (though thankfully after much prodding this is being done by the Official Languages Department).

What explains this lethargy? On the one hand I think it is a sheer lack of thinking skills amongst both politicians and administrators, a consequence of the appalling education system we have entrenched over the years. This does not mean our youngsters are not capable of brilliant achievements, as they show when they are challenged. My nephew, his parents said, blossomed when he moved from Royal to an International School, one of my star pupils at S. Thomas’ who won a scholarship to Eton failed to get into Oxford because, as his Housemaster put it, S. Thomas’ had failed to teach him to think – but he did very well at London University and went on to postgraduate work at Oxford. And there are many other instances of our products, having got a good basic education, deploying it well when they are expected to.

But unfortunately government does not expect its personnel to exercise imagination and initiative. Ministers continue in office for ever, whether they do well or not, and the same goes for bureacrats, with the occasional change because of some personal problem, as has happened recently in the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Skills Development. There fortunately we have someone of great competence who took over from an unsavoury character who seemed to be subverting the efforts of the Minister. This came to light when the Mullaitivu District Secretary, a man of great competence, told me that the Minister had promised Colleges for Skills Training in every District but, when he asked about these, the Secretary said they were not on the agenda because of the big German Technical Training School to be set up in Kilinochchi.

These big institutions, which obviously cost a great deal to construct, seem to be the panacea for everything. But once they are put up, actually ensuring effective programmes is not high on the agenda. Thus in Nanattan I was told about a Centre that had been completed a few months back, but was barefly functional. The people of the area said that only one course was being conducted, in aluminium fabrication for a dozen students.
I wrote to UNICEF immediately since I had been told they had helped set up the Centre, and I got an immediate reply – which perhaps explains why the people in the North rely more on the UN than on government, since with very few exceptions I get no replies or long delayed ones to letters I write to government departments. UNICEF said there were two courses being conducted, but there were indeed delays in getting other things going. In part because this was due to uncertainty as to whether the place was meant to be a Technical College or a Vocational Training Centre.

Obviously, in terms of the needs and aspirations of the locals, it should be the former, and I realized this was what the very sensible Minister had wanted. But his former Secretary obviously had been of another view, and it seems now that the Centre will be reduced to simply producing technicians, as one bright academic put it in opposing government plans to reform tertiary education, rather than potential entrepreneurs. How pathetic this restrictive approach to training was struck me the more forcefully when I was told in India that one of Mr Modi’s innovations in Gujarat was a Skills Development University.

I had tried to encourage something of the sort, and the Minister had been positive so that we had very constructive meetings on the subject, both at the UNIVOTEC and at the Kotelawala University, which is just next door so superb synergies could have developed. But there was no follow up. The KDU said UNIVOTEC had not come back to them, but they too were slow in developing appropriate curricula, except for one Department. Meanwhile I heard from UNIVOTEC that the Ministry had been discouraging, and said it was not their business to provide such high level qualifications – another example of what the President has described as clutching everything to oneself, and not opening up opportunities for others.

So it is no wonder that there is no progress in areas in which people desperately need support. And this relentless bureaucratic bungling occurs everywhere, as I found for instance with regard to a Tile Factory on which the International Labour Organization had expended substantial resources, on the understanding that it would be managed by the Oddusuddan Thrift and Cooperative Society.

But there was a dispute about ownership of the building, and the Society could not get this resolved. This is not surprising in that we have a Ministry of Industries and also a Ministry of Small Industries, and they also had to ask the Governor, and no one was able to take quick decisions. So the rest of the funding ILO had committed to this project had to be redeployed, and no one is trying to ensure productive employment based on local ownership for the people of this very deprived area.

So it is understandable perhaps that Basil has hugged everything to himself, given the lack of initiative of his peers in the Cabinet. But he too, given his very different interests, has failed to do what is needed, as the result of the Provincial Council election made clear. But whether he will have the capacity to institute reforms with regard to the systems that now operate, and ensure coherent planning by intelligent and effective administrators is a moot point, given that the name of the game seems to be, not the welfare of the people, but gaining credit for oneself.

 Presidency under threat 6