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qrcode.30124925I come back to Education because, with every day that passes, it is more and more obvious that we must engage in quick reform of the system. We need to change structures to allow for quick decisions. We need to change syllabuses to ensure that our youngsters get basic knowledge and also the ability to access necessary information. We need to encourage thinking skills and initiative, and also group learning that will promote cooperation rather than competition that puts us each in his own little compartment.

What we must get rid of is the continuing dependence on officials who have little understanding of the ground situation in the various schools which have insufficient teachers, inadequate provision for counseling and few extra-curricular activities. That requires strengthening school based management, but we have to make sure that, when principals are given greater responsibility, they are made strictly accountable, and that they must show results that can be accesses and questioned by all stake holders.

This means more effective consultative committees in schools, but these cannot be confined to parents, because they can be easily intimidated. That is why we tried, when I worked with Divisional Secretariats, to strengthen the Women and Children’s Units, to encourage officials involved in child care at all levels to actively monitor schools. In particular the Health Department and the Probation Department should be empowered to check on the physical welfare of students in schools, and also attendance.

Unfortunately our administrative structures militate against such cooperative efforts. Institutions are compartmentalized, with no provision for the comprehensive assessments of their development that children require. The unquestioned domination of officials in a colonial administration has combined with the statism of the period just after independence to give the Ministry of Education exclusive control of the education process. But that Ministry should be confined to setting standards, whereas both implementation and monitoring should be left to local agencies that know the ground situation. Read the rest of this entry »

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qrcode.30057893One area in which a government must ensure continuity is with regard to foreign relations. I do not mean by this that a new government must follow the policies of its predecessors. But it must understand them, and ensure that changes are made systematically, and without destroying anything that has been built up.

I wondered about the assertion in the manifesto that ‘Within hundred days all political appointments and appointments of relatives to the Foreign Service will be annulled and the entire Foreign Service will be reorganized using professional officials and personnel who have obtained professional qualifications’. But that last clause made me think that the annulling of what were termed political appointments would be, not in terms of a catch all phrase, but on a rational basis that understood the need for professionals with suitable qualifications and objectively justifiable capacity.

That is why I wrote at the time that ‘Whilst there are good reasons sometimes for appointment of non-career individuals to Head of Mission posts, all other posts should be reserved for members of the Diplomatic Service.’ Though there are several obvious cases of inappropriate appointments to Head of Mission posts, what was infinitely worse was the manner in which individuals, related to opposition as well as government MPs, were sent to undertake vital responsibilities for which they were not trained at all. Outsiders of proven capacity are appointed by all countries to head Missions, and this has always been the case in Sri Lanka. It was the Jayewardene government that made several inappropriate appointments to junior positions, and this destructive practice was implemented in spades as it were by the last government. Read the rest of this entry »

reform agenda 13I have written already about the inconsistency this government is manifesting with regard to strengthening the independence of the Public Service. It is patently ridiculous that much energy is expended upon ensuring a Public Service Commission that is not constituted according to Presidential or Prime Ministerial whims and fancies, but continuing to leave the Commission with no authority at all with regard to the seniormost positions in the Public Service. And it is obviously counter-productive, if one wants an independent Public Service, to have Secretaries to Ministries replaced when there is a change of government. This suggests that they are meant to serve the government in power, whereas going back to the practice of having Permanent Secretaries makes it clear that they are in office to serve the State.

 Keeping them in office, instead of allowing this to be a matter of grace and favour, will also help to ensure continuity. When you have new Ministers – who often know nothing about the subject they have to handle, because we do not have a Shadow Cabinet system – and new Secretaries, understanding what has been happening becomes difficult. And even when the Secretary is kept on, since he will see this as a concession, he will be hesitant to expound the virtues of what the previous Minister has done. So often good initiatives are promptly forgotten, and wheels are reinvented, with little understanding of the road conditions.

One sad example of the probems that arise relates to an excellent initiative of the National Child Protection Authority. They had established a hotline for children, which has proved increasingly popular in the period after it was made operational for 24 hours. Now this may be cut to working hours, and the line transferred to the Ministry. Though the previous administration had obtained a grant from the South Asian body responsible for Child protection to improve the hotline, there is some confusion now about that money since it was for both Women and Children, and the Ministries have been divided up. I believe, given how dedicated the Minister is, that things may work out all right, but I worry lest children will be expected to ensure that abuse, or even worries, occur only during working hours. Read the rest of this entry »

reform agenda 12The Liberal Party was the first to say, more than two decades ago, that the Presidency as constituted by J R Jayewardene had too much power. In particular we felt it was wrong for the President to have total discretion with regard to appointments to important positions responsible for making decisions that affected the country at large.

This was not a popular view, and it was only more than 20 years after the Presidency was introduced that the matter reached boiling point as it were. So in 2001, in the last throes of the government President Kumaratunga had set up a year earlier, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was introduced. But though it was obviously better to have some check on the President, the form this took was confusing, and not in accordance with general political principles.

What it did was set up a body of appointees who had to approve the nominations of the President to individual positions. It also had the unparalleled power of choosing nominees to Commissions, which the President was expected to endorse. This was bizarre, for to confine an elected President in this way, turning him or her into a rubber stamp, is grossly inappropriate. It was not surprising then that President Kumaratunga flatly refused to appoint the Elections Commission that had been selected by the Constitutional Council.

I myself feel that the Parliamentary Council set up under the 18th Amendment was more in accordance with political practice internationally, though unfortunately it did not have veto power. Still, had the Council actually ever met, it could have fulfilled a public purpose in that it could have put in writing objections to nominees of the President. After all in a classic Westminster system, a Head of State who is not elected by the people will not turn down a nominee of an elected Prime Minister. But the Prime Minister is careful to select appropriate people, since a delay, or a simple suggestion that he reconsider, would immeasurably reduce the moral authority of the nominee. In recent years a polite but detailed account of why Mohan Pieris was inappropriate, with for instance the arguments so clearly presented by Nagananda Kodituwakku, would have made it difficult for President Rajapaksa to persist with the nomination. Read the rest of this entry »

reform agenda 11The saddest victim of the Ranil Wickremesinghe style of politics has been the Cabinet. There was a pledge in the President’s manifesto to begin with a Cabinet of 25 members. This was expanded to 28, and the pledge that the Cabinet would consist of representatives of all political parties was ignored. I did point this out to the President, and mentioned that Mr Radhakrishnan too had been a victim of this breach of promise.

However I said I would get down to work, and I did so. A further shock awaited, when Kabir Hashim was made Cabinet Minister of Highways and Higher Education and Investment Promotion, but being naïve I believed him when he said he would not interfere. But given the opportunities for patronage, which seems the principal thrust of the UNP led government, he did of course interfere, and was even able to justify the efforts of his personal staff to take possession of extra vehicles as soon as I returned them.

But leaving aside the question of numbers, and the perks that go with the positions, more worrying is the absence of coherent thought in determining the constitution of the Cabinet. Kabir’s is by no means the maddest Ministry. My own favourite is Home Affairs and Fisheries, whereby in addition to his fishing responsibilities Joseph Michael Perera has to look after District and Divisional Secretariats too. Obviously, given his decision making capacities, Karu Jayasuriya, though made Minister of Public Administration, could not be trusted to play ball with regard to appointments to the largest segment of senior public servants. So, as one District Secretary put it, they were summoned to the presence of the Prime Minister’s Secretary and scolded and said they would be transferred. And of course the decisions in this regard are not make by Joseph Michael, who is clueless about the personnel involved, but by the Prime Minister and his merry band.

Perhaps in pursuit of equity, I should note that Joseph Michael has just lost responsibility for the Registration of Persons Act which, two months after the government took office, has been handed over to John Amaratunga and his Ministry of Public Order, Disaster Management and Christian Affairs. In the same Gazette, Navin Dissanayake’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports loses the National Crafts Council which is given to Rishard Bathiudeen’s Ministry of Industry and Commerce. Rishard also gets the Consumer Affairs Authority, which he may well handle with the aplomb shown by Johnston Fernando. The Ministry of Food Security is the loser, as also of the CWE and Sathosa, which are admirably suited perhaps to Rishard’s skills, given what this government seems determined to promote.

Akila Viraj, it seems has lost the National Education Commission, though where this has gone is not clear. Read the rest of this entry »

Reform 9I come now to what seems a contentious issue, unnecessarily so. The manifesto on which the President won the election clearly pledged that ‘An all party committee will be set up to put forward proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with a Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportionality.’

This commitment, in the 100 day manifesto, was fleshed out in the commitment to a Compassionate Cogvernment and a Stable Country, as follows: The existing electoral system is a mainspring of corruption and violence. Candidates have to spend a colossal sum of money due to the preferential system. I will change this completely. I guarantee the abolition of the preferential system and will ensure that every electorate will have a Member of Parliament of its own. The new electoral system will be a combination of the first-past-the post system and the proportional representation of defeated candidates. Since the total composition of Parliament would not change by this proposal, I would be able to get the agreement of all political parties represented in Parliament for the change. Further, wastage and clashes could be minimised since electoral campaigns would be limited to single electorates.’

This makes clear the urgent need for change. Sadly, the United National Party, having scented power, seems determined to continue with a system that practically demands corruption and violence. And while it will not openly promote corruption, the manner in which it is trying to grab vehicles from Ministries to give Members of Parliament shows that it will command resources without hesitation to promote its victory.

Fleets of vehicles naturally seem essential when candidates have to work in whole districts. So do millions of posters and hundreds of people to paste them. That in turn leads to violence that is more intra-party than between parties, since one’s immediate rivals are those in one’s own party. But presumably that matters nothing to the Prime Minister who belongs to the Divide and Rule Jayewardene philosophy in the UNP rather than the more inclusive Senanayake tradition.

The main argument against a First Past the Post system is that it distorts the will of the electorate. We saw this in both 1970 and in 1977, when governments had massive majorities in Parliament even though they had just bare majorities. But that is why the Maithripala Sirisena manifesto says very clearly that there would be mechanisms for plurality, and even more significantly, ‘the total composition of Parliament would not change by this proposal.’ Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.29154522Sri Lanka needs a National Environmental Policy that can be effectively enforced to deal with current threats. We should not only react, but should develop and implement policies that will reduce risks. In fact the Disaster Management Centre, together with the National Building Research Organization, has developed plans in some sectors. But these institutions need to be strengthened, and given a mandate to ensure implementation of the Risk Reduction Plans that have been produced.

Meeriyabedda tea plantation in Koslanda

…. develop and implement policies that will reduce risks.

It is also necessary to lay down clear guidelines about the relations between such policy making bodies and those who implement. While the DMC has staff in the Districts, manpower for support has to come from the services, the military as well as the police. Active involvement of village committees is also vital. But in addition there must be direction on the basis of clear authority, which is where the Divisional Secretaries, and even the District Secretary, have a crucial role. This should all be laid down in Standard Operating Procedures, which should be known and understood by all officials, including the Grama Niladharis.

Sri Lankans wade through rain water on a flooded road of PiliyanDala suburb of Colombo on November 11, 2010

… continuing problems must be addressed

Particular attention must be paid to landslides and floods. The continuing problems in certain areas must be addressed through coordinated mitigation measures. These should include a comprehensive Water Policy, since otherwise many areas are subject to flood during some periods, and drought in others.

At present interventions with regard to irrigation and to the supply of water, are made with no proper coordination. It is essential to develop methods of storing excess water, which requires greater attention to small reservoirs that could serve a small group of villages. More responsibility for identifying schemes and for implementing them should be given to Divisional Secretariats, which are able to consult the stakeholders in the area. Such consultation should be mandatory and people kept informed of projects in their home areas, with space to object and have their concerns noted and addressed before action is taken. This should be a regular agenda item at consultative committee meetings at Grama Niladhari level, and suggestions should be collated and assessed in the formulation of Divisional Secretariat level plans.

…. ensure that threats to life are eradicated

The Policy should also aim at ensuring that safe drinking water is available to all. In coordination with the Ministry of Health, the Water Board should ensure that threats to life such as the now rapidly spreading kidney disease are eradicated. Fertilizer must be subject to rigid testing, since it seems that excessive use of chemicals is destroying traditional agricultural lands. It is also essential to develop effective information dissemination systems to ensure that necessary precautions are taken. Some time back the DMC together with UNDP produced simple booklets for schools, and such resources must be increased, with time given in the school curriculum to ensure proper understanding. In this regard it would be useful for the Education Ministry to review the Life Skills curriculum, and perhaps reintroduce some of the ideas in the curriculum developed in 2005 which was summarily changed when a new regime took over at the Ministry of Education. The Ministry should also consider making this subject compulsory at Ordinary Level, instead of History, which was hurriedly made compulsory without proper analysis of the benefits to students and the wider community.

An effective programme of Disaster Management will also involve attention to environmental protection, since steps must be taken to protect forest cover and wildlife. But this cannot be at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of rural communities. Now we find that farmers are not permitted to function in their traditional grounds while politicians amass large fortunes through acquisition of what should be common lands, along with excessive deforestation. Read the rest of this entry »

financial abuseI had intended to start this new series with expanded versions of the brief suggestions I had made during the election campaign. However, having been made a Minister, and found out the ridiculous privileges that Ministers are given, I thought I should start at the beginning and deal with the need for reforms at the very top.

The amount of waste on Ministers alone is appalling. Being a State Minister, with no Cabinet Minister, I had two predecessors, who between them had the use of 8 vehicles. They had 20+ staff in what is termed their private offices, one of these being the wife of the Minister. Five staff members of each private office were provided with vehicles and drivers. In addition the Minister had 8 substitute drivers.

All this nonsense springs from a circular issued by the Secretary to the President on May 14th 2010. I have drawn the attention of Karu Jayasuriya to this, and suggested that he amend it swiftly. He is Minister of Good Governance in addition to Public Administration, and a brief discussion we had after the swearing in of the new Cabinet suggested he is serious.

I was not surprised that he asked for my support in this, because what is clear is the need for better systems, based on clear principles. But I have realized over the years that few other politicians understand about systems and principles. This may help them to be successful politicians, but it means that the consequences of their success are generally disappointing and sometimes disastrous.

So in the last few years I have been disappointed at how few politicians cared about strengthening the Committee system in Parliament. Many of them indeed did not bother to attend, except only to raise one or two parochial points. Hardly ever were principles discussed.

This is clear from the Minutes of Committee meetings, even though these are cursory. Fortunately, following my agitation about the matter, these Minutes are now publicly available, something I am sorry to say no Parliamentarian previously had demanded. Interestingly, one consequence of the Minutes being published is that more people attend Committee meetings. The records of the first couple of months showed that very few people attended. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.26592475Business opportunities need to be developed throughout the country. Though infrastructural development has been good in many parts of the country, the people need to be empowered to make use of new facilities and opportunities.

As I was told a couple of years back, in the Wanni, by a representative of a Women’s Rural Development Society, they were grateful for the assistance to resume agricultural work, but they needed training in marketing. Little has been done, too, to ensure value addition for basic produce. Though 2013 was declared the year of Value Addition, the Minister told me ruefully that hardly anything had been done.

It would help if expertise were available locally for agriculture as well as the development of industries. While there is obvious need of 59b514757c03f4e14c006ca63de02928_Mbetter training in skills, this should go hand in hand with training for enterprise development. We also need to provide better sources of credit, in particular to women. It is also desirable to provide start up support for new enterprises, in particular those that will also contribute to nutritional support, given the recent rise in the percentage of those suffering from malnutrition.

Encouragement of Small and Medium Enterprises is essential in a modernising economy. As the recent Pathfinder Foundation suggestions had it, ‘The overall business environment should assist SMEs to improve their competitiveness and market access. The major internal challenges related to SMEs include their sub-standard technology, low productivity, inferior product quality, weak access to new markets, lack of financing and financial management and scarcity of skilled labour. Their expansion is also constrained by institutional bottlenecks, lengthy and onerous bureaucratic procedures, fragmented support schemes, and a heavy regulatory burden.

It is sad that government failed in 2010 to build on the goodwill that was widely available after the destruction of the Tigers in Sri Lanka. Efforts were made then to encourage investment, and I still remember the enthusiasm at the Forum in Jaffna in January 2010. But bureaucratic delays held sway, along with rent seeking, which was made easier by bureaucratic requirements and the multiplicity of authorities whose approval was required for enterprise development.

Most important perhaps we should develop a culture of initiative and enterprise. Over half a century ago, D S Senanayake pointed out that Industry in this country has yet to be developed. Today Government service is still regarded as offering the most attractive jobs. We speak of industrialization in Ceylon but we do not seem to realise that we require well-trained personnel to enable us to compete in the industrial sphere with other parts of the world. We also want agriculturists who could help this country to compete on equal terms with the rest of the world. Read the rest of this entry »

Colombo Post 5The last few years have seen vast sums of money expended on schools, but this has been mainly in the area of construction. There has been little concern with improving the actual quality of education. The impression created is that the work done is seen largely as a means to an end not actually connected with education. Leaving aside the large profit margins available when construction becomes an end in itself, there is also a political agenda. This is obvious from the large number of computer laboratories, for instance, that remain unopened, waiting for a politician’s convenience to claim that this is his gift to the people.

The perversity that dominates educational policy was in fact asserted by the Minister of Education who claimed, when I asked about the failure to commission these laboratories, that the people should know who had gifted them the facilities. I pointed out that these were not gifts from qrcode.26575647politicians since the money to construct them was the money of the people. The Minister granted I had a point, and said he would move on the matter, but the movement was mainly in Uva, where the President dashed about the place opening facilities which had remained closed until the election. I found this out when I followed up with an inquiry, for statistics from all Provinces. Only the North Central Province has thus far responded – there are 75 schools there where the computer labs have been built, but remain unopened. Doubtless there and elsewhere there will be a flurry of activity before the Presidential election.

Underlying this absurdity is the failure to establish the point that education belongs to the people. The most important stakeholders are children and their parents, and we need to develop systems to ensure that parents can monitor what is going on in the schools their children attend. Ensuring a good service cannot be left to the service provider, which is why government must ensure that the beneficiaries also are able to assess the quality of the service they receive. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2019
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