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24102013240The cultural programmes I worked on in 2013, with Daniel Ridicki and the Indian High Commission and various universities, went hand in hand with the Divisional Reconciliation Committee meetings that were my main official responsibility during this period. Having been to all the 35 Divisional Secretariats in the North, which I did three times in fact in the less than three years in which I was Adviser on Reconciliation, I had started on the East. Over that year I covered all 45 Secretariats, bemused though by the way new ones had been set up at the drop of a hat, simply to satisfy the sectarian compulsions of particular politicians. And it was clear that there were many problems in the East too, and that government simply had no system in place to listen to the people.

But in September I found that the DIG in charge of the Eastern Province, Pujith Jayasundara, had tried to institutionalize community relationships through what were termed Civil Defence Committees, which were supposed to function in all Grama Niladhari Divisions. This did not always happen, but Pujith, whom I had known for a long time, was 30102013323analytical in his approach, and had set up formal mechanisms to ensure action. I knew nothing about all this, but I was by chance in the vicinity when a meeting of their community advisers took place, and was asked to address them.

This obviously went down well, for I was asked to address a larger gathering later in the week. Though my book launch at the Indian High Commission was scheduled for the day before that meeting in the East, I thought I should not refuse. So having come back and got through the launch, I left well before dawn to get to Batticaloa in time for the meeting which was held at the Municipal Hall. This was followed by another meeting next day at Kattankudy.

IMG-20131031-16830I took advantage of all this to rationalize the system, which we were able to do when the Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs, P B Abeykoon, sent a letter I drafted asking the Divisional Secretaries to revise the manner in which what were termed Civil Defence Committees were constituted. Earlier the Chairman was  supposed to be a leading member of the community, but such people, however worthy, had no official position. They could therefore be ignored by those with formal authority. Though in some cases they commanded respect, this was not always the case. Though the Grama Niladhari was supposed to act as Secretary of the Committee, this did not always happen, and there were no mechanisms for follow up.

The Secretary’s letter instructed that the Grama Niladhari chair the meeting, with the police acting as secretaries to the committees. This was not done everywhere but, where instructions were followed, there were better results in terms of people actually feeling they had an opportunity to be heard by those in decision making positions. Unfortunately our administrative system had not enjoined clear follow up mechanisms, as I found when I happened to visit the Nittambuwa Police Station when my car broke down near there on a journey the following year. I found a very intelligent and committed OIC, who was happy to talk to me at length about what he was doing. He had ensured that there were well maintained files for each GN Division, but he had not been able to break through the system and take advantage of the other government officials who were allocated to specific GN Divisions. These were the Economic Development Officers and the Samurdhi or Divineguma Officers, both working for Basil Rajapasa’s Ministry, but without clear instructions as to how they were to coordinate with other government departments. Read the rest of this entry »

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The escapade on boats and bikes in the Moluccas was the final episode in the hectic travel that I had engaged in during 2013. With much less that I could productively do in Sri Lanka, I had gone as noted previously to Karnataka and Bhutan and Brunei and Tunisia. In between I had gone to England, as I tried now to do once a year.

This time the main reason was the 70th birthday of my former Dean, who had been infinitely kind and helpful to me during my 8 years in Oxford. He had remained a fast friend, arranging for the College to give me membership of the Senior Common Room and Dining Rights when I went back for any length of time, booking me guest rooms for short stays, and when that became expensive allowing me to stay in his rooms. He had long moved out of College himself by then, but he had continued till he retired to entertain generation after generation of undergraduates with the ebullience of his twenties, when we had first met.

But early in the new millennium he decided to take early retirement, for he said the College was changing beyond recognition. He was stunned when one of the new history tutors asked what it was to do with him, when Leslie suggested he visit one of his students who was in hospital. The old pastoral system seemed to have died away, with the Chaplain abdicating responsibility so that dealing with students with problems fell on the shoulders of the former College Secretary, who had been eased out of that position when the new Senior Tutor banned morning coffee in the College Office. That was the time at which dons met informally to compare notes, under the eagle eye of the College Secretary who had run the administration practically single handed for years, with the support of very glamourous assistants. But the practice, which lasted for a decade after she went, was resented by the supposedly professional administrators the new Master had brought in, and a dull bureaucracy took over.

Ironically, the Senior Tutor who had thought Morning Office Coffee and all that frivolous, presided over the worst years the College experienced with regard to examination results. She finally had to leave when it was clear the place would not recover on her watch. She was Belgian, which perhaps explains my Dean’s determination to vote for Britain to leave the Common Market, though just before the note he did note that it was clear, from a trip he made to the North, that the country at large was completely at odds with the elite on this issue. The fact that every single region of England except for London voted to leave seemed ample proof of this. Read the rest of this entry »

Amidst a number of meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees in the North last week, I also had a number of interactions with children, and with persons working with children. Two instances were serendipitous, but I was privileged to participate actively – and indeed exhaustingly – on one occasion. This was when I conducted, in a small school near Nedunkerni, one of the games that the former combatants had delighted in, during my first visit to the Rehabilitation Centre for girls in Vavuniya three and a half years ago.

The laughter of the girls on that occasion still illuminates in presentations of the Rehabilitation Bureau, as I saw last month at the Officer Career Development Centre Seminar at Buttala.  In Nedunkerni the children were younger, and even less inhibited.

I had come across well over 50 of them in the playground of the school at 5 pm, which was heartening. I have long argued that we need to ensure that schools are centres of community activity, but all too often schools are deserted after 2 pm. Here however, in addition to attractive new buildings, the school had quarters for the Principal and several staff. They too were in the playground, encouraging the activity and joining in.

The school had teachers even in subjects such as English and Maths and Science, as to which there had been complaints about shortages in almost all Divisions I had visited. Whilst obviously we need to increase supply, the situation here showed that one needs to provide decent facilities to ensure teachers will stay in remote areas to which transport is difficult. The youngsters I saw playing with the children were from Jaffna, but seemed quite content to stay in the school and participate in student life in the evenings. Almost no one had taken more than a day’s leave thus far in the year.
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At two recent meetings of Reconciliation Committees in the Eastern Province, the question of tuition came up. In one place I was asked to suggest to the President that tuition on Sundays be banned, because it took away from religious education. In the other I was told that students – from Kantale – had to travel to Kurunegala or Anuradhapura to have any hope of passing their Advanced Levels, because the quality of Advanced Level teaching was so bad.

Soon after that I was told, in Colombo, that even in S. Thomas’ sports meets had to be held in school hours, otherwise students would not be present since they thought tuition classes more important. The idea that, even in a fee levying school, extra classes for which payment must be made are mandatory bemuses me. But, such being the situation, I suppose it is not surprising then that parents who do not have to pay for education accept that they must fork out for tuition, as happens in the majority even of prestigious government schools for which parents sometimes pay through the nose for entrance.

I was pleased therefore that the lady from Kantale who spoke up plaintively objected to this sort of expenditure. But it was not only the expense of the classes and the transport that she mentioned. It was also the bad habits, as she put it, that children might pick up, on long journeys, and during long hours spent in large groups. She added that her son was not a problem, but with girls the situation might be different. I should add that the increase in teenage pregnancies, mentioned in most of the 80 Divisional and District Secretariat meetings held over the last year, is also related to the tuition culture.
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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.

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The topic of education comes up at almost all Reconciliation Committee meetings at Divisional Secretariat level. I wondered whether this was because I am still thought of as an Educationist, but I suspect those who come to these meetings have no idea about my range of experience at all levels, and talk about education simply because they see a good education as vital for their children.

They are absolutely right, and the dedication of the many educationists who established excellent schools in many parts of Sri Lanka in the 19th century, the recognition by Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim social activists that they had to start their own schools, and then the comprehensive scheme developed by C W W Kannangara, did much to ensure social mobility for all segments of society.

Sadly, when the commitment of both state and the private non-profit sector to supply a good education turned into the establishment of a state monopoly, a rot set in. The state simply could not supply enough, and maintain high quality, so we now have the ludicrous situation of additional supply being provided by international schools and by tutories. Unfortunately our doctrinaire statists object to the former, and allow the latter full rein, even though they disrupt the school system even more destructively, given that many school teachers give tuition and expect their students to come to their classes to get what is not given in school.

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In the few weeks he has been in office, the new Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment has shown himself as concerned as his predecessor to promote the rights as well as the interests of those entrusted to the care of his Ministry. He is also concerned with the wider dimensions of his responsibilities, as was seen when he decided to institute a campaign to ensure Sufficient Leisure for Children.

This was based on a focus area in the National Human Rights Action Plan which we had not concentrated on in discussions of the Task Force, concentrating instead on what seemed more vital issues such as the prevention of abuse. But the Secretary is of course quite right to look at all aspects, and in particular to worry about the ‘holistic development of children’ which is now adversely affected because of educational overload.

I am not certain however about one point in the directive he sent to senior officials of the Ministry to prepare ‘an enabling environment for children to enjoy leisure’. Amongst areas in which he sees overload are extra-curricular activities. My recent investigation during Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings of what goes on in schools in the regions suggests however that the real problem is the lack of extra-curricular activities.

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I have been deeply upset in recent months, at meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings in the North, at the continuing failure to address the problem of teacher shortages in key subjects. While there is heartening appreciation of the rebuilding of schools, at much better levels than ever before, I am constantly told that there are insufficient teachers for English and Maths and Science. Of course I know this is a problem elsewhere in the country too, but that is no excuse. Given that it is those in rural communities who suffer most, I can only hope that those concerned with basic rights will at some stage institute legal action to ensure equity in education, and force government to look at alternative systems of teacher training and teacher supply, instead of sticking with the statist centralized model that has so signally failed for so long.

Significantly, I am rarely told about shortages of teachers for computing, but this does not mean that they are available. This was brought home to me graphically when I was discussing plans for use of some of my decentralized budget for education in Rideegama in Kurunagala. While I have over the last few years used part of the budget in the North, for entrepreneurship training for former combatants and this year for Vocational Training in Mullaitivu, and the rest in Ratnapura, where we concentrated on school education and English, I thought I should also do more further afield, given that the Liberal Party has a couple of Pradeshiya Sabha members in Rideegama.

I had wanted to do English classes, and these will now be conducted in three GN divisions, through the Sabaragamuwa English Language Teaching Department, which had done the teacher training in Sabaragamuwa. But to my surprise I was also asked for computer training, in particular for Ordinary Level students, since there are hardly any computer teachers in the schools in the area.

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I was deeply touched last week, at the Reconciliation Committee meeting in Manthai East, when Father James Pathinather expressed appreciation of a position I had put forward, and said that it had required courage. I also felt very humble, for nothing I had done could come close to the courage he himself had displayed, in April 2009, when he tried to protect LTTE combatants who had sought shelter in the Valayanamadam Church.

He had been attacked for his pains by the Tigers. After he was gravely injured, and evacuated from the War Zone in one of the regular rescue missions we facilitated for the ICRC, the LTTE drove off those who had sought to escape from them by taking shelter in the Church. Many of those forced again into combat are doubtless among the few thousands who then disappeared.

The courage of those like Father James, who sought to stand up to the LTTE when it was at its most ruthless, should be celebrated by the Sri Lankan State. But we have completely ignored these heroes, who had an even tougher time than our soldiers who had to fight virtually with one hand tied behind their backs, given the use the LTTE was making of the human shields it had dragooned into Mullivaikkal. Those soldiers had at least the comfort of comradeship, whereas those who stood up against the LTTE inside the No-Fire Zone were isolated, and subject to enormous pressures as well as brutality of the sort Father James experienced.

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One of the most depressing features of government is the readiness with which transfers are used to solve problems. At the Education Consultative Committee in Parliament, some of my colleagues pointed out what seemed to them grave faults in Principals or Zonal Directors of Education, and recommended that they should be transferred at once. They were startled when I said that would be wrong, but then acknowledged that, if the officials concerned were unsatisfactory, it would be destructive to transfer them to other responsibilities where they would also prove unsatisfactory.

Last week the same thing happened at a Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meeting, when strong objections were made to a particular Grama Niladhari. Again, the community representatives who made the charges – with no inhibitions about naming their subject – seemed surprised when I said that was inappropriate, but agreed with my point that their complaints should be investigated. The man should then be reprimanded if the charges were established, and subsequently dismissed if he did not improve.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2019
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