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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 »

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Last week saw an extremely productive consultation on promoting the Rights of Children. Organized by the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, as decided at the meetings we have been holding over the last several months to better understand the problems and possible interventions, it was presided over by the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs.

In addition to officials from different branches of his Ministry, we also had excellent input from the Ministry of Health, which is especially important given the gaps in the provision of psycho-social support nationwide that we need to fill. While delivery will have to be through various agencies – school counselors that the Ministry of Education appoints, Probation Officers appointed by the Provinces, Social Service Officers appointed by that Ministry – we obviously need better coordination as well as training, and this can best be provided by the Ministry of Health.

We also had representation from the Ministry of Social Services. The Secretary had not been able to attend, which was in part our fault because it was only after the meeting had been arranged that we realized the importance of her presence too. But she was enormously cooperative when we met her and, though committed to a visit to Japan – which is a model that we should aim at in the care it provides for the vulnerable – she has agreed to pursue cooperation in this field on her return.

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The note that Save the Children kindly prepared for me on Children’s Clubs also noted the Objectives of the National Children’s Council, viz

  • To promote the discipline, protection, development and participation of Sri Lankan children
  • To ensure that Sri Lankan children are equipped with creative skills and would shoulder the national development.
  • To create a patriotic, morally sound, healthy and joyful generation of children.

While this may seem a catch all process, the note went on to say that ‘Children representing the National Children’s Council have also been consulted on various issues that affect all Sri Lankan children such as physical and humiliating punishment and violence against children both at national and international levels.

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While going through the schedule of projects implemented by Non-Governmental Organizations in the north, in terms of the task I was given of coordinating assistance to make it more effective, I found a number of different projects to establish Children’s Clubs, with a sum of Rs 1000 granted for each Club. I was surprised by this, and even more surprised when I found that the Divisional Secretaries concerned had no idea about these allocations.

However, following a helpful report I received from the Divisional Secretary of the Vavuniya Town Division, I asked others too for records of Children’s Clubs in their areas, and found that a number had been set up. I also found errorneous my initial assumption that the projects were not very coherent, and could not serve any great purpose. I had asked Save the Children, which had been instrumental in developing one Project to establish Children’s Clubs, for details, and received a very clear exposition of the initiative. While clearly there needed to be better liaison with the Divisional Secretaries, this had in fact been envisaged in the Project, as was clear in the note Save the Children submitted on the subject, making clear how important the concept was.

Most of what follows is taken from that note, which Save the Children, which had been the international NGO Representative on the Civil Society Partners for Reconciliation that has been meeting in my office over the last year, kindly supplied at my request. It was entitled Children as Agents for Change which indicates the importance of providing space for children to enjoy themselves whilst also learning to take on responsibilities and care for their own lives.

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I was pleased to find last week a Divisional Secretary who had already put in place consultative mechanisms at village level. I have been suggesting these at other Secretariats, where I found an absence of systems to ensure attention to what people needed. Though some Secretaries seemed to take the ideas on board, I fear they will not be entrenched – and therefore will not be productive – unless clear instructions are issued by the Ministry.

The innovative Secretary was at Dehiattakandiya, where perhaps the difficulties he faces had led to action on the principle of necessity being the mother of invention. He has only 5 Grama Niladharis, for 13 Divisions, which in fact span 46 villages and nearly 60,000 people.

This is preposterous, and I could not understand why action had not been taken earlier to fill up the vacancies. I am assured now that an examination has been held and interviews will be conducted this month and the vacancies filled, but I was bemused that initiating the process had taken so long. However there was a good explanation, in that I gathered there had been a proposal to appoint Samurdhi officials to the post.

That would have been a mistake, since the basis on which those officials had been appointed initially was dubious, and the position of Grama Niladhari requires a certain stature. This is not always present, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the commitment of many of the GNs I have come across, in meetings now at 75 Divisional Secretariats. Were they given clear job descriptions, with a requirement of reporting in writing, I have no doubt that most of them would give excellent service to the people, and also function as the sort of early warning mechanism this country needs to avoid problems such as led to the tragedy at Weliveriya.

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The recent incidents at Weliveriya raise a number of questions which should not be confused. Most important is the fact that three civilians died at the hands of the army. As the new Army Commander has indicated, this is not acceptable. Measures must be taken for a full and credible inquiry, with appropriate penalties as well as the institutionalization of safeguards to prevent repetition.

But it is also important to look at the way in which a simple problem escalated out of control. The preliminary inquiry of the Human Rights Commission has indicated that there was no coordination amongst the various agencies responsible, both for the technical questions as well as the representational ones.

Several weeks ago I wrote to the President about this situation, and suggested some remedial measures. What I said then is worth quoting – ‘At present there is little possibility of particular shortcomings with regard to basic services receiving the full attention of authorities at a higher level, whether the Province or the Centre. This amendment will focus the attention of local bodies on important services, and allow them leeway to take corrective action if none is forthcoming from other authorities. As Your Excellency has noted, this is vital with regard to transport, but it should also extend to educational and vocational training services, and to basic health facilities.’

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After nearly 100 meetings at Divisional Secretariats, with the participation often of Pradeshiya Sabha representatives, I am more than ever convinced that the future of this country lies in strengthening local government institutions. However, if they are to do more, they also need to consult the local citizenry.

At present there are no formal structures to ensure such consultation. Some local bodies do have provision for Standing Committees, and I have been told that for Pradeshiya Sabhas there is provision for members of the public to participate, but this is not the case with Municipal or Urban Councils. The latter indeed do not seem to have provision for such Committees.

This is quite contrary to the premises on which the Mahinda Chintanaya is based, and I was happy to find that efforts to amend the Acts have progressed considerably in the last couple of years. Unfortunately the same old trend of simply amending earlier Acts has continued, instead of repealing previous legislation and replacing it with a clearly comprehensible new Act. This will mean that those elected to such bodies will find it difficult to understand what their powers are, and lawyers will have a wonderful time interpreting the Acts.

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A couple of weeks back I wrote about the pernicious impact of our current electoral system on female representation in political bodies. The last week has convinced me more than ever that this system is the root of many of the evils that beset us, and that inhibit good governance.

An obvious example of this was an article that referred to political interference with the police, which obviously also contributes to abuses with regard to human rights. At the same time I should note that I have been very pleasantly impressed in recent months, in my frequent visits to the North to meet with Grama Niladharis and other local representatives at Divisional Secretariat level, by the generally positive impressions of the police. This was not the case a couple of years back but, particularly after the instruction issued recently by the IGP that there should be one or two policemen attached to every Grama Sevaka Division, levels of consultation and collaboration seem to have improved. By and large there seems to be much greater confidence than previously, and if there were more concerted efforts to ensure that at least half the policemen in the North spoke Tamil, I suspect we would have very few social or civil problems in the area that could not be readily resolved.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2019
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