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Soon after I had written last week’s column about improving protection at local levels, I found a structure already in place that was based on a similar idea. This was in relation to the Community Policing that that present Inspector General has instituted.

His determination to establish mechanisms for this is in line with the Mahinda Chintanaya commitment to ensuring consultation at village level. Sadly I don’t think any other government department has moved coherently to implement this idea, and I can only hope that the present IGP does not fall prey, as his most illustrious predecessor Osmund de Silva did, to resentment on the part of politicians who want to provide solutions to all problems themselves. Osmund de Silva found that his efforts to develop a productive relationship between the police service and village communities was looked on with suspicion by the politicians of a newly independent country who thought they were the heirs to all the authority that the British had exercised.

So, whereas the British hierarchichal system, with the police seeing themselves as representatives of a government that was at a remove from the people, has changed in Britain, with greater understanding of the community basis of democracy, it continues in Sri Lanka. And though the IGP has tried to change things, I suspect old habits will die hard in many parts of the country, not least because of the different layers of politicians who insist on controlling things themselves – as was tragically illustrated in the recent reign of terror in Sabaragamuwa.

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I had intended to return this week to better coordination at local levels, to promote necessary and desirable actions with regard to the vulnerable. I will use the term protection to cover this, but I should note that it requires not only reactions to situations where suffering has been inflicted, but also positive measures to empower people so they can resist and prevent exploitation.

This seems the more urgent, after a very informative meeting conducted at the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs. This was the second in what the Secretary has set up for regular consultations with regard to children. In addition to representatives of the various institutions under the Ministry, he had invited officials from Ministries involved in the care of children. There were also several individuals from Non-Governmental organizations whose dedicated contribution I have noted through my own work in the field.

The lady from the Ministry of Education who attended struck me as particularly enlightened. She understood immediately the problems raised by those present with regard to the tuition culture, lack of extra-curricular activities in schools and of facilities for vocational training, the failure to ensure that Life Skills are taught properly throughout the entire secondary school span and inadequacies with regard to counselling.

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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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Parliament excelled itself last week when it cancelled three Consultative Committees (of those I had planned to attend – there were others too that were cancelled). The third of these, which I think a vital Ministry though not many others share my views, that of National Languages and Social Integration, was cancelled on the morning of the scheduled day, apparently because the Minister had to go to a funeral outside Colombo.

This did not seem to me proper because, much as Ministers feel obliged to attend funerals, they really should not subject other Members of Parliament to their own convenience. Either they should attend the event at another time, or else they should instruct their Deputies or their Secretaries to go ahead with the meeting. This seems the more urgent, because in any case Committees meet rarely, the plethora of Ministers we have (raised to 69 last week when the Police were entrusted to a newly created Ministry of Law and Order) making it impossible to respect the Standing Order enjoining meetings once a month.

If my proposed Amendments to Standing Orders are accepted and implemented, this problem will be solved, but I gather that, the Speaker being away, the motion was not taken up at the Parliamentary Business Committee. Since Parliament is going to meet on only two days in September, it looks like I will now have to wait a month and more, though I have pleaded with both the Speaker and the Leader of the House to take the matter up in early September. Since statutorily the matter is not debated but simply referred to the Committee on Standing Orders, this will take up hardly any time, so I hope Party Leaders will agree to this.

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Earlier this month the Liberal Party sent some suggestions for reform to the Parliamentary Select Committee meant to recommend solutions to current national problems. They are based on a vital principle that should be followed in all discussions, namely that we should try to assuage the fears of others rather than seek to assert one’s own desires. Through sensitivity to the concerns of others, one can often also ensure sensitivity to one’s own concerns.

Our suggestions reaffirm the primary obligation of the State to fulfil the objectives detailed in Chapter VI of the current Constitution. Safeguarding the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka are vital and all those wishing to broadbase the decision making process should recognize that these principles should be paramount. But equally those concerned with national integrity must also appreciate the importance of decentralizing the administration and affording all possible opportunities to the People to participate at every level in national life and in government. National unity should be strengthened by promoting co-operation and mutual confidence, while discrimination and prejudice should be eliminated.

To avoid concentration of power, the doctrine of Separation of Powers should be followed. The different layers of government should be sensitive to the needs of other layers and the People they represent, and this needs to be encouraged by structures that enhance accountability. Some suggestions below need to be entrenched in the Constitution. Others are more appropriately fulfilled through legislation, but the Constitution should direct that such legislation be put in place. I should reiterate here the importance of the first suggestion, since it is little recognized that we have the only Executive Presidential system in the world in which the Executive President is tied down to a Cabinet that is hamstrung by its Parliamentary responsibilities – which means electoral concerns in the main.

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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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Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

On the votes of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs

In the Committee Stage of the Budget, December 9th 2013

 

I am honoured to speak on the votes of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, which deals with perhaps the most important subject we need to consider. I say this because, while the development programme government has put in place with regard to infrastructure is vital, it will serve no purpose unless we also concentrate on human development. In this regard we need to ensure that our children are in full enjoyment of all their rights, and that we also empower them so that any violations are minimized.

It is equally important, Mr Speaker, to ensure that women are not only protected, but also empowered. For this purpose we must put in place coherent mechanisms that can identify shortcomings and address them promptly and systematically. Above all we must move from simply reacting to problems, but rather anticipate potential problems and avoid them – a strategy, I should add, that would hold us in good stead with regard also to international relations as well as domestic politics.

With regard to Women and Children, I am happy to say that we have an active Ministry that is able to conceptualize and initiate new measures. Chief amongst these is the establishment of Women and Children’s Units in every Divisional Secretariat. If I might say so, this Ministry has been the first to recognize the importance of the Division, which is the first active interface between government and people. Indeed this Ministry has also recognized the importance of the Grama Niladhari Division, which is the first actual interface, though it is for the raising of issues rather than solving them. I should add that it would make sense to set in place, even in GN Divisions, consultative mechanisms to resolve simple problems. However it the Division that is the first level at which more important decisions can be taken, and where the front line officers of various government institutions can meet to discuss problems and plan responses – and where they can discuss trends that will help them to anticipate problems and avoid them.

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At many of the Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings I have attended in the last few months, there has been harsh criticism of what are termed District and Division Development Committee meetings. Often I am told that problems are raised at these meetings, but nothing is done. Promises are made, but they are never kept.

More recently, since I have again been in the East, having concentrated for the first five months of this year on the North, there have been many complaints about decisions made at Development Committee meetings being changed by the Chairman. There are also allegations of contracts awarded to Rural Development societies being cancelled and given to other entities. Some of this has to do with the comparatively large sums made available through Deyata Kirula for development projects.

Though the allegations made suggested corruption, on going into details I felt that some changes made sense. However it is clearly counter-productive to make decisions after consultation and then change them without at least keeping all stakeholders informed of the change and the reasons for the change.

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The Indian journalist Sathiyamoorthy, one of the sharpest – and also I think most sympathetic – commentators on the Sri Lankan scene, wrote recently on questions in connection with the army and the police in the North. With regard to the latter, he seems to be of the view that the police should not come under the Ministry of Defence, which is not an argument I accept.

My main reason for this is the very simple belief – on the basis of a principle known as Occam’s Razor – that one should not create entities unnecessarily. Unfortunately Occam’s Razor is unknown in Sri Lanka, where we multiply entities endlessly, as with Ministries and layers of government. In affirming the need to keep the police under the Ministry of Defence I believe we should also extend the principle more widely, but that is another question, and requires more thought and strength of mind than is usually applied in this country.

Sathiyamoorthy thinks a division between the police and the Ministry of Defence would help ‘in recapturing the imagination of the police as a civilian force, easily approachable by and comforting to the civilian population. Not just the Tamil minorities, but even the Sinhala population in the run-up to the JVP insurgencies had felt alientated from and by the police, for possibly no fault of theirs’.

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The unity of this country will be immeasurably enhanced by giving the regions a greater say in decisions made at the Centre – for even the proponents of maximum devolution grant that certain decisions, in particular those relating to national security issues, must be made at the Centre. That is why the Liberal Party has long advocated a Second Chamber, and that doubtless is why the President made that a feature of his manifesto.

Unfortunately implementation of the President’s manifesto has been left to politicians who exercise power by virtue to the current Constitution. This perhaps is the reason they have not moved on the President’s more imaginative proposals. The position of the Executive Head of the country will not be affected by the reforms this country so urgently needs, but Parliamentarians might think a Second Chamber would take away from their authority – though in fact, as the assessment of the role of Parliamentarians by a former Secretary General makes clear, they have no authority at all any more as Parliamentarians.

Given this lack of a role as far as legislation is concerned, it is not surprising that they spend an excessive amount of time and energy on constituency issues. This is well and good, but unfortunately, unless the MP is sensitive, this can take away from the role of local government. That in turn may explain why there has been no attempt to move also on another idea the President has advanced, which is to revive local government, in particular through the idea of Gramya Raj, village empowerment.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2019
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