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Apart from its failure to pursue Reconciliation with determination and coherence, perhaps the saddest failure of the current government has been with regard to Education. When the Cabinet was being formed in 2010, one of the President’s friends who was pressing hard for me to be appointed Minister of Education was told that they had found a brilliant candidate, namely Bandula Gunawardena. I presume his long experience in giving tuition was thought an appropriate qualification.

It was not taken into consideration that his very livelihood had depended on the failure of the education system to provide good teaching. It was not conceivable then, given that he was not likely to disrupt the livelihoods of those who had toiled alongside him in the industry, that he would prioritize the production and employment of more and better teachers. So indeed it proved. The whole approach of the Ministry in the last four years, in line perhaps with the populist rather than productive interpretation of the Mahinda Chintanaya that has dominated government during this period, was to put up larger and more elaborate buildings in select locations.

The purpose of this became clear when I brought up, at the last meeting of the Education Consultative Committee, the waste of resources in the fact that a well equipped computer laboratory had been put up in a school I knew well in a rural area, but it had remained closed for several months. I had been told that this was because the authorities were waiting for a dignitary to open the place.

Bandula confirmed this, and claimed that it was important for the people to know who had provided such a facility. That this was in fact the people, since the building had been put up and equipped through loans which the people would have to repay, was not something that would have occurred to someone who had made his living by giving tuition in Economics. Nor would he have realized that the adulation expressed in speeches at a formal opening would not have a lasting impact compared with the resentment of students, and their parents, who are bright enough to know when something intended to benefit them is being squandered for political gain.

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A recent newspaper article on Sri Lankan relations with India suggested a level of incompetence that even I had not thought possible in our Ministry of External Affairs. The article described the Ministry as ‘virtually defunct’ but that is misleading. It is actually viral in its determination to destroy relations with India, and continuing to talk of its incompetence is to support its destructiveness.

I had thought it possible that the Minister was not responsible for the determination to destroy, and that he was simply anxious to keep his job, and therefore followed blindly those he thought had greater influence than he did. But the description of what happened in 2012 suggests a more insidious nature. The article declares that the Minister had ‘confirmed that Rajapaksa had promised “13 plus”’ to the Indian Foreign Minister, and that it was only after that that the Indians had gone public with that promise. But the article did not mention that not only did Peiris fail to stand up for the truth,, when various spokesmen of the President denied that promise, but he also failed to send a response to the letter requiring clarification that was sent by the Indian Prime Minister.

Or, rather, he sent a response and then withdrew it. This technique is a specialty of the current Secretary to the Ministry, Kshenuka Seneviratne, even though it is thoroughly unprofessional, as noted by a former colleague who has now made her getaway from the mess. But it is not only unprofessional, it embarrasses both sides, which I suspect Kshenuka well knows. Peiris however may not have understood that, when he sends a letter and then withdraws it, his credibility is gone for ever (though in his case I suspect it had gone long before, as American ambassador Patricial Butenis of now blessed memory put it).

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There are two reasons why I find ridiculous the constant assertion that the Executive Presidency must be abolished. This was made most recently by the most prominent member of the Human Rights Commission, who claimed that it was the root cause of all our problems. But I do not think that he, or all the others who parrot panaceas, have thought about what will replace it.

And the problem with such panaceas is that no effort is made to actually make the current situation better, as for instance the Human Rights Commission could do in its own area of responsibility, by taking forward the Bill of Rights. There is an excellent draft, which we managed to get done before the Ministry of Human Rights was abolished. But the Minister did not agree that it should be put forward, given the then concentration on elections, and since then it has languished. I suspect I am the only who who has even reminded the President of its existence, and the fact that it was prepared in fulfilment of a pledge in the 2005 Mahinda Chintanaya. His answer was that he did not agree with everything there, but the simple solution, to admit those elements, was obviously not thought satisfactory.

With regard to the Presidency, it is assumed that we can go back straight away to the Westminster system. But the Westminster system demands a functioning Parliament, and with the complete dysfunctionality of the current Parliament, we will have even greater chaos if it had supreme power. Even now, Parliament does not fulfil the role laid down for it in our Presidential constitution, which is one reason why the Executive has nothing to check it.

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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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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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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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Rajiva Wijesinha

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