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10 Jan 2015The most important issue facing the new President is to restore confidence in the governmental process.

For this purpose it is necessary to establish systems that work according to the Rule of Law, and with full accountability to the people. In this respect it is vital that Parliamentary control of legislation and finances be restored.

This does not mean strengthening an Executive based in Parliament, but rather strengthening Parliament to be an effective check on the Executive. This means strengthening the power of ordinary members of Parliament, both government and opposition.

Measures to ensure this were the principle component of the Standing Order changes I had proposed last year, changes which the Speaker ignored in contravention of the existing Standing Orders. My main purpose was to strengthen Committees of Parliament by streamlining them and ensuring that they were not chaired by members of the Executive. In the case of the Finance Oversight Committees, the PAC and COPE, the chair was to be a member of the opposition.

But ensuring open discussion in committees is not enough. It is also necessary to give them teeth, and for this purpose we should ensure that the Executive either follows their recommendations, or else gives reasons in writing as to why this is not desirable or possible. The same would apply to the petitions committee, the directions of which are now simply flouted by the Executive.

I would take this principle further, to promote consultation as well as accountability at local levels. The Local Government Act should be amended to ensure involvement of People’s Representatives in Committees of Pradeshiya Sabhas and Local Councils. I have already suggested amendments in this regard to the Secretary of the Local Government Ministry who had consulted me about the Act. It will also be necessary to define clearly the areas of responsibility of local government bodies, and to give them powers to work effectively in these areas.

In addition, given the number of administrative decisions made at Divisional Secretariat level, there should be consultation mechanisms at Grama Niladhari level, with mandatory feedback at the decision making level. This is the Divisional Secretariat, and I am glad that Mr Sirisena’s manifesto declares the centrality of this level, and the need to ensure coordination of services. With regard to this I have been working together with several Ministry Secretaries on a UNDP Project to improve delivery of services, and I hope the next government studies the excellent report produced by Asoka Gunawardena and implements its recommendations. Certainly we must get rid of the ridiculous system introduced by Basil Rajapaksa, of handing over development funds to Members of Parliament to spend virtually at will, with no coordination and little reference to the plans of the Line Ministries.

Line Ministries should be strengthened, and this requires reducing the size of the Cabinet in accordance with clear rationales, as pledged in the opposition manifesto. We cannot have many ministries dealing with similar subjects, and we cannot have ministers doing what they want – and in particular accepting unsolicited bids for projects, which has become a feature of the way the present government runs things – without adherence to well developed plans. It is imperative that a Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation be set up, and given teeth on the lines of the suggestions the Secretary to that Ministry and I forwarded to Mr Lalith Weeratunge at the end of 2009.

I have stressed governance issues, because these seem to me the most important in terms of safeguarding democracy and promoting equitable development. For this purpose it is also essential to pass the proposed Freedom of Information Act, and to give it teeth through ensuring public accountability at all levels of government. In addition I hope we will also introduce the Bill of Rights which was promised in the 2005 Mahinda Chintanaya, and which the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights had got drafted by the end of 2009, but which has since been ignored. Read the rest of this entry »

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download (8)I had a bizarre experience recently when I had to attend what is termed Standing Committee B of Parliament, which deals with legislation. This was in connection with the Vasantha Senanayake Foundation (Incorporation) Bill which I had sponsored. The experience was rendered worse by the Minutes which I received subsequently, which bore no relation to what had actually taken place.

I presume that there is some formula for reporting the meetings of these Standing Committees, but it was certainly inappropriate in this case, given that I had raised some matters which I had asked to be recorded. The Minutes state that I moved several amendments to the original draft of the Bill I had presented. This was not the case. What happened was that we were told the legal advisers had gone through the draft and suggested amendments. I accepted these, but I asked the basis on which they had been made.

It turned out then that the representative from the Legal Draughtsman’s Department who was supposed to liaise with Parliament regarding the Bill had no idea of the reasons. After much discussion one bright lawyer from the Attorney General’s Department said that the changes were probably because the Bill as it stood seemed to be in conflict with the Constitution.

I gathered then that for years the Attorney General had advised against many charitable works by Foundations on the grounds that the Constitution, following the introduction of the 13th Amendment that introduced Provincial Councils, declares that ‘No Bill in respect of any matter set out in the Provincial Council List shall become law unless such Bill has been referred by the President…. to every Provincial Council’.

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download (4)I was privileged, a couple of weeks back, to attend the release of the Northern Education Sector Review Report at a ceremony held at Vembadi Girls School. I had last been at Vembadi in 2008, when the then Commander of the Special Forces in Jaffna, General Chandrasiri, arranged what was termed a Future Minds Exhibition. It was at the height of the war, but the General had already begun to plan for the future, and sensibly so for he stressed the need for the development of human resources.

I was struck by the irony now, with the controversy over his continuation as Governor. I will look at that issue elsewhere, but here I will dwell on the fact that the Provincial administration had invited him as Chief Guest, to be given the first copy of the report, and all the speeches made were in a spirit of cooperation. In particular the chair of the committee that had prepared the report, the distinguished athlete Nagalingam Ethirveerasingham, still described as the Olympian, emphasized that the recommendations of the Review were all within the framework of National Policy.

That having been said, the Review is masterly, in clearly identifying many of the problems we face, and suggesting simple remedies. But obvious though many of the pronouncements are, I fear that such an essentially sensible work could not have been produced in any other Province.

There are many reasons for this. I do not think there is any essential intellectual difference between those in the North and others in the country, but I do believe that the urgency of the problem with regard to education is better understood in the North. After all it was simplistic tampering with the education system that first roused deep resentments in the younger generation in the North (Prabhakaran’s batch were the first victims of standardization), and the incapacity or unwillingness of successive governments since then to provide remedies has entrenched bitterness. And whereas Chandrasiri way back in 2008 understood the importance of action in this field, and entitled his Exhibition accordingly, he has since had to serve a political dispensation that cares nothing for the mind.

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The outcome of an informal consultation on promoting the Rights of Children held recently, with the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment in the chair, was a discussion document to assist with the formulation of policy in this field. The care of children must be part of a comprehensive programme with the basic goal of empowering all elements in society that need protection and additional support.

Though Sri Lanka achieved great success in providing universal health and education at the period of independence, social services lagged behind. They were provided in terms of the patronage approach that governed Poor Law in Britain in the previous century. The vulnerable were treated as a species apart, with institutionalization and punitive measures being implemented instead of rehabilitation. This last is needed to develop the potential of those who had suffered from lack of equitable opportunities.

To ensure comprehensive and positive coverage of vulnerable sections of society, coordination between the Ministries of Social Services and of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment is essential. This also requires regular consultation with local professionals, as well as the informed involvement of provincial agencies in terms of their responsibilities, to develop a truly national perspective. Women and Children are amongst the most vulnerable sections of society and mechanisms to ensure a level playing field for them are an essential part of the social services government should provide. Interventions for other vulnerable groups will also involve services that are particularly important for women and children, ranging from counseling to employment policies based on equity and furthering the talents and capabilities of all.
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At the meeting last week of the Mutur Divisional Reconciliation Committee meeting, the Chairman of the Mediation Board reminded me of a suggestion made by the school principals I met during my last visit to Mutur. This was in 2008, while the conflict in the North still raged, but the East was limping back to normality.

The principals were from a Muslim school, a small Tamil school and a very small Sinhala school, all of which suffered from teacher shortages. They asked with one voice why they could not have a single English medium school.  Not only would that bring the children of a very fractured area together, it would give them all chances of a better future.

I pointed this out in a letter to the Ministry. I went further and indicated how it would help government by reducing costs, since far fewer teachers would be needed for one school than for three, each with few students. The teacher shortages endemic in a distant place like Mutur could also thus be reduced, with less headache for education officials who would have to fill up fewer cadres.

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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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Coincidentally, after I had written last week about the complications caused by Zonal Education Offices setting termly examination question papers for schools, the Minister of Education himself raised the question at the fortnightly Parliamentary Group Meeting. He was hurt, understandably so, at the harsh criticism of errors in a number of papers set by a number of Zones.

His point was that there were many important things to think about, including obviously, most recently, the introduction of a Technological Stream for major public examinations. This is indeed a laudable development, though I cannot understand why the Ministry does not go further and promote a free mixture of subjects, with greater breadth as is happening in examination systems round the world which are being emulated in more and more countries. But while such innovations are beyond the scope of the Ministry now, given that its officials are stuck – and allowed to stick – in mindsets long superseded elsewhere, we must be thankful for small mercies such as the long overdue recognition of the importance of technology.

I sympathized with the Minister’s irritation, especially when he pointed out that there were only three examinations that were important in a child’s life, namely the Year 5 Scholarship Examination, and the Ordinary and Advanced Level Examinations. This is true, though it is a pity that the education system puts so much pressure on children at the age of 10, when putting more energy into ensuring that rural schools provide better services at secondary level too would be more equitable for all children.

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After many months of thinking Prof G L Pieris was leading the President down the garden path, I was pleased recently to find that he had lived up to his intellectual reputation and given some reasonably sound advice. This was with regard to the effort to amend the 13th Amendment, as to which initially there were four areas of apparent concern.

When the Cabinet was finally given some amendments to consider however, there was only one proposal for change. This was after G L had been asked for advice, and it looks like he had very sensibly said there was no point in worrying about land and police issues. Given that National Policy on all issues remains with the central government, and given the practices that have been instituted since the days in which the 13th Amendment was passed, there is no doubt that government will continue to be in charge of these areas. Implementing national policy through regional agencies, whether elected or appointed, will of course continue, and I can only hope that government moves swiftly towards making sure this happens through small units which can actually relate readily to the people.

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A wave of problems with regard to Human Rights has swept the country recently, most tragically the events at Welikada. The resolution to impeach the Chief Justice has made it clear our constitution has deficiencies with regard to ensuring the independence of the judiciary while also promoting accountability and transparency with regard to judicial decisions. Then we have had the internal UN report on the conduct of the UN in Sri Lanka during the war, and a spate of recommendations in Geneva that we thought had to be rejected.

Those who have read this column will realize that I have discussed these problems, and the dangers they present, and have also suggested remedies. I pointed this out to the President, but was duly crushed by his rejoinder, that since I functioned in English, necessarily I had little impact.

One of the pleasures of talking with him is that he listens, even when there is disagreement (though occasionally, when one argues too much, there is the firm injunction not to try to persuade him), and his rejoinders make a lot of sense. This is a characteristic he shares with the Secretary of Defence, who is even more definite about what cannot be done, but extraordinarily positive about most matters – as I found in my first formal dealings with him when I headed the Peace Secretariat, and he straight away allowed the A 9 northward from Omanthai to be open almost every day of the week, when the LTTE had previously not allowed the ICRC to facilitate this.

The President’s advice about the need for me to function more actively in Sinhala, and especially in Parliament, clearly makes sense. Given that my analyses are written in English, I cannot really expect them to have much impact on most decision makers. I am grateful therefore to those who do respond, to the letters I write in English after meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings. Health and Defence are always prompt, I should note, which confirms my view that institutions that observe the proprieties are also the most efficient. But recently I have been delighted to receive positive replies from the Ministry of Agriculture (though sadly not Irrigation, despite the many problems in that field drawn to my attention), and even the Ministry of Education has been helpful. Read the rest of this entry »

Join us in calling on His Excellency The President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to limit the size of the Cabinet to 20, with no more than 20 Cabinet Ministers and no more than 20 other Ministers of Junior Ministerial rank.

You can sign the petition by clicking here.

http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/his-excellency-mahinda-rajapaksa-the-president-of-sri-lanka-introduce-constitutional-amendment-limiting-cabinet-to-20-cabinet-ministers

Short link – http://chn.ge/YbSBgY

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Recent heated statements about the 13th Amendment confirm the view, heard recently at the Seminar on Indo-Lankan relations held at Osmania University in Hyderabad, that most commentators look on issues through a single prism. They fail to look at the principles that they would like to think they are advancing. Rather they concentrate on slogans, and become emotional, without concentrating on what those slogans are meant to represent.

Perhaps this is a necessary evil in political jousting for, if you looked at the principles, you would have to accept that even people coming from different perspectives have a lot in common. With regard to the question of devolution of power for instance, we find this to be the case, the moment we use the word decentralization instead. Most people don’t understand the distinction between them, understandably so since, for all practical purposes, there is no great distinction.

Thus there is universal agreement that we need decentralization. This is because any administration needs to have clear responsibilities with regard to the people, it needs to consult their wishes as well as be aware of their needs, and it must be accountable to them. This is not possible with regard to day to day matters when you have centralized decision making.

Thus we find that those now opposed to Provincial Councils claim that the best unit for devolution is the District. This rings a bell with me because, in the eighties, the Liberal Party put forward the suggestion that District Councils should be given greater responsibilities. Dudley Senanayake had tried to introduce these in the sixties and failed, because of opposition based on racism, sadly supported in that dark period in their history by the Marxist parties too. What finally made him abandon the plan though was the opposition in his own party, led by Cyril Mathew, supported it should be remembered by D B Wijetunge, but with the shadow of J R Jayewardene lurking in the background. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

December 2017
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