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I mentioned last week the lack of intelligent policy formulation in areas where new initiatives are urgently needed. One of these is industry, where we do not have any clear policy. This has come home to me through the pronouncements of our Manufacturing Sector Council, which notes that it is difficult to develop training plans with regard to production since no one has any idea when sudden shifts in tariffs will destroy investments. They have therefore had to confine themselves thus far to trying to streamline service sectors in their sphere of expertise, modernizing training for vehicle operators and welders and electricians and so on.

Interestingly enough, the ADB understood what they meant when it was explained to them that swift action in that area was difficult, unlike say in Construction or IT where our Sector Councils have done so much in so short a period. But even though the point seemed to be understood when I brought it up at the committee set up by the Prime Minister, nothing further has been done about it. I did ask the committee to give us reports on what it had actually achieved, but this seemed beyond it, at least in the period before I decided there was no point in listening to a plethora of platitudes with no action.

It is possible though that, since both the Chairman, the delightful Ken Balendra, and I like to hear the sound of our own voices, and he ran the show, I jumped ship because he insisted on pontificating and would not allow me to do so. But since I have actually studied the subject, whereas he was thrown into it without proper briefing – I had to tell him some weeks into his tenure that the previous government had actually introduced a Technology Stream in school – I got tired of endless reports that repeated what everyone knew, with no steps to expedite remedial action. In that regard, working with Mahinda Samarasinghe was much more productive, because he at least studies his briefs and is able to pinpoint what is needed.

Unfortunately, though Mahinda is supposed to be in charge of the subject, the Prime Minister continues on his merry way with no proper consultation. This was the case with regard to the bright idea he conceived of making 13 years of education compulsory for everyone. He decided for this purpose to introduce vocational subjects in schools after the Ordinary Level, but did not think of consulting other stakeholders in the field. The National Education Commission tried to find out what was happening, but it turned out that the then Secretary to the Ministry of Education was also clueless about what was happening, and it was in fact only through the ADB that I saw the first proposals with regard to reform, which the ADB rightly pointed out were incoherent and did not properly address the relevant issues. 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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downloadI have been quite critical of Basil Rajapaksa recently, which I gather has upset him. This led him to assume that I would vote against the government in the recent motion of No Confidence, which suggests how emotional he can be, with little comprehension of political principles. But I should be glad that he at least reads, because I was gradually coming to the conclusion that no one in government read anything, and that few listened to anything except adulation.

This is a pity, for there is much they could learn from constructive criticism. Unfortunately the general mindset is oppositional, and I suppose this is understandable given the incapacity of the opposition to do anything but criticize mindlessly. Thus it is natural to suppose that any criticism means unremitting opposition.

This is not the case with regard to my worries about Basil Rajapaksa. I am deeply impressed by his capacity to work, and the way in which he presided over fantastic infrastructural development in areas that had been ravaged by conflict. Indeed, having recently travelled to the North East of India where, despite evident goodwill and much expenditure, there are many deficiencies with regard to connectivity, roads and railways and communications, I am glad that I was unstinting in my praise of what government has achieved in our own North and East.

That could not have been accomplished without Basil Rajapaksa’s drive. But the problem was that he had not engaged in the conceptualization that should have accompanied such a programme, and he paid little attention to the development of human capacity, and the provision of productive employment. So nothing like enough has been done to improve teacher supply to schools, to fast forward skills development for youngsters, to promote small and medium industries through carefully targeted credit facilities and entrepreneurship training.

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To return to the fears of resurgent terrorism in the North, this would seem preposterous given the patent relief of the majority of the Tamil people that the terrorism to which they were subject is over, a fact the military obviously recognizes. But at the same time it is clear that the people in the North have aspirations that are not being addressed, and this contributes to resentments that could be taken advantage of. Instead then of actions that could contribute to further resentments, the Secretary of Defence should rather work on those who have not only failed to overcome resentments, but have contributed to exacerbating them. Many of the better informed military personnel in the North understand this, and are at a loss to understand the myopia of government in this regard. But sadly, excellent politician though he is, the President will not put his mind seriously to the problem that has arisen in the last few years, and the Secretary of Defence has not produced comprehensive intelligence reports that assess the real reasons for resentment.

The resentment of the people was apparent in the massive vote against government at the recent election to the Northern Provincial Council. The President knew that he would not win the election, and I suspect this was true of everyone in government, even though the Minister of Economic Development, who had been entrusted with the government’s Northern policy, kept claiming that the government would do well. Indeed his belief seems to have been sincere, since the resentment he displayed after the results came in suggested that he was deeply upset at the total failure of his strategy. It was he, the President had told Dayan, who had insisted that the poll be postponed, on the grounds that the work he was doing would win popular favour, whereas the Secretary of Defence had been willing to have the election much earlier. It should be noted then that the Secretary’s opposition to holding the election last year was based on practicalities, the certainty of loss, rather than intrinsic opposition to a Northern Provincial Council, which he had sensibly enough thought should have been constituted earlier. But sadly his reaction to awareness of increasing unpopularity was not to ensure measures to reduce that unpopularity, but to try to sweep it under the carpet by even going to the extent of challenging the President when he made it clear that he intended to abide by his commitment to have the election.

That the Secretary was right to have wanted to have the election earlier is apparent from the results of preceding elections in the North. In the first set of local elections government actually won some local authorities. In the Wanni, government actually came close to winning in two of the three areas that polled, and in one the combined poll for government parties exceeded that of the Tamil National Alliance.

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The President’s Budget Speech had a lot of innovative suggestions about education. This is just as well, for this is an area in which we must move swiftly, if we are to reap the full fruits of development.

A balanced but trenchant criticism I heard recently of current economic policies is that, while infrastructure has been developed effectively, human resource development has lagged behind. That must be remedied for we must ensure equality of opportunity, even while promoting the private sector as the engine of growth.

In this regard, the example of the Ministry of Economic Development, entrusted to someone with no previous Parliamentary experience, but with a track record of proven practical capacity, suggests one way forward. Sri Lanka has not yet recognized that an Executive Presidency demands technocrats at the helm in areas of urgent concern. We suffer from a preposterous constitution, the only one in the world that confuses an Executive Presidential system with the Westminster model of government that abandons even any pretence of the separation of powers. However, the institution of a Ministry devoted to development has permitted concentration on results, without the need to work also on parochial political concerns in a particular area.
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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2017
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