Sinhala  Tamil    Seperate    
Governtment of Sri Lanka

District and Divisional Reconciliation Committee Meetings conducted by Secretaries in the North

Reconciliation Committee meetings were conducted at Divisional Secretariats in three Districts of the Northern Province between February 25th and 27th. The meetings were chaired by Divisional Secretaries at Vavuniya, Vavuniya South, Karachchi, Pachchilappalli and Chavakachcheri, supported by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, Advisor on Reconciliation to the President. Participants included Grama Niladharis, representatives of Rural Development Societies, School Principals, religious leaders, police officials, medical personnel and officials concerned with social support mechanisms.
Following discussion of problems and needs, mechanisms to ensure attention to such matters and the development of community based solutions were suggested. These included regular meetings at GN Divisions of development societies as well as social support groups. The need for educationists to develop extra-curricular activities was noted, as well as liaison between Women and Children Desks at Police Stations and officials concerned with Social Service, Probation, Counselling, and Women and Child Development. 
The concerns raised at the last set of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees I facilitated this week in Mullaitivu and Vavuniya, after a long hiatus given an excess of travel in March, were both reassuring and upsetting. This last was because, though problems aplenty were raised, there was appreciation both of what had been done, and the commitment of the government to do more. They were upsetting because in so many simple areas government is simply not acting, in part because government structures are so archaic that they cannot respond swiftly to modern needs.
I do not refer to subjects such as water and electricity and roads, because there is a clear understanding that much has been done, and the rest is planned. The people I was amongst recognized the great strides that had been taken, and that it was impossible to do everything at once. Though sometimes it might help to make clear why there are priorities, and what the timelines are for what cannot be done straignt away, I believe there is general satisfaction with the infrastructure development programme.
I will discuss the various issues raised at the meetings later, but here I will look simply at one area where we are really serving the people of the North, and I suspect rural children in general, badly. I refer to education, where there is widespread appreciation of the schools that have been constructed, and the fact that uniforms and books are supplied well on time. However the lack of teachers is indeed appalling, and also the organizational structure that permits several tiny schools without sufficient teachers to continue to operate. Unfortunately a dogmatic approach to such problems means that there is no concern about education itself, as opposed to a sausage machine that consumes funds without purpose.
The gravity of the problem became clear in the comment of a headmaster who runs a school with 25 students and two teachers. I had suggested to the Department officials that they rationalize, making sure that transport is provided to another school for students at any school which needs to be closed because it is not really providing a decent education. The headmaster, ignoring what I said, claimed that the closure of the school would mean that 25 children would be deprived of their education. When I questioned him further, as to what he actually did, he said he taught Year 5, which had just one student in it. Last year there had been three, none of whom had passed the scholarship exam.

Divisional Reconciliation Committee Meetings conducted by Secretaries in Vavuniya and Mullaitivu

Four meetings of Reconciliation Committees at Divisional Secretariat level were held last week in Vavuniya and Mullaitivu under the Chairmanship of the respective Assistant Government Agents / Divisional Secretaries, with the attendance of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, Presidential Adviser on Reconciliation. In addition to Grama Niladharis and officials of Rural Development Societies, those attending included school principals, doctors and police personnel.

A number of small but significant problems were raised in the two Western Divisions of Mullaitivu District. The odd shape of the District, and the need for travel for many purposes to Mullaitivu town, which is at the very Eastern corner of the District, was brought up. Though some adjustments have been made, it was noted that converting the offices in Tunukai and Manthai East to those of Divisional Secretaries rather than Assistant Government Agents would reduce inconvenience by allowing authority for essential functions. It would also be useful if another Court could be established nearer the Centre of the District, since much time now is wasted in travel across country.

Transport in the two Divisions needs improvement, since it was reported that government buses do not run at all. Officials arrive at work late because private transport services are not dependable. It was suggested that the military could provide a couple of buses each day at working hours but this would need to be done through local requests since private bus operators should not feel there was unfair competition, even though clearly they were not providing the required services. 


Establishing Consultative Committees for Livelihood, Awareness and Social Activity at Grama Niladhari Divisions

A further series of Divisional Seceretariat Reconciliation meetings was held in Mannar and Kilinochchi Districts on April 24th and 25th. The first two in Madhu and Musali saw participation by a large number of Grama Niladharis, while helpful information and ideas were provided by Education and Health and other officials. A representative of the International Organization for Migration attended one meeting, and a peace educationist the other.
Amongst problems noted were the difficulties of ensuring decent prices for the good harvests that were being obtained, the need to promote value addition to agricultural produce, and deficiencies with regard to training and career opportunities. It was decided therefore that Grama Niladharis should conduct Livelihood Development meetings each week, to discuss with the people for whom they were responsible the new initiatives that should be undertaken. In a context in which there were many aid programmes that addressed problems on an ad hoc basis, it would be useful if GN Divisions set out wishlists of the following amongst other initiatives –
  • Facilities and Training needed for value addition for agriculture and fishing products
  • Vocational Training needs with special attention to local requirements in construction and potential investments in the area
  • Awareness programmes to develop cooperative efforts and micro-credit schemes

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Modalities of Reconciliation - the importance of Grama Niladhari Divisions

When the idea of Reconciliation Committees first took root, I had thought in terms of meetings in Colombo, and others in the Districts, where I had been impressed over the last few years by the dedication and understanding of the various Government Agents of the North. All of them had excellent relations with the Special Forces during the conflict and beyond, but they were also acutely aware of their obligations to the people they served.

But more recently I have worked with Divisional Secretaries, since it became obvious that meetings for large areas did not really permit issues of close concern to particular areas to be enunciated. I have therefore over the last few months been to all Divisional Secretariat Offices in the four southern Districts of the Northern Province, and a couple in Jaffna, where of course the problems are very different in scale and in scope.

On the one hand I have been depressed by the failure of our administrative systems to address what are really very simple problems. The very impressive achievements of government in the fields of infrastructure development and basic social amenities will to naught if a few very basic needs are not addressed. 

Holding regular meetings and keeping records, at Divisional Secretariat and Grama Niladhari levels

Following the establishment of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees in all Divisions in the Wanni, follow up meetings were held in June in Oddusuddan, Puthukudiyirippu, Karachi and Vavuniya North Divisional Secretariat. As one Divisional Secretary observed, the difference in the problems raised was remarkable, and indicated the great strides made in the resettlement process. Where earlier in PTK for instance urgent queries had been raised about basic facilities, developments with regard to roads and electricity and water supply were appreciated.
Attention was drawn though to areas which still had deficiencies, such as villages in Vavuniya which had not been targeted for an improved water supply initially. However the Divisional Secretary was able to explain that, following a visit by the Minister of Water Supply and Drainage, the proposed scheme had been amended to service a greater area. Similarly, with regard to electricity, the anticipated commissioning of the grid at Kilinochchi would facilitate supply to areas currently deprived.
All this made clear the need for regular communication. Prof Wijesinha, Adviser on Reconciliation, explained the systems that had been recommended following the conclusion of the initial round of Reconciliation meetings, since these had revealed the problems caused by failure to ensure regular consultation. If the Grama Niladharis had regular meetings, and presented to the Divisional Secretaries brief minutes of these, with a schedule of problems to be solved, they could then ensure systematic feedback. Divisional Secretaries could take up matters immediately with relevant officials, and ensure  decisions were made swiftly, with reasons for decisions being conveyed to stakeholders. 

Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee Meetings - Pursuing Decentralization, Empowerment and Responsiveness

I was pleasantly surprised last week at the absence of what seemed serious problems, when we began another round of meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees. Earlier, especially where resettlement had taken place recently, there were several issues with regard to infrastructure, but these seemed to be much less urgent now, with understanding that, even if not immediately, roads were being improved and electricity provided. Water, which I had been most concerned with, along with educational facilities, when I first visited resettled areas way back at the end of 2009, had never been much of a problem, and I was happy to note that the problem had already been addressed, by the Ministry agreeing to expand a project it had initiated, in the one place where a query was raised.

In a couple of areas there were queries about irrigation schemes, though these were to supplement what had already been provided. In general cultivation had been very successful in all areas visited, a total of four Divisions in Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya, though in all places it was mentioned that more planning should have been done with regard to marketing, as well as storage. The need to develop local initiatives in this regard, including with regard to food processing and other value addition mechanisms, was noted, and I believe concerted efforts to promote projects in these areas, with stress on cooperatives, and in particular women’s cooperatives, would be extremely useful. The need to develop more accessible micro-credit schemes, perhaps through encouraging the formal establishment of small and medium enterprises through village cooperatives, was also stressed.

The particular problems of Madhu and Musali

Whilst the first two Divisions in Mannar I visited for Reconciliation meetings had much in common with regard to the need for greater organizational support for the people, so that they could take full advantage of the infrastructural and other developments that have taken place recently, they each had particular problems which could be solved easily if only basic administrative principles were put in place.
Madhu suffers, as the entire Mullaitivu District does, from a bizarre geography. No one could give me any reason for the manner in which it had been carved out, and there seems to be no historical rationale either, since the divisional boundaries seem comparatively recent. Indeed there is also some confusion about this, because it seems the previous Divisional Secretary earmarked some land near to a village of recently resettled to put up some of the housing that is planned. Now it has turned out that that land belongs to Vavuniya District, even though the nearest inhabitants – and no one seems to contest that they should be the beneficiaries - are in Mannar.
Absurdities such as that abound. Irrigations schemes which are designed to serve the people of the Division are situated in the next door district. Some Grama Niladhari Divisions are very close to Vavuniya town but belong to Madhu, from which they cannot be reached except by a roundabout route which goes through Vavuniya District.
I had not been in the East for several months, not least because the North seemed to need much more attention in terms of my work as Adviser on Reconciliation. However, with the system of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees functioning informatively, if not always effecfively, I thought I should pay some attention to the East, since obviously reconciliation had to be taken forward there too, and also better coordination of aid work, in terms of my mandate in that area.
I had assumed that the basic government strategy of massive efforts at reconstruction had borne fruit in the East, unlike in the North where it was essential to take other steps too in view of the very different circumstances. My visit confirmed that government had indeed worked wonders in the East, for the developments in communications and irrigation and the basic wherewithal for economic activity were phenomenal. 
In 2009, during my last visit as Head of the Peace Secretariat, I was overwhelmed by the changes that had taken place since an earlier visit, when travel was painfully slow and there was still uncertainty about commerce. Subsequently, visiting to inspect some work in English Trainer Training, I felt that the trajectory was steadily upward, but even so I was not prepared for the qualitative leap forward that had occurred between then and now. 

Explaining the philosophy of Resettlement and Economic Development

One of the greatest barriers to Reconciliation, I fear, is the difficulties government has to make its position clear. This springs in part from the systemic failure that will soon overwhelm us if remedial action is not taken swiftly. As it is, I believe we continue to survive only because of the enormous energy of a few, and the general decency of many of our administrators, whom the system however tends to suppress, with no efforts to institutionalize procedures and reporting mechanisms.
Symptomatic of this is the confusion about the guidelines that are issued to Grama Niladharis, the lowest rung of the ladder in the public service, but arguably the most important, for they are the interface between government and the public. Strengthening their administrative capacity would go far towards overcoming many problems government now faces, with more senior decision makers plagued by problems that could so easily – and with much less inconvenience to all concerned, including travel time and money – have been resolved lower down.
When I first realized the wide differences between Grama Niladharis in terms not just of efficiency, but also with regard to understanding of their roles, I asked what instructions were given to them when they were appointed. I was presented then with a Diary, which had in its initial pages a list of responsibilities which seemed to me a regurgitation of what they had been expected to do in the times of the colonial administration. I trust I am wrong, and that amendments have been made over the years, but in general it is clear that a thorough overhaul is essential, not just tinkering. In particular, the ethos should be one of local consultation, with mandatory provisions for this – on the lines of the advisory bodies envisaged in the original Mahinda Chintanaya – rather than the top-down approach that was appropriate for a colonial power co-opting local agents whose responsibilities were to the governors, not the governed.

The simple problems that impede reconciliation

Medical Facilities

Recent meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings have confirmed the perception that the main concerns of the people are practical, rather than the political issues that are so constantly raised in Colombo. Roads and transport difficulties were raised regularly, and also inadequate facilities at rural hospitals. With regard to these last, the paucity of doctors willing to serve in distant places was something that could be explained, and it did not cause much resentment. I should also note that deficiencies in this regard are offset by the dedication of the doctors in place, many of whom work long hours and take little leave.
More galling was the delay in repairing or providing equipment, as at Cheddikulam, an impressive new building where the machine for testing blood sugar has been broken for six months. One complaint was that they were advised to go to a private agency in Mankulam, where it turned out that the Cheddikulam technical staff worked. The doctor from Cheddikulam valiantly defended the staff on the grounds that there was nothing wrong with them working elsewhere in their free time, and she is of course perfectly correct, the problem lying in the faulty machine, not its operators. But it is still insensitive of the Ministry not to have responded swiftly, given how strongly such needs are felt. And this is the sadder, because of the generally excellent work of the Ministry which has succeeded in reducing malnutrition and infant mortality so swiftly over the last few years.

Resettlement, housing assistance and livelihood development

I have noted previously that the failure of Government to make its position clear on a number of issues has been one of the main difficulties about Reconciliation. I say this because, by and large, the Government position on most issues has been extremely positive, and inadequacies are more due to inefficiency than policy. But because the system does not encourage transparency, very good practices do not get the appreciation they deserve.
With regard to Resettlement, the Government achievement in sending back so many within a couple of years to their original homes has not been paralleled in other countries which have suffered similar conflicts. Our determination to discourage the displaced from establishing themselves elsewhere, and instead concentrating on returns, with efforts to build up essential infrastructure, has borne fruit in the enhanced economic activity we see in both North and East. Certainly the North has not taken off as rapidly as the East, but the fact that so many in the Wanni are able to live off the land, and build up their own houses and businesses, is a tribute to the plans that were implemented so expeditiously, with roads and irrigation and electricity in a much better condition than could have been imagined two years back.
However a failure to explain clearly the policies involved, and involve the people in the process, has led to some resentment. In particular, we did not do enough to get rid of the culture of dependency that life in welfare centres induces, with handouts and responsibility for shelter and food going hand in hand with opportunities to earn money that can then be spent on other things. To put it crudely, the complaints I get about alcoholism in almost all areas suggests that there is no great shortage of funds, and that we should have done more to revive the culture of self-reliance that the last few years has damaged. 

Distinctions between Different Divisional Secretariats

Having last month had Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings in Sinhala and Tamil areas in the Amparai District, I thought that this time I should assist Divisional Secretaries in Muslim Divisions. The Government Agent accordingly arranged meetings in Pottuvil and Kalmunai, which turned out however to be very different from each other in their social composition, and thus in the problems they raised.
Kalmunai is essentially a commercial town, and has done very well from the rapid development which government brought to the area after getting rid of terrorist threats. The problems raised were minor ones, including the need for proper water systems following a new housing scheme, and ensuring that fisher folk received assistance that had been pledged. In both cases the Divisional Secretary had received commitments of action, in the first instance by the Municipality which was in charge of that subject, but funds had been delayed. This was an ideal example of the need for follow up, and reporting back, and I believe both the Divisional Secretary and the Grama Niladharis welcomed the suggestion of regular meetings to discuss Development issues, with minutes and formal requests and mandatory responses as to action taken or contemplated.
Otherwise it was a case of fine tuning services, ensuring better attention to teacher requirements and attending to these in terms of individual school needs – whereas a previous Zonal Director had reported an excess of teachers, being carried away by excesses in urban areas whereas the rural schools continued to suffer. The need to ensure adequate extra-curricular activities, and vocational training based on local requirements, was also noted, and we tried to set up mechanisms to at least convey what should be done to the authorities, even though we could not be optimistic that all requirements would be met swiftly.

Promoting coherent units of management for different government functions

Over the years of conflict, a system arose in the East of separating administrative divisions on ethnic grounds. There are therefore in Kalmunai two Divisional Secretariats, within a few metres of each other, one a Tamil Divisional Secretariat and the other a Muslim one.
I had come across this before, in Vavuniya, where the Vavuniya Town and Vavuniya South Divisional Secretariats are practically on the same road, but there the latter dealt with an area south of the town. Though it was seen as the Sinhala Division, it served a distinct geographical area and was situated where it was, outside that area, only because of security problems in the past.
In the East the decision had been based on a desire, it seemed, to provide separate services to separate communities, which seems to me a way of entrenching separation. The same thing obtained in the Batticaloa District, where Eravur is carved out of what is to all intents and purposes Chenkaladi, with land issues still being referred to that Divisional Secretariat. Something similar happens further North, where Valaichenai is seen as a Tamil Divisional Secretariat, and there is another smaller urban one next door which is primarily for Muslims.

Getting the Administration to respond to People’s needs

For the first time since we started holding Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings, I went to a Divisional Secretariat, to find that nothing had been arranged. I am not sure what went wrong, but since the other Divisional Secretariat in the District, to which I was to go the next day, had not known about the scheduled meeting either, I suspect that something had gone wrong at the District Secretariat. This was depressing, and I hope the District Secretary will check and let me know how this problem had occurred.
The situation was made worse by the fact that nothing seemed to be happening in the Secretariat during the period I waited. I had got there early, and was able to see officials trickling in, with almost nothing happening before 9.45. That was when the Divisional Secretary appeared, having gone to look at the Indian housing programme. 
Once he came in, all went well, and it was clear that he had a good grasp of his subject as well as the details required for coordination. But this brought home to me even more clearly the need for much more coherent administrative structures, and better training for officials who after all the first point of contact with government for most people. The point was reinforced at my next meeting, in Mullaitivu, where the Planning Officer had no work ethic at all, and had failed to follow up on the Rs 2 million I had allocated to the area through my Decentralized Budget for Vocational Training. I should note though that younger recruits seemed more enthusiastic, and were able to provide the competent Government Agent with the support levels he needs, which suggests that solid training for these youngsters will in the end give us better results than continuing with the current culture of least effort and least resistance in many such officers.

Relations with the Police in the North

I was deeply impressed, at the last round of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings held in Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Mannar, at the progress made by the police in developing relationships with local communities. The instructions issued by the Inspector General of Police, that all stations should assign one or more policemen to each Grama Niladhari Division, seemed to have been admirably fulfilled, and it was good to note that most Grama Niladharis knew immediately the name of the officer assigned to work with them.
In the few cases where this was not the case, I detected some deficiencies in the GNs themselves, for which I do not blame them, given that we should train them much better. They are the first interface between government and people, and they deserve more than the old-fashioned diary they receive as their official intimation from government of their duties. Though the UNDP has developed a very useful Handbook, clearly it would make sense to set up a formal training programme to help them fulfil expectations.
Meanwhile I hope the Police can take the lead in institutionalizing consultation mechanisms, at least with regard to the wide range of responsibilities with which they are associated. In particular I hope they will contribute to the Women and Children’s Units that that Ministry has planned for every Divisional Secretariat, and assist with the coordination that is required of all government officials involved in social support.

Education and Reconciliation - 12 Nov 2012

At every Reconciliation meeting at Divisional Secretariats in the North and East – and I have attended over 50 thus far in the course of this year – problems crop up with regard to education. Some of them relate to physical needs, such as toilets and drinking water. Fortunately, given the concerted efforts made to improve educational facilities as far as infrastructure goes, such requests are few. But shortcomings in these respects are unacceptable, and should be attended to at once. If there are delays in Education Department inputs, Divisional Secretariats should prioritize these for governmental funding or other aid programmes.  
Then there are requests for playgrounds, which seem to me less urgent, in a context in which few schools have extensive extra-curricular programmes. For these I suggest shrmadana programmes, with support from the armed forces if available. I have discovered that this has been provided for such programmes already in many instances, though unfortunately there is little effort to give wider publicity to such support.
More serious are complaints that transport services are limited, and often do not cater to the needs of school children. Unfortunately there is little liaison between Education Departments and Transport Boards, and I suspect such liaison will not do much good, since we seem to have lost sight of the social aspects of transport services.

The need for national principles to address local problems - 29 Nov 2012

I have been confronted with many problems during meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings, but perhaps the most unusual was the question of garbage which came up at Kattankudy. I was told that garbage was being piled up at the edges of the area coming under the Secretariat, though I should hasten to add that this was not the fault of what seemed an efficient and responsive administration under the Divisional Secretary – yet another of the bright youngsters I keep coming across, who should be given greater responsibilities, with commensurate reporting obligations to the people they serve.
Waste disposal comes under local government institutions, and it seems that this Urban Council gets rid of garbage by depositing it near the sea on one side of the town, and near the lagoon on the other. What I was told seemed so bizarre that I decided I had to check this out for myself, so after the meeting I went on a tour of inspection, complicated by the fact that Kattankudy has very narrow roads, and it was Friday afternoon, which meant that they were blocked by thousands of motor-bikes as the faithful gathered for prayers. Fortunately I had a guide in the form of a student from Sabaragamuwa, who had attended the meeting, and provided excellent translations of the proceedings. The Affiliated University Colleges were full of students from the South East and, given that I was also Consultant in English at the South Eastern University after coordinating English for the South Eastern Affiliated College, I have a host of still appreciative students in the area who are able to explain matters which the often emotional reactions of the citizenry at large make difficult to comprehend.
I could not believe what I saw when I inspected what pass for garbage dumps, and I took several photographs which will illustrate my point more effectively than words. Clearly there is no understanding of the enormous damage being caused to environment and livelihoods by such carelessness or callousness. I am told that those occupying the land near these dumps have agitated, and I am sure the fishermen who can see their catch being choked have complained, but all to no avail.

Tuition and other problems of Education – and not only in the North

The Secretary to the Ministry of Education of the Northern Province convened a meeting of Zonal Directors in the Jaffna District along with other Education Ministry officials to discuss possible improvements to educational services in the North. The meeting was held on the initiative of the Governor following reports by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha MP, Advisor on Reconciliation  to HE the President on matters that had been brought to his attention at Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings he has attended during this year throughout the Province.

In addition to particular problems of the North, the meeting provided space to discuss the current situation of Sri Lankan Education as the quality of the school education is remarkably going down. Students are continuously facing poor teaching and  supervision as well as constant complaints from parents  about the quality of the examination papers set by Zonal offices. The creators of the examination papers have not been able to maintain the quality and the  consistency of the examinations which impacts on  schools not being able to accurately  assess their students’ performance at the end of the term  which should occur during their tenure in the schools. In any case, pupils seem generally to have almost lost their trust on the school education and they rely heavily  on tuition classes. One of the officials noted that this reliance also arose from schools having to only have single sessions, whereas double sessions as was the case in the past would help to discourage the prevailing tuition culture

However the biggest issue schools face today, especially in rural areas, is schools don’t have  sufficient teachers to teach the compulsory subject required to get them through the important examinations such as English, Maths, Science. Though much had been done on an initiative of the Governor to appoint sufficient teachers, there were still problems in rural areas because of distribution problems, which could not be monitored carefully.

Local police for skirmishes of the locality

I am grateful to the police for inviting me as Chief Guest to this event. The Community Policing commenced by the present Inspector General of Police is a worthy initiative, which must be encouraged and developed further. I should note that, as indicated in the very systematic instructions given in the Eastern Province, this is in accord with one of the basic ideas of the Mahinda Chintanaya.
The President is deeply committed to consultation of the grass roots and swift responses to the needs that are expressed. Unfortunately I do not know of any other government departments that have acted to institutionalize this policy, and the IGP therefore deserves double commendation for his imaginative work in this regard.
I should note though that the idea of Community Policing is not new. Its first exponent was Mr Osmund de Silva, the first Sri Lankan to become IGP by promotion from the force – though I should note that he would have preferred the term Police Service to Police Force. Unfortunately Mr de Silva came under suspicion from politicians, who were just establishing themselves as central decision makers on all subjects. Naturally they felt threatened by the symbiotic relationship between police and people that Osmund de Silva was trying to develop, and wanted to stop such threats to their own increasing control of all aspects of life


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