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Devolve power to local authorities to provide swift solutions to issues in villages



President Rajapaksa during a Gama Samaga Pilisandarak programme

by Justin Keppetiyagama

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visits several villages to meet the people living in some of the most remote and difficult villages of the country and identify issues faced by them and provide solutions to the issues identified. As per the policy manifesto of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ (‘Rata Hadana Saubhagyaye Dekma’), one of the main objectives of the government is creating a people-centered economy through rural development.

Sri Lanka is a land of villages and there are around 14,000 of them. Nearly 80 percent of Sri Lankans, live in villages and plantations. According to recent estimates, about 30 percent of the total households in rural societies in Sri Lanka live below the poverty line. Nutrition surveys conducted in the recent past indicate high prevalence of malnutrition among those in rural areas which may have been caused by chronic poverty. A socio-economic survey, conducted in the recent past, indicates that although the rural sector has the ability to engage in productive activities, there are many constraints.

The President commenced his Gama Samaga Pilisandara Programme from the Haldummulle Divisional Secretariat Division, of the Badulla district, on 25th September. This Divisional Secretariat has two Grama Seva Divisions where 222 families reside. Since then he has visited quite a number of Grama Seva Divisions. Some of the major issues, pertaining to the livelihood of the people, identified by the President, are shortage of lands and houses, unavailability of deeds for lands, inadequate health and transportation facilities, shortages in school and other educational issues, inaccessibility to drinking water, elephant intrusions, difficulty in selling their produce and issues related to kithul tapping.

At Wellapitiya, in Negombo, the people requested the President to take measures to halt the destructions caused to the Negombo lagoon, and surrounding mangrove marshland. At Katana, the President could understand the difficulties faced by cab drivers as a result of the Easter Sunday attacks and the closure of the airport, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Muthurajawela, the people requested the President to put in place a proper mechanism for garbage disposal and also protect the Muthurajawela wetland.

During his tour of the North Central Province, it was proposed to extend the allowance paid to kidney patients, in the particular Province, to other districts as well. Around 70,000 people in many districts of the country are affected by the chronic kidney disease (CKDu). They are mostly in the rural areas of the country and affected socially and economically. Patients, in the final stages of CKDu, have to go for dialysis which again affects the economy of the rural people. In some families, both parents have died and their children are now helpless.

People in remote areas suffer a great deal due to a number of long drawn unresolved economic and social problems.

The inefficient and lethargic conduct of the public institutions, which are entrusted with the task of identifying and solving the issues of the rural communities, is another major problem.

Villages, in Sri Lanka, have been well demarcated as Grama Niladari Divisions. Grama Niladari (village officer) is a Sri Lankan public official appointed by the government to carry out administrative duties in a Grama Niladhari Division, which is a sub-unit of a Divisional Secretariat. There are 14,022 Grama Niladhari Divisions, under 331 Divisional Secretaries’ divisions in the island. The duties of Grama Niladharis include the reporting of issuance of permits, gathering statistics, maintaining the voter registry and keeping the peace by settlement of personal disputes. They are also responsible for keeping track of criminal activity in their area.

Wild elephants, roaming in the rural villages, causing death to many, and destroying property, aggravate the socio-economic hardships the rural sector has to face.

Pest attacks which destroy large extents of cultivated crops, cause considerable problems to farmers. According to press reports, the Sena caterpillar called “Fall Armyworm” (Spodopteria Frugipedera) is destroying thousands of acres of maize in Ampara, causing severe difficulties to the farmers. In addition Brown Plant Hopper attacks are reported in some areas during some months. The paddy crop in Siyabalanduwa is affected by an unidentified disease.

In spite of the country receiving around 100 billion cubic meters of water annually, there are frequent water shortages, mostly in the rural areas where there are around 12,000 tanks. Most of them are silted, reducing the water holding capacity of these tanks, causing rural communities to face a shortage of water which seriously affects crop production and various domestic activities.

Those farmers, who manage to get a good crop of rice/vegetables, are unable to sell it for a reasonable price. Very often, farmers are forced to destroy their produce due to the inability to market their produce at reasonable prices. Marketing of agricultural products, at a profit to the farmer, is an issue which the authorities need to take cognizance of.

Unemployment is rampant in rural areas. Current data is not available but youth unemployment rate (age 15 – 24 years), corresponding to the first quarter of 2020, is 26.8 percent. With the COVID-19, thousands of people, who were employed abroad, have come back to Sri Lanka, increasing the percentage of unemployment, mainly in rural areas.

All these issues cause untold hardships to thousands of farmers and have a negative impact on the rural economy. No effective actions appear to have been taken by the relevant authorities to find appropriate solutions to these problems. Those representing the villages in Parliament, and in Provincial Councils, appear to be not concerned about the plight of our rural population who have voted them to power. They live in Colombo and other cities. Only Local Authority members are living in the villages who have voted them to power.

Sri Lanka has nine provinces, 25 districts, 318 divisions and 14,022 grama niladari areas or villages. The entire country, consisting of 14022 villages, are demarcated into 196 electorates. Although there are only 196 electorates, there are 225 Members of Parliament – 29 are not elected by the people but nominated by the political parties on the basis of the total number of votes received by the respective political parties, from the people of all 14022 villages. They represent not electorates, but districts. They are elected a on proportional representation system of voting. Most of these MPs are not living in the villagers, that they represent, but in Colombo and other cities.

In addition to electing an Executive President, and 225 members to the national legislator (Parliament), people in these 14022 villages elect 455 members to the Provincial Councils and nearly 14022 members to local authorities. Altogether there are nearly 15,000 politicians to identify issues faced by the people in these 14022 villages and to provide solutions to them. When there are about 15,000 politicians, representing these 14022 villages, if the head of state has to personally visit these villages to identify issues faced by them and to provide solutions to them, then there must be a serious lacuna in the system of government now operative in Sri Lanka. Those representing the rural community in Parliament and Provincial Councils appear to be not concerned about the plight of the rural people who voted them to power. As they are elected on the proportional representation they are more concerned with urban areas which have more votes. Most of them live in Colombo and other cities.

Although the Local Authority members are more concerned with their voters, and are living with the people, they do not have the power to provide solutions to the people’s problems. Local Authority is the lowest level of government in Sri Lanka – after the government and provincial councils. As of November 2017, there were 341 local authorities (24 Municipal Councils, 41 Urban Councils and 276 Pradeshiya Sabhas. Local authorities don’t derive their powers from an individual source but from numerous Acts and Ordinances. Local authorities can only provide services which the law specifically allows them to do. Services provided by local authorities are related to roads , drains, parks, libraries, housing, waste collection, public conveniences, markets and recreational facilities.

If the powers now devolved to Provincial Councils are devolved to Local Authorities, the Head of State need not take the trouble to visit villages to identify problems and find solutions to them. Thus if Local Authorities are empowered they can solve the village problems easily.

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This refers to the superlatively interesting and provocative piece on the above subject by Dr Upul Wijewardene{UW) appearing in The Island of 21/3/23 wherein, as he states, he had been a victim himself at the hands of a well-known Professor of Medicine turned health administrator. He makes it a point to castigate the leaders of the Buddhist clergy for their deviation from the sublime doctrine of this religion.

My first thought on this subject is that it is a cultural problem of exploitation by the privileged of the less fortunate fellow beings. The cultural aspect has its origin in the religion of the majority in India, Hinduism. There is no such discrimination in Islam.

The first recorded case was that of a Sinhala member of the Dutch army fighting against the Portuguese (or the army of the Kandiyan kingdom) being prevented by the members of the higher ranks from wearing sandals due to his low status in the caste hierarchy. The Dutch commander permitted the Sinhala solder to wear sandals as recorded by Paul Pieris in “Ceylon the Portuguese era”

There is also the instance of a monk getting up to meet the King when it was not the customary way of greeting the King by monks.

In an article by Dr Michael Roberts, a Sri Lankan historian published in a local journal, it is said that members of the majority caste (approximately 40% of the Sinhala population) were not permitting lower ranking public officials serving the British government wear vestments studded with brass buttons. The second tier of the hierarchy who had become rich through means other than agriculture like sale of alcohol in the early British times took their revenge by lighting crackers in front of houses of their caste rivals when a British Duke was marching along in a procession in Colombo.

It is not uncommon for members of minority castes numerically low in numbers to help their own kind due to the discriminatory practices of the higher tiers of the hierarchy.

Dr Leo Fernando
Talahena, Negombo

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Billion-dollar carrot



The IMF successfully coerced the government into falling line with its instructions on debt restructuring and increasing of revenue, among others, and in all probability will release the first tranche of the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) during the course of this week. Regrettably, the IMF is not coercive where the violations of fundamental rights of a country, vis a vis universal franchise, is concerned. On its part, the government flaunted this invaluable tool on the public, as the only remedy for all its financial ailments. It was least worried of the consequences that would necessarily follow.

Taking the cue, professionals and trade union activists dangled the carrot of carrot of strikes to restrain the government on its implementation, the results of which are still in abeyance. Not to be outdone, the powers that be has refused to relent on the grounds that the economy has to be strengthened at whatever costs.

Now that the IMF loan has materialized, the government is already focusing its attention on securing further assistance from other lending agencies. How will the IMF monies be expended, and for what purposes? Naturally, the people would want to know since it is they who have to foot the bill at the end. The Treasury insists that it has no funds to provide for the conduct of LG polls. Just 10% of the rupee equivalent of the first tranche of US $ 300 million will suffice for the successful completion of the elections. Provided the government wants to.

The President has assured that no sooner the Agreement is signed with the IMF, he would submit a copy of it to Parliament. It would be prudent if he would also submit (without plucking figures from thin air) a comprehensive expenditure account on the disbursement of the first tranche. And continue to do so for the rest.

Being fully aware of the country’s top priority needs, attention should be focused on providing them at reasonable prices. Besides them, agriculture, fishing and domestic industries should also be given due consideration. Merely dangling of carrots before them will not suffice.

Non-essential development projects should be shelved until the dreamed of economic stability is achieved. Of special note is that upkeep and interests of politicians should not be addressed with these funds.Can the people expect some sort of genuine transparency even at this late stage?


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Death penalty – another view



In his article, (The Island, 8th March), Dr Jayampathy Wickremeratne, would have us believe that the Death Penalty is not an effective deterrent and it should be abolished in Sri Lanka. Similar arguments are presented in India, home to some of the most horrendous crimes of violence against Women and children, and also in South Africa, where the death penalty was abolished despite strong opposition from the vast majority of the population.

Use of the Death Penalty purely for political purposes is always bad, but that’s not what the public are calling for. The public want the Death penalty implemented RIGOROUSLY, against those who have undeniably murdered children, and also serial killers whose victims are invariably women. Their crimes are gruesome but unfortunately need to be detailed to counter the pseudo- academic arguments of Death Penalty abolishonists. For example:

South Africa abolished the death penalty despite vigorous opposition. In South Africa one of its worst serial killers, led the police to the remains of 38 of his victims all of them women and all from the poorest class (mostly domestic servants).

On 12 March, India’s National Broadcaster NDTV reports the case of a man in Kashmir, whose marriage proposal was refused. He murdered his prospective young bride, cut up her body and disposed the remains in several places to avoid detection. A few days ago, a similar incident in India was reported by NDTV, where a 17-year-old was stabbed and dragged through s crowded street and murdered with no public intervention! In Sri Lanka a few years ago, four-year-old Seya fell victim to a murderer, rapist, a person known to her family, whom the child trusted. Likewise, a 17-year-old girl miss Sivaloganathan was raped and murdered in the North by a gang led by an individual known as “Swiss Kumar” a porn film maker of Sri Lankan origin, living in Switzerland. (One wonders whether he subsequently received the benevolent “Presidential Pardon”!

Other arguments used in Dr Wickremeratne’s article, are out of date. For example, he refers to wrongful convictions in a bygone age where DNA testing did not exist. DNA tests enable identity to be established and tie a murderer to the crime, beyond any doubt. Elsewhere he cites a Table where Murder rates are calculated as follows- “divide the number of murders by the total population, in death-penalty and non-death penalty states”. This methodology is patently flawed. It assumes that the populations of ALL 50 States in the USA are homogeneous in demography and other characteristics- it equates the violent State of New York with relatively peaceful Alaska.

Dr W advocated “long term imprisonment” in lieu of death penalty. Frankly this is the academic argument of a person removed from everyday life and steeped in Academia, “the social cost of rehabilitation” is Immense! It has been estimated that the cost of keeping a person on death row is at least Rs 50,000 per month – for the rest of the murderers’ life! It should ALSO be pointed out that in Singapore and other countries where the death penalty operates, murder rates are significantly low.


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