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

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President Rajapaksa during a Gama Samaga Pilisandarak programme

by Justin Keppetiyagama
jdkgama02@gmail.com

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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Opinion

Today’s call for ‘Health Promotion’

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As a nation, we have reached a really critical stage with the corona pandemic. This is what The Hindustan Times reported on the 2nd of May, 2021: “Sri Lanka’s health authorities have issued new tough guidelines, including banning wedding receptions and gatherings at religious sites, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as the Island nation continued to record a spike in daily infections”. The time has come for all citizens of the country to understand the gravity of the disaster. Anyway, we have witnessed a section of Sri Lankans enjoying, despite many restrictions. It can be seen that people travel here and there without face masks, and organising events and parties amidst this situation. There is a problem with discipline. Also, I have observed that there is a segment of people who violate health guidelines and post messages on social media criticising the authorities. This “duplicity” must be interesting social research for investigators to read people in a different microscope.

Ownership and Empowerment:

At the moment we could not see any “ownership” of this disaster among Sri Lankans. Still, we can see only “health education” in the country, and we need to change this to “health promotion”. The country needs to consider this as top urgent, under these circumstances. The government should carefully use some stakeholders in this mission of “Health Promotion”. Refer to the following diagram for some selected sectors to take the initiative.

The role of the Health Promotion Bureau should be redefined. And the role of the Ministry of Education should not be underestimated in this context, to communicate messages to relevant parties — including schoolchildren and parents. In this task force, there can be community leaders, experts in the industry, representatives of the media, and some researchers as well. All members should have a Clear Plan (short-term strategy and long-term objectives) to address this pandemic situation. We have seen many times the media reporting how people violate health guidelines. But rather than concentrating on the ‘negative’ side, there can be ‘positive’, reporting as well. (As an example, a worker in the Colombo Municipal Council adhering to all guidelines by showcasing an example for the community). This is the time we need to have positive news. ((http://www.ft.lk/columns/Negative-and-positive-news-Rare-corpse-flower-set-to-bloom-at-Royal-Botanical-Gardens-Peradeniya/4-658936) for better immunity of people!

Also, there are many success stories that need to be followed by a task force of “health promotion”. In this context, we can discuss the success story of Vietnam. As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports, on 10th March 2021, “Swift introduction of containment measures, combined with aggressive contact tracing, targeted testing, and isolation of suspected COVID-19 cases helped keep recorded infections and death rates notably low on a per capita basis (IMF,2021). “Also, as per fitchratings.com “Vietnam’s economy has been more resilient than most other markets in the Asia-Pacific, as the local authorities have had greater success in containing Covid-19. It was one of the few economies in the region to report GDP growth in 2020 (fitchratings.com, Thu 22 Apr, 2021). More importantly, like in Vietnam, we also should have a successful communication strategy. Refer below:

“Vietnam’s successful communication strategy catalyzes the active participation of both governmental and private sectors as well as communities. The government centers its people in an active role with the slogan translated as “every citizen is a soldier”. In addition, non government-led initiatives, including the donation of funds and personal protection equipment by entrepreneurs and individuals, have contributed positively to social stability. For example, “the rice ATM” – a free rice dispenser reserved for the most vulnerable people, including those who lost income due to the pandemic, the elderly, students and disabled people. Students have been mobilized to assist in epidemic control by engaging them in various roles, such as data entry, sample collection or provision of phone counselling for COVID-19 suspected people. However, the number of students who joined the COVID-19 taskforce was very small (124 volunteer medical students) compared to its capacity. At the central level, a relief bill of approximately 80,600 VND billion was signed by the government to address the financial burden resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 62,000 VND billion of these funds were allocated to individuals who were poor, near poor, with meritorious services or under social protection schemes. The remaining funds were allocated to support small to medium production and business establishments.” The COVID-19 global pandemic: a review of the Vietnamese Government response – https://www.joghr.org/article/21951-the-covid-19-global-pandemic-a-review-of-the-vietnamese-government-response)

 

The time has come for Sri Lanka to think differently, learn, and work with responsibility. This is a disaster in which we need to stop the “blame game” and understand the situation with more responsibility. If we can use “health promotion” in an effective way, it would be one of the success stories for the world, always helping for long term sustainable development of the nation.

Prof. NALIN ABEYSEKERA

(Professor of Management Studies, Faculty of Management, Management Studies, The Open University of Sri Lanka

– nalinabeysekera@gmail.com )

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Opinion

Political interference aggravating Deadly Pandemic

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Humankind is in the middle of the deadly COVID pandemic, the worst ever seen in our lifetime. The virus, with all its ongoing mutations, is causing havoc all over the world, leading to untold misery and death. In the absence of any effective curative medication, and inadequate vaccine cover, prevention, with strict public health measures, based on sound scientific evidence, remains the fundamental way out of this impending catastrophe.

Larger countries, where politicians ignored professional advice, based on science, and took politically popular decisions, saw the inexorable spread of the disease causing much preventable deaths. Brazil, the USA (during the Trump presidency), and India, at present, are classic examples of this unfortunate situation. Countries like New Zealand, Australia, Israel and South Korea, taking decisions based purely on scientific advice, despite causing temporary hardship and restrictions on the people, have managed to return to near normal pre-COVID status.

Sri Lanka has a literate population.It also has a well-established public health service responsible for prevention and even eradication of many diseases, which are still ravaging many South Asian countries. The country is held out as an example of a success story in this regard by even the World Health Organization (WHO). As such, we should have succeeded in controlling the epidemic by now.

What went wrong in Sri Lanka, still causing the epidemic to escalate on a daily basis with ever increasing morbidity and mortality? The associations of doctors, other healthcare professionals, and even the laboratory technologists have been giving well considered advice and issuing guidelines to curtail the epidemic. But mostly, such advice appears to have been ignored by the political authorities, taking their own decisions instead. The COVID Control Task Force, being headed by the Army Commander, and the Vaccine Task Force, being under an elderly non-medical administrator, are classic examples of this ignorance. It is obvious that both these positions, as well as a majority of the membership of the task forces, should be held by medical professionals. The initial apparent success was hailed by politicians taking full credit, leading to them doing well at the elections. Most such decisions were directed at increasing the popularity of those in power or financial gain for people close to them. This has led to much bungling in decision-making, summarily listed below.

1. Health regulations were not strictly enforced . There was an escalation of the number of cases soon afterwards.

Health regulations were not strictly enforced during the general election last year.

2. The controversy on disposal of dead bodies; the scientifically correct decision to allow burial was taken by the politicians only after much heartburn of the community and even humiliation in the international scene.

3. Allowing and openly promoting unproven native medication, making the people ignore public health guidelines.

4. Conducting the Lanka Premier League (LPL) cricket tournament in Hambantota, bringing in players from countries with a roaring epidemic. One of the players found to be PCR positive then is alleged, though without proof, to have brought in the UK variant of the virus.

5. Entertaining tourists from Ukraine, where authorities had no control over the fast spreading disease. It is an open question whether the quarantine procedures were properly implemented. Same mistake is being made now, with Indians being allowed to come in for so called quarantining purposes. It is well known that the financial interests of acolytes took precedence over the health of the people.

6. Messing up the vaccination process. Notwithstanding the somewhat unforeseen situation in India, timely action should have been taken to obtain adequate supplies of approved vaccines. The authorities appeared to depend on the donation of an unapproved vaccine from a friendly country. The priority list for vaccination was disrupted, thus exhausting the supplies of the vaccine. As a result, only an insignificant proportion of the people have received the first dose, with no guarantee of the second.

7. Allowing free movement of people during the festivals, largely ignoring recommended preventive guidelines. These were openly patronised by the kith and kin of the political leaders.

8. In many meetings and other gatherings organised and attended by the politicians at the highest level, scant regard is given for public health precautions.

9. Claiming success until a few weeks ago, and reducing the PCR testing and other measures until caught unawares with a rapidly rising case load.

10. Restriction of movement and isolation of areas is hampered by political interference. This was well illustrated by what happened recently in Piliyandala, where the isolation of the area, on medical advice, was reversed within a few hours at the behest of a political bigwig.

11. All social gatherings were banned a few days ago. However, it was comical how largely attended weddings were allowed for a few days more, obviously to accommodate someone close to the centers of power. Though rumours abound, the beneficiary of this anomaly is still not known for certain.

To what extent the hierarchy in the medical administrators of the Health Ministry contributed to this dismal situation is open to question. The general impression is that they are succumbing to political pressure, without standing their ground. It is widely suspected that even the correct statistics are not divulged to avoid embarrassing the politicians. However, knowing how overpowering the politicians could be, it may be unreasonable to blame the hapless officials doing a thankless job under trying circumstances.

 

SENIOR MEDICAL CONSULTANT

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Opinion

Making O/L English literature more accessible

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In his feature article, titled “Reduce O/Level STRESS”, appearing in The Island of 03 May, Anton Peiris makes a timely intervention to introduce an alternative mathematics course for O/L students, which will be tailored to suit the capacity of a considerable number of students who find the customary mathematics paper too challenging. This is surely a more pragmatic and student-friendly approach, because for the past few years we have been trapped in the split between two extremes: either in support of a pass in math to be made compulsory for all A/L students or the exemption of Arts students from this requirement. “Maths Studies” would be a happy compromise between the two extremes, which would stand in good stead for many O/L students. with a gift for Arts subjects to pursue their goals without math being an undue hindrance or, conversely, its total exemption turning out to be a free license for laxity.

O/L English literature seems to be another subject not available to many students due to at least two reasons: first, the want of qualified teachers and, second, the standards being set too high for the average student, as in the case of math. This deters many students who are not competent enough to meet the high-end demand for “appreciating literary texts” from gaining many other benefits literature would otherwise offer them, if provided as a more watered down package, as in “Maths Studies.” In short, the introduction of a less daunting variant such as “Literature Studies” for the average student, for whom the regular “English Literature” is virtually a taboo, can ensure the same gains “Maths Studies” intends to bring to those less proficient in math.

Such leniency would not be wholly out of tune with the learning outcomes of O/L English Literature, enunciated in the relevant syllabus issued by the NIE, which states:

The national goal of making an informed reader means a critical thinker as well. The learner must be able to appreciate any “well written” book and recognize a “good book” when he sees one. It is a training for life. But the whole enterprise of studying literature has been coloured by non-educational, even non-humanistic objectives. For most students and more for their parents, English literature has become a symbol of prestige, culminating in a fantasy of a distinction pass at the GC.E. (O/L) examination. (http://www.nie.lk/pdffiles/tg/e10tim130.pdf)

This goes to provide at least two good reasons for introducing a less demanding option like “Literature Studies” for the average student. As the latter part of the above paragraph admits, for many students, as well as their parents, studying English literature has become a “symbol of prestige.” This is sad because promoting such snobbery flies in the face of all the lofty ideals contained in the first three sentences, such as making the student well informed, critical and sensitized enough to appreciate good literature, etc. As such, it would not be undesirable, in the least, to aim at moulding a reasonably broadminded and sensitive person, by adjusting the syllabus to focus more on increasing their general awareness of the richness of world literature, without making the study of O/L literature a strenuous exercise of gaining a set of “skills,” which may be more suitable for the purpose of grooming critics rather than making students read for pleasure. Arguably, the emphasis on critical appreciation of the texts might be one reason why the students end up becoming stuck-up, as described in the above passage.

There is no doubt that the regular O/L literature course prepares the student to study literature at the A/Ls – hence the need for its continuation. However, a more student-friendly variant intended for encouraging the average student to read literature, without the unnerving prospect of having to write a critical essay on each of the prescribed texts she has to read, is sure to cultivate the reading habit among students. The performance evaluation defined in the NIE syllabus cited below proves the rigid test-oriented and technical nature of the process:

Appreciation of English literary texts is tested as a component of the G.C.E. (O/L) examination formatively as well as summatively at the end of a two-year course of study. At school level, it is assessed formally at term tests. It is also assessed informally in the classroom using a variety of techniques, both oral and written. Conventionally literature is tested by written examinations. The test items most frequently used are the context question and the critical essay. The context question is more effective since it directly tests the candidate’s familiarity with the texts.

Undoubtedly, a more student-friendly and less formulaic syllabus intended for coaxing the average student to read for pleasure, may ideally minimize the focus on critical writing aspect and the emphasis on a knowledge of the textual mechanics. Instead, such a syllabus may include a prudent selection of interesting biographical details of writers and their famous works, their dominant themes and the relevant social contexts, short samples of texts not intended for critical evaluation but for familiarizing them with various writing forms, etc. – anything that will stimulate the reading habit of the student who may even be encouraged to read the translations in their mother tongue, if time permits.

The most important outcome would be to make them keen readers. The essential fine-tuning with regard to the selection of teaching materials and testing can be done by the syllabus designers and teachers who know the terrain well. Thus, as in the case of math, the modified syllabus of literature would help students who are not adequately proficient to follow the standard literature course, to find a more manageable way of developing a liking for literature.

 

SUSANTHA HEWA

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