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Opinion

President’s concerns about referring trivial matters to Cabinet for approval

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his address to the Nation on the Independence Day, said that the government officers were in the habit of seeking Cabinet approval for even trivial matters that could be decided by the officials themselves within their authority and that they were hesitant to take any decisions unless circulars were available to guide them. He further said that under such a situation, the country could not move forward and that he was planning to introduce legislature to make the administrative system more efficient.

In this respect, the writer sent a letter to the editor in The Island of 08.06.2016, posing the question “Should the Cabinet get involved in awarding of contracts?”, which may be accessed via the link: http://archive.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=146531.

This was written because if one peruses the list of weekly Cabinet decisions, almost 50% are on the award of contracts for constructing buildings for government departments, other public sector institutes and universities, and also for purchasing spare parts for power plants, medicine for hospitals, and similar essential items which in any case need to be purchased.

If it is a case of getting financial clearance, the matter should be first referred to the Treasury, and once approval is granted, there is no need for a Cabinet nod. Such a procedure only opens the matter for corruption. Every such item to be tabled at the Cabinet, the line Minister has to submit a memorandum seeking approval for the matter, be it a contract or procurement of equipment, etc.

A Minister’s signature has a value, and more often than not, a Minister may want some consideration from the awardee for putting his signature on a memorandum. A contractor will not hesitate to consider such a request favourably, because without his signature he will not get the contract which sometimes could run into hundreds of millions if not billions of rupees. This is an open secret. There are also others down the line who could benefit from such contracts.

Under the present system, the recommendation of any high-value purchase of goods or services is referred to the Cabinet Appointed Negotiating Committee (CANC) prior to being submitted to the Cabinet. The National Procurement Commission (NPC) was established under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution to handle all matters pertaining to procurement of goods and services in the public sector. In the aforesaid letter, the writer recommended that once the CANC cleared the tender, it should be referred to the NPC for final approval and award the tender without Cabinet approval being sought. It was also pointed out that if there were any regulations currently in existence that require tenders of high-value should receive approval of the Cabinet of Ministers, such regulations needed to be amended to make the NPC the final tender approving authority. The officials will then not hesitate to settle the matter without wasting Cabinet time on such routine matters as highlighted by the President in his address to the Nation.

 

Dr Janaka Ratnasiri

Nawala TT

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Opinion

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

Looking forward to a hopeful future 

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By Rohana R. Wasala

All sensible adult citizens of Sri Lanka confidently hope that today’s youthful politicians will realise the importance of working together with their rivals in the national interest while maintaining their separate political identities, because, in the final analysis, all politicians of whatever party or faction they are affiliated to have no reason for their existence except their commitment to serve our motherland Sri Lanka . It is time they understood that any ethnic or religious or cultural community struggling to promote its own welfare disregarding the interests of other communities is not going to achieve permanent success. This has been demonstrated by the failure of the older generations which pursued such divisive strategies in the past, regretfully slowing down the country’s forward march. Though they may be committed to different political ideologies they should be able to resolve their differences democratically in a cultured manner. Only when an atmosphere of value-based politics becomes the norm will politicians, whether in the government or the opposition ranks, be able to make their fullest contribution to the survival of the nation as an independent sovereign entity and its future wellbeing.

Friendly personal relations among politicians who fiercely clash in public are nothing new. This has been always the case. But today such interaction between political opponents must be seen in a new light in view of the more widely shared socio-cultural and political sophistication of the Sri Lankan populace.

It can’t be denied that Sri Lanka has achieved some tangibly positive results at least in terms of a much larger proportion of the population being afforded a chance to dream of a better future. This is a direct result of a high rate of literacy achieved through free education. Economically, she may have lost the stability she used to enjoy at independence, as so often pointed out by those interested in the subject, and slipped a few notches down in the scale of overall development in comparison with some neighbouring countries. However, the generally growth-oriented policies of the successive post-independence regimes led in turn by the two main parties have brought about considerable human development, and a corresponding improvement of the lot of the common people, and that too in the face of unprecedented problems posed by a steadily increasing population, overt and covert foreign interference in our affairs, politicization of issues and institutions, terrorism, economic and political upheavals elsewhere, and other crises that threw a spanner in the works most of the time.

Within a generation our society has undergone tremendous change. The nation has emerged  victorious after one of the most trying periods of its history, which, though it slowed down the rate of growth, failed to arrest it altogether. Today our literacy rate is among the highest in the region. We enjoy fairly satisfactory healthcare services, both public and private, in spite of occasional lapses. More people own houses and cars than before, and more young people take part in cultural activities such as singing, dancing, and drama than their parents used to in the past. Increasingly accessible modern technology is revolutionizing every aspect of their life. People living in the remotest districts are aware that they too have a democratic right to a decent living standard like those placed in better circumstances in urban areas. Amidst all this, today’s young, particularly those in their thirties and forties, have known no life other than the one they have had to live under terrorism (which is now fortunately out of the way; the under-twenties  were spared any adult experience of it). They expect more from life, are less prepared to put up with privations, and are more aggressive in meeting challenges than earlier generations. Their expectations are high. 

These social, economic, and political realities influence the thinking of the youngest section of the population, particularly those below 30. They are almost completely insulated from any meaningful memory of the conditions that prevailed 30 to 50 years ago in which their parents grew up, and that helped form the latter’s values and attitudes, which may not be in tune with the existing state of affairs today. Youth are usually more responsive to change than the old. The former love the excitement of change, while the latter prefer the sedateness offered by a settled order.  The traditional clash between the old and the young in any age in opinions, values, and attitudes known as the generation gap applies to those involved in parliamentary politics too, though it is often obscured by an ostensible unanimity of opinion among members of the same party. In this context, the young are in a better position to decide what is in the best interest of the country. 

By this, however, I don’t mean to say that every young politician is invariably forward looking and progressive in outlook, and that every old one is incorrigibly retrograde. There are enough examples of senior politicians adopting fresh viewpoints in keeping with the changed circumstances in principled ways; there are also young novices who squander their youth and energy by aligning themselves with old fossilized elements of yesteryear with no future. In other words, a certain fossilization of ideas and attitudes is characteristic of an older generation; but there can be exceptions; some older politicians prove themselves more progressive, and more adaptable than their younger colleagues. 

When politicians decide to accept the membership of a particular party, they do so after committing themselves to the ideology and the policies of that party. It is important to adhere to these. But since situations may arise in which a particular party line is not the best position to adopt in regard to a critical issue, it becomes necessary in such instances to be flexible in order, for example, to avoid betraying the whole country through blind adherence to a particular policy such as some conservative politicians’ unrealistic commitment to a negotiated settlement of the separatist crisis in the face of the intransigence of the separatist terror outfit, which is now no more. A critical turn of events may demand that established beliefs and ways of behaviour be given up in favour of new modes of thought and action to serve the national interest.

Some time ago an MP from a prominent party, then in the Opposition, said that the main role of the Opposition is to bring down the government at any cost. If what he said was true, then no government would have an opportunity to rule or to implement any development plan without being baulked at every turn, irrespective of the soundness or otherwise of the policies pursued. The irrational way some opposition politicians criticise every move of the government suggests that this in fact is the principle that guides their conduct even today. Probably the same principle was at work when it was clear that not even the December 2004 tsunami nor the raging separatist terror led the opposition to join forces with the government to rescue the country from those disasters. However, in the critical last stages of the then MR government’s campaign against terrorism, it was thanks to the support extended by seventeen opposition MPs acting on their own in defiance of the party hierarchy that made it possible for the government to put an end to that scourge. Now that there are more young MPs who are capable of thinking  in terms of promoting the national interest rather than their own self-interest, we may be hopeful that the constitution making project embarked upon by the present administration will go ahead without a hitch.  

In terms of the ordinary people’s understanding of parliamentary democracy, the role of the opposition is to ensure that the ruling party governs the country well by monitoring its conduct and by criticizing its actions when they believe that it is not  performing its duty, and to be a potential alternative to the government. The broadest interface for positive government-opposition interaction includes the three interrelated areas of  the rule of law, human rights, and good governance. The opposition’s responsibility is to maximize the chances of these three things being realized for the good of the country through constructive criticism of the government’s performance. When faced with external challenges and threats, the opposition and the government must act as a single solid group in defence of the nation, based on the commonsense realisation that in geopolitics a country is obliged to interact with both friendly and hostile foreign rivals.

Such a political culture will evolve only when young broadminded politicians take the centre stage. Of course, they can’t act by themselves unless they have a similarly educated and inspired following. An electorate that will promote cultured politicians is already there to show their mind when the old fossils,  among the present-day leaders, either ensconced in positions of power or already kicked out into irrelevance, finally bow out or are successfully convinced to do so.

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Opinion

Problems in Geneva: Facts that brought us here

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Dr. SARATH GAMINI De SILVA

The annual patriotic taunts and the laments of the majority are heard as the day of reckoning approaches in Geneva. We are shouting ourselves hoarse, complaining that the whole world is ganging up against the brave Sri Lankans, to punish them for eliminating the most brutal terrorist outfit the world has ever seen. It is true that what was achieved in 2009 is something that no other country could do in eliminating terrorism. But does that guarantee peace when the basic grievances that led to civil unrest over the years have not been addressed?

This article is not an attempt to justify violence, untruth or deplorable and unprincipled activities of other countries. Nor is it to devalue the achievements up to 2009. The intention is to open the eyes of my own countrymen to the reality of the hopeless situation facing the nation.

As was mentioned in earlier articles, seeds for racial disharmony were laid during the British colonial period. With their divide-and-rule method, they pitted the majority community against the minorities. This was done by establishing proportionately more schools in the North to ensure a better education, and thereby giving them superior positions in government service. Thus, with the country gaining Independence in 1948, and the Sinhalese gaining the upper hand, the minorities, mainly Northern Tamils, felt disadvantaged. They tried negotiations with the Southern politicians. Naturally, their demands like Ponnambalam’s 50-50 were unjust, but we could have negotiated that. With the watershed political upheaval in 1956, the situation became very volatile. With the Sinhala chauvinists becoming very influential and vociferous, taking politicians virtual hostage to achieve their aims, the minorities were getting increasingly marginalised. The Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Pact and later the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact were not honoured, without working on them to solve the ongoing disputes. There were several episodes of violence against unarmed members of the minorities during that period.

With the overwhelming electoral victory of the UNP in 1977 (followed immediately by another bout of violence), the majority assumed that whatever grievances of the minorities could be stepped over. Eventually, the Tamils were expelled from Parliament blaming their non-allegiance to the Constitution, leaving them with no forum to air their grievances. The terrorist outfits were taking shape in the North, claiming to be the sole representatives of the oppressed. The Southern leaders ignored the political sensitivities of India, which strengthened the terrorists calling them “Freedom Fighters”.

The pogrom of 1983 is the darkest patch in the recent history of our paradise. The unarmed Tamils in Colombo were killed, even burnt alive and their property looted. With the government not making any efforts to curtail the violence for several days, there was a worrying suspicion of state patronage. Many Tamils, who worried about their lives, escaped to Western countries. Naturally, they were warmly welcomed as refugees in those countries as their embassies here were witnesses to what happened in Colombo and elsewhere. From then on, the Eelam war escalated, and it is not necessary to detail here the damage done in both human and material terms over thirty years. Many subsequent peace overtures of the government were rejected by the terrorists, who were determined to establish their own Elam.

After eliminating terrorism in 2009, what actions have we taken to restore lasting peace? Have we had at least belatedly, an ongoing dialogue sans political rhetoric with the Tamil leaders to see what their grievances are and taken steps to address them? Instead, our politicians kept on boasting of their “victory”, further arousing separatist tendencies with communal rhetoric, purely to ensure that their success in winning the battles will keep them in power for generations. They were fighting with each other claiming credit for what was achieved.

The Tamil refugees who settled down in Western countries were establishing themselves. Well educated and employed, they are working according to a plan. With their natural energy, determination and ambition, characteristics we used to admire in our Northern countrymen for ages, they are flourishing making the best use of the opportunities provided there. The diaspora is making use of their increasing numbers to influence the local politicians, who are interested in winning their votes, to speak up for them at influential fora. They themselves have taken to politics and entered legislatures.

One can imagine the grudge they must be harbouring against us. They will tell the generations to come about barbaric violence they suffered. That generation, about everyone under 40 years of age at present, will not be informed of terrorism, suicide bombers, child soldiers, killing of innocent villagers, massacre of Samanera monks or bombing of Buddhist holy sites. They will be taught only about the 1983 pogrom and unsubstantiated allegations of civilian killings and the elimination of their “freedom fighters” in 2009. In fact, there is a campaign in Toronto schools to have a week declared every year to commemorate the so called “Tamil Genocide”. This and subsequent generations in the diaspora will be increasingly hostile to us. Though the LTTE remains proscribed in many countries, they have managed to operate freely with political patronage.

There is no use in shouting ourselves hoarse about the unforgivable crimes committed by the rebels during the war years if future security and peace is the concern of Sri Lankans. We will be facing this formidable force of the diaspora at every international forum in the future. Our diplomats, who are mostly the kinsmen or other acolytes of those in power and grossly unqualified to represent the country, have failed miserably to give the correct picture to those that matter. The whole world is well aware of the atrocities committed by the Tigers. Yet, successive governments have failed to exploit that knowledge to turn the world opinion favourable to us.

Despite all this, many educated members of the diaspora still love this country. Many of my colleagues there are still dreaming of the day they might be able to return after retirement. They keep visiting us regularly, having bought property here. Some have put up hospitals, churches and indulge in other public service ventures to help especially those in the North. So many doctors having achieved high positions in the health services overseas, help the country train our postgraduate doctors.

Sri Lankan politicians are still fighting among themselves without any concrete plans to counteract the allegations being made. Enough ammunition is being provided to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, UNHCR, to work against the country. After agreeing to various conditions imposed over the years, but dishonouring them immediately afterwards, the country has become one of the most untrustworthy to deal with. Those in power keep blaming the previous governments for the international agreements reached, without working for a common stance to face the imminent threat. Guarantees are being given repeatedly to the international community about an impartial judiciary to deal with various allegations emanating from the ethnic war. At the same time, new legislation is enacted to ensure that the opponents of the government are punished by a judiciary handpicked by the rulers. While saying that minority rights are being respected, the Muslims are denied their fundamental right to bury their dead.

It is meaningless to claim that other countries should not interfere with the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, which is a sovereign state. Having signed many international conventions and agreements, we cannot seek self-isolation when the situation suits us. We have allowed our internal matters to be discussed at international fora by failing miserably to solve them ourselves, often due to political expediency. This has forced our own citizens to seek relief from international organisations. If not for the influence and intervention of external sources, by now many countries in the world would have become ruthless dictatorships torturing their own citizens.

If the gravity of the issue was realised, a permanent secretariat should have been established in the foreign ministry long ago, with experienced diplomats purely to conduct an international campaign against the misinformation, and give the correct picture to foreign countries and various organisations that matter.

Our politicians know that they can fool most Sri Lankan voters all the time. But if they believe they can continue to fool the international community in the same way, they are sadly mistaken. Unfortunately, the whole nation will suffer paying for their folly.

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