by Anila Dias Bandaranaike. Ph.D.
A country needs timely, reliable information to implement policy, allocate resources and deliver services, such as education, health, environmental protection, justice and security, to the people. In Sri Lanka, information is collected through the national administrative system (NAS), while different services are delivered to service-specific areas – Education Zones, Medical Officer of Health (MOH) areas and Police Divisions – whose geographical boundaries differ from each other.
An efficient NAS should divide the country into administratively manageable geographical units, to collect information from, and deliver services to them effectively. For effective administration and service delivery, the size of these units should reflect their population and land characteristics.
Against this background, this article will discuss why we need to review, and how we can further rationalise, Sri Lanka’s current NAS to identify and address any shortcomings towards greater efficiency in service delivery to the people.
2. Overview of Sri Lanka’s National Administration System
Sri Lanka’s service delivery to even the smallest hamlet in the country has been made possible by our current national administrative system (NAS). For example, during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka was able to monitor and manage the country situation, including the vaccination programme, because of our long standing Primary Healthcare System. Under this system, Primary Healthcare Inspectors (PHIs), Nurses (PHNs) and Mid-wives (PHMs) are assigned to each Grama Niladhari Division (GND), Sri Lanka’s smallest administrative unit. PHIs and PHNs, have been monitoring households and communities under their purview in extremely difficult conditions and providing them with information and services to deal with the pandemic. In contrast, early in the pandemic in the USA, which has no such healthcare system, citizens in some areas had no information on where to get vaccinated.
The smallest administrative unit in the NAS is a GND. GNDs group into Divisional Secretariats (DSs). DSs combine into administrative districts (Districts), the largest administration units. We use the NAS to collect demographic and environmental information from the smallest units, GNDs. Thereafter, this information can be collated to the required level of aggregation, by DS, District or Province, for efficient resource allocation, policy-making and implementation.
The Grama Niladhari is the public officer responsible for administering each GND. Currently, Sri Lanka has 14,022 GNDs (Table 1). The 2012 Census of Population and Housing (Census 2012), recorded the average population and land area per GND as 1,457 persons and 4.7 km2, respectively. However, GND land areas and populations vary significantly across Districts. GND areas range from 516 km2 (Hambantota) to 0.04 km2 (Ampara, Batticaloa), while populations range from 28,003 persons (Colombo) to less than 100 persons (Batticaloa, Jaffna, Killinochchi, Mullaitivu, Polonnaruwa, Trincomalee).
The Divisional Secretary is responsible for administering each DS. Currently, Sri Lanka has 331 DSs. The average number of GNDs per DS is 42, while the average population and land area per DS are 61,704 persons and 198 km2, respectively. However, GND numbers, land areas and populations within a single DS vary among Districts, from 151 GNDs (Nuwara Eliya) to 5 GNDs (Moneragala), from 323,257 persons (Colombo) to 3,824 persons (Jaffna) and from 1,066 km2 (Moneragala) to 2.48 km2 (Ampara), respectively.
Also, the largest District, Anuradhapura, at 7,179 km2, is 10 times that of Colombo at 699 km2. Population density in highly urban Colombo with flat terrain and easy access, at 3,333 persons/km2, is more than 40 times that in remote, forested Moneragala at 80/km2 . Only Colombo and Gampaha, with populations of more than 2 million, have population densities of over 1, 500/km2. Population density in 18 other districts is much lower, at between 800/km2 and 100/km2. Population density in the remaining 5 Districts is under 100/km2.
3. Proposed Rationalisation
The population size and land area to be administered should be practically manageable for a single Grama Niladhari, Divisional Secretary or official responsible for a service to each GND. As importantly, an inhabitant of any GND/DS/service unit should be able to access their office or service delivery contact point within a time interval that could deal with an emergency.
For example, in urban areas with high population density (>1,500/km2) and easy access, a Grama Niladhari could administer many more households within a very small area, whereas in remote, flat, rural regions with low population density (<100/km2) and easy access, the Grama Niladhari could administer a much larger land area, to address floods, droughts, landslides, deforestation, poaching, etc.) with less households. In mountainous, forested, sparsely populated regions with difficult road access, manageable land area would be less for a GND, with a lower number of households.
As with GNDs, the population size, land area and number of GNDs in any DS should also fall within a range that is practically manageable for a Divisional Secretary to supervise the GNDs in that DS, as well as the geographical area that s/he is responsible for.
On an initiative of the former Delimitation Commission, following a detailed study of the present NAS, a consistent, practical methodology was developed, which addressed the population and land characteristics of each District separately, to determine whether the current numbers and sizes of GNDs within each District required boundary adjustments. Using this methodology, adjustments were made as required.
Using this methodology, Sri Lanka’s 25 Districts were grouped into 9 broad categories, based on population density, terrain, elevation and the current status of road access. This provided a basis for a suitable size range of a GND for each category, which varied from 0-1.5 km2 to 15-30 km2 (Table 2).
On this basis, the only districts with population density above 1,500/km2, highly urban Colombo and Gampaha, with flat terrain and easy road access, fit into one category (Table 2, Columns 1 and 2).
Another 7 districts (Galle, Jaffna, Kalutara, Kandy, Kegalle, Matara, and Nuwara Eliya) have population densities of between 400 and 800/km2, but their terrains vary significantly. Galle, Jaffna and Matara have relatively flat terrain and easy road access. Kalutara, Kandy, Kegalle and Nuwara Eliya with hilly or mountainous terrain have more difficult road access. Hence, the proposed methodology divides these 7 districts into 2 distinct categories (Table 2, Column 4).
Another 11 districts ( Ampara, Anuradhapura, Badulla, Batticaloa, Hambantota, Kurunegala, Matale, Polonnaruwa, Puttalam, Ratnapura and Trincomalee) have population densities of between 100 and 400/km2 and difficult road access. Their terrains vary significantly, from Batticaloa, Puttalam and Trincomalee, with flat terrain, to Kurunegala, with some rocky outcrops, to Ampara, Anuradhapura, Hambantota and Polonnaruwa, with some hilly areas, to mountainous Badulla, Matale and Ratnapura. Hence, the proposed methodology divides these 11 districts into 4 distinct categories (Table 2, Column 5).
The remaining 5 districts have heavy forest cover with difficult road access and population densities of less than 100/km2. Terrain ranges from hilly Moneragala to flat Killinochchi, Mannar, Mullativu and Vavuniya. Hence, the proposed methodology divides these 5 districts into 2 distinct categories, placing Moneragala in a separate category (Table 2, Column 6).
A comparison of the current number of GNDs with the upper and lower limits derived for the number of GNDs from the proposed methodology in each District, shows that the current number of GNDs is within the proposed range in 15 Districts. In the other 10 Districts, most of which now have good road access, the current number of GNDs is too high. The number of GNDs in those 10 districts could be rationalised and reduced. Furthermore, several GNDs exceed the proposed population and area ranges for their Districts. In particular, 838 GNDs in the 25 Districts exceed the proposed upper limits for population and 253 GNDs in 20 Districts exceed the proposed upper limits for area, while 15 GNDs in 8 Districts exceed both. These GNDs can be split and, where possible, the split parts combined with contiguous smaller GNDs, to create new GNDs that satisfy the proposed population and area criteria for each District. At the same time, in all 25 districts, there are many GNDs which fall below the proposed lower limits for area and population. Such contiguous GNDs can be combined to form larger GNDs that are within the proposed limits for those districts, thereby reducing the number of GNDs, if necessary.
Using the proposed methodology the current GND system can be rationalised for greater efficiency, where each GND will have a population and land area that is suitable for administration of, and service delivery to, its population density and terrain.
The former Delimitation Commission sent copies of the Report on this methodology to the President and relevant Ministry Secretary in 2020. It is hoped that this Report will be studied and the methodology implemented, to improve administration and service delivery across the country. Thereafter, further modifications and improvements can be made, as needed.
(From November 2015 to December 2020, the author was a member of the three-member Delimitation Commission, one of nine Independent Commissions appointed by the President under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. She was also on the Delimitation Committee for Provincial Councils Elections appointed by the President in October 2017, which completed its task within its four-month mandate. She retired as Assistant Governor from the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in 2007.)
Decolonising education and critical thinking
By Darshi Thoradeniya
I would like to throw out some ideas on the importance of critical thinking in higher education especially in relation to history teaching by expanding the profound thoughts on decolonising education, expressed by Harshana Rambukwella, earlier in this column.
Just as educational institutions served to colonise subjects in colonial settings, the decolonising project also started through education. In the discipline of history, for instance, we constantly attempt to decolonise knowledge that has been created about the past and create new knowledge about the past through critical inquiry. In other words, critical inquiry is the tool that is used to decolonise knowledge. Thus, these two elements – decolonising knowledge and critical thinking – need to be linked in our discussions of higher education in post-colonial settings like Sri Lanka.
As Louis Althusser (1918-1990) argued, educational institutions are ideological state apparatuses used to promote and reinforce the ideology of the dominant classes. Through the national curriculum, government and private schools, in Sri Lanka, carry out this task meticulously. However, universities do not have a national curriculum; instead they have a subject benchmark statement that needs to be conceded to. Humanities and social sciences curricula are designed to generate critical engagement with key concepts, theories, texts and events. Thus, the school curriculum is unlearnt and critical thinking learnt at the university.
Critical thinking can take different forms according to the field of inquiry, but being able to question existing taken for granted knowledge is a crucial aspect of critical thinking. It is when knowledge is problematised by asking questions, such as who produced the knowledge, for whom it was produced, and by analyzing what sources were drawn upon to create the knowledge, do we become aware of the colonial mindset that we have developed and nurtured over the years through the school curriculum.
This is best illustrated through the way we teach and learn history in schools and perhaps even in some universities. Within the school curriculum, history is taught with an overwhelming emphasis on Sinhala Buddhist culture as if it is a pure, untainted culture sustained over 2500 years. This ideology is put forward mainly through uncritical engagement with sources. Mahawamsa (the great chronicle) is a key primary source that has shaped the history of Sri Lanka. At school level, we are not taught to question the intentions of the author, the sources analysed nor the audience for which the Mahawamsa was written. Sinhalese Buddhist culture became the dominant ideology with the involvement of colonial administrators, such as Alexander Johnston – the Chief Justice of Ceylon from 1811 to 1819 – who played an influential role in the translation of the Mahawamsa to English in the early 1800s. By neglecting these questions, we overlook the fact that this island has been situated in the trade route between the West and the East since the 12th century, and the possibilities of other narratives of ethnicity that could emerge by virtue of its location. Such possibilities are unfortunately not explored in schools because of lacking critical engagement on the historiography of Sri Lanka.
History writing in the colonies was essentially a production of colonial masters, hence a production of colonial knowledge. These histories were written by European travellers, missionaries, officials and administrators of trading companies, such as the Dutch East India Company or the British East India Company. Renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar charts how 19th century utilitarian and nationalist ideas in Europe influenced the Scottish economist and political theorist James Mill making him interpret Indian civilisation as static, leading him to divide Indian history into three sections – Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period – in his work History of British India (1817). The static character of Indian society with its despotic rulers became accepted as “truth” in Indian history as British colonial administrators were mandated to read the text before taking up duties in colonial India. The idea of oriental despotism would also justify the introduction of the British legal and administrative system to India. This colonial historiography remained unchallenged until decolonisation of knowledge took place in mid-20th century India.
When looking at the historiography of Ceylon, we can see many parallels with Indian historiography. Colonial administrators, such as Emerson Tennant and Codrington wrote a somewhat linear, continuous history of Ceylon emphasizing a Sinhalese Buddhist narrative centered on the kingdoms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. By the 1970s, a group of Marxist historians started applying critical inquiry to the discipline of history and actively decolonising historical knowledge.
In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Frantz Fanon, the political philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, showed the importance of native language for the colonised to gain independence, decolonise knowledge and come out of their subordination. He believed that human imagination could only be truly expressed through native language and could never be accomplished through the language of the colonial master. Taking this language argument further, Palestinian American public intellectual Edward Said showed in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), how Eurocentric prejudices shaped peoples’ imagination of the Orient (i.e., the Middle East and Asia) as barbaric, backward and traditional, and how such understandings were ultimately bestowed the status of scientific knowledge.
Similar decolonising experiences and projects can be traced in Latin American and African settings. Latin American cultural anthropologist Walter Mignolo believes that formal educational institutions established by the colonisers must be dismantled in order to decolonise the mindset of the people. Otherwise, people’s imaginations are trapped within the knowledge that is produced by these institutions. If people are to freely imagine and experience epistemic knowledge, they should be free from formal boundaries.
The faculties of humanities and social sciences in state universities have a gigantic task in hand. How should we further the project of decolonisation? A first step might be to start teaching Sinhala, Tamil and English languages to all humanities and social sciences undergraduates to facilitate understanding the indigenous cultures in which a specific knowledge is produced. At present, history writing mainly takes place within bilingual settings, and very rarely in trilingual settings, because very few historians are trilingual in Sri Lanka. The inability to comprehend the third language (i.e., Sinhala or Tamil) limits the historian from understanding the mentality of the so called ‘other’.
If we do not know the ‘other’ colonial subject, how are we to write a history of Sri Lanka? Not knowing the other’s language means we can only produce knowledge about one particular segment of society. Historians conversant in Sinhala and English end up servicing the hegemonic discourse (i.e., Sinhala Buddhist ideology), while historians conversant in Tamil and English end up creating an alternative narrative that is very unlikely to reach main stream historiography. There lies a fundamental problem that we need to address in decolonising university education. One suggestion in this regard would be to initiate exchange programmes between departments of national universities so that undergraduates as well as staff will be able to engage with the decolonising project in a holistic manner.
(Darshi Thoradeniya is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of History at the University of Colombo.)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
Australian antics and Djokovic’s disgrace!
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
It was a drama like no other! It is rarely that one and all involved in a saga ends up being a loser and that is exactly what happened with the ‘Australian Open’ fiasco. Novak Djokovic, his family, Tennis Australia, The Government of Victoria, Federal Government of Australia, the Serbian President and even the media have exposed chinks in their armour! Perhaps, the only people delighted would be our politicians who could now claim, justifiably, that incompetence is a trait shared by their ilk in the developing world, too!
Many, especially youngsters, would look up to sports stars for inspiration. Though many sports are no longer what they used to be, having undergone an unholy metamorphosis to be businesses, still a greater degree of honesty is expected of sports stars than from politicians. After all, sportsmanship is a term often used to express fair and generous behaviour. Considering all this, perhaps, the bulk of the blame should go to Novak Djokovic, the number one male tennis player who could have created history, had he won the Australian Open by being the Male Tennis player with the most ‘Grand Slams’. Perhaps, in his overenthusiasm to achieve this, he attempted to find ways to compete without being vaccinated for Covid. But it failed, and the 11-day drama was finally over when he was deported on Sunday evening.
In a way, it is very unfortunate that Djokovic had to make that sacrifice for the sake of a strong-held belief of his. Though he has not been directly involved in any anti-vaccination campaigns, his refusal to have the Covid-19 vaccine had been made use of by anti-vaxxers on social media. At the very beginning of the epidemic, he got into trouble by organising a tournament in Serbia, where a number of players, including himself, got infected. Though there were rumours that he was not taking vaccines due to medical contraindications, it is very likely the actual reason is his going by the opinion expressed by some specialists that infection gives better immunity than vaccination.
Though Djokovic’s vaccination status had been shrouded in secrecy for a long time, what transpired during this fiasco confirmed that he was not vaccinated and that there were no medical contraindications for vaccination. Whatever your beliefs or however important you are, one is still bound by rules and regulations. Australia is among the countries that imposed the strictest controls during the pandemic. In fact, many Australian citizens were stuck in many countries unable to return home, some for over a year. Even now, only dual vaccinated are allowed entry. If Djokovic had wished to stick to his principles, he should have done the honourable thing by staying out of the tournament, which is what some other players did.
It is surprising that Djokovic was given a medical exemption to enter Australia by two different independent health panels––one commissioned by Tennis Australia, the other by the state government of Victoria––after testing positive for coronavirus in mid-December, given that the rules are otherwise. Perhaps, they were more concerned about the success of the Australian Open tournament and were willing to bend rules! It is even more surprising that the Federal Government did not question this as immigration is not a function devolved to state governments. The moment Djokovic announced on Twitter that he would be attending, there was a hostile public reaction which may be the reason why Djokovic was detained on arrival but what followed could easily have been avoided had the Immigration Minister taken pre-emptive action. Whether the state government and the federal government being run by two different parties had any bearing on these actions is a moot point.
Djokovic made a false declaration that he had not been to any other country recently in spite of clear evidence to the contrary but later blamed his team for making the error. Surely, he should know that the responsibility is his, once he signs any form! When he had the infection in mid-December, rather than isolating himself, which even anti-vaxxers would do, he attended a number of indoor public events. And his explanation; he did not want to inconvenience the French TV team there to interview him. Serbian President overlooked all this, to blame Australia!
The state judge reversed his visa cancellation citing procedural issues. A BBC report exaggerated this by stating that the judge had allowed him to play in the Australian Open! Although the Immigration Minister could have taken immediate action, he chose not to do so, taking a number of days to cancel the visa on ‘Health and good order grounds. To hear Djokovic’s appeal the federal high court sat on a Sunday, just like our courts being kept open to grant bail to MPs! The three judges unanimously rejected his appeal, the Chief Justice stating that the court ruling was based on the legality of the Minister’s decision, not on whether it was the right decision to make. Interestingly, BBC implied that Djokovic’s efforts would reach fruition!
Perhaps, the federal government was forced to act by the injudicious press conference held, after the success of the first appeal, by Djokovic’s family in Belgrade, wherein they attempted to portray him as a poster-boy for choice. It had a disastrous ending by the family terminating the press conference when journalists questioned why Djokovic had attended functions soon after testing positive! After the deportation, Djokovic’s father has called it an assassination, of all things, failing to realise that he was hampering the chances of reversal of the three-year entry ban to Australia, Djokovic was facing! Serbian political leaders hitting out hard, calling it scandalous treatment was not very diplomatic, and did not help Djokovic.
The lesson we can learn, except that politicians play politics wherever they are, is that federated states have their own problems, as illustrated by this sad, winnerless episode.
There were varying shades of reactions to this saga. Perhaps, the words of wisdom came from Rafael Nada, who said, “He made his own decisions, and everybody is free to take their own decisions, but then there are some consequences”
Historic task—a non-racist and human security ideology
By Jehan Perera
The media has reported that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be announcing a new policy on national reconciliation in his address to Parliament at this inaugural session following prorogation last month. Apart from bringing peace of mind and comfort to those bereaved by the three decades long war, the central issue of national reconciliation is to find an equitable solution to the ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued the country since the dawn of independence more than seven decades ago. The focus now needs to be on the development of the country and its economy rather than to support any parochial or ethnic cause and continue with the divisive politics of the past. It is only by this that the country can get back on its feet, and as many countries which had done so following traumatic events. President Rajapaksa was elected by a large majority with this hope in mind.
Indeed, it is unlikely that any other President could have faced the multiple crises the present government has got the country into and remained with its 2/3 majority intact, as it has done so far. The recent announcement of the SLFP, headed by former President Maithripala Sirisena, that it would remain within the government alliance, while criticising it from within, is an indicator of the government’s stability. This follows the similar declaration by the three leading cabinet ministers from the 11 party alliance of small parties within the government, who have filed cases in the courts against the government. They too have said they would remain within the government and continue to challenge its decisions that they deem to be incorrect.
There are two key reasons why the government has a measure of stability despite the deteriorating economic situation that is impacting severely on the wellbeing of the majority of people. The first is the pragmatic calculation of the government leadership that it is better to have its critics within the government than out of it. It seemed possible that the sacking of Minister Susil Premjayantha for being overly critical of the government would be the start of a purge of internal critics of the government that could cause an unravelling. But so far it is only Minister Premjayantha, who has had to pay the price for his independence. This has been explained by the fact that the former minister was a member of the ruling party itself, unlike the other critics who belong to other parties.
Due to the multiple perspectives within the government, and which represent the diversity of the government alliance, it has been able to reach out to the widest possible swathe of society. At the same time, it is able to woo diverse sections of the international community, including the three big international formations that hold the key to the country’s economic progress. These are China, India and the Western countries. China is continuing to provide economic resources on a large scale along with India. Both of these big powers seek to improve their position of influence on Sri Lanka and ensure a physical presence in the country which is being granted. Dealing with China has been the easiest, as it only seeks to gain more economic and physical assets within the country to ensure its permanent presence.
Dealing with India and the Western countries is more challenging as they require political concessions as well. In the case of India it is a political solution to the ethnic conflict which involved power-sharing with the minority Tamil community. In the case of the Western countries it is progress in terms of protecting human rights. With Sri Lanka being a country of interest to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, this means that its human rights record is scrutinised every three months. The forthcoming session in late February, which continues through March, will be especially important. The Sri Lankan government is expected to present a written report on its progress in terms of issues of accountability, truth seeking, reparations and institutional reform. The response of the majority of countries at the UNHRC can have a significant impact as it would influence the European Union’s pending decision on whether or not to suspend its GSP Plus tariff privilege which is a source of support to the Sri Lankan economy.
In this regard, it will be necessary for the government to rein in its champions of ethnic nationalism and national security that give emphasis to the perspective of the ethnic majority community alone. This is going to be the great challenge as the second strength of the government is its ideology of ethnic majority nationalism and national security which it invokes at frequent intervals, and especially when it faces challenges. These help to keep the ethnic majority’s loyalty to the government. But they alienate the minorities and also those sections of the international community who are concerned with human rights. The country remains deeply traumatised by three decades of internal war, in which acts of terrorism could strike anywhere, a separate Tamil state led by the LTTE was a short distance away and the centre itself was at risk of being taken over violently by the JVP. These crises led to extreme measures that have left indelible scars and memories on the people that are easy to reinvoke.
The botched attempt to explode a bomb in All Saints Church in Colombo and the botched police investigation into it have given the impression of a created event that has been questioned by the Catholic Church. The bomb discovery, in which the Catholic priests did more to uncover evidence than the police, served to divert attention from the 1,000, day commemoration by the church of the 2019 Easter bombings, which killed over 280 persons, set the stage for conflict between Catholics and Muslims and reinforced the need for national security, and racists, to take the centre stage of national politics. On that occasion, as on this, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, played a crucial role in preventing an escalation of the crisis and in calling for the truth behind the bombings to be known. Like the prophets in the biblical tradition, he is increasingly powerful in speaking truth to the rulers, even truths they do not wish to hear.
Events such as the Easter bombing, and now this latest incident, give the impression of security failure that is detrimental to the country’s internal communal harmony and to the international image of the country as a peaceful and secure one for both investment and tourism. Sri Lanka is yet to emerge from the thrall of nationalist politics, and its falsehoods and violence, where political leaders make deliberate and purposeful use of communal differences to win votes and come to power. They have succeeded time and again in this dastardly practice, but with it the country has failed to reach its full potential time and again. The costs have been unbearable, whether in terms of lives lost, properties destroyed and economic growth stymied. Sri Lanka has one of the largest standing armies in the world, with the number of its military personnel being five times larger than that of Australia, though the populations of both countries are about the same. This means economic resources being taken away from development purposes.
The historic task for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the government is to make a shift away from a mindset that emphasises the interests of the ethnic majority and national security being the preserve of the security forces to a new mindset that includes the ethnic minority and sees human security and wellbeing as the country’s need. The Sri Lankan state needs to consider all its people as citizens with equal rights, and not as ethnic majorities and ethnic minorities to be treated differently. And it needs to give priority to human security and wellbeing where gas cylinders do not explode and people have food and education at affordable prices. Both religious leaders and political leaders need to come up with an ideology of the wellbeing of all in which solutions that are beneficial to all are found, where basic needs of all are met, and there is no divide and rule, which is a recipe for long term failure.
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