The March of Folly Development without consultation

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By 2018-02-13

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

While I was reflecting on what had happened in the East, there was news again about what was supposed to have been the destruction of Wilpattu, with both Basil Rajapaksa and Rishad Bathiudeen being held responsible. I have no details of what actually has happened there, but the allegations are indicative of the angst caused by the manner in which those who are in charge of the area have behaved.

I had recalled while in the East, seeing the splendid roads and the many new buildings, the enormous contribution of the Rajapaksa Government to development after they rid the place of terrorism. And just as one should not forget the magnitude of the latter achievement, one should also register the great effort made to improve the lives of people.

In this latter enterprise, Basil Rajapaksa played a major role. Why then did he never win the affection of people who benefited from his work, and why was the Rajapaksa Government unpopular in the North and the East despite what it had achieved?

Enemies of that Government would say the reason is obvious, that it was a government of Sinhalese, and the people resented the domination of outsiders. There is some truth in this, and some programmes, such as the settlement of people from Hambantota in Vavuniya North (which he had nothing to do with, the Secretary of Resettlement told me firmly when I inquired) cannot be justified and naturally roused anger. But the bulk of the work was for general welfare, so we need to consider why there was so little appreciation of what was done.

The recent news item suggests an explanation, namely that Basil had an unfortunate tendency to work through the wrong people.

His chosen instruments for liaising with the people were Rishad and Douglas Devananda in the North, Hizbullah and Piyasena, the TNA MP of Sinhala origin who crossed over to the UPFA, in the East. And these four were not recognized as genuine representatives by the majority of people in the areas in which they held sway.

Rishad Bathiudeen of course had his own large constituency, but it was remarkable how many Muslims also disliked him, and raised questions at Divisional Reconciliation Meetings which I had initiated about the double compensation, his chosen few received while many others had still not been resettled. And as I noted previously, in discussing the effort to sabotage the European Union aid project for several districts in these provinces, the main reason for this was thought to be the opposition of Rishad and Hizbullah since the projects had been proposed by Secretaries, not by them.

Neither of them bothered about the conduit through which people could discuss their problems, as the Divisional Coordinating Committees. These rarely happened, they were postponed when the Minister failed to show up, and in Ampara, I was told by the District Secretary, Piyasena reversed decisions that were taken and insisted that funds were redeployed for his own pet projects.

I suggested the meetings should take place regularly, whether the Minister turned up or not. This, the Divisional Secretaries were unwilling to do, but they even baulked at my suggestion that they have regular consultative meetings, assuring the Minister that no decisions would be taken without referring them to him. That I thought would satisfy amour propre while at least moving things forward, but public servants were not willing to take the risk of upsetting their political masters.

We tried an another tactic through the Ministry of Public Administration, by formalizing consultation at Grama Niladhari level, but before we could entrench systems of reporting, and ensuring feedback, the election season had set in and the Secretary, Abeykoon, was unwilling to move. Sadly, despite the commitment in the President's manifesto to improve service delivery through Divisional Secretariats, which Abeykoon has not build, on the basis of what he had done, so the situation continues as bad as before.

I fear then that, unless government actually ensures that the voices of the people are heard, any government will be unpopular, I feel they were obliged to work with parliamentarians who will support them – with Rishad and Hizbullah being in the forefront for the present regime as for the past.

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