Centre for Policy Alternatives on 6 December, 2011

Speech by Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu at the local budget in Jaffna

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Good morning everyone.

I have to talk to you about local government as a progressive partner in development in Jaffna. As I said yesterday, at the inaugural session, the importance of local governance is that it is the level of government closest to the people. Therefore, you have a lot of potential to lay the foundation for democratic development for peace, for unity, for all of these things. You have a very special responsibility as being in the first level of government and one that is the closest to the people.

The second point that I made was that, problems of local governance are common throughout Sri Lanka. We have lived with a centralized political culture for most of the sixty -three years of independence. It is becoming more centralized now all over the country. However, whilst there are common problems, Jaffna has very special issues. Circumstances in Jaffna are different and we need to bear this in mind when we look at the questions arising from the potential of local government as a progressive partner in development.

The third point is that there is no provincial council system in Jaffna. You have central government and I think we all can agree, we have a lot of central government! More than what we need in Jaffna. You have local government but you do not have provincial government. And according to the Constitution of the country, local government, the third level of government, comes under second level of government. Now we do not know when there will be a provincial council? How it will happen and what its powers will be? This is subject to negotiations and a parliamentary select committee. All of it is up in the air. We do know, that when it comes to development in Jaffna, we have a presidential task force, there is a development project called “Uthuru Wasanthaya,” or the Northern Spring, which is designed and implemented by the center. A major criticism that has been made is that, the people did not have much opportunity to identify their needs and their priorities.  I have heard the criticism that the people affected by these projects are bystanders and an audience that watches the development project unfold, rather than participants and stakeholders.

There are developments in the field of local government which you should know about and which we should talk about. The government is coming up with the Local Government Reform Bill, which is going to change the system of elections to local government. The argument they make is that it is very important that we move from the proportional system to the old ward system with a single member representing a ward so that all the people in that ward will know who is supposed to be responsible for the services that are being provided. The system envisaged will not be based on the ward system alone but partly based on ward system and partly based on proportional system. The system is heavily weighted in favor of political parties. Independent groups will have to pay a lot more in deposits to be able to stand for election. It is a system that appears to meet the demands for greater democratization, but in actual fact it will entrench the power of political parties and their leadership.

The second development we might get is the proposal of the government to introduce a system of Jana Sabhas. Jana Sabhas or Peoples Councils, are going to be authorities which will report directly to the Ministry of Economic Development. They will deal with all development projects in the province, in the district. So, they will effectively have control over expenditure of funds. This is very important. As far as urban councils and municipal councils are concerned, the corresponding proposal is to group lots of municipal and urban councils together, in what they call metropolitan councils. This system is mooted for Colombo, Kotte, Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia. They will be grouped together under such an authority and all such authorities will be reporting to the Ministry of Economic Development.  Urban development, it should also be noted, is under the Ministry of Defense and Urban Development.

Now you may ask the question that when all these developments are happening, whereby centralization will be increased, whether there is any space at all for local government authorities to do anything? Is it worth it? Is it possible? Can it be done? And I want to suggest you that, it can be done. I want to suggest you that, as representatives of your political parties, as the representatives of your community, as the leaders who are closest to the people and that you must take the responsibility that you have been given by the people seriously to preserve, and strengthen and expand the space and powers, wherever possible, for you to conduct your own affairs. That is why I emphasize, the democratic potential and the responsibility you have, because you are the closest to the people. Your working circumstances and the space may not be at all favorable. There are a number of actors. But it is a great, serious responsibility that you have not to give up but protect the space that you have and expand it. But what I mean by strengthening is not just protest and complaint. It is importantly about making sure that whatever you are allowed to do and can do for the people in the community you do well, in terms of the transparency in your decision making. The scrupulousness with which you manage the finances, the openness to consultation and participation with the community, are tremendously important and integral to the bond of accountability that representative democracy is all about.

You must also provide leadership in terms of a vision of the kind of local community you want. Leaders are not there to follow, leaders are not there to be lazy, leaders are there to lead, and leading is about being able to consult to listen to other opinions and make important choices and pursue them. So even in the limited space that there is, I want to suggest to you, appeal to you that you preserve that space, to strengthen that space, and even to expand that space. You have to make sure that you function with transparency, with accountability, that you emphasize consultation and participation and all of you provide a vision of local government for the community. You must come up with constructive ideas about how to move forward.

In another context, there is a classic example of an initiative, which has strengthened democratic governance, despite the centralizing tendencies of the central government. of the country. I want to give you the example of the Right to Information in India. The right to information in India has now the status of national legislation, where citizens of India can make requests for information from the central government and government agencies pertaining to anything that affects their lives. The Indian government, like any other government was not particularly fond of local autonomy and of giving a great degree of space and freedom for local government authorities to do a whole variety of things. They were also very suspicious, given the structure of governance, that the state governments would have much closer and stronger relationships with the grass roots.  Therefore the Rajiv Gandhi government came up with a Panchayat –raj – creating units at the grass root level in an attempt to strengthen the relations between the central government and the grassroots bypassing the state governments.

The intentions and hopes of the central government notwithstansding, the demand, the push, the pressure, for information about development projects about what has been decided, how much is allocated, how much is spent in a three month period, in a six month period, who were the laborers paid and how much, came from the grass roots. There were number of instances where labors and people protested saying, “you are cheating us, this is our money, this is how the money should be spent, we are going to monitor because this is our money.” They pushed and pushed and finally state governments had to come up with right to information legislation and then ultimately the central government. Now this is an example of pressure from the local level for greater democratization.  When you consider yourself, as a strategic partner, a progressive partner, in development, I urge you bear this in mind. Ensure that development takes place, in a democratic frame work, within a rights frame work.

We all know that development involves rights and is not just a technical question. Where you build, how far from which community you build, who you consult? Do you go and talk to the men or female? These are questions, about power, about resources, how to allocate them? To whom do you allocate them? Where do you locate them? Governance is indispensable for development. If you do not have development within a rights framework, then that development is going to be seen with suspicion and distrust. The people will have an ambivalent attitude towards it. It will be something done to them, rather than something done by them. Development must first and foremost be about people and people have rights.

The Nobel prize winner professor Amartya Sen has written book after book challenging and arguing that development and democracy must go together. One strengthens the other. One strengthens the other to make sure that it is sustainable, that is durable, that it provides benefits to many people. So my appeal to you is when you look at development, look at in terms of democratic framework in terms of people.

When I say that I believe that local government is at the very forefront of increasing, protecting, strengthening a democratic space, that it is the primary assignment in building the blocks for democracy, peace and unity and prosperity. You are there at the grass roots, people have elected you, you have a responsibility to provide them your service and also to give them a vision. There are number of problems. The space is small. But do not lose that space. And act with transparency and accountability as we have talked about, the chances are that you will not lose the space. In a sense on you is the responsibility, for building a new Jaffna. Building a new Jaffna from the bottom up on the basis of what is good for the future.

Now I can go on and on and on, but it is important for me to know what you think, so I want to ask the general question, do people agree with what I have said? Do they disagree with it? Do they have alternative ideas? At the end of the day, this dialogue emphasizes conversation, so we need to have your ideas. That is what I would like to know.