22 September, 2019

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Civil Society Must Take Over Local Governments

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

So far in human history, the State controlled the society. The task is for the society to control the State.’ – Karl Marx

As an exemplary gesture in 2006, a former Senior Additional Solicitor General, Srinath Perera, contested a local government council (Boralesgamuwa Urban Council) believing that ‘the lack of committed, decent and capable people coming forward’ was one of the factors for the deterioration of the local government system. Giving an interview on his extraordinary decision to the ‘Sunday Island’ (26 March 2006) he said:

“I believe that the overall system [i.e. free education] has allowed me to achieve what I have achieved and I felt a need to give back something in return before I die. I am also aware that there are very few educated people who are willing to enter the fray and for very good reasons too. On the other hand a lot can be done if committed, decent and capable people come forward, especially in local authorities.”

His example was an isolated incident which was not emulated or continued thereafter. Instead we have seen rapists, killers, thugs and extortionists getting hold of the power in many local councils with the support of major political parties or party leaders in order to keep their power bases at local and grassroots levels intact. This is a vicious link that needs to be broken.

Importance

The importance of the local government system doesn’t need to be overemphasized. It is self- evident. The importance is not only for the democratic pyramid, with 336 local councils at the bottom, but also for economic development and social welfare. The system has ancient inspirational roots in the ‘Gam-Sabha’ system, modernized and/or substituted during the British period. It is less recognized that the people in the country first learnt about the value of the franchise or the representative democracy through the local government system, however limited, well before the universal franchise was introduced for the State Council in 1931.

JVP UNPLocal governments are the public/state institutions closest to the people and their day to day as well as development needs from garbage collection to building approvals through health, sanitation, local roads and environmental protection. When the local government system was reformed in 1987, ‘community development’ was introduced as a major function also allowing the local councils to get involved in ‘enterprises’ in partnership with the private sector (PPP).

The tasks of the local government institutions have evolved from purely supplying ‘utility services’ to at least promoting ‘social-development,’ although these have not been undertaken in the past, during the dark-days. It is a mindboggling question whether many of our local councillors, former and hoping to contest again have any notion of these important tasks! The country’s civil war undoubtedly was a disruptive factor and also an easy excuse. The local government areas also can be considered as economic units or ‘developmental zones.’ When properly coordinated with the provincial councils and the central government agencies i.e. the Divisional Secretariats, these councils or institutions can potentially deliver a yeoman service for economic and social development.

The creation of ‘One Stop’ shops or offices to supply all the services of the local government, provincial councils and the central government in one vicinity could be the most beneficial for the people. This is about the future and not necessarily the present.

Urgent Need

The pressing need however at present is the holding of the much delayed elections for the local government councils, eliminating the mess created by the last government, and also the present one, in the electoral system. As the new constitution making hopefully is going to look at the electoral system afresh, it is best to conduct the local council elections under the old PR system, unfortunately with its integral defects. If the government is wise, it can avoid some of the glaring defects quickly or allow the Elections Commission and the Police to enforce the election laws strictly.

The Minister’s claim that there is ‘no old system left’ is only rhetoric and not correct. What is absent is a ‘new system.’ The available ‘bits and pieces’ in the form of the 2012 Amendment, the 2015 Delimitation Report and even the 2016 Amendment are highly defective and contradictory.

The representative government is not about the numbers or the quantity, but about the quality. What the haphazard reforms have done is to inflate the numbers without much sense. The 2012 delimitation committee has carved out 4,833 wards to elect 5,092 members while the previous number was 4,486. When the 30 percent PR component is added it will be 6,619; and with the 25 percent women representation, the total will be 8,274. This is an increase of the number of councillors by 3,788; equivalent to 85 percent increase. While there is no direct need to increase the number of representatives according to the population growth, this increase is more than the double of the population growth (40%) since 1987 when the PR system was introduced.
There are many other legal ambiguities preventing the elections other than the mess in the half-baked electoral system. The Election Commission has requested the government to rectify them, but unfortunately without any progress. This is another reason why the elections should be held under the ‘old’ PR system. By enacting a brief amendment to the Local Authorities Elections Ordinance to revoke the past amendments since 2012, this could simply be done. In addition, if a clear limit to election expenditure and a strict prohibition of election violence could be imposed, these can be implemented by the Elections Commission and the Police.

Over Politicization

One of the major problems of the local government system is over politicization. This is also linked to corruption, mismanagement, abuse and inefficiency. Whatever the local councillors do are usually defended by the party hierarchies at the top. This is normally the case when the councillors are aligned with the ruling party. Others may lie low until they get the opportunity, or otherwise they usually crossover.

There is another aspect to over politicization. That is the councillors’ unwarranted interference in local government administration. The tasks of the councillors are to represent people, debate policy, approve budgets, oversee administration, question when the administrators’ make mistakes or slack in duty, and make proposals for new initiatives. Their task is not to interfere in administration.

There is a pressing need in improving quality and the management aspects of local government. This can best be done by adopting and efficiently implementing ‘management or business excellence frameworks.’ These are not unknown to Sri Lanka, particularly in the private sector, whether it be Malcolm Baldridge (American), European Model (EFQM) or the Australian Framework (ABEF). Sri Lanka possibly can develop its own framework/s. All these to happen, there should be a breakthrough at the next elections.

There is no much point in having big party competitions in local councils or for council elections. Much worse is when competitions are conducted purely on national issues. The functions of the local government councils are well defined and limited as explained before. If there is any connection between the national issues and the local ones, that is about the connection between macro policies and micro application. The local elections or competitions should be primarily on local issues, policies and development plans, of course within a national (as well as a global) perspective.

The local elections should not be considered a mere barometer of popularity of national parties i.e. the ruling party verses the opposition. It might not be possible to change this mind-set overnight, but there should be efforts to do so. If the major parties care for democracy in the country, they should allow the local or district party organizations to function properly without controlling them from Colombo or Jaffna. This is relevant not only for the UNP and the SLFP, but also for the parties like the TNA. The need for devolution or decentralization is not only for the state structures, but also for party organizations.

Why Civil Society?

The people however cannot wait until the corrupt political parties or politicians get reorganized. It might never happen. That is why the civil society should take over.

It was Karl Marx who once said ‘so far in human history, the State controlled the society. The task is for the society to control the State.’ This is about democratic transformation and this could begin from the bottom up, through the local government system. Society in general means a larger entity. The most conscious or the organized section is called the civil society. That is why we talk about the role of the ‘civil society’ than the society in general in meeting this task in practical terms.

In the present day politics and the representative democracy, there is a contradiction between the state and the civil society. This has been emphasized equally by the socialist as well as the liberal thinkers. This contradiction is also evident between the ‘political society’ and the civil society. By ‘political society’ here we mean mainly the status quo or conventional political parties.

This contradiction is usually enhanced after an election. Once they get elected, it is the natural tendency of the leaders or the so-called people’s representatives to get alienated or distanced themselves from the people and people’s aspirations. The reasons are due to their newly acquired closeness to ‘power and money.’ This is apart from wilful treachery to acquire both. This has become abundantly clear after the two democratic elections (did we say ‘revolutions’?) last year.

The resolution or mediation of this contradiction should come from the civil society. This is part of the democratic cause. Awareness, vigilance, exposure, pressure and defiance are some of the ways. There are some advantages in doing so in modern times due to advances in information technology, free media and the growing awareness and resolve against injustices, corruption and power abuse. The surest way however is direct intervention. The direct intervention by the civil society.

Conclusion

What I am concluding simply is for the organized civil society or the civil society organizations to take over the local governments. My appeal is for the civil society organizations – of women, youth, professionals, academics, media, artists, trade unions, small businesses, NGOs, citizens and seniors – to contest the local government elections in coordination, with commitment and discipline, and to defeat the UNP and the SLFP. If the SLFP (UPFA), the UNP and the TNA are committed to democracy and good governance, they should allow the civil society organizations to take over LG’s at least in certain areas on an experimental basis.

It should also be emphasised that if the civil society organizations fail to coordinate themselves, eschew any conflicts, become committed and disciplined, and most importantly fail to select the correct candidates, the result might be worse than the existing political parties.

Happy Sinhala-Tamil New Year!

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  • 3
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    Dr. Laksiri Fernando

    “His example was an isolated incident which was not emulated or continued thereafter. Instead we have seen rapists, killers, thugs and extortionists getting hold of the power in many local councils with the support of major political parties or party leaders in order to keep their power bases at local and grassroots levels intact. This is a vicious link that needs to be broken.”

    And the people kept electing them. Why? Lack of information? Thinking?

    “So far in human history, the State controlled the society. The task is for the society to control the State.’ – Karl Marx”

    Why? Lack of information? Thinking?

    Dr. Laksiri Fernando, Amrasiri has been on your case for you to write the Sri Lankan Common Sense Pamphlet, in English, Sinhala and Tamil, to take a crack at this problem.

    So far Nothing. Make it like the Little Red Book of Mao.

    Common Sense (pamphlet)

    Common Sense is a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1775–76 advocating independence from Great Britain to people in the Thirteen Colonies. Written in clear and persuasive prose, Paine marshaled moral and political arguments to encourage common people in the Colonies to fight for egalitarian government. It was published anonymously on January 10, 1776, at the beginning of the American Revolution, and became an immediate sensation.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Sense_(pamphlet)

    The Little Red Book

    The Little Red Book, more properly known as ‘The Quotations of Mao Zedong’, is the world’s second most published book. It’s estimated that around 900million copies have been printed. Only the Bible has been printed more, and it had a head start of almost 2000 years.

    The Little Red book is a collection of 427 quotations from Mao Zedong. The quotations are divided into the 33 sections of life to which they apply with sections on discipline, patriotism, and the role of women.

    http://www.beijingmadeeasy.com/beijing-history/the-little-red-book

    • 1
      1

      Dear Dr. Fernando,

      “What I am concluding simply is for the organized civil society or the civil society organizations to take over the local governments. My appeal is for the civil society organizations – of women, youth, professionals, academics, media, artists, trade unions, small businesses, NGOs, citizens and seniors – to contest the local government elections in coordination, with commitment and discipline, and to defeat the UNP and the SLFP. If the SLFP (UPFA), the UNP and the TNA are committed to democracy and good governance, they should allow the civil society organizations to take over LG’s at least in certain areas on an experimental basis.

      It should also be emphasised that if the civil society organizations fail to coordinate themselves, eschew any conflicts, become committed and disciplined, and most importantly fail to select the correct candidates, the result might be worse than the existing political parties.”

      one can agree with you here to some extent..

      but I really dont think that VARIED civil society canbring a common view even if they woudl take over the responsiblities.

      Having listend to young parliament a programe telecasted by Derana lately, I myself felt, even if some portions of thoughts can be common with the varied civil s groups, they hardly converge when getting views passed by the time they need to get passed. Some journos are radical while others stay opposed and stuck to their views only. Lanken civil society groups are no knowledgble enough to come to consensus. They can only stay arguging.

    • 4
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      Many, many thanks, Amarasiri, for your perceptive and trenchant comments both here and about sepulchres!

      I’m wondering how to get our other regulars to come in. IH has emailed me that he fears that he will only damage my cause; bu then he could use another handle. Dr Rajasingham Narendran had also said that he doesn’t know the set up by the sea.

      Properly speaking Local Government should include democracy in other, supposedly hallowed, institutions as well!

      Anyway, so happy you’ve come in there.

  • 2
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    What does this Srinath perera mean when he states Decent and Capable people need to come forward especially in local authorities.”????????

    WE ARE YAHAPALANAYA…. So we don’t need to hold any elections and WE HAVE MADE LOT OF FRIENDS. That is how the story goes Prof. Lak., and Mustapha’s playing games with pen & paper.

    There is nothing called over politicization…. We Sri lankans from the Kopi Kade man right up to the Professors like you, Educated & Intellectuals are and have been made POLITICAL ANIMALS by this so called Democracy.

    Will a common sense phamlet surfice or will they agitate against it?
    What we need to know is what is required & how it will be delievered.
    Better we prepare what is required and stick to it.
    Most of the time people like Srinath Perera will not be able to deliver.Therefore, you need to have the kind of people whom you have discriminated or criticised in your article.
    They are capable of coming around & deliver. It is up to who manages & how they are managed for the betterment of the country.

  • 3
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    Sri lanka won’t be anything until people become politically active not just vocal.

    Politicians continue to play the same game.

    • 0
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      jim softy the dimwit

      “Sri lanka won’t be anything until people become politically active not just vocal.”

      Sri Lanka will continue to be what it is now, if not worse as long as people like you sit on their bum mourn, moan and groan.

  • 0
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    Laksiri Fernando

    Let democracy prevails.

    First make it clear that law is not biased towards political parties by leaving the proportional representation out of the Local authority elections process and restore the respect the independants deserve and free the independants from the requirement to contest as a group.

    This requirement in the present acts discourages real independants and force them to come under political parties.

    Once the law is changed, the new scenario will in turn encourage local intelligentsia to take an active interest in the affairs of their local bodies.

    Let each local authority discover their own unique groups and let there be more than one group and develop novel local democracy.

    Why should anyone encourage an organized civil society or the civil society organizations.

    The civil societies are not confined to a particular local authority area and the danger is that the civil societies may transform themselves as political parties or behave like political parties.

    Let democracy prevails at least at the the grassroot level!

  • 0
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    It is a good essay and it is good to see several constructive responses.

    There are many areas in which the Centre can release its hold on administration and authority.
    I think that in Britain the local councils still have much control over state schools, policing, roads and construction. The local population exercises its say on such matters. The Centre steps in matters of wider interest or where the local authority lacks resources.
    It is easy for people to have a say in small units, and devolution of power to this level is of more direct benefit to the pubic than at district and provincial levels.
    An essential requirement is that people should be socially alert.

    I trust that there will be ideas that are more useful and practical forthcoming.

  • 0
    2

    Perera like Silva ( ex-C.J.) is Dr Jekyle & Mr Hyde

  • 0
    2

    Hand over administration to INGOs and local lackeys in keeping with the change to yahapalanaya!

  • 0
    1

    Pardon my ignorance (or memory loss) but may I please have the precise source of that Marx quote, which is unfamiliar to me?

    • 1
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      Can any one teach this Dr Zero some Buddhism? Not sinhalease Buddhism.

      “Thirukkural written by the poet and sage Thiruvalluvar around the 2nd century AD is a literary work greatly treasured by the Tamils. With the largest number of translations including in English, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Spanish, Latin, Italian, Sinhalese, Arabic, Dutch, Burmese and next in number to Marxist literature and the Bible, it has become a valued possession of humanity. Mahatma Gandhi said “I wanted to learn Tamil, only to enable me to study Valluvar’s Thirukkural through his mother tongue itself”.”

      https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/thirukkural-and-sri-lankas-governance/

    • 0
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      I did a quick check and there is only one source: CT.
      The essay could have fared just as well without this “quotaion”.

    • 0
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      Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka,

      “Pardon my ignorance (or memory loss) but may I please have the precise source of that Marx quote, which is unfamiliar to me? “

      “Mane Ata Mantal”

  • 2
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    “I believe that the overall system [i.e. free education] has allowed me to achieve what I have achieved and I felt a need to give back something in return before I die. I am also aware that there are very few educated people who are willing to enter the fray and for very good reasons too. On the other hand a lot can be done if committed, decent and capable people come forward, especially in local authorities.”

    Dr. LF, SP is correct. Among those who received free education there remains cracks who spin foolish theories. Local governments has to be managed by stricter laws and controls. What is wrong is with the rotten politicians who are reining with unnecessary powers. What we need is arbitrary powers trimmed and the EC filtering out all the dirty elements before election. Elect only those with good track record and honesty. Better if they serve only for two terms. Cut down all monumental privileges. Such simple steps will deter those who want to make a living as a Councillor or politician.

  • 1
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    “Pardon my ignorance (or memory loss) but may I please have the precise source of that Marx quote, which is unfamiliar to me? “

    Please nobody give him the source where this came from for it would only make his mind more fucked-up. Have mercy on him!

  • 2
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    While greatly appreciating Mr Laksiri’s efforts to propose a solution to the issue let me think otherwise.

    Civil society is disorganized and they have their own duties and responsibilities to get fully engaged. If they are to take to politics it would have to be on part time basis which would make their contribution incomplete. And may be ultimately they would form their own political pocket parties. I think it would be worth trying to ensure that a code of conduct and a set of political ethics be formulated and inculcated within party politics. There must be an academy and a suitable curriculum for producing politicians for the country. Mr Laksiri could give examples from other countries. This scientific production of politicians must be augmented by establishing organized bodies, institutions and think tanks that are tasked with advising such politicians and implanting those projects/proposals. Politician’s job should be strictly limited only to the task he is expected to perform in governance. He must not engage in engineering, technical or other professional matters. For example if the people of a village want to get their road carpeted the politician can first visit the village, discuss with them their requirement and all related matters and then submit a proposal to the relevant professional body of people to prepare a feasibility study. Then depending on the initial inspection by them they would invoke all the relevant players like environmental, geological, engineering, cultural and social experts to prepare the project report which would be discussed again by the politician/people, make/discuss alterations or amendments and then reach final approval after which tender procedures etc. would follow. The key point is our country needs to raise its professionalism in every aspect of its diverse disciplines including politics. In a field of disciplined professionalism the shortcomings of today’s do-everything-by-politician system would be absent.

  • 0
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    Continuing on my previous comment I must add the second sentence to this sentence :

    “And may be ultimately they would form their own political pocket parties.”

    And those pocket parties would be swallowed by major parties or the party in power and everything would be the same as today-like the dead left hanging on to satakaya etc.

    Sometimes instead of trying to build a whole new system based on a new concept it would be more practical to change the existing system according to the perceived new concepts especially in politics. However much we dislike, find faults or reject the party politics system is there to stay as the foundation of modern day democracy. If JVP wants to introduce Socialism what they aim must be not to overthrow the existing system but bring in constant pressure and demand on the existing system to assimilate the positive components of Socialism that are really justifiable over those components of capitalism. But the pressures and demands brought in by JVP at present aim at only destabilizing the existing system to justify their ideologies. Therefore the need for a change within the system must come from genuine aspirations for social economic etc. wellbeing and not as an ideology to fulfil some personal or particular party vision. And that requires a sense of responsibility and care for the society from each one of the citizenry.

    Mr. Laksiri’s idea could well work at village level in those Gamsaba like setup because people can intelligently identify their real problems and then also propose optimum solutions to the relevant Local Government bodies which would make the task easy for LG body. Because Gamsaba is the real grass root level body that really lives among real people and real problems it is the true multi-cameral antenna of any unicameral or bicameral form of governance. Its multifaceted sensors, ears, ears and brains could comprise, as Mr Laksiri says, various disciplined professionals, farmers, consumers, users, social figures, religious entities etc. and when such a diverse and organized body gets together and reaches educated conclusions and demands it could really impact, communicate and co-exist with the top of the pyramid, it could even bring down the top and build anew. Besides this aligns and synchronizes itself with the modus operandi of the RW’s form of government, grama rajya, the top has drawn the sketch and people have just to fill in the spaces.

    I don’t agree with LG bodies requiring or given more and more powers and scopes to engage in because our country has only limited number of really capacitated professionals, engineers, politicians, administrators, officers, resource persons etc. whom are expected to carry out all the tasks requiring to run the government. Not only in the local bodies but also in the very parliament at the top how many worthless riff raffs are there who are gobbling up tax payers’ money without giving out any service to the country? A cursory glance at out LG bodies may reveal the real capacity and talent deprived poor condition in their members, staff, methods, attitudes and actions. It is a huge bureaucracy that adds up to the burden of people in the name of decentralization. Therefore decentralization must take place cautiously, efficiently and logically without creating an “eddy current”, a form of energy that resists the energy that created itself. As we must strive to create a secular constitution and governance so we must strive to divorce politicians from doing directly or indirectly businesses, contracts, liquor shops, tender biddings and all sorts of things present day politicians are doing to heap enormous amounts of illegal money and wealth as a privilege of doing politics.

  • 0
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    In other words, the Karl Marx quote seems fictitious…:)))

    • 0
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      when would you Mr Jayathilaka (I deliberately omit your prefix) finally sense – all the theories be it from KM or the other has evidently changed with the time ? Theory is not practic when it goes with the human beings – provable facts- Why you are so pasted to KM ? Does your behavoiurs (I mean recent ones) in lanken polical arenas any near to those theories ? As it is common to many of the journalists in lanken spot light, you too do your job for an agenda given by your god father – most abusive mafia king of the region.

  • 0
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    Good luck with all this Diaspora and Colombo civil society tosh on Constitutions: let’s see how it gets past a referendum.

    • 0
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      Guys born in test tubes like you would see it always biased.

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