By Jehan Perera –
Those who travel from Colombo to the north, be they nationals of Sri Lanka or foreigners, are likely to be impressed by the developments that they see when they travel by road. The view on the A9 Highway, once called the Highway of Death due to the scores of lives lost in fighting to control it, is a constantly improving one. The journey now takes around ten hours, down considerably from what it used to be. The well constructed roads make travel most comfortable and the main source of concern would be traffic police waiting in the shadows to catch speeding drivers. The roadside restaurants are numerous and more and more of them offer clean restrooms that were rare in the past. At journey’s end there are a range of hotels to choose from, some even equipped with swimming pools. These developments that are visible and earn the praise of nationals and foreigners alike are a result of the macro-economic policies of the government.
The government has utilized the international assistance that has come to the country to focus on infrastructure projects, such as roads, government offices, schools and hospitals. These are visible signs of development. The security forces that were once so visible on the roads have now been mostly withdrawn and this too is pleasing to the traveler who resents being stopped at security checkpoints. However, there is one major checkpoint at Omathai, which was the dividing line between government-controlled and LTTE-controlled territory along the A9 Highway to Jaffna. This checkpoint still operates and bus travellers have to disembark with their bags and make the crossing. Foreigners are questioned as to why they are travelling to the north, why they visited Sri Lanka, what are they doing as employment and other such intrusive questions that make them uneasy. But for Sri Lankans there are little or no questions that are asked.
The checkpoint at Omanthai is a reminder of the war and what it meant in the daily life of the people who lived in the north. But it is the exception. While in Vanni region of the north last week, I was told that the army had mostly withdrawn from the daily life of the people. They no longer go from house to house to check up on what the people are doing. The direct dealings of the people are now with the police rather than with the army. There has been a regulation that people in the north need to inform the nearest military camp about any big activity they may be doing that involves a number of participants. People believe that they continue to need to keep the local army commander aware of any big social event they may be having. But now they feel more confident that informing the local civil authority will be sufficient and that they will be the go-between with the army.
There are also other positive signs of a restoration of normalcy in the north that has served to improve the life of the people. Most of the army-run shops, such as small tea shops, have closed down. There was much criticism that they were depriving the people of the north of a source of livelihood. In addition, local labour is being employed in infrastructure projects instead of labour being brought from outside of the north. Women are now seen working on road development projects. This brings their families added income. These improvements in the life of the people need to be welcomed. But there is also more that the government can do to show that it cares for the people and wishes to minimize their problems.
The macro-economic decisions that the government makes in terms of developments in the north are not made with the participation of the people or their representatives. This is a major problem and cause for resentment. There is often no consultation with the people. Where there is consultation, the decisions made can benefit the people even more, and be more fully accepted by the people. An example would be the Presidential Task Force for Northern Development. This governmental regulatory body is located in Colombo and is virtually all Sinhalese in its ethnic composition, even though most of the people in the north are Tamil. Several of its members are retired military officers.
Those who seek to do developmental work in the north point out that they have to travel all the way to Colombo, sometimes on several occasions, to get the necessary approval for work to be done in the north. Sometimes those they deal with in the Presidential Task Force are ignorant of the ground situation in the specific locality in which the work is going to be done. Sometimes when the reality of the situation is explained to them, they are prepared to change their minds. But it takes a lot of meetings with them, and lot of travel to Colombo, to make this happen. The irony of these situations is that the government is not providing the money for the work to be done. This money comes from international donors for the rehabilitation of the people of the north. But decision makers in Colombo decide what should be done without reference to the wishes of the people of the area.
Instead of centralizing economic decision making in Colombo, the government needs to consider decentralizing it to the north, and to people who live in the north. When the government uses its centralized power to prioritise roads, government offices, schools and hospitals it does not consult the people of the north about what their priorities might be. They might be similar or vary a little. On the other hand, they may be very different. When this is so, lack of consultation creates resentments. Even when the government is doing what has to be done, such as in focusing on big infrastructure developments, it can lead to a perception that the government is doing what it wants and not what the people want. It was the perception and reality of discrimination against the Tamil people, and unilateral decision making by successive governments, that led to separatist thinking.
There is no doubt that the building of big infrastructure in the north will indirectly benefit the people of the north especially in the future. However, the likelihood of people feeling that a government cares for them is greater if it deals with them at the micro level also, and does something personally for them that directly benefits them. This is so especially where it concerns people who live in war-ravaged areas and who have lost all their possessions in the years of war, not to mention many of their loved ones. While in the north I was able to speak to a group of 16 young women who came from one village and were undergoing a computer training course. It was sad on two counts. One is that they did not have a working computer with them, and the teacher was teaching them on a white board. It was also sad because seven of the 16 had lost an immediate family member in the war. It was also sad, and significant, that not one of them had heard about the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the government and of its recommendations that would contribute to their uplift and betterment if and when implemented.
It is not reasonable to expect the central government in Colombo that deal with macro-economic issues to get into personalized assistance to individual families and victims of war. This is a task better undertaken by local government authorities which are meant to deal directly and personally with people living in their communities. In Sri Lanka, examples of these local government authorities are the municipal and urban councils and pradeshiya sabhas. They are elected by the people and enjoy a measure of devolved powers. It is important that the central government in Colombo should transfer more economic resources and decision making power to them which would empower them to reach out effectively to the people. Even if the central government does not get the credit for what the local government authorities do, the governmental system as a whole will gain in credibility. The mistrust of devolving and decentralizing power to the north due to the separatist thinking of the past must not become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the future through the continued failure to devolve that power.