4 December, 2023


Dispelling Perceptions Of uncaring Government In The North

By Jehan Perera –

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  The security forces that were once so visible on the roads have now been mostly withdrawn and this too is pleasing to the traveler who resents being stopped at security checkpoints.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  While in Vanni region of the north last week, I was told that the army had mostly withdrawn from the daily life of the people.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.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Jehan sounds like a broken down record player that keeps repeating itself! He obviously knows nothing about economics since he thinks that the development is about showing off infrastructures which is of course necessary but NOT SUFFICIENT. Far more important is investment in human development and people-centered development. Jehan who loves international donors like IMF and WB who have contributed to the massive DEBT that Lanka has due to Rajapakse’s white elephant infrastructure projects and ‘military business’ model of development, thinks that the Rajapakse’s economic development program is great except for failure to share power. He is in for a rude shock as the economy crashes, the rupee depreciates and the country goes bankrupt due to Basil’s lack of an basic degree never mind macro-economci policy!

  • 0

    The economic spin goes on and on, round and round, a veritable merry-go-round as Cabraal at the Central Bank prepares to borrow 1 billion at very high interest rates on a bond issue, to pay back the 500 million bond that is maturing in October, with Banks who are generating a lot of spin to cover up the fact that they will make lots of cash on the new 1 billion dollar debt/bond transaction of the GoSL.
    Meanwhile Sri Lankans are further impoverished and pushed into a bigger debt trap by the Rajapakse-Cabraal economic spin lottery game, with the support of the IMF, World Bank and Asian Development Bank who are also spinning rather than calling for good governance, waiting in the shadows to “come to the rescue” and force more bad medicine /austerity on suffering citizens rather than calling now for good governance, less corruption and closing down of Mihin Air and cut back in spending on wasteful tamashas and white elephant infrastructure and the military by the Rajapakse regime..! Remember that the IMF cure is worse than the desease, bails out corrupt elites at the expense of tax payers and ensure more trickle up with the rich, richer and poor, poorer. Read the openEconomy website and Joseph Stiglitz on the uselessness of the Breton Woods twins and the Moodys ratings.. The rupee will hit 150 sooner or later once the money has come and gone slipping through Cabraals and Rajapakse’s fingers – the good thing is that the economic crisis that would be triggered will see the regime booted out, no doubt!

  • 0

    USA has taken US $ 1.3 trillions dolllars from China.s EU has taken more than trillions of EUROS from IMF and some amount from China.
    There is nothing worng Sri lankan has request loans from IMF>
    The developement of economy and other facilities we need foreing assiatans and loans.Without modernization of economy and inferstructure we cannot build NEW SRI LANKA.
    We are in road to capitalism path.We cannot live 19th century.Yes even poor people have right to enjoy new roads, highways lauxries buses, hotel accomodations, good meals,comfatable train services,highlevel shopping malles, supermakers, New Airports, New Harbours, new cars and other services also entital for every citizas of island.
    All these buildings, Airports, Harbous, New roads ,Rajapakaes and Family cannot take back after defeated by people vote in future.
    Let peoole to decided what good for them?
    Not few who are center cannot decided every good or bad for the people of island.
    Dr Jehan Perera put forward of his frank opinion of progress of developement past few years. He is right thinking person.

    • 0

      Hey the elephants in Yala are queuing up to fly in and out of the great Hmbanatota Mahinda Rajapakse international airport on the jumbo jets landing there since there will be no passengers! Hambantota being a small and rather impoverished area of farmers and fisher folk.

      The grandiose airport building plans of Rajapakse in all parts of the country is based on fictional figures generated by the Central Bank which is claiming that Lanka is a middle income country using an overvalues rupee calculation when in fact Lanka is a low income country that cannot sustain all this infrastructure. More white elephant airports are on the horizon along with more DEBT. Like the Mahinda Rajapakse Pokuna which costs 800,000 while Tower Hall and other theaters are falling into ruin there is a mismatch in what the people need and what is being built to entertain and enable the Rajapakse family to loot lanka while living in a land of delusions!

  • 0

    It seems Dr. Jehan Perera has come down to reality. However his reference to lack of cosultations with the people deserves comment. If that was really the case, to do otherwise would have entailed delays and expense and even corruption, hampering the acievements the authorities have already made in such a short pace of time after restoring peace; in which case Dr. Perera would have much to write speculative stories.

  • 0

    By the look of it, all big pundits are the comment writers in these columns in news papers. What a pity. Why wait in the shadows and keep throwing stones at passers by to get the attention.If you all are so knowledgeable and masterful in what ever your talking… please get into the main stream of activities and push for the write thing. Few comments in a column will not make the difference other than creating suspicion and disharmony.

    The way you pundits are trying to rubbish everything happening in the country is rather ridiculous to average, fairthinking folks.

    Even Gehan has come down from his ever crtical stance on govt. actions in this acrticle. Give the credit to who ever desreves it, when ever deserves it.Do not be such obnoxious.

  • 0

    This time on, unlike during the times the Tiger’s were a formidable force in the North, Jehan Perera’s comments and advise need to be considered seriously and if possible implemented in a faster and orderly fashion. However, the reality is the Sri Lankan Government is in the mode of “once bitten twice shy’ due to the past deceptive and hostile conduct of international NGOs, foreign sponsored local NGOs and most of all the continuing distructive actions and threats by the remnants of the Tiger diaspora together with their powerful anti SriLankan lobby comprising of international human rights groups linked with the LTTE as well as the frequent threats uttered from across the palk strait from Tamil nadu and now the Indian Govt. Under this situation, Jehan perera’s road map to reconciliation is relatively high speed and unrealistic, as it will take considerable time for the authorities to trust all stake holders in the redevelopment process of the North, which region was unfortunate to have borne the brunt of Tamil Tiger atrocities against the nation. Yes, I repeat, this is a “once bitten twice shy” situation delaying the healing process for SriLanka, which we need to understand.

  • 0

    That great America in debt up to 1.3 trillion.
    This is how the greatness of a country is measured.

    Brittain in debt up her eyeballs… Figure is not know. another great nation.

    Then there is Spain that former conqueror… How much ? Its in Euros.

    Then in line greece, Ireland, Italy and that former badicoot cou7ntry France………..

    In which position does Sri Lanka lie?? Have we done better despite the alleged White & Green Elephants ??????

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