By Siri Gamage –
Whether we read newspapers, listen to radio or watch Television, there is no shortage of issues confronting the country as many stakeholders, commentators and politicians express themselves freely their views through such media. This is in quite a contrasting situation when compared to the atmosphere that existed before the present coalition government came into power in 2015. But the issue now is not the lack of freedom to express or comment on social and political issues. The concern now is lack of action on many critical issues that the voting public in 2015 had high hopes and the failure of hierarchies and systems in place to serve those in need. When questioned about this those in authority come up with various excuses including blaming the previous regime or the lack of political will in one of the constituent parties of the government. Listeners get more frustrated with these arguments, explanations and counter arguments when they realise that these are mere talk shows and no action. Some commentators have even characterised the existing governance situation as paralysis.
The model of representative democracy fails where there is a self serving ruling class or an enlarged elite group who do not work toward nation building or work efficiently to address the needs of those at the end of various hierarchies established to serve people, in particular those who are weak and vulnerable. A measure of a compassionate society is how well it’s governance mechanisms take care of these segments. However the story since independence in Sri Lanka shows how the rich gets richer and the poor gets poorer? How the rich and powerful enjoy the fruits of globalisation, free trade, liberalised economies, migration, employment and education opportunities unleashed by the opening of borders (among these beneficiaries are some members of the middle and working classes but their life chances and net wealth may be much less compared to those in the privileged class’s, politics being one major avenue of privileging).
The hierarchies that have been established over centuries to serve the interests of the people have become burdensome and non-liberating entities for the majority of people. One could even characterise them as oppressive, anti democratic, elitist and anti people. Serious critical reflection is necessary about the contemporary relevance of various hierarchies that control life in general. While a command and control system is required for the administration and security of the people, these hierarchies should be there to serve the people of all ranks and statuses. Likewise, religious and social hierarchies need to serve the interests of the masses without distinction instead of serving those who occupy leadership positions. When political and bureaucratic organisations fail to meet the needs of people, in normal times and in emergencies, their value is no more. Unfortunately, the hierarchies, entities and systems that have evolved in the country seem to function to safeguard the powerful rather than the weak. In this context, what is required is fresh thinking about the model of governance suitable for a small country like Sri Lanka to serve the needs and interests of people, particularly those at the bottom end of governance hierarchies rather than a new constitution that entrenches the power and privilege of the ruling elites or class with big government. Smaller and inexpensive government is a necessity if the desire is to continue with representative democracy, which has been diluted by having an executive President.
In this context it is important to reflect on a few issues not necessarily from party political lenses but from a more communitarian perspective. Let’s take the issue of race, ethnicity and religion about which so much has been written in the media recently. Every human being from the richest to the poorest need a sense of belonging and connectivity with other human beings. This is why we call humans as social beings. This is one lesson we learn when we study sociology- science of society. Some find such belonging in their family, community, school networks, ethnic groups, religious community, language community and so on. By doing so they derive strength to carry on with life, meet daily challenges, find likeminded fellows, happiness and more. Such belonging and connectivity are important when one grows older and become frail. So, there is nothing wrong when individuals in a society are seeking to be affiliated with social and cultural entities like the ones mentioned here.
In the modern, globalised age however, there is a tendency for individualisation or to emphasise individual autonomy and choice. This is part of the Western civilisation in its modern incarnations. Commercial establishments that promote consumerism like to see vulnerabilities and anxieties develop among human beings so that they can market their products such as insurance policies more. With the expansion of neoliberal economic policies, unfortunately this tendency for individualism is growing faster and community breakdown is becoming a reality. Even in economically developed countries that have gone through this process and seen the devastation, social policies to reconstruct lost communities are being formulated. More importantly, communities affected are taking matters into their own hands by forming alliances among likeminded groups for sustainable development, adopt environmentally friendly energy production and consumption, local food production and more. These organisations are not formed on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion as a matter of fact.
When the social categories that are essential for human life and it’s sustenance get politicised or people affiliated with party politics and have capacity to make or change public opinions use them to antagonise one such group against another, they are creating a problem not only for the masses but also for good governance. In other words, there is a tendency to over politicise these categories as part of day-to-day political discourses circulated through the media in order to score points and assert rights. This is a highly dangerous exercise in a post war situation when the people are seeking reconciliation instead of conflict. If there are issues facing particular racial or ethnic or religious community, they ought to be addressed by those in authority efficiently. Failure to do so or any act to further politicise such issues can be counter productive. To say this however is good in theory but not in practice. Perhaps this is because the political system in Sri Lanka, particularly its party system is to a large extent based on or influenced by categories such as race, ethnicity, language and religion. In such a context, though the secular government is supposed to function on the basis of a constitution, laws, rights and obligations as defined in law, and the values that underpin these- factors such as race, ethnicity, religion, language come into play in the implementation of laws in everyday life. Another factor contributing to this state of affairs is the lack of autonomy given to law enforcement authorities. Politicisation of such authorities tends to offer the people selective justice instead of universal justice. Selective justice is when the outcome of a given case is determined on the basis of what your status is rather than the facts of the case are. What we need to desire is for a system of governance where the citizens, irrespective of their ethnic, racial, religious, party status are treated the same with special consideration given only to historic disadvantages that a particular community of citizens are facing. Favoring one community against another by those in decision making roles and governance responsibility will have no end to it other than to create chaos.
Let’s take the garbage issue. Normally this should be the responsibility of the municipal council, provincial council or pradesheeya Sabah as the case may be. People are not worried about which entity handles it. They only want solutions. In countries like Australia, garbage collection from households, business places etc. and disposal is the responsibility of local councils. For this purpose, local councils charge a fee from households, industry and business (building) owners. Councils have devised efficient methods to do the job. In some cases, garbage is sorted so that they can be directed for recycling or composting or simply dumping in a waste dump. In Sri Lanka, there seem to be a confusion about the authority or entity that should handle garbage especially in the case of Colombo. The bottom line is that there is no efficient and reliable system of garbage collection or dumping or recycling in the country. Instead what we have is politicisation of the issue, questionable tender processes and an exercise in political point scoring. It seems that we have entered an era of talking. However, recently I read in the papers that the PM has given information in the parliament about a plan of action. We have to realize that this is not a problem that can be solved by importing more vehicles and machinery with Korean aid etc. As many other problems facing the country, this is an issue that has to be resolved by having a methodology with modern technology, a skilled workforce, a management system with autonomy to function under the given mandate and less politicisation. If provincial and local authorities are given necessary powers, resources, guidelines and the central government could be in a position to require accountability. If a given Council is not doing its job, it should be dismissed and an administrator appointed until the situation becomes better.
Emergency and disaster response is another area that occupied the media space recently. Even here an efficient and reliable system, methodology, resourcing and training are the key. Taking the Australian example again, what we see is the State based emergency systems called SESs. These are units composed of trained personnel mostly with volunteers with necessary equipment located in different parts of a given state. As Australia has a state system of governance in combination with a federal government, this makes sense. When there is a natural or man made disaster, these units respond without delay. For example, when roofs are damaged after a storm or trees are fallen or floods are on these units arrive to help. In addition to these units, there are separate units for fire fighting. In Sri Lanka, a similar system can be formulated at Provincial Council –Local Council basis especially as the country is small. However, as stated earlier, there has to be skilled personnel, management system, resources, mandate, and less political interference for such a system to function efficiently. As an idea this is good in theory. What happens on the ground is another story. Politicisation makes implementation complex and it can even lead to apathy and paralysis. During the last flood disaster, there was a story of how an MP from the South i.e. Thewarapperuma, worked tirelessly to help victims in his electorate. Though admirable, in a disaster it should not be left to an individual. Individual leadership within disaster management teams is acceptable. Such tasks should be the responsibility of skilled and trained personnel- not more beaureacrats or committees. Political oversight is important but not interference.
In short, what we have is a messy and expensive system of governance at different levels that is unable to provide efficient services in normal or emergency situations. Secular governance principles, norms, laws etc. run their course slowly due to the unavoidable ills that have enveloped the institutions that have been constructed over decades since independence. Unless serious reforms are enacted at institution levels, moving forward is not an easy task. The practice of convening a meeting in the President’s office for every issue is not viable or desirable. Authorities and institutions with mandates should be required to do their jobs by the higher authorities and systems have to be in place to monitor their work.
Those who are frustrated with lack of government or constructive action to resolve issues that affect people at the cold face are best advised perhaps to think beyond the ‘political’ cycle per se as the professional politicians do. Instead they can think about how to create sustainable communities? This is a concept gaining ground all around the world, both in urban and rural contexts. For example, in cities Local Councils are constructing cycle ways and footpaths for people to exercise on weekends and spare times. Public parks are kept well with similar footpaths in the outer ring. In rural areas, sustainable living groups have been formed to explore ways of growing local food communally in community gardens as well as to explore and learn about alternative energy sources. These initiatives start small and grow. Other groupings can be formed to explore and advocate inner development, restore indigenous knowledge in education and for healthy living, assist the weak and vulnerable, bring people from different faiths and identities together for harmonious living, to hare agriculture knowledge and techniques. Once these groups are formed and meet regularly to share knowledge, interests, solutions for grassroots issues, self help etc. resources can be sought from governmental and non-governmental sources for further work.
Thus a rather desirable option is to conceptualise a communitarian model of democracy where each province and/or local council is provided with greater decision-making powers while the central government is keeping a monitoring role with a few reserved powers. There are ample examples from around the world where activist social groups who empower themselves with necessary knowledge on issues such as sustainable living that can serve as a guide to self-governance model. One myth existing among commentators on Sri Lanka the moment self-governance is mentioned is that it is for the Tamils in the north and East. However, this is a concept that the civil society organisations, concerned citizens, leaders of communities across the country should demand and work collaboratively for community empowerment in contrast to elite empowerment.
Grassroots community empowerment is the key to grassroots democracy. People who are awakened about the failure of hierarchies and systems of governance do not need to wait further until elected representatives from the provinces (who turn to different beings once they become privileged) to deliver it on a platter.
As Ned Iceton who initiated a social developers network in Australia says, ‘centralised hierarchical systems will probably largely fail and will have to be rebuilt on new lines. And then we will need social regeneration points. Thus social developers will be the germ of those social regeneration points. Each local situation will evolve for citizens in different, unpredicted ways; and the key will be to work out what response best fits, constantly remaking ourselves and our culture, in light of the values we share, and the emotional payoffs in self-meaning that we give each other’ (The Networker: Ned Iceton and the Social Developers Network, Armidale, Australia 2016,p.9).