By Rajiva Wijesinha*
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and his new government that will take office next month will need to work swiftly in five priority areas:
1. They must consolidate the victory of 2009. The current government does not seem able or willing to acknowledge the importance of defeating terrorism and of ensuring that it is not revived. In this regard the president, who was in government and part of the determination to prevent the LTTE from recovering, knows he must ensure a shift of perspective.
2. Government must build on that victory for the benefit of all those who suffered, and in particular for the minorities and those in the North and East who felt alienated from the state for so long. In this regard the last government did not do enough, and sadly the present government has not taken swift corrective action. The next government must ensure that all citizens have similar opportunities, and this means ensuring that there are equitable employment opportunities in government service, and in the security establishment, in particular the police.
3. Government must ensure human resources development to much higher levels than our current education system allows. The last government did not work systematically towards this, and the present government continues to see education as a tool of politics, without ensuring that we look at best practice in other countries and adjust our systems to ensure excellence as well as equity.
4. Government must promote equitable development through greater concentration on the regions, with targeted investment based on people’s needs. While the last government did much in infrastructure, and the present government seems at last to have realized the important of this, there has been inadequate attention to setting effective systems in place. For this purpose there must be greater autonomy with regard to decision making as well as better consultation mechanisms.
5. Government must ensure efficient and more responsive government by streamlining decision making and ensuring better coordination. For this purpose there must be coherent sectoral planning, with allocation of clear-cut responsibilities.
In all these areas Sri Lanka can benefit hugely from Indian advice and support. Our victory over terrorism was supported by India, but we failed to convince other countries of the necessity of our actions, and the care we took to avoid excesses. We must therefore ensure that our foreign policy is adjusted so as to deal effectively with unfair criticism while giving constructive criticism a fair hearing, and responding positively to genuine concerns. Winning the confidence of India in this regard will go a long way to ensuring that other countries base their approach on Sri Lankan interests rather than political priorities of their own.
With regard to ensuring that all communities benefit from the victory over terrorism, we must involve India more in the remedial measures we take. While decision making must be the prerogative of this sovereign state, addressing concerns will be easier if there is active consultation with all stakeholders. We cannot ignore the fact that India is a principal stakeholder, given the refugees from this country still in India and the possible implications for internal politics in that country.
With regard to education, we have a good model in the Indian system with regard to providing expertise in fields in which there is much international demand. Though our basic education system is much better than that in India, we have not improved as much as we could have from the base on which we started half a century and more ago. In particular we should learn from the Indian Institutes that have cutting edge capacity, and ensure that we have such centres of excellence in every district in the country.
With regard to the vexed question of devolution, we must accept that centralized decision making is no longer practicable. Unfortunately for too long we have been stuck in the centre/province dichotomy, perhaps because when the 13th amendment was passed, that was the prevailing ethos. However in the ‘90s India developed better local government systems, and we too should now realize that, with increasing populations, we need to establish the Divisional Secretariat as the main unit of administration, as was pledged in the president’s manifesto. We should also look at consultation mechanisms used in India, and build on the start provided by the circular sent out by the secretary of public administration a couple of years back about mandatory consultations at Grama Niladhari Level.
For this purpose though we need better planning and delivery, for which we have to upgrade our public servants. Sadly we have allowed that service to decline, in contrast to India where officials have greater professional competence, with much less dependence on politicians or commitment to political priorities. We will benefit much from developing training mechanisms based on collegiate decision making and problem solving, and getting Indian support for this will be very useful.
The next government must make effective coordination with India a priority, as was indicated in the president’s manifesto. Our friendships with other countries, and in particular Asian ones as noted in the manifesto, must be developed, but we also need to prioritize in terms of our own problems and the most effective solutions for those.
*Rajiva Wijesinha is a former adviser to the Sri Lankan President on reconciliation, and leader, Liberal Party of Ceylon. He was a former Member of Parliament. He can be contacted at [email protected]