Recent meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings have confirmed the perception that the main concerns of the people are practical, rather than the political issues that are so constantly raised in Colombo. Roads and transport difficulties were raised regularly, and also inadequate facilities at rural hospitals. With regard to these last, the paucity of doctors willing to serve in distant places was something that could be explained, and it did not cause much resentment. I should also note that deficiencies in this regard are offset by the dedication of the doctors in place, many of whom work long hours and take little leave.
More galling was the delay in repairing or providing equipment, as at Cheddikulam, an impressive new building where the machine for testing blood sugar has been broken for six months. One complaint was that they were advised to go to a private agency in Mankulam, where it turned out that the Cheddikulam technical staff worked. The doctor from Cheddikulam valiantly defended the staff on the grounds that there was nothing wrong with them working elsewhere in their free time, and she is of course perfectly correct, the problem lying in the faulty machine, not its operators. But it is still insensitive of the Ministry not to have responded swiftly, given how strongly such needs are felt. And this is the sadder, because of the generally excellent work of the Ministry which has succeeded in reducing malnutrition and infant mortality so swiftly over the last few years.
Irrigation and Roads
Another problem raised constantly in Mannar was with regard to irrigation works. While progress had been comparatively swift in this regard, as with roads and electricity, obviously at a period of drought it is the omissions that stay uppermost in people’s minds. It may be useful therefore to ensure, not only development of a coherent master plan – which I am sure has been done – but also mechanisms to explain to the people what the schedule is, and the reasons.
This applies also with regard to roads, where there is understanding certainly of the manner in which government has moved so swiftly now with regard to the main roads east of the A9, to parallel the earlier excellent link to Mannar, with the superb Japanese bridge and the long causeway. However what programmes are planned with regard to minor roads could be explained, with reasons for priorities. The fact that there has been progress, as with electrification, is obvious, and a better communication strategy, in which local officials are involved, would help to get rid of residual worries.
Where much more effort is needed is with regard to transport. In some places the complaint was that there were far too few CTB buses, in others that there were none. Coordination to ensure that students and public servants get to school and work on time seems non-existent. Drivers and conductors, it seems, live in the towns and are not concerned with rural needs.
The Ministry of Transport has not responded to my queries (the Governor, I should note, has done what he can to help, by getting some buses to transport teachers) but I do not blame them, given both the limited resources of the CTB and the impossibility of such a centralized institution dealing satisfactorily with multiple local problems. The continuing deprivation of rural populations convinces me that this is something that should be decentralized to a much greater extent, with mechanisms to allow Divisional Secretariat level management of a fleet of buses for local transport. If we could rationalize areas of responsibility – where there is inadequate coordination at present, the responsibilities say of depots and police and educational divisions not being geographically congruent – planning would be easier and more helpful to the populations concerned.
Surprisingly, no security issues were raised in the four meetings held this month, in three Districts. The difficulties faced by vulnerable women in one area in Cheddikulam, which had been mentioned at the last meeting, had been settled, and in general I found excellent cooperation between the police and local communities. The recent instructions of the IGP, that a couple of police personnel should be allocated to each Grama Niladhari Division, for close coordination with officials, seems to have paid off. It was good to note that officials and police were on first name terms, though greater cooperation is of course always possible. One area in which this could be fruitful was in conversation classes for Sinhala and Tamil, which could be conducted at schools, police personnel teaching Sinhala and themselves in turn learning Tamil on alternate days.
I ended up raising security issues myself, and in particular with regard to vulnerable women, with greater attention to the issues which had been highlighted by recent discussions in Colombo. I refer to the book launch by the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, and then the Oxfam seminar on Domestic Violence – though at one meeting it was noted, as the Act itself suggests, that such violence could be against men as well.
The major problem was alcoholism, and one woman even suggested that alcohol be banned. Significantly, it was a priest who noted that this would only drive the trade underground. Another priest, who has done much good work about the phenomenon in Mannar, noted the need for continuing awareness programmes, which require partnerships between the health and education authorities, the police and also community groups. The same, it was noted, went for awareness programmes with regard to sexuality and Aids, and also drugs. That there needed to be constant vigilance about these was stressed, with reference to the number of unwanted pregnancies that led to manifold social problems.
Land Issues and Resettlement
I have left out here issues with regard to resettlement and land, which were less troublesome than I had anticipated, but which can certainly do with swift solutions. These should however be discussed at greater length in another article.
By: Prof R. Wijesinha