The establishment of the Peoples Council in Wattegedera signals hope for the previously marginalized and unheard sections of its community. More importantly, it provides a potential model for replication in other parts of the country where reconciliation ought to become truly democratic.
The residue of the three decade conflict is manifest in the fractured communities where suspicion, distrust, fear and accusation are rife. Following the conclusion of the war, the need has arisen for regaining trust and confidence whilst renegotiating values of coexistence between and within communities. It is in this context that the Peoples Council in Wattegedara was established, in a bid to rebuild non – violent societies empowered with self – reliance.
THE PLEA FROM RESETTLEMENT VILLAGES
The ability to have a voice through a representative village institution coupled with the choice to plan and implement their own village programmes is what has come through as the persistent plea from the resettlement villages. The virtue of coexistence rooted at the grassroots level through Peoples Councils will make it easier to transform perceived unjust social relationships, such as bias towards one community or the other, to more just ones. Premised upon this plea and virtue, the Peoples Council in Wattegedara was set up.
Potentially, Sri Lanka can have over 14, 000 self – reliant Peoples Councils. The case of how Wattegedara, an agricultural village 80 km away from Colombo in the Kurunegala District, established a Peoples Council illustrates a potential model for structuring such Councils island – wide.
THE WATTEGEDARA MODEL
Wattegedara has a population of approximately 4000 people with an estimated 860 registered voters. People of the village conducted an election for identifying suitable representatives based on their interests such as Heritage, Food, Production, Women and Youth, and Services catering for Education, Health and other utility needs. Interested sector candidates had personally met the voters, who then had the chance of evaluating the candidates as to their suitability to contribute to the respective interest. On the day of the elections, the registered voters gathered at a central location, cast their ballots and at the close of polls, designated a respected officer in the village to count and declare the winners of each sector to constitute the nine member Peoples Council. The villagers said that the elected representatives would remain under close supervision, and any of the elected who failed to deliver on the tasks given by voters under the respective sector would be recalled and the position transferred to another.
The established Peoples Council therefore comprised nine members: five members being from each sector, namely, Heritage including senior citizens and protectors of culture and environment of the village; Women; Food Producers including farmers and fishermen; Youth; and Service Providers including teachers, physicians, traders and technicians. Two members were identified in proportion to the number of voters from each sector. Additionally, members were nominated by the seven elected members from religious leaders in the village and a village share holder joint venture company that provided services in marketing and management.
THE COST OF OPERATION AND SELF – RELIANCE
Concurrent village development is essential for the reconciliation process and to ensure that an inclusive approach is adopted towards nation building. Accordingly, for such Peoples Councils to remain sustainable there needs to be a direct allocation of funds from the State to villages across the country, roughly estimated at LKR 3 million annually as a basic cost. The Council members would receive no endowments and will serve in a voluntary capacity, as is the case with Trustees of places of worship in the country. Further, the Peoples Council would be responsible for policies and implementation of projects affecting the village in the sectors identified. The main objective, therefore, of the Peoples Council is to guide the village in the path of self – reliance and make it functional as much as it can without outside assistance.
Considering the benefits to the people as a result of establishing the Peoples Council at Wattegedera is useful when proposing the model for replication in other parts of the country.
REGULAR CONSULTATION BETWEEN REPRESENTATIVES AND ELECTED GROUPS
The elected Peoples Council, although without no legal basis, functions as the voice of the village. Regular consultation meetings of the Council are held and each of the candidates holds regular meetings with the sector interest groups which also include those candidates who were not elected. Sector plans and village plans made out of the coordinated effort are hence facilitated through such consultations ensuring that gaps are not created. Any activity outside the plan is generally discouraged.
A ROLE IN THE NATIONAL BODY POLITIC
The Peoples Council of the village will be the Electoral College for the Pradeshiya Sabha and the District Council. This system ensures that it is those who are knowledgeable that will represent the public in both these Councils. The constant discussion in the village on issues can be communicated to Members of Parliament and the Cabinet so that both Parliament and the Government will have an authentic source of information as to the peoples’ opinion on issues of national and public concern.
COMMITMENT TO ALLEVIATING SOCIAL ILLS
The virtue of this system is that when elections are held issues of both the village and the nation can be discussed in small cohesive groups devoid of power politics, wheeler dealing and violence. The system is inexpensive and the wastage of our current system and the erosion it brings with it will be avoided. The culture that will emerge is that the vote will be a commitment by the voter to serve his sector because he has an interest in it and about which he has knowledge. Largely because the village is a compact unit, problems like drugs, alcoholism, use of tobacco and other social illnesses can be identified and dealt with.
VILLAGE RESOURCE INVENTORIES AND LAND USE PLAN
The village acquired a computer with the help of an agency, which enabled development of a resource database. This village envisages using the database for assessing land capability and developing a long term management plan. The Council is also using the database to plan career guidance for the youth, targeting employment opportunities in support of the village development and outside the village.
COORDINATED PEOPLE PRESSURE ON GOVERNMENT OFFICERS
Public utility faults that remained unattended for an extended period of time were finally addressed. The establishment of the Peoples Council reversed the situation where villagers had previously been at the mercy of village development and technology extension officers for receiving assistance in the guise of favours. Formation of the Peoples Council has provided some power to the Council members where the officers are now aware that they are under the watchful eyes of the people. Further, there seems to be a visible change in the attitude of the government officers towards the public, and awareness that the public is closely watching them is leading to greater efficiency and accountability.
BETTER BARGAINING POWER
Farmers as individuals are generally considered credit unworthy by the banking system in the country. Lack of collateral makes it more difficult to access credit. After the formulation of the Peoples Council there has been noted an increasing tendency for group activity by which peer – pressure and collective responsibility are having a positive impact on loan payments. In such an environment, the village is likely to gain the confidence of the financial institutions as credit – worthy for financial support.
VILLAGE SHARE HOLDER COMPANY AND INVESTMENT BY COMMERCIAL SECTOR
Since the formation of the Peoples Council, the people of Wattegedara have come to constituting a trade – based interest group and company called Swayang Wattegedara Pvt Limited to protect each other. The Company has taken over the function of purchasing, value additions and marketing of whatever is produced in the village. The Company has introduced a standardization method for product quality and this has attracted the interest of the commercial sector. As group discipline is important to ensure product supply, contracts are honoured, and the village is likely to attract investment from the commercial sector. Potentially, every person in the village can be a share – holder in the company and benefit from the accruing dividends.
BETTER SECURITY AND SURVEILLANCE
Following the establishment of the Peoples Council, the people of the village feel that there is better cohesion of purpose of village development activities. There is more care for public property, and people are more vigilant of any detraction from village norms. This has provided the village a greater sense of security through a system of collective surveillance.
THE WAY FORWARD
Reconciliation, being the need of the hour, can be facilitated and fast – tracked by helping people to achieve self – reliance and resorting to sustainable ventures. This requires effective policy instruments to ensure it is implemented at the level of every village.
Further, Peoples Councils seem to offer a practical alternative to meet peoples’ varying aspirations for self – reliance and good governance through accountability and effective use of resources. For the spirit of reconciliation to work, everyone, particularly those directly affected by the war must be involved in securing livelihoods of choice within their own localities.
Therefore, every village, similarly working towards achieving self – reliance and capable of managing its affairs, inter – locked with neighbouring villages, could be the natural building blocks for national reconciliation.
By Salma Yusuf – firstname.lastname@example.org
A shorter version appeared in the Daily Mirror of 13 August 2012.