I have been confronted with many problems during meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings, but perhaps the most unusual was the question of garbage which came up at Kattankudy. I was told that garbage was being piled up at the edges of the area coming under the Secretariat, though I should hasten to add that this was not the fault of what seemed an efficient and responsive administration under the Divisional Secretary – yet another of the bright youngsters I keep coming across, who should be given greater responsibilities, with commensurate reporting obligations to the people they serve.
Waste disposal comes under local government institutions, and it seems that this Urban Council gets rid of garbage by depositing it near the sea on one side of the town, and near the lagoon on the other. What I was told seemed so bizarre that I decided I had to check this out for myself, so after the meeting I went on a tour of inspection, complicated by the fact that Kattankudy has very narrow roads, and it was Friday afternoon, which meant that they were blocked by thousands of motor-bikes as the faithful gathered for prayers.
Fortunately I had a guide in the form of a student from Sabaragamuwa, who had attended the meeting, and provided excellent translations of the proceedings. The Affiliated University Colleges were full of students from the South East and, given that I was also Consultant in English at the South Eastern University after coordinating English for the South Eastern Affiliated College, I have a host of still appreciative students in the area who are able to explain matters which the often emotional reactions of the citizenry at large make difficult to comprehend.
I could not believe what I saw when I inspected what pass for garbage dumps, and I took several photographs which will illustrate my point more effectively than words. Clearly there is no understanding of the enormous damage being caused to environment and livelihoods by such carelessness or callousness. I am told that those occupying the land near these dumps have agitated, and I am sure the fishermen who can see their catch being choked have complained, but all to no avail.
The situation is complicated, I was told, by border disputes, since some years back the old Manmunai Division was carved up, to create three Divisions, Kattankudy being a tiny Muslim enclave between two Tamil Divisions. Kattankudy itself is prosperous, but appallingly crowded, with the situation exacerbated by Muslims displaced from rural areas who had nowhere else to go. Sadly their plight is ignored, and I gathered that even the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which had looked at so much so carefully and sympathetically, had left them out.
Resentment, one knows, leads to sometimes self-destructive reactions, and I could not help wondering whether the Kattankudy Urban Council was not harming itself by this gesture of helplessness as to what to do with their rubbish. But, whatever the reason, this seemed to me an obvious case of how devolution has failed, in that it has not allowed for clear guidelines with regard to national policy, and systems of monitoring to ensure compliance.
This particular issue has nothing to do with the debate as regards the relative powers of the Center and the Provinces, since waste disposal is one of the few areas entrusted to local bodies. The 13th amendment makes it clear that Provinces cannot take away the powers of such bodies, but they can add to them, and I firmly believe that this must be done if administration is to be more effective. But whether the Province bestows such powers or not, the bottom line is that there must be supervisory mechanisms to ensure that powers are exercised effectively.
It is in this context that we must see that better use is made of the provision in the 13th amendment that National Policy remains the responsibility of the Central government. Unfortunately Central government, while trying to micro-manage in areas where it clearly has little knowledge or competence, has failed to issue clear guidelines, and set up instruments to ensure that these are followed.
This is essential in many areas, but most obviously so with regard to the environment. I remember many years ago, when I used to do workshops on Liberalism for the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung in India and Pakistan and Afghanistan, and even Indonesia, that even Liberals dedicated to subsidiarity agreed that there were certain matters, such as National Defence and Financial Security, which had to be looked after by central governments with effective powers. But in those days we hardly saw the environment as requiring that sort of attention.
In the last decade all that has changed, and there has been universal recognition of the need for increased regulation with regard to environmental protection.
There must be national policies in this respect, with powerful agencies that check on compliance. And with regard to Waste Management, which it should be noted can also be a source of energy if sensibly dealt with, we must ensure that all local bodies are given standards of conduct that are mandatory.
I should add that more coherent planning in a related area would also help with another problem that kept coming up at meetings in the Eastern Province. There are problems with regard to drinking water, but projects are in the hands of the Irrigation Department, which has other priorities. Matters are also complicated, as I found in looking at problems that had arisen in Morawewa, by responsibilities being divided between central and provincial authorities.
What the Eastern Province needs however is not small scale solutions to local problems, but a master plan that treats water as a resource. Now it is seen as a threat in times of rain, with its absence also a threat because of the droughts that inevitably follow. But a comprehensive plan, formulation of which should be handled by the Disaster Management Center, would help us to avoid both these extremes. Implementation can be by local agencies, but ensuring the plan is carried out requires high level organization which only the Centre can provide, with its ability to command a range of official resources.
By: Prof Rajiva Wijesinha