Jana Sabhas: Reforming government at the local level

Tuesday, 31 May 2011 00:11 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Ministry of Economic Development (M /ED) has produced a paper on the proposed Jana Sabhas (JS). The JS are described as ‘the foundation for social cohesion, economic development and democratic society’.

Government at the local level has from the mists of time been a formidable challenge to rulers. From the point of view of the ruled, especially in a society in which the social indicators are as high as ours, the best form of local government would be least amount of government.


The distant raja

During the king’s time, in pre colonial days, the king’s writ hardly, in reality, existed beyond the four gravets of the capital city. True, ‘Thri Sinhale’ was united and unitary, and whatever else the anti federalist articulators of history claim it to be, but travel was so difficult, that the nation was in effect a series of self-governing clusters of self reliant villages, which paid some obedience to a distant raja, by paying taxes, sending some young men for rajakariya, being subordinate to the raja’s local satrap, but having the freedom to lead life at their own pace secure in the knowledge that if they did not get too ambitious and give that raja cause for suspicion or trouble, they could be expected to be left in peace.

One of the most brilliant expressions of this phenomenon of the distant raja, is a line from the West End hit musical ‘A Fiddler on the Roof,’ in which a resident of a Jewish village in Russia, being persecuted by the Tsar, ruling from far distant Moscow, asks his Rabbi, tongue in cheek, for a prayer for the Tsar, to whom technically they all owed allegiance to. The Rabbi’s witty reply: ‘May God protect and keep the Tsar – far away from us!’

Economic self reliance

Economic self reliance was the theme, in the times of the ancient kings with the few essential requirements for life which could not be procured locally, being brought into the community by itinerant traders, especially from the Muslim community, who inhabited the coastal areas and held the monopoly for supplying salt to the interior villages which they bartered for spices and other surplus items produced by the village economy.

Robert Knox in his ‘A Historical Relation to Ceylon’ writes of the time he was living in the Kandyan kingdom and travelled from village to village, in this manner, marketing some cloth caps he had knitted in his spare time. The colonial experience changed this system, brought in more centralisation of power and economic activity.

The M/ED paper says: ‘The Colonial Rulers have damaged the self sufficiency system that prevailed in the traditional villages of Sri Lanka.’ It further says that ‘Jana Sabhas will be established to unite democratically all sections of the society, fulfil development goals and finally to achieve national development.’ ‘Jana Sabhas will negotiate the relationship of multi-ethnic society by co-ordinating the political, social and cultural ideas of the rural society without any discrimination or bias.’

Aims of the Jana Sabhas

The aims of the Jana Sabhas are inter alia: ‘Develop village as a basic unit of national development, undertake rural development with cooperate, integrated strategy, revise rural activities to reduce national expenses, utilise rural sector to increase GNP and income, prepare implement and evaluate development plans with the coordination and cooperation of rural administration, politics, civil societies, social and cultural organisations, utilise population as a resource, not as a burden to the nation, empower rural masses and alleviate poverty, introduce a novel social entrepreneurship for production, distribution and marketing, build a modern cooperative system to motivate this venture, promote rural needs and infrastructure to a standard level, on priorities, create a sustainable and amiable rural society, build unity among different societies, build village as prime unit for national integration, build social integration behaviours in the village and avoid conflicts, develop a rural political background.’ (Readers please note that I am quoting a document sent out in English which seems to have lost something in the translation from the original Sinhala/Tamil, which I cannot correct, not having seen the original.)


On strategy, the M/ED paper says: A JS will be established per Grama Sevaka division. The JS will be integrated with Village Councils, Pradeshiya Sabhas, Municipal Councils and District Secretariats, action groups will be formed for economic and social activities, the annual budget of the JS will be prepared using a participatory strategy, JS development plans will be prepared with consultation and participation, for plan implementation a legal link will be established between JS and other local bodies, JS will have a national level governing body and a consultative board, JS will have full time professional secretaries who will have a key role in socio-economic development, all voters in the JS area will be motivated to participate, all government and non government organisations of all types will be involved in JS activities, by law when preparing regional development plans, the input of JS will be compulsory, for development activities of JS all available expertise will be utilised, the past experience of rural development activities will be utilised for JS work, JS will implement shared programs, successful programmes of JS will be shared, the work of JS will be closely monitored, reviewed and evaluated. (Having some past experience in development strategy I have taken the liberty of editing this part of the M/ED English paper, before reproducing it here, to give it more coherence, any errors are solely mine).

Expected outcomes

On the outcomes expected from the JS strategy, the M/ED paper says: Developed self sufficient villages, society at peace, with mutual understanding and coordination, national income will be increased and national expenses reduced, institutional coordination will increase, citizens will be creative, cultured and productive, the rural sector will be serve as an example for national integration, infrastructure will be developed, with a cooperative peoples enterprise system the middleman’s exploitation will cease, regional policy planning will become people centred and well coordinated with effective feedback from rural sector. (Again the M/ED English paper has been edited for coherence, the same qualification, as above, applies.)

People’s initiatives

Looking back at our history, people have at various times set up varying types of organisations to support their development and other activities. Traditional rice cultivation had to have informal groups of farmers which were later formalised under the hereditary Vel Vidane system. These were later converted to Cultivation Committees under the aegis of the Paddy Lands Act.

Marana Adhara Samithis or Death (Funeral) Aid Societies are one of the oldest voluntary organisations formed to help out and assist bereaved families with funeral expenses and related religious activities. Death, being a certainty, these societies was a felt need. Today some of them have registered under the Voluntary Social Services Organisation legislation and also operate micro credit schemes for members.

The Sasana Arakshaka Samithi, Dayaka Sabhas and Palaka Mandalayas set up around Buddhist temporalities and equivalent organisations serving the Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths are another well established network of people’s organisations (e.g. YMs and YWs, etc). Prior to the nationalisation of education most of these were involved in running educational institutions, some still are.

‘Self help’ played an important role in traditional society, as the most reverend Nyanapothika Mahathera of the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy has said in his ‘The Heart of Buddhist Meditation’: “Emphatically did the Buddha proclaim, again and again, that man is in full possession of all the resources needed for self help.”

Non Governmental organisations such as Sarvodaya, Sewa Lanka and the Thrift and Credit Cooperative Society (Sanasa) and similar organisations also had a network of branches in all parts of the island.

Official intervention

The first official intervention in this area was the first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake’s Rural Development Movement. A department of rural development was created and rural development societies were set up in villages. A cadre of rural development officers were trained and deployed.

The Minister of Local Government at that time and later Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike set up Community Centres in urban areas. D.S. Senanayake as Minister of Agriculture also set up Young Farmers Clubs to encourage young people to take up to scientific agriculture. In the fisheries sector, fisheries cooperatives were set up.

The 1970 to 1977 regime set up People’s Committees to combat black market and hoarding activities and also gave these committees a role in development initiatives. Ranil Wickremesinghe when Minister for Youth Affairs set up a series of Youth Clubs, Yauvana Samaja, a minimum of one per Grama Niladhari division, which were federated under the aegis of the Federation of Youth Clubs, supported by the National Youth Services Council which had been established in 1976 by J.R. Jayewardene when he was Minister of State.

A microfinance institution for young people, the National Youth Savings and Credit Cooperative Society (NYSCO) was also set up with branches in all administrative districts.

Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa set up Gramodaya Mandalayas in all Grama Niladhari divisions, through a Gramodaya Fund and a board of management which was incorporated by legislation.

Under President Premadasa’s Jansaviya programme, Action Committees were set up to implement the programme in all parts of the island. The Jansaviya Trust Fund (JTF), now known as the National Development Trust Fund (NDTF), established to partner civil society organisations in all parts of the island, were given funds for community projects, nutrition programmes, microfinance and social mobilisation.

Most of these partner organisations such as the Women’s Development Federation of Hambantota and their Janashakthi Banku Sangamaya, the Arthacharya Foundation, the Wilpotha Kantha Ithurum Parishramaya and Sareeram Foundation, to name only a few, today are very successful people’s organisations.

In the1990s the Government set up the Samurdhi Movement and the Samurdhi Banku Sangamaya. The uprisings of 1971, 1989 and the civil conflict in the north east from 1976 onwards, led to people’s organisations being set up for the protection of human rights and maintenance of essential services.

Many of these linked up with the Commission for Human Rights, the Office of Commissioner General for Essential Services, the ICRC, UNHCR, Medicin Sans Frontiers and the Federation of Red Crescent and Red Cross Organisations and other INGOs and carried out valuable work in their communities.

There many hundreds and thousands more such organisations which operate effectively in our rural and urban areas, both self help organisations set up independently by the people themselves as well as officially sponsored organisations.

With the interest of the official donor community, international financial institutions and the international NGOs shifting away from working solely through Government agencies and showing interest in working with civil society organisations, gave an opportunity to self help groups to access resources.

Questions on JS

All this means that the proposed Jana Sabhas will not be operating in a vacuum, since at the grass root level, there are a plethora of organisations, some functioning well, some not so well and some others established by name only.

From the M/ED document, it seems the intention is to involve all such organisations into the JS process. However there is no mention in the document on how the JS will be chosen.

Are they elected or appointed? Will it be through a politicised or depoliticised process? How much autonomy will they have? The newspapers have reported that the decentralised budget of Members of Parliament and Provincial Council and Pradeshiya Sabha budgets will be monitored by JS. Will there be a consultative process for this?

The present amount of information in the public domain raises more questions than provides answers on JS.

Past experience shows that official interventions at the tertiary level of government to kick-start a development process is not always sustainable. With the change of the political patron the programme loses momentum.

In our populist democracy, with governments and ministers changing rapidly, programme priorities change with bewildering speed. However, if support to existing well-established, credible, local and local branches of national or regional civil society organisations is made the core of the initiative, then sustainability and effectiveness can be achieved.

Representation is also important. If members of JS are going to be selected by a Colombo-based ministry on politicised criteria, problems will arise. But if civil society representatives are chosen on credible criteria through an open and transparent process, then the JS will have credibility.

Parallels are being drawn with the proposed Colombo Metropolitan Corporation, which it is said will render the elected councils of the greater Colombo metropolitan area powerless, as an appointed and unelected governor will have all the powers to administer the area. It will be unfortunate if the JS follow this model.

Distorted development process

Since universal adult franchise in 1931, and the massive investments in health, education and social welfare, Sri Lanka today has a citizenry with immense capacity. Unfortunately the top-down national centralised management strategy does not provide space for this grass roots capacity to express itself and perform.

Colombo, Western Province and South Western quarter biased centralised development planning and implementation has led to a massive distortion of the development process, otherwise how could the Western Province produce 50% of GDP?

The JS, if constituted in a democratic representational manner, transparently and with due process, may provide the solution to this historic problem, once and for all. I describe the problem as historic due to the fact that ever since the penetration of the Western colonial powers took place from the west coast of Sri Lanka, this country has been bedevilled with a south western quarter development bias. The JS is an opportunity to break with this once and for all.

The current opportunity being provided by the humongous strides in Communication and Information Technology, mobile connectivity, etc., could also enhance this development thrust.

Will the opportunity be taken, or like most of the other interventions for devolved development this country has seen and I have recited above or will the opportunity will be wasted and lost? Future generations will decide and pass judgement on our actions, depending on how we act today.

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)