Shock, surge and awe for democracy

Friday, 23 January 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Jeevan Thiagarajah Over 11 million voters have given democracy a surge in the country. The surge came from all four corners of the country. Tilvin Silva termed it a rejection of racism and Keheliya Rambukwella terms the north and east vote as one equalling an Eelam map. A prominent Tamil sceptic and activist in Jaffna holds on to the view Tamils are sceptical! Voters came out in large numbers hence the 81% turnout and voted for Sri Lanka. The new Cabinet in the House. We need a new Constitutional arrangement which load sheds from the centre to provinces including powers to borrow, collect taxes, promote investments, recognise investments of Sri Lankan origin offshore, contribute from the province to law, order and peace whilst ensuring demographic balances to do not accentuate or lead to civil strife   We have a President and Prime Minister appointed to office with one elected through efforts of all parties currently represented in Parliament and outside including the significant efforts of artistes, professional groups and very many tech-savvy Sri Lankans here and abroad. We have a national unity Government in office for 100 days and two more years minimally thereafter. The pronouncement by the President he would hold office and leave within six years is phenomenal. Much the same way it’s made so by law in the Philippines. This piece veers away now to areas which in the eyes of the writer requires attention now and beyond the next 100 days. Environment Boxing Day commemorated terrifying events a decade back in the form of the tsunami. The tsunami was the most tragic and fearsome expression of ecological and environmental hazards on us. We have since felt several earth tremors. El Nino is on us since the fourth quarter last year, the impact of which globally on food production is considerable. The President had spoken of kidney disease and the need to address victims seen largely traversing in a northerly direction in the NWP and NCP brought about by toxic water. We saw Koslanda and a huge mound of earth likely burying permanently scores of families. We have planned, invested, and developed infrastructure touching on our environment. Seasonal flooding, geographic disasters, drought stricken areas, animals dying in sanctuaries are all part of recent history. Have we paid enough attention? The Urban Development Authority, Central Environment Authority, disaster management agencies, Ministries of Agriculture and Irrigation have to work together to invest in our environment. Open Sri Lanka Our country has seen three insurrections led by youth, the root causes of which need to be taken very seriously. Having undertaken a quick and dirty literature survey of our history since 1948, one could see enormous amount of broken glass. What earthly reason made us prey on plantation labour turning them into stateless persons living in wretched circumstances as our first Parliamentary priority upon Independence? This type of bigoted behaviour is seen right through history. How many lives would have been saved if the agreements abrogated, solutions proposed in Parliament abandoned had been adopted? How did we not chase, exile, dispose and destroy lives of citizens over this disgraceful time? Have we taken the Youth Commission Report on youth dissent in the south seriously? What have we done with findings of Commissions of Inquiry? The legacy of unresolved cases of disappearances of a total current number of just over 5,000 of which over 4,000 from the 1989/90 era are on the table with the UN Working Group on Disappearances. The cynical disdain shown by politicians of all hues over time which led to these outrages and pitiful history must not be forgotten. Let us also admit wars are crimes and every war has dark and dirty aspects committed by men and women. Ours was no different. We have acted horrendously within. As a Sri Lankan who is also a Tamil I pay attention to acts of commission and omission of Tamils and youth in particular, starting with what was done within the community extending to other communities. The Tamil community has not undertaken such an audit of our behaviour. We have though unhesitatingly sought audits of all others! About two decades back, having landed at Beirut airport, I wondered why they were still talking of national reconciliation when wars there had reportedly long ended. I was wrong on two counts. Wars returned, Syria sat physically within Lebanon playing hell including killing one of its Prime Ministers and they continue in limbo land trying to heal and reconcile. The Government of National Unity has much unfinished work along with civic groups to address these issues, given we also have a parallel process auditing us at the UN. The division on ethnic lines amongst persons of Sri Lankan overseas is stark. We have to arrive at an ‘Open Sri Lanka Policy’ which embraces persons of whilst Sri Lankan origin offshore ensuring their dissent does not fuel more devastating sophisticated wars of the kind waged currently by for example ISIS. We need a new Constitutional arrangement which load sheds from the centre to provinces including powers to borrow, collect taxes, promote investments, recognise investments of Sri Lankan origin offshore, contribute from the province to law, order and peace whilst ensuring demographic balances to do not accentuate or lead to civil strife. Equal opportunities Our development model must be inclusive where youth are not excluded due to lack of proficiency in English, because their higher educational qualifications make them redundant in the labour market here and overseas or patronage denies them equal opportunities in spheres of public life. Furthermore every child around age 15 should be given a broadband set of curricular to choose to move on higher education aspirations. My role model on this subject is an Old Boy of my former school who left with an O/L certificate, moved to Maradana Technical College for a certificate and has now four PhDs and was the longest-serving Sri Lankan Vice Chancellor of any university. Many countries including Singapore afford such opportunities to stream at an early age. It is time we reintroduced the Equal Opportunities Bill moved last by the late Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam. Smarter cities Neighbourhood law offices – Ensuring safety and security through community policing, embedding neighbourhood law offices open seven days a week linked with other service providers such as the neighbourhood police and social service officials, serviced by community leaders from relocated areas, human rights activists, women development officers, and ex-government officials, oriented on the legalities involved in resolving legal issues by providing free and confidential advice for a “one-stop-shop” for information and advisory services; Green zones – Creation of an environmental friendly city introducing green zones and proper waste management. UDA has already started to green the city. Management of solid waste, garbage disposal and environmental education and awareness is thus necessary to extend to greening activities; Wellness – Promoting wellness to address social protection and health care problems that cause indebtedness which often bring people into devastating financial and physical distress. Setting up of housing complex based hubs to coordinate events of the program targeting teen health, women’s health above 40, men’s health above 50 and health of senior citizens; development of individually tailored ‘health check cards’; maintenance of a data base of all beneficiaries with details of follow up health checks; promote community-based health awareness programs; support early detection and prevention initiatives in the community; Catch up education – Educating adults and children through finishing schools, and mobile class rooms ensuring men, women and youth of a working age are IT and English literate for development of their resourcefulness and entrepreneurship. Children identified with poor performance in Education in the past targeted. A detailed plan of action prepared with other co- service providers. Mobile class rooms and virtual learning facilities networked in order to deliver frequent teaching, career guidance and counselling along with an e-twining program to join schools in order to ensure their integration; Home based entrepreneurs – Productive enterprise services to provide resources for home based livelihood options with access to smarter designs, marketing, financial literacy and credit lines; Active senior citizens – Senior citizens who volunteer linked with the community to ensure their productivity through skills and experience including in activities such as adult learning programmes, reading classes, running of community libraries etc. enhancing their self-worth. Improving present jobs and creating new jobs Growth on the basis of productivity, supporting higher wages for our workers. A tripartite partnership between workers, employers and the Government engaging companies to innovate and create better jobs, encouraging workers to upgrade and learn new skills. Our education, training and skills development systems need to be better aligned with the country’s dynamic comparative advantage. For this, there is need for: a more strategic and robust approach to planning, at both country and company levels; and a better understanding of the sources of future growth in the economy. This would provide a basis for posing the questions: what are the gaps in the labour market in the short-term; and what should our workforce look like, in terms of aptitudes and skills, in 10 years’ time. This would also provide a framework for a more demand-driven approach which will yield better outcomes than the current supply-driven system of education which tends to generate a socially/politically destabilising mismatch between aspirations and opportunities. With the ageing of the population, the dependency ratio will begin to increase in the near future. Hence there will be fewer people in the workforce to support the pensions and health-care needs of the rising number of senior citizens. Sri Lanka will need to create fewer jobs in the future but they would need to be of higher value to support the ageing population through a combination of increased tax income and social capital. Recommendations – Create equivalent of WDA (Workforce development agency) – public/private labour/composition, provide incentives to existing institution to supply lifelong education, campaign to change mind-set regarding public service employment, map out sources of growth/profile of demand for labour, the private sector could and should play a more active role in training and skills development. Some companies are already doing this to compensate for the shortcomings of the formal education/training system. However, much more can be done by companies, both individually and collectively. Collective action in this area has considerable scope for expansion. For instance, the private sector can collaborate to establish an internationally reputed business school that is affiliated to a world class institution, provided that is the best business model. The private sector can also scale up its operations in the areas of facilitating employment search and the flow of information on job opportunities. Social impact bonds Social impact bonds provide a funding stream to support innovative ideas that can help in tackling complex social issues through prevention and early intervention. In times of limited budgets and austerity, governments find it increasingly difficult to spend taxpayer money on prevention and early intervention, even though such programs often cost less than future crisis intervention to social issues. On the one hand, a bond-issuing intermediary promises to deliver improved social outcomes that generate future cost savings for the public sector if a public sector agency agrees to forego a pre-determined price – a proportion of the cost savings that would result from a particular improved social outcome. The poorest of the poor living below the poverty line and low income families have problems owning houses, accessing credit from financial institutions to improve their income and supporting the means for higher education to their children. A related important factor in all is access to low cost finances. In order to address these challenges it is proposed to use social impact bonds as a means to raise funds from citizens nationally and globally to offer the following: 1. Credit for low cost homes; 2. Loans at affordable low rates of interest for families for small enterprises; 3. Assistance to poor families for children’s education between O/L and A/L; 4. Health insurance premiums to meet specialised outpatient health care for elders among poor, children below five years of age, families with more than two children below five for family cover and disabled poor. Human rights (i) Support to Government in establishing the new National Human Rights Commission and in the implementation of the National Reconciliation Action Plan, (ii) re-introduce the Equal Opportunities Bill whilst seeking enhanced representation of Women of public office and non-discrimination in legislation, (iii) promoting the concept of the ‘End of Displacement’, (iv) supporting domestic mechanisms address credibly allegations found in UN Resolutions on SL, (v) promote cooperation and response to issues of concern pending, ongoing and raised by Special Mandate holders on human rights defenders, disappearances, torture, freedom of religion and belief, minorities, summary executions and migrant workers.