by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP
I had not been in the East for several months, not least because the North seemed to need much more attention in terms of my work as Adviser on Reconciliation.
However, with the system of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees functioning informatively, if not always effecfively, I thought I should pay some attention to the East, since obviously reconciliation had to be taken forward there too, and also better coordination of aid work, in terms of my mandate in that area.
I had assumed that the basic government strategy of massive efforts at reconstruction had borne fruit in the East, unlike in the North where it was essential to take other steps too in view of the very different circumstances. My visit confirmed that government had indeed worked wonders in the East, for the developments in communications and irrigation and the basic wherewithal for economic activity were phenomenal.
In 2009, during my last visit as Head of the Peace Secretariat, I was overwhelmed by the changes that had taken place since an earlier visit, when travel was painfully slow and there was still uncertainty about commerce. Subsequently, visiting to inspect some work in English Trainer Training, I felt that the trajectory was steadily upward, but even so I was not prepared for the qualitative leap forward that had occurred between then and now.
The road and the bridges that provided a swift alternative route to Trincomalee from Kantale, passing through areas such as Mavil Aru and Muttur and Kinniya that had been places of great uncertainty so recently, was symptomatic of the successful impact of concerted efforts at economic development. Irrigation too had kept pace, and planning, so that harvests were plentiful, and marketing was not as problematic as in some areas in the North, where leaving things to market forces had led to deprivation for the weakest.
The Governor and the Provincial Council had started work indeed on irrigation even before the conclusion of the war, and the programme of Eastern Renewal had built on this with a dedication and efficiency not often seen in this country. Though I knew something of this from reports from students, who were full of the new opportunities available for economic activity, the extent of the opportunities that were available will I hope lead to even greater satisfaction soon for the entire population.
While progress then is heartening, there still remains much that could be done to add value to current achievements. My day in Trincomalee was necessarily only introductory, and affected also by the electoral concerns that had sprung up since I first made plans to visit there this week. Still, even through the meeting I attended to review progress on initiatives under Deyata Kirula, I could see areas in which more concentrated work would help to promote reconciliation.
Most urgent, at least from my point of view, are mechanisms to encourage students to learn together. Given the demographic composition of the East, with similar proportions of all principal groups, it is absurd that all education is still conducted in regimented separation, through Sinhala or Tamil or Muslim schools. At a recent meeting in Parliament of the Consultative Committee on Education, it was revealed that the ministry would only permit new schools if they were multi-racial, but surely this is a policy that can be pursued proactively. Given the energy of the current administration in the East, and its commitment to pluralism, they should be encouraged to start schools for students of all races and religions, at least at Advanced Level.
Another area in which more and quicker action is desirable is training for women to promote alternative methods of income generation. I was told of a successful Indian aided project to train trainers in diverse new vocations, and it seemed several batches had already started enterprises. Replicating this should be encouraged, perhaps through Samurdhi funds, which still seem to be used as handouts rather than as investments for enterprise development.
Social service organizations
Concentrating on families where otherwise children might be given into care would also help with another problem that was causing great concern, namely the proliferation of children’s homes designed to overcome economic deprivation. As I have discussed in the context of my other responsibility, with regard to expediting implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, the recent policy initiative of the National Child Protection Authority, to promote family support rather than homes, must be supported in every way possible. But there seems to be little coordination in this regard, to ensure that social service organizations, of which there are several in this country, work towards common goals.
The East it seems has more Children’s Homes than any other province except the North, but officials at least seem aware of this. They have also adopted sensible initiatives to overcome the problem of shortages of personnel. Where elsewhere I had heard complaints that there were insufficient Child Protection officials, here a graduate had been entrusted with the responsibilities, which seemed a more useful deployment than happens in general of those employed under the graduate scheme. Given what we were told here too about shortages of Counsellors, I hope government at least takes note of my suggestion that unemployed graduates be trained in counselling, if it is deemed necessary to employ them.
But by and large coordination seemed better than elsewhere. The dichotomy between Central and Provincial government officials had been resolved by ensuring that coordination occurred at Divisional Secretariat level, the most useful as I have found for ensuring close attention to problems on the ground.
And I was delighted to find, in use at the District Secretariat too, which should supervise and monitor such activities, a Handbook for Grama Niladharis which had been produced last year with UNDP assistance. Why this had not been brought to my attention when I asked about duty lists in the North I do not know, though perhaps it was because the duties are not laid out clearly and simply. But this is certainly a start, and if accompanied by instructions as to regular brief reports that highlight problems, it would be a very useful tool for increasing the accountability we must promote.