By Prof. Wiswa Warnapala
The alarming increase in the rate of shameful incidents involving the political leadership of the local government institutions and the failure on the part of these institutions to execute their responsibilities in the urban and semi-urban areas prompt one to critique the nature of local administration in the country.
Sri Lanka, since the early thirties, evolved as a model social welfare State and she devoted a substantial amount of State expenditure for the maintenance of social services, some of which were effectively delivered by the local government institutions.
This kind of growth in social welfare expenditure became a prominent feature of the post-independence development pattern in Sri Lanka. No Asian country has gone as far as Sri Lanka in the direction of a social welfare State, and the emphasis on social welfare policies was largely, if not entirely, due to political factors; the introduction of adult suffrage and the mass pressure exerted via this route was yet another vital factor which contributed to the extension of social welfare.
Every government, irrespective of its political ideology, wanted to make certain concessions to the poor and the needy, the working class and the oppressed peasantry, through a number of channels, including primarily the local government institutions which were engaged in the delivery of basic services and amenities; for instance, the delivery of certain health care benefits and services.
With this kind of priority given to the extension of social welfare and the delivery of such benefits through the local government institutions, a developed infra-structure consisting of a comprehensive health care system came into being, with an emphasis on primary and preventive care.
The welfare-oriented development style, which this country followed in the last several decades, helped to develop a comprehensive health care system, with both curative and preventive aspects.
The primary health care infra-structure, before independence, came to be composed of trained village midwives and public health nurses, first established in 1927 and later expanded into a simple network with a cadre of Public Health Inspectors (PHIs), whose itinerant advisory services, more in the nature of minor health advisers, were primarily in the area of preventive care.
With the establishment of a network of rural hospitals, dispensaries, maternity homes, such facilities, to a larger extent, were made available within a range of three to five miles.
It was in this background that the local government institutions came to share some of the responsibilities in the delivery of health care benefits to people, living in rural, semi-urban and urban areas, and the system came to be administered by the respective local government institutions such as Gam Sabha or the Village Committees, Town Councils, Urban Councils and Municipal Councils.
Indigenous care, too, was provided by a network of hospitals and dispensaries though it came very late in the Donoughmore period due to the genuine efforts of late S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike.
Therefore, the national health policy, which, in terms of public policy, constitutes a priority area in the social welfare edifice and it aimed at the provision of comprehensive health care to the entire population through a national, provincial, district and local network of institutions.
In addition to the central institutions in charge of the health care delivery system, there is a network of local government institutions engaged in the delivery of both curative and preventive services. It was due to the cooperation of all these bodies, including those voluntary institutions engaged in the care of children and the elderly, the national health indicators of Sri Lanka reached a comparatively satisfactory level in terms of international standards.
It, when compared with the other low income and middle income countries in the South Asian Region, was considerably high, and such indicators as the death rate, infant mortality and maternal mortality rates, gave a better status to the country. Life expectancy, too, is included in the impressive achievement in the area of health care.
This, therefore, meant that the preventive care services have been successful, primarily in the region of disease control and health education for which local government institutions at different levels, made a significant contribution.
However, despite all glib talk of progress and development, the diseases resulting from unsatisfactory conditions such as the lack of clean water, poor housing, congestion in slums, unhygienic environment and the lack of sanitary facilities, continue to affect the current national health condition in Sri Lanka.
In fact, the alarming growth and spread of dengue is one aspect of the failure of the local government institutions in the discharge of their responsibilities.
Some of the main causes of poor health, sanitary facilities, and poor environmental hygiene could be successfully eliminated with the adoption of correct strategies by local government institutions operating in Municipal, Urban and semi-urban areas as these areas have been recognised as the major centres of dengue breeding.
The existing imbalances in the provision of health care services of the different sectors, for instance, Municipal and urban town, village and estate sectors are an area of concern. Each sector has some kind of popularly elected local government institution, through which an effective preventive care policy could be projected.
It needs to be emphasised that Town Councils do not exist anymore, and they, too, have been absorbed into the existing Pradeshiya Sabhas which now encompass a very large area, which, in fact, is coterminous with the Divisional Secretary division.
Hence, such a concerted strategy needs to concentrate on preventive care, and this, above all, needs an institutional apparatus to mobilise the support and direct participation of the people in the given locality, where the political party rivalries are a marked tendency. This, in other words, demands greater emphasis on Primary Health Care (PHC) approach as it gives prime consideration to both curative and preventive services.
Local government institutions, as they are institutionally close to the resident population, could play an important role in the area of preventive care. A micro-analysis type of study needs to be undertaken to examine the loopholes in the role of the local government institutions in the delivery of health care benefits.
Local government institutions have played an effective role in the provision of health care services since the inception. In fact, the development of local government institutions in the early period of British rule was partly associated with the provision of basic sanitary facilities.
The Small Town Sanitary Ordinance of 1892 established Sanitary Boards, an incipient local government institution, and their main functions relating to the needs of small townships, covered such activities as public health and sanitation, conservancy, scavenging, lighting, drainage and latrines, supervision of markets and places used for sale of food and drink, laundries and dairies.
They were also empowered to provide public utility services such as water supply. Under the Ordinance of 1893, the Local Boards of Health were established for smaller towns and their powers were similar to those of Sanitary Boards.
Though these institutions formed the system from which Municipal and Urban councils developed in the mid-nineteenth century, they were primarily bodies that came under the control of the colonial bureaucracy, for instance, the Government Agent had a direct link with these institutions, and they, as the Donoughmore Commission pointed out, “dealt largely with matters of sanitation”.
A network of local government institutions developed with Municipal Councils, established in 1865, and they included the local institutions in the urban and semi-urban areas.
This structure of local government institutions embraced such bodies as Sanitary Boards, Local Boards, and Urban District Councils; Town Council Ordinance of 1946 brought small towns, which hitherto remained under Sanitary Boards and Local Boards, under a scheme of Town Councils.
Health care and sanitation became a basic function of these local government institutions and they evolved on the need to administer the basic needs of a local population pertaining to health care, primarily preventive care.
As the council area as well as its population was small and the economic activity was slow in its development, the functioning of these institutions remained stable and the responsibilities were discharged with comparable efficiency, mainly because of the vigilance of the elected member representing the Ward.
It was the abolition of the old Ward system which completely transformed the local government administration during the last two decades, resulting in the present deterioration of these institutions as true ‘grass-root’ democratic institutions.
The most visible, neglected function of the present local government institutions is the disposal of garbage and it is partly due to the manner in which the people dispose of their garbage; the cities are being beautified but the common sight is that road-sides are full of piles of garbage uncollected for days and weeks by the relevant local authority.
There is much public opposition to this practice but the main issue is the absence of an identifiable people representative to whom this matter could be referred to and addressed. In the past, there was the identifiable elected representative who would immediately attend to such requests from the public.
This was the reason which influenced the Select Committee on Electoral Reform to recommend the establishment of the Ward system for the local government institutions. Though the relevant legislation was prepared, it has not been passed, unfortunately by Parliament due to the role of a particular regional political party which looks at the issue from a narrow regional and communal point of view.
The Municipal Councils, which form the apex of the local government structure, are engaged broadly in promoting the comfort, convenience and welfare of the people in the Municipal areas and in developing amenities in the field of public health, public utility services, and public thoroughfares.
The functions, which come within the specific category of public health services, are comparatively large and therefore, one tends to think that the municipalities are primarily engaged in the provision of public health services such as the administration of conservancy and scavenging of services, garbage disposal, storage disposal, maternity and child care, milk feeding centres, family planning clinics, disease control through vaccination, public baths, free dispensaries, recreation centres, veterinary services and a host of similar activities which fall within the category of curative and preventive health care.
In this manner, Municipalities and Urban councils make a substantial contribution to the primary health care system in Sri Lanka. These local government institutions need to be galvanised into action to achieve the targets of preventive care as they can make a substantial contribution, and they, as at present, should be closely examined to find why these local institutions have failed.
There are two issues which need investigation; firstly, the failure of these local government institutions in the delivery of health welfare benefits, and secondly, the inadequacies in the system which interfere with the effective delivery of health welfare services. Immediate attention needs to be paid to identify the ways and means of improving the institutional base of the delivery of the services and the current problems and constraints in the delivery of health care benefits.
A national investigation is necessary at this juncture as the “development from below” is a questionable theory because the powers devolved at the provincial level is yet another important factor. A single Ministry cannot be expected to tackle the above as the magnitude of the problem has far exceeded the boundaries of a local matter.
The efficiency of local government institutions depends primarily on the quality of people elected as administrators of the present network of local government institutions. They were a set of representatives from whom the national political leadership was recruited in the past and most leaders began their political careers in these institutions, which, in fact, became the recruiting ground for future leaders.
Today, there are around 3,542 positions (1991) to be filled at this level. It, therefore, means that through political office-holding, a new hierarchy of politicians has emerged at this level, resulting in a revitalisation of village level politics in Sri Lanka. In 1956, it was described as “the alternative village leadership” from which Bandaranaike recruited his band of supporters, who came from the rural elite, whose substance was different from the present day leaders at this level.
The system of proportional representation, unlike under the first-past-the-post system, produced a category of local politicians, whose shameful actions, ranging from open thuggery, abuse of power, rape to assault, are reported in the daily newspapers. It is disturbing to see that the political parties are silent regarding this destructive trend in the local politics of the country.
Political leadership at this level has deteriorated to such a level due entirely to the kind of individual promoted as the party candidate by the recognised political parties. The blame, singularly, needs to be placed at the doorstep of the political party.
Citizens across the country, including fair-minded politicians, have been alarmed at the increasingly large number of reports, appearing regularly, on the nature and content of the deterioration of politics and lack of probity among the political leaders.There is indeed a crisis of credibility and confidence in the local politician.
Leaders, too, cannot effectively voice the need to cleanse the system of undesirable elements because some of the culprits are active clients of powerful individuals. The choice of leaders has been restricted by political parties nominating known criminals or drug dealers as candidates; such individuals include those who have amassed wealth and raised private armies to intimidate the electorate.
Sri Lankan political parties have been imprudent in choosing candidates, and thorough assessments have not been made as to the ability and capacity of those nominated to direct the affairs of an institution. They are chosen not because they are competent but because they can “buy the votes” by spending millions and by exerting and employing influence through various undemocratic and underworld tactics.
There are different roads to notoriety, and most of the elected persons at this level have converted notoriety into a valuable political resource. It is this practice that has perhaps prevented the skilled and the talented from entering local legislatures.
In the recent past, the Sri Lankan electorate, with all its volatility and experience, displayed a marked tendency to reject honest people with educational qualifications and experience. James Bryce has written, “Treat are the blessings of equality; but what follies are committed in its name”. This is an apt description in the Sri Lankan electoral context.
As John Locke says, government is a relationship built on trust, and it is this trust that has been betrayed by the local government politicians by indulging in unethical and illegal practices.
Such individuals are unfit to exercise political power, even at the lowest local level, over his fellow men and women, who are the voters, Such individuals, as the Sri Lankan experience amply demonstrates, are disinterested in the needs of the locality; instead they satisfy their own desires and interests, for which power and office are employed as a powerful instrument, and the eternal struggle to obtain benefits, both financial and material, has become the style of leadership, for which powerful party stalwarts provide both official and personal support.
Informal links with the powerful have become an effective political resource. Such individuals receive governmental benefits in exchange for political support for a powerful politician in the area.This is a vicious circle operating at the local level, which political parties ought to be ashamed of and concerned about.
Local government institutions have been set up to transfer power to the people on the basis of the concept of “power to the people”, and it was rightly thought that the system, with its expansion, would be more democratic and more efficient in the delivery of services; the purpose overtly was to generate a larger interest in good governance.
Today, under a form of representation described more democratic, some amateurs have taken over these institutions and the majority of the leadership at this level has abused power and responsibility entrusted to them.
This criticism is not aimed at stressing the need to resurrect the leadership of the “notables’ of the Donoughmore period, but to convince the established political parties to change the quality and the profile of those nominated as power-brokers at the local level.
Indeed, the country is not devoid of suitable candidates who could be trained as good managers of local government institutions. The political parties have to make a genuine effort to cleanse the local leadership of undesirable rowdy elements who have tarnished the good name of political parties.
Management of a local government is a serious task, requiring honesty, ability, vision, attention and care.It should not be treated as a form of patronage extended to relatives and friends who help the leading politicians to collect manapes (preferential votes) at a general election. This is an aspect of a quasi-feudal tradition, which, a modern political party should not adopt as a policy. This, at present, is totally discredited.
Over the years, the face of local government institutions has undergone a dramatic transformation, and it was thought that it produced the true representative of the people through the PR system of representation. New representatives it produced at this level illustrate the nature of the changing profile of the local politician who is, not at all, interested in public good.
Hooliganism of a rare kind has entered the chambers of local councils and their rowdy behaviour at council meetings is a common occurrence.The concern of the local politician is to make use of his position to amass wealth and influence; enough examples could be quoted to prove the point, which is probably subject to controversy.
One might be able to say that the changing profile of the local political leadership has a direct relationship to the local socio-economic and development profile of the locality. The arrival of large development projects is to the great advantage of the local politician who knows the manner in which it can be used to his advantage, and it, above all, enhances the spheres of his influence.
Hence, the aforementioned changing profile of the local politician has directly contributed to the inevitable politicization of the local public bureaucracy. The local government institutions, as stated earlier, cannot function efficiently with a view to performing functions as required by the needs of the locality because the leadership in these institutions has a different agenda, according to which certain services, from which various gains could be extracted, receive priority.
The provision of basic services, as the disposal of garbage, suffers, and the leaders, more than to voters, extend loyalty to the party apparatus as it is the ultimate authority deciding on nominations.
What really concerns those at the top is how many bus loads the politician is able to bring in for the May Day or for the Party Anniversary.
This deteriorating trend could be arrested by introducing the Ward system as proposed by the Select Committee on Electoral Reforms, through which the elected member could be made answerable and accountable to the electorate.
Such a change is certain to transform the performance of the local government institutions, whose constant and effective intervention, for instance, in the delivery of preventive health care would guarantee the improvement of environmental hygiene and sanitation, which is certain to make a positive impact on the energies and functions devoted to the eradication of diseases such as dengue in the country.