By Salma Yusuf
The residue of the three decade conflict is manifest in the fractured communities where suspicion, distrust, fear and accusation are rife.
Following the conclusion of the war, the need has arisen for regaining trust and confidence whilst renegotiating values of coexistence between and within communities. It is in this context that the People’s Council in Wattegedara was established, in a bid to rebuild non – violent societies empowered with self – reliance.
THE PLEA FROM RESETTLEMENT VILLAGES
The ability to have a voice through a representative village institution coupled with the choice to plan and implement their own village programmes is what has come through as the persistent plea from the resettlement villages. The virtue of coexistence rooted at the grassroots level through People’s Councils will make it easier to transform perceived unjust social relationships, such as bias towards one community or the other, to more just ones. Premised upon this plea and virtue, the People’s Council in Wattegedara was set up.
Potentially, Sri Lanka can have over 14, 000 self – reliant Peoples Councils. The case of how Wattegedara, an agricultural village 80 km away from Colombo in the Kurunegala District, established a People’s Council illustrates a potential model for structuring such Councils island – wide.
THE WATTEGEDARA MODEL
Wattegedara has a population of approximately 4000 people with an estimated 860 registered voters. People of the village conducted an election for identifying suitable representatives based on their interests such as Heritage, Food, Production, Women and Youth, and Services catering for Education, Health and other utility needs. Interested sector candidates had personally met the voters, who then had the chance of evaluating the candidates as to their suitability to contribute to the respective interest. On the day of the elections, the registered voters gathered at a central location, cast their ballots and at the close of polls, designated a respected officer in the village to count and declare the winners of each sector to constitute the nine member People’s Council. The villagers said that the elected representatives would remain under close supervision, and any of the elected who failed to deliver on the tasks given by voters under the respective sector would be recalled and the position transferred to another.
The established People’s Council therefore comprised nine members: five members being from each sector, namely, Heritage including senior citizens and protectors of culture and environment of the village; Women; Food Producers including farmers and fishermen; Youth; and Service Providers including teachers, physicians, traders and technicians. Two members were identified in proportion to the number of voters from each sector. Additionally, members were nominated by the seven elected members from religious leaders in the village and a village share holder joint venture company that provided services in marketing and management.
THE COST OF OPERATION AND SELF – RELIANCE
Concurrent village development is essential for the reconciliation process and to ensure that an inclusive approach is adopted towards nation building. Accordingly, for such Peoples Councils to remain sustainable there needs to be a direct allocation of funds from the State to villages across the country, roughly estimated at LKR 3 million annually as a basic cost. The Council members would receive no endowments and will serve in a voluntary capacity, as is the case with Trustees of places of worship in the country.
Further, the Peoples Council would be responsible for policies and implementation of projects affecting the village in the sectors identified. The main objective, therefore, of the Peoples Council is to guide the village in the path of self – reliance and make it functional as much as it can without outside assistance.
Considering the benefits to the people as a result of establishing the People’s Council at Wattegedera is useful when proposing the model for replication in other parts of the country.
REGULAR CONSULTATION BETWEEN REPRESENTATIVES AND ELECTED GROUPS
The elected Peoples Council, although without no legal basis, functions as the voice of the village. Regular consultation meetings of the Council are held and each of the candidates holds regular meetings with the sector interest groups which also include those candidates who were not elected. Sector plans and village plans made out of the coordinated effort are hence facilitated through such consultations ensuring that gaps are not created. Any activity outside the plan is generally discouraged.
A ROLE IN THE NATIONAL BODY POLITIC
The Peoples Council of the village will be the Electoral College for the Pradeshiya Sabha and the District Council. This system ensures that it is those who are knowledgeable that will represent the public in both these Councils. The constant discussion in the village on issues can be communicated to Members of Parliament and the Cabinet so that both Parliament and the Government will have an authentic source of information as to the peoples’ opinion on issues of national and public concern.
COORDINATED PEOPLE PRESSURE ON GOVERNMENT OFFICERS
Public utility faults that remained unattended for an extended period of time were finally addressed. The establishment of the Peoples Council reversed the situation where villagers had previously been at the mercy of village development and technology extension officers for receiving assistance in the guise of favours. Formation of the People’s Council has provided some power to the Council members where the officers are now aware that they are under the watchful eyes of the people. Further, there seems to be a visible change in the attitude of the government officers towards the public, and awareness that the public is closely watching them is leading to greater efficiency and accountability.
BETTER BARGAINING POWER
Farmers as individuals are generally considered credit unworthy by the banking system in the country. Lack of collateral makes it more difficult to access credit. After the formulation of the People’s Council there has been noted an increasing tendency for group activity by which peer – pressure and collective responsibility are having a positive impact on loan payments. In such an environment, the village is likely to gain the confidence of the financial institutions as credit-worthy for financial support.
THE WAY FORWARD
Reconciliation, being the need of the hour, can be facilitated and fast – tracked by helping people to achieve self-reliance and resorting to sustainable ventures. This requires effective policy instruments to ensure it is implemented at the level of every village.
Further, People’s Councils seem to offer a practical alternative to meet people’s varying aspirations for self – reliance and good governance through accountability and effective use of resources. For the spirit of reconciliation to work, everyone, particularly those directly affected by the war must be involved in securing livelihoods of choice within their own localities.
Therefore, every village, similarly working towards achieving self-reliance and capable of managing its affairs, inter-locked with neighbouring villages, could be the natural building blocks for national reconciliation.