Last week's story in this newspaper about the creation of 'Jana Sabhas' or People's Councils took many by surprise.
From the little we know, these are councils the Government hopes to 'appoint' (as opposed to being elected) to monitor grassroots-level development activity. And even more significantly, they are to be given wide powers over the elected local councils and even the Provincial Councils, having veto powers as well over those elected councils. They are not going to be mere ornamental advisory committees. In short, not only can they initiate projects but also dispose of any project proposed by those elected councils. Seemingly, they will be the 'super council' over and above the elected bodies.
That the story emerged in a news item and not an official Government announcement, and more so in the wake of the Local Government elections is moot. Furthermore, that it came ahead of the Cabinet decision this week to create a supra corporation that will encompass the Municipalities and councils in Colombo and the Greater Colombo area gives a clear message that the Government intends turning the elected local government system of representation in this country, on its head.
The administration will turn around and say that had the people read its policy statement, viz., the Mahinda Chintanaya, under the sub-title 'a prosperous village' they would have seen that President Mahinda Rajapaksa refers to these 'Jana Sabhas'. "My life has been blessed by winds of purity and fragrance that sweep across the fields of Kurakkan (millet) in our villages," he says in this manifesto and speaks of a Gama Neguma (Village Reawakening) programme through micro-centres of growth, on modern lines, with e-libraries and knowledge centres, while retaining the features of rural life linked through a Secretariat.
On Friday, while speaking to national newspaper editors the President elaborated on this saying that these councils will be something akin to the Gramodaya Mandalayas that already exist. "It is the people in the area who know of their priorities. They will know if they need electricity first or a road to the jetty to transport their produce," he said citing an example in his native Hambantota. He said there were some areas that did not have a Member of Parliament representing them, and that some 40 percent of the Grama Sevaka divisions in the country were unrepresented in Parliament. "This scheme will ensure that money is spent evenly," he added, explaining that these councils (Jana Sabhas) will comprise retired school principals, public servants, and religious dignitaries, while the Assistant Government Agent will be the council's secretary.
All is well and good; but the question that begs an answer is whether or not the elected representatives to various Local Government councils and Provincial Councils, apart from the MPs -- all paid salaries from the State's purse -- are also not "people in the area". More than 2,000 councillors were elected just a week ago.
That these new ventures are to come under the purview of the Ministry of Economic Development - and not Local Government, might surely raise a few eyebrows. Questions will surely be raised about the constitutional validity of creating a 'super body' over and above the elected councils already provided for decentralization and devolution of power in the constitution.
There is little argument that the efficiency of these elected Local Government councils, and Provincial Councils is under severe scrutiny. The quality of the candidates thrown up for these elected bodies is there to be seen. The larger municipalities have grown over the years to be obese dens of corruption and mismanagement.
Provincial Councils, especially, introduced as they were to appease a demand for federalism and separation in the North and East have become 'white elephants' only duplicating the work of the Central Government and Local Government councils, and confusing the citizen in the process. We have long advocated a return to the District Councils as the more suitable unit of devolution for a country of the geographical size of Sri Lanka.
These 'Jana Sabhas' seem therefore to be a move in a completely different direction; something that is aimed to be an innovation of the Rajapaksa administration. A former US House of Representatives Speaker Tip O'Neill was fond of saying that in the end all politics is local. Political battles are arguably won and lost not at Sri Jayawardenepura, but in the workplaces, paddy fields, town halls, hospitals, schools, high streets etc., up and down and across the country. And in these 'Jana Sabhas', the Government must be seeing new vistas to control development at the grassroots, and thereby control the electoral politics of the future.
The danger will be if these councils turn out to be no different to the existing elected councils with large bureaucracies manning the Secretariat. If they too become riddled with political 'yes men' and those who only wish to feather their nests, the combination is a recipe for disaster.
One of the key factors in good governance, whether at the apex or at the grassroots, is accountability to the stakeholders -- the people. Earlier this month, we published a report on the criminal wastage of public funds in the construction of a highway in the East (Chenkalady to Maha Oya). This cost a stupendous Rs. 411 million for a four kilometre stretch. The road to Jaffna reconstructed last year is in shambles already.
These projects may not come directly under the ambit of the proposed 'Jana Sabhas', but the principle is the same. Why this Government is not bringing forth the draft Freedom of Information Law remains a mystery best known only to it. Such a law provides the ordinary citizens with the opportunity of finding out what development work is being done (or not being done) in their locality and the costs incurred.
This law came into force in India when the poor villagers of Rajasthan realised that a community centre meant for them was built in their councillor's private garden as part of his property 'development'.
So, if the intention of the ‘Jana Sabhas' is to empower the village, there must be a mechanism by which the simplest villager is able to monitor the monitors. This is particularly so, when even the rudimentary 'weapon' they have in their armoury, that of electing or ejecting their representative to the council is being taken away from them.