17th January 1999
The battle lines have been drawn in Wayamba and all guns are booming for the provincial elections next Monday. But are the politicians breaking each other's heads for a body which does little service to the people and for which the people care less.
A survey done by a Sunday Times team of investigative reporters showed that a staggering 75 percent people of the Kurunegala District feel their provincial council is useless or irrelevant while in the Puttalam district, a top official summed up the feelings of the people by describing the provincial councils as an utter failure.
The Provincial Council system hastily introduced 12 years ago was meant as a shot-gun style solution to the country's prolonged ethnic conflict. But, the administrative set-up of PCs is in operation in all parts of the island except the north and east.
The campaign for another Provincial election is entering its peak with six more council elections expected to be held within the year with about 50 members for each council.
Leaving aside the question of whether the PC system has been a solution to the ethnic conflict, whether the councils have helped devolve powers to the provinces and benefited the people needs to be re-examined.
The Government itself has begun to rethink of the provincial council and local government system for which an allocation of over Rs. 21.48 billion is made annually.
A five member committee headed by Dr. H.A.P. Abeywardena, and comprising Prof. Gunapala Nanayakkara, Prof. Siripala Telambura Hettige, J. G. Keerthirathna, and N. Selvakumaran is studying the system to identify shortcomings and suggest necessary changes.
Throughout the years the Provincial Council system has created confusion among the public, officials and even politicians. The expenditure to maintain the system has been high with the cost of vehicles, salaries, telephones, and other facilities.
In addition to drawing a monthly salary of Rs. 18,000, a chief minister is also entitled to an official vehicle with unlimited petrol and phone calls. This includes both land phones and mobiles if they request for any, among other facilities. Similarly provincial ministers and members enjoy a wide range of privileges — both official and unofficial.
Devolution of power was intended to make matters convenient to the public. But whatever was the theory, most people today see only duplication and more bureaucratic red tape. Take for instance the case of teachers who easily obtained their routine transfers are now compelled to go through a gruelling process.
"I have been going from office to office making requests for a transfer but for thirteen years I have been turned back from everywhere," a teacher told The Sunday Times.
The Health Sector is another area that has been seriously affected by conflicts between central and provincial administrations. Indeed this is one of the main issues put forward by the Government Medical Officers Association for its latest round of strike action.
Ironically, Kurunegala where a tough campaign is now being fought was the area in which the biggest conflict arose in the health sector. Doctors struck work last year in a dispute over the appointment of a provincial director of health services.
Failure of the central government to release funds to opposition controlled provinces has been a regular problem not only in the health sector, but also in fields ranging from education to irrigation.
As in the case of the construction of the Chilaw base hospital, the central Government promised six million rupees while the Provincial council agreed to pump in nine million rupees for the project. Eventually the central government backed out leaving the NWP council with the burden of completing the project.
Similarly, throughout the country many projects proposed by the PCs are abandoned or delayed due to the administrative clashes or policy differences with the central Government.
The major contributing factor to the confusion and frustration is the politicisation of the entire system. It begins at the highest level, where the Governor is a political figurehead appointed by the Government of the day. The provincial council ministers are however elected by the people of the province, and can be of a different political party to the Government. This often results in the creation of a battlefield for the different political parties to wage their wars.
Generally, the provincial minister is much more informed about the situation in the province than the central government minister or the Governor. As such his recommendations should generally be followed. But often the central government minister overrides the provincial minister.
While much attention is focused on violence in Wayamba or who will win, The Sunday Times conducted a survey to find out what the ordinary people felt about PCs. Not surprisingly, a massive 75 percent said they felt the PCs were good for nothing. A former Grama Sevaka, Premaratne Batepola from Narammala, summed up the feelings when he said the PCs were irrelevant except in the North and East.
Most people feel that local councils such as the municipal, urban or Pradeshiya Sabhas could do most of the work and PCs are not necessary. But others argued that with the discarding of the electorate system in 1978, PC members are today able to co-ordinate development projects in particular areas as MPs did in their particular electorates earlier.
The Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims living in the North and East do not enjoy the benefits of the Provincial Councils, although the administrative system is in operation minus the political set up. For some of the local politicians the Provincial councils are a stepping stone to enter the Parliamentary system. For others it is a matter of gaining recognition in the area.
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which were totally against the PC system when it was introduced under the controversial Indo-Lanka pact are today two main contenders for the January 25 provincial council elections in Wayamba.
The shift in their policies has undoubtedly been influenced by the fact that the two parties feel that gaining power in the provincial council is vital when the national elections come into play.
The ongoing NWP election campaign is considered an acid test for both main parties the UNP and PA in the backdrop of two crucial national elections, the Parliamentary and Presidential polls due later next year.
Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera on Tuesday described the Wayamba elections as a 'by-election', where the popularity of the ruling party is tested.
This may be one of the reasons why in a hasty attempt to gain the favour of as many voters as possible, reconstruction and maintenance of buildings which have been abandoned for more than two to three years have begun in lightning fashion, just about a month before the elections.
For example, work has suddenly begun on the shopping complex adjoining the Kurunegala Central Bus Depot. that had been started but neglected for over an year.
The Sunday Times reporters toured the Wayamba province to assess how the Provincial Council system has been in operation for the past decade and how the people see the benefits or shortcomings of the system.
We came across a foundation stone which has only been joined by a plaque saying that this is a project under Her Excellency's Government belonging to the Provincial Council and laid by Minister of Health. What else has happened since the laying of it? Nothing.
The Government office buildings were in a bad condition that we were unsure if we should enter the building. Little or no maintenance has been done for many years, not a single roof tile replaced or a painted or broken wall reconstructed. The 30-year-old central Puttalam bus depot was in a better condition than many of the offices we visited.
Delayed transfers, loans, allowances, overtime, unmaintained government buildings, schools and hospitals without proper facilities have become a part of these people's lives, 10 years after the PCs were introduced.
The Puttalam Divisional Secretary had only three words to explain the PC system— 'an utter failure'.
— Reports by Chamintha Thilakaratne, Nilika de Silva, Ayesha Rafiq, Faraza Farook, Wathsala Mendis & Udena Attygalle
Venerable Vankadawala Sumana Thera, Kurunegala
The PC system is not suitable for a small country like Sri Lanka. Money is wasted on the councillors who are not interested in the welfare of the people.
R.G. Renuka, Talawila
It is we who suffer due to a lack of co-ordination among various institutions. If there was one office where we could go to even as far as Colombo and get everything done, things would have been so much easier.
Jayalath Ranasinghe, Puttalam District Divisional Secretary
The provincial council system is a failure. They have not served the purpose for which they were set up.
Nihal Thilakasiri, Kurunegala
The only thing the PCs have done is to provide more jobs for some people. Other than that, it is a platform for politicians to push their political agendas.
A senior official at the Kurunegala Chest Clinic
We get caught in the crossfire between politicians and even power struggle among ministers. The PC should get the support of the central government even if an oppoistion party runs the council.
Twelve years after the introduction of the provincial council system, education officials are still struggling to get used to it, but with little success.
The main outcome: the division of schools into national and other schools. This has only complicated the relevant duties and functions of education offices. Schools, teachers, the salaries, facilities, even students have been labelled to reflect the division. As a result, there are two main types of educational officers, one set belonging to the central government and the other the provincial council.
Ask one hundred people whether the teacher belongs to the provincial council or the central government. Few if any will know.
"National schools are maintained by the central government and the rest by the PC," is all that any official is likely to tell you. What they mean is that national schools are those with upto grade 12 facilities and of a particular standard. They are widely known as the popular schools also.
The popular schools have created a number of serious issues for officials as well as the general public. While many parents are fighting for a place for their children in these schools, much of the attention has turned away from the rest of the schools which suffer as a result.
Even schools coming under the provincial system have begun to concentrate more on achieving national schools status. According to education ministry officials, each year a fairly large number of requests are made to the central education ministry from school authorities wanting to transform the schools to the national category.
On the other hand a larger number of requests come from school officials and parents who complain of lack of assistance to other schools. The assistance they ask for is in the form of more teachers and better facilities. This has also contributed to another issue that has left thousands of students around the island with very little formal education. This is the lack of teachers. Teachers themselves are found to be requesting transfers to either a 'so called' popular school or to a popular school to be.
Each year, about Rs. 16 million is spent on provincial education. And out of about 10,000 schools located island-wide only some 100 are on the national list. The provincial schools have again been classified into various categories.
The 1AB category are the ones with A/L classes in all streams. IC classes running upto A/L but without science, meaning no lab facilities, no science teachers, etc. Type 2 schools will have only upto O/L grades and type 3 schools are primary schools with grades 1-8 or 10. If that is not complicating enough, the provincial office divides into district offices which divides into zonal level offices, where there are six zonal directors. These directors have two deputies for establishment and quality of higher education. The director of zonal establishment, again has 285 divisional officers. They have deputy directors who take care of quality at basic level. This is the hierarchy which is applied to each province. The provincial minister of education and his secretary proceeds these officials.
However, the system has its plus points as well. It has helped reduce the gap between the administrators and the public which existed in the previous system. In short problems and matters within the province itself can be handled at a more local level. The administrators are more accessible than before, leading to closer relations. Complaints and suggestions can be made more easily. But this doesn't necessarily mean that they will be acted upon.
What The Sunday Times team found out was that provincial officials have not been given full authority over education matters to get about their functions. In most instances they are compelled to refer to the central government ministry, since their scope is limited, while the central government refers matters back to the province.
The confusion of authority is obvious. As a result to some extent provincial authorities themselves are helpless in sorting out the issues of the public.
We came across a couple who have been requesting for a transfer for almost thirteen years. They were exhausted, not by the journey but by the bureaucracy. Due to lack of teachers in the rural areas, it is almost impossible for any teacher to get a transfer to a closer proximity in less than five years, according to them. As the couple was about to receive the transfer the administration had shifted to PCs. Since then, they have been going from office to office in search of assistance. But found none.
"For thirteen years I have been requesting for a transfer to Kalutara but without any success. As a result, in my whole married life (13 years) I have not been able to spend one whole month with my family," said Malini Kodituwakku, a school teacher from Welasiya, a remote village miles away from Puttalam.
In the case of transfers out of the province, according to the previous system, the procedure was simple. Once the approval for a transfer is granted from the principal and district director the next step is to send the request to the Ministry in Colombo and get their approval.
In contrast, under the PC system, firstly, they need to be released by the principal, then by the zonal education director, provincial education director who puts it to the teacher transfer committee, then to the provincial education secretary who refers it to the provincial Minister, afterwards to the Education Services Commission which gets the approval of the provincial authorities of which the transfer has been requested.
Later it is sent to the Public Services Commission and then to the secretary of education of the province before transfer is granted.
If objections are raised at any of these levels, the teacher will not receive the transfer. He or she will be compelled to make a fresh request for a teaching post in the area and wait for the paper work to be completed.
Similarly, in the case of principals, there is confusion as to which administrative institution they belong to. This is because some principals of popular schools and provincial education directors belong to the Sri Lanka Education Administrators Society which comes under the central government. When it comes to transferring principals, therefore, certain transfers need to be attended by the central ministry and some by the provincial council. In certain instances, when an appeal has become too confusing, the Attorney General has commented that it is difficult to make a clear decision since the administrative system in itself is not too clear.
The post of Provincial Education Director is one which is a good example for the vague nature of the system. He/she is a dual servant, who has to carry out orders of the central government as well as the PC. The official is left to judge and decide.
To make the task of directors easy and to clarify vague areas of the act and the devolution of functions and powers, the central education ministry has had to organise a monthly meeting with provincial officers.
At the same time, power has been devolved to such an extent that most senior officials are unable to implement orders within the province.
The three district directors under the previous system have been replaced by the 33 zonal directors under PCs. In one instance, a transfer within the province which was approved by the education director was altered by a zonal director on a request. There is no clarity on who is the final authority.
Similarly, under the central government before 1987, instructors were appointed after a national examination. But now, each province has recruited instructors at its own whims and fancies. Thus, there is no proper guide in terms of appointments etc.
In some provinces, instructors are recruited after an interview, test and proof of satisfactory experience. But, these procedures have not been observed in certain other provinces. Instead, they have recruited instructors with an interview only.
Officials who have been assigned to ensure that the system works, themselves are confused as to what the system is all about. They said that teacher training is a example. Short-term training or in-service training is supposed to come under the provincial council, but a training that lasts for two or three years come under the central government, while short term training of teachers in the provinces through instructors is an area handled by the central government.
Special institutions such as schools for the disabled, are caught up in the cross fire between the two institutions. While, projects begun by the PCs are interrupted by the Central Government, and vise versa, leading to the abandonment of the project altogether.
According to provincial and central government officials, they are still getting used to the system which came suddenly upon everybody. One retired senior official explained it as "devolution without evolution."
Meanwhile, the influx of teachers from the outskirts towards towns has led to the closure of a number of schools. That is in addition to the lack of facilities. The maintenance of school facilities and buildings happens according to what type of school it is.
Many believe that national schools get a better deal when it comes to the allocation of funds. Small provincial schools with very little funding seem to be the worst hit by the funding policy.
Rural single building schools with broken down roofs, ramshackle wall, are a common sight. Funds for these schools come from the PCs. Meanwhile, national schools are comparatively well maintained.
Sports is a vital aspect of education, but it is neglected in most schools in the country, because of the pressure to achieve high academic standards.
The sports arena at school level was also heavily influenced by the PC system .Sports events at circuit, district and provincial level have come into prominence.
These events act as qualifying standards for national level sporting events like the annually held National Schools Games. By popularising sports at a more local level the influence on sports seems to have been largely positive. Many students who would otherwise have not got the chance of competing have been able to do so.
However, the work load of the education ministry has not eased off.
While people from provinces crowd themselves in the ministry, officials have been compelled to offer services which are expected to come under the purview of the provincial council. This is in addition to assisting provincial officials get about their work.
A senior retired education officer said that ironically the work load has increased. To whom the system has served is a question yet been explored.
Next week: The Sunday Times will probe the health and transport sectors under the provincial councils system
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