New reality in urban development

The results of yesterday's elections to the 17 Municipalities and remaining local councils which could not poll in the previous two phases will filter in today.

The outcome, quite unfortunately, would be a test of political strength rather than the election of the wise, the honest, and the selfless. For the Government, it is a prestige issue --whether it can wrest the big cities, especially Colombo, that has long eluded it. For the main opposition United National Party, the test is to ensure its last bastion doesn't fall into Government hands, as so many councils have fallen like nine-pins elsewhere in the country in recent times.

Local Government has a long history in Sri Lanka. The Gam Sabhas in the time of ancient kings comprised the respected village elders. Elected representation began in the last century. They were stepping stones to young politicians who later made a name for themselves in national politics. Today many young politicians cut their teeth in Provincial Councils that have not just duplicated local government, but complicated it.

Provincial Councils made local government bodies swell their ranks. Sri Lanka has one of the highest politicians to citizens ratios in the world. And yet, we see a country crying for democracy, and political power concentrated in the hands of a few individuals with a micro-managing Executive President at the apex.

The Government abandoned all plans to reintroduce the Ward system that was prevalent in the old days when they called for these elections. Then citizens at least had a Ward member to represent them in their local council, and to whom they could go for redress. At yesterday's polls it is safe to say that the majority of the voters would have no clue of the people they were voting for. On the other hand,almost all elected Municipalities are responsible for permitting their cities to turn into veritable unplanned slums over the decades -- the issuance of unauthorized Certificates of Conformity having been the order of the day by elected councillors either for a financial consideration, or to win voter support. Of late, central planning has, however, been imposed with the advent of the Urban Development Authority doing the work of the Municipalities under the wings of the Ministry of Defence.

There has indeed been a visible improvement in the services provided to rate-payers. People who were on the payroll of these Municipalities for services from collecting garbage to disposing of it, have been forced to earn their keep without shamming while massive campaigns to clean blocked waterways and fight the dengue menace among other things - work these Municipalities were supposed to be doing, is now being done, no doubt with the help of the military.

While there is ostensibly no bayonet behind the backs of contracted workers to get a job done, the military inspired campaigns have been styled 'the Chinese method' i.e. with a little bit of authoritarianism instilled. Arguments there are that modernization cannot be carried out without the demolition of unauthorized structures, however heartrending the human saga is. There is, of course, the need for greater transparency and accountability that is almost entirely missing in the redrawing of Colombo's real estate map, especially when it comes to the outright sale of land to foreign buyers.

Will therefore, the re-emergence of elected representatives to these councils be for the better or the worse for the inhabitants? There are always competing interests. For instance, no council or even the Government dared implement a proposal to ban the use of two-stroke tuk-tuks in the cities, something most Asian cities have done. There is substantive evidence that the poisonous emissions from these three-wheelers have a direct bearing on the rising incidence of asthma among children. The increasing number of these vehicle owners has clout, while the children don't.

There is credible speculation that should the Opposition win at least some of the councils, the Government would merely dissolve them in a short time and manage them through a Special Commissioner as has regularly been the case in the past. This makes the elections a sham. Should the ruling party win, how these elected councillors will run a puppet administration is left to be seen.

The situation we have now is therefore a curious mix. Elected councils have long been corrupt and inefficient. Neither are they the nurseries for budding politicians. Then there are the utterly useless Provincial Councils which continue to function, or more to the point, malfunction, because however useless they may be for the administration of this country, the Government is strait-jacketed by the 13th Amendment and international pressure for devolution to the North and the East. On the reverse side of the same coin is the Defence Secretary who played a decisive role in the defeat of terrorism in Sri Lanka, now eager to play a role in the post-war development of the major cities, instilling into the process an element of discipline to motorists, pedestrians, environmental cleanliness and the like, long lacking here.

He is not likely to walk away from a job half done even if the Opposition takes control of some of these councils, and certainly not if the ruling party wins them.

Faced with these ground realities, what might be the best option is to make sure that this curious mix works; elected representation to ensure that there is no sham democracy at the grassroots, but the muscle from the Government to get things done irrespective of cheap political considerations. Such a mix will no doubt be a novel experiment in local government, but if the end justifies the means, it might not be a bad thing after all.

From : Rohan I
Sri Lanka is yet to see a leader who has the will and ability to
make a change to the due " value of human life" of its citizens.All recent
elections of this country was a test of political strength of the selfless.

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Editorial Archive 2011 
09th January 2011 - Reciprocity to visitors
23rd January 2011 - Food crisis: The balanced diet
06th February 2011 - Independence 2011 and beyond
13th February 2011 - The message from Egypt
20th March 2011 - Be with Japan, be prepared
27th March 2011 - Without FIA, more sabhas will mean more crooks
03rd April 2011 - Sports: Heroes and villains
10th April 2011 - Move towards direct democracy
17th April 2011 - A report that seeks to open old wounds
24th April 2011 - Clinically shred war crimes allegations
01st May 2011 - May Day: Distress call from migrant workers
08th May 2011 - Global 'dupli-macy' and what’s fair in war
15th May 2011 - The light of Asia and the Dhammadvipa
22nd May 2011 - Diplomatic debacle
29th May 2011 - India destabilising Lanka again
05th June 2011 - The reality and the rhetoric
12th June 2011 - Stop the pressure, give space to LLRC
19th June 2011 - Revise the Indo-Lanka accord
26th June 2011 - Damning NAM
03rd July 2011 - Govt. says ‘No’ to a modern citizen’s Right
10th July 2011 - People in the dark in every way
17th July 2011 - Mumbai attacks: Lessons for Lanka
24th July 2011 - Govt. ignoring epidemic of corruption
31st July 2011 - Communal politics must end
07th August 2011 - MoD report notwithstanding, time bomb ticking away
14th August 2011 - Sound the alarm on nuclear issue
21st August 2011 - HR allegations: Act wisely before it's too late
28th August 2011 - Miles to go towards democracy
04th September 2011 - Law enforcement gone to the Grease Demons
11th September 2011 - US must turn its searchlight inward
18th September 2011 - Foreign policy: Walk the talk
25th September 2011 - Palestine: World peace itself at stake
02nd October 2011 - The case against the General
09th October 2011 - New reality in urban development
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