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Education is one area where we are badly serving the people of the North and rural children in general

by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP

The concerns raised at the last set of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees I facilitated this week in Mullaitivu and Vavuniya, after a long hiatus given an excess of travel in March, were both reassuring and upsetting.

Students at Bharati Vidyalayam, Kilinochchi-pic by: Ramakrishna Mission

This last was because, though problems aplenty were raised, there was appreciation both of what had been done, and the commitment of the government to do more. They were upsetting because in so many simple areas government is simply not acting, in part because government structures are so archaic that they cannot respond swiftly to modern needs.

I do not refer to subjects such as water and electricity and roads, because there is a clear understanding that much has been done, and the rest is planned. The people I was amongst recognized the great strides that had been taken, and that it was impossible to do everything at once.

Though sometimes it might help to make clear why there are priorities, and what the timelines are for what cannot be done straight away, I believe there is general satisfaction with the infrastructure development programme

I will discuss the various issues raised at the meetings later, but here I will look simply at one area where we are really serving the people of the North, and I suspect rural children in general, badly. I refer to education, where there is widespread appreciation of the schools that have been constructed, and the fact that uniforms and books are supplied well on time.

However the lack of teachers is indeed appalling, and also the organizational structure that permits several tiny schools without sufficient teachers to continue to operate. Unfortunately a dogmatic approach to such problems means that there is no concern about education itself, as opposed to a sausage machine that consumes funds without purpose.

The gravity of the problem became clear in the comment of a headmaster who runs a school with 25 students and two teachers. I had suggested to the Department officials that they rationalize, making sure that transport is provided to another school for students at any school which needs to be closed because it is not really providing a decent education.

The headmaster, ignoring what I said, claimed that the closure of the school would mean that 25 children would be deprived of their education. When I questioned him further, as to what he actually did, he said he taught Year 5, which had just one student in it. Last year there had been three, none of whom had passed the scholarship exam.

The same was true in two other schools, one of which had only 15 students. Of course in some cases I was told that there was no school nearby, and I accept that areas from which transport to other schools is difficult should retain what they have.

But I noticed at least a couple of tiny schools within a few kilometers of each other, and I could not understand the failure to rationalize. Incidentally the school with 25 students had no extra-curricular activities, whereas another primary school with 80 had a headmaster who had started societies for additional value for his students.

The problem is, with responsibility for education lying far away, there is simply no monitoring of the situation. This applies too to the appalling lack of teachers since, as I was told everywhere, teachers from better endowed areas seek transfers the moment they are appointed.

As I have noted before, the idea of the President, enunciated in his 2005 budget speech and reiterated since, raised in an adjournment motion by one of our brighter young MPs who serves a rural area, has been completely ignored by the Ministry, and by Provincial Ministries.

I think this is inevitable when there is no actual experience of what is going on in remote areas. Long ago, one of the principal reasons for my support for devolution was not to encourage autonomous units, but rather to promote the principal of subsidiarity, which means that decisions should be made by the smallest possible units affected by such decisions.

For this reason I was initially of the view that the unit of devolution should be the District, and for some time the Liberal Party supported this possibility though later it decided to go with the Province.

Though I thought this would not be productive, I went along with the decision, and I believe that it would make no sense now to revisit that question. There are certain matters, connected with economic and social and employment issues in particular, that will benefit from provincial consultation and perspectives.

But having spent much time now in Divisional Secretariats, and heard the problems of Grama Niladharis and Rural Development Society representatives, I feel that, far from the District making sense, we need to think of empowering Divisional Secretariats with regard to many more matters.

Educational administration for instance, transport facilities, primary health care, water supply and drainage, waste management, child protection and development, all need a close and careful eye, with sympathetic attention to the needs of the local population. These should be included in a simple and straightforward job description for the Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman, whose area of responsibility should be co-terminous with that of the Divisional Secretary.

I would myself go further, and suggest that, instead of the current wasteful system whereby elections are held on a large scale for several members, at vast expense, we should simply have one elected Chief Executive with full executive authority, with a short term of office (perhaps three years) subject to monitoring by Audit and other Committees.

I have been told indeed by the few Liberal Party Pradeshiya Sabha members we have that all authority is concentrated in the Chairman, and the members have hardly any responsibilities except to support the budget. This is particularly important given the rivalries that have built up amongst government politicians, and indeed the Liberal Party actually props up the Chair in the area in question, since the rest of her party have no high opinion of her.

In such a context it would make sense to look instead for elders and respected personalities, who should only have to attend weekly monitoring committee meetings and who would not receive any payment except an allowance for attendance.

There should be a limited number of members of such Committees, elected by Single Transferable vote to ensure wide representation. STV would also help with the increasingly serious problem of women not running to any appreciable degree for such positions.

I know these are radical ideas, but I believe we need to think radically if we are actually to deliver to the majority of our people who are comparatively deprived the services government must give them.

This is not now happening, and there are no plans either in Colombo or in Provincial Capitals to address these issues soon. I will refer in a detailed discussion of the meetings to some of the horror stories I heard, which result not from deliberate neglect, but simply from a system that is no longer accountable.

I believe we must address such problems and, if my solution is unacceptable, I hope there will be suggestions of practical alternatives

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