The Sunday Leader

Challenges Facing The Next Govt

By Lionel Guruge

With President Maithripala Sirisena’s recent move of dissolving parliament, Sri Lanka is now caught up in the excitement of an upcoming Parliamentary election. The weeks leading up to it will be intense; complete with much discussion and fierce competition, and finally a group will emerge victorious, and form a new government. This article is not a discussion about election predictions; instead, it wishes to focus on discussing the issues that need to be addressed, regardless of the party that comes to power. The government that will be elected on the 17th of August will be handed a mandate along with their position of power, and these politicians will have to work in unison with the President to deliver credible progress for the nation and its citizens.

Plans for the future of this nation can no longer be made in a whim, or for the purposes of gaining false popularity; the next government along with the President must set realistic goals based on the ground reality of the issues people face, and work towards these goals in a manner that will provide a sustainable and indigenous solution to national issues.

 

Political challenges

It is no secret; one of our main and recurring issues that have continued to plague Sri Lanka for decades is the lack of conciliation or now, reconciliation, especially since the conclusion of the civil war. If this topic was to be addressed in the correct manner and if true reconciliation was achieved, it is also no secret that Sri Lanka will achieve great success. For this purpose then, the political climate of Sri Lanka needs adjustments, and those that govern and represent us in Parliament must take a more prominent stance in setting policies in place to assuage the situation.

To achieve this, the need for a new, ‘home-grown’ Constitution that is formulated with the incorporation of the thoughts and suggestions of civil society grows ever more apparent. This Constitution should give more scope for the sentiments of the public, starting from village level, and not be biased towards the personal agendas of political parties or their leaders. To formulate this Constitution, there must be consideration given to a number of themes that cross a broad spectrum of society, and give rise to almost all the issues troubling the country.

The sentiment of reconciliation is as much a social construct as it is a political one, and as such the issue can be remedied by taking action on a national policy level. To this effect, a commission for reconciliation and national unity must be established, and although this must be mandated and regulated by the government, it must maintain a high degree of independence. This commission should be set in place to represent the community in a holistic manner, taking a neutral and non partisan stance during conflicts of ethnic or religious nature, and work towards embedding national unity and the forging of a national identity deep into the foundations of society. If policies are formulated on a national level and implemented effectively, society will ultimately acquire the notion of national unity and national identity.

Why did a multicultural nation such as Sri Lanka, so rich in history and diversity, become ridden by a civil war for 30 years? What must be done to avoid a repetition of such an ugly history is to acknowledge that this nation is made up of a diverse population of ethnicities, cultures, traditions, and religions. The government must therefore realise the aspirations of these varying populations and encompass their sentiments into the new Constitution. All tiers of governance ranging from Pradeshiya Sabha to the Central government must use this sentiment as a common denominator in all the policies and actions they take towards the betterment of the members of their constituency.

There must also be a sense of equality prevalent amongst all government officers, irrespective of whether they belong to the Central Government or the Provincial Council. This change of attitude can be brought about by an appropriate devolution of powers. Pradeshiya Sabha, Provincial Council and Central government officers should be clearly educated on their tasks and duties, and execute them as such. There must also be a Finance Commission set in place to appropriate state funds in an effective manner, and this Commission must stand as an independent body answerable only to the Parliament and not coming under the control of the ministry or the Central Bank.

Right to Education, Health, and Right to Life must also be included in the fundamental rights chapter of the Constitution. Whilst giving greater independence to the government service, government officers should be given the jurisdiction to take immediate action to deliver their duties to the public.

There must be legal recognition allowing civil society collectives to assist in governance from a District, Provincial, and Central government level.

A mixture of the Proportional Representation and First-Past-the-Post electoral systems that have been suggested in the 20th Amendment should be tailor-made and streamlined in a way that will suit the nation and be included in the new Constitution. When nominating candidates for elections, it must be done keeping in mind the needs of the citizenry and thus should not represent the personal biases of party leaders.

As assistance to the strengthening the Elections Commission, internal party democracy must also be strengthened. Likewise, there must be strict regulations imposed on the total amount a political candidate may expend for his campaigns so as to minimise corruption and bribery.

The Right to Information bill and the Audit Act should be two of the main documents the next government should attempt to pass in Parliament.

With the conclusion of the war, the Sri Lankan government had to face a wide range of issues, and increased pressure from the international community. As a means of coping with these issues, the LLRC was appointed and its report was issued. However, the recommendations listed in that report were either implemented haphazardly, or not at all. No sustainable actions have been taken towards the aims listed out in the report. Presently, there is an allegation against the Sri Lankan government from the UN Human Rights Commission and necessary steps have not been taken to address these allegations. A plan of action can definitely be taken to remedy any wrongs committed during the war taking the content of the LLRC recommendations as a foundation, including rightful compensation and establishing rule of law in the country, which includes equality in the face of law.

 

Economic issues

The next government will have a herculean task set before them with regard to the economy of the nation.

For a nation that claims a Gross National income to be USD 4000 per individual, as an overall figure, this shows severe disparity between the high income and low income groups of Sri Lanka. This is owing to the fact that the majority of the country’s GDP is enjoyed by a smaller but wealthier section of society, leaving the less fortunate persons in dire straits. Social and economic equality is cornerstone to a prosperous society, and thus a prosperous nation. Therefore this issue must be addressed wisely. To do this, not only is there a need for state intervention, but a revamping of society’s mindset as well. Sri Lankans have been conditioned to the notions of welfare and charity, thus a majority have not been educated on how to seek other sources of income that requires their own might and will. Therefore, the structure of our economy needs to be reconsidered from an angle that will foster independent enterprises, a more successful agricultural sector that can reach maximum utility, and a stronger internal business community that achieves a higher degree of quality in domestic productions.

There must be strong programs aimed at eradicating poverty. Since our national independence, preceding governments initiated programs for this cause with varying degrees of success. Namely, the late President R. Premadasa’s Jana Saviya Program, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Samurdhi program and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Divi Naguma program are all examples. As such, there must be a systematic structure in place to address poverty, assisted by research and expert and stakeholder dialogues.

Paddy is considered by almost all citizens of Sri Lanka as an essential commodity. Especially since we are equipped with the necessary factors to cultivate this food source within our own borders, the next government must strive to develop a health-conscious (pesticide free), environment friendly paddy cultivation to a standard that would not require importing.

In committing itself to the development of the agrarian sector, the next government must also aim to prepare a more effective environment for the enhancement of our tea, coconut, and rubber plantations, as well as other profitable plantations. For this purpose, providing protection for small tea plantation owners, eradicating the barriers for thriving coconut cultivation, as well as the adopting of better quality scientific innovations must also be considered.

There must also be more consideration given to the development of our service economy, as it is one of our more successful incomes with potential to reach unprecedented heights. These are all avenues that will contribute immensely to the strengthening of our economy; therefore it would be wise to devote much time and effort into plans that will develop these sectors. The development projects in Sri Lanka must also be carefully scrutinized and thought over, and they must include a careful consideration of the environment, as well as being projects that will distribute its profit amongst the Sri Lankan population instead of it being siphoned off overseas. Finally, there is an urgent need to change the nature of government service in the country, in a way that will boost its efficiency and productivity which is manifestly dwindling. If the defects of these sectors are addressed, the economy of Sri Lanka would advance dramatically.

 

Development projects

When organizing the main development projects in the country it must be done in a most thought out manner. Especially with regard to ports, airports, and urban development projects, preliminary tests and discussions must be conducted before embarking on these projects. For this purpose, open discussions must be facilitated by the government and must include the civil society’s views and suggestions as well. Failing which, large conglomerates with connections to politicians of power will continue to reap the benefits of these ventures whilst destroying the environment and neglecting the needs of the broader population. The next government might want to reconsider development projects that have come under harsh criticism such as the Uma Oya development venture, the Mattala airport, and the Port City project and devise innovative methods on how it may boost our economic development as well as assist our population whilst preventing any harm coming to our environment. They must also be wary of the risks of bribery and corruption rearing its ugly head again, and take all necessary steps to avoid such occurrences during these ventures.

 

National debt crisis

As expected, any developing nation such as Sri Lanka would require external assistance when embarking on development ventures and assistance generally takes the form of foreign loans. In the past few years with rapid development projects taking place, the foreign borrowing has increased so alarmingly that statistics now indicate the total debt amount per individual has arisen to a staggering Rs. 360,000. In many instances it is understood that the country does not have sufficient funds even to repay money that has been borrowed on interest from foreign lenders. The evidence clearly indicates that there must be an immediate halt to the continuation of these activities and the next government will have a monumental task ahead of them in reversing the status quo. Primarily, when borrowing money on interest in the future, it must not necessarily be a decision taken by Parliament alone, but one that could be taken upon discussion with Provincial Councillors as well. There could also be a special commission set up for just this purpose, and this commission can ensure whether borrowing money for a particular venture would be necessary or not, and if so, that it would be conducted in a transparent manner.

 

Social equality

There is nothing more detrimental to the success of a nation than social inequality, and as grim as it may sound Sri Lanka is guilty of this. The estate sector hosts some of the most overlooked and poorest populations in the nation, and their plight is repeatedly unconsidered; their representation is nil. These populations as well as other sects that are poorly represented and economically subjugated such as the fisher folk must be included in a greater capacity.

 

National education system

The national education system is also severely mismatched. It is no secret that the children in Colombo and other urbanised cities are more fortunate in that they are given greater resources and a better quality education system than children from more rural regions. Most schools in rural villages do not even possess enough teachers or are not given the opportunity to learn in the language of their choice. There is inequality in the implementation of the national education system which needs attention, and for this purpose local government authorities must be more mindful, and consideration must be given to a better national education policy.

 

Overcoming health issues

Recent studies in Sri Lanka show that the prevalence of non-contagious diseases has surpassed contagious diseases. The North Central Province records an especially high prevalence of kidney disease cases and the situation is fast reaching the status of a national crisis. If nothing is done with immediate effect, the consequences will be cataclysmic. Other issues such as the distribution of medicines and the lack of sufficient number of medical officers in rural areas in the country, etc. further compound the situation. As a first step, the NMDRA bill (or the Medicinal Regulatory Authority bill) must be reinforced with vigour. Also, our government should consider renewing its interest in Sri Lanka’s indigenous medicine, which had been neglected for too long, and our indigenous medicine is famous for curing non-contagious diseases. There seems to be a conflict of sorts between western medicine and indigenous medicine, but this would be irrelevant if there were suitable national policies made for both methods of medication.

 

Youth unemployment

How can the burdening issue of youth unemployment be addressed? What career prospectives are in store for children that complete Ordinary Level, Advanced Level, or University degrees? How could our economy be restructured to include these individuals in a sustainable manner? How could our school and university syllabuses be written to support these children’s future aspirations, and how would vocational training centres provide maximum assistance to those that enlist its services? These are pertinent questions that should also be answered by the next government.

 

Rule of law

A fundamental cornerstone to good governance is the proper implementation of the rule of law. The law applies in every aspect of a citizens’ life, and as such must be implemented in an impartial manner if we are to uphold the values of democracy and good governance. In this respect, the rule of law stipulated in the 19th Amendment must be practiced equally throughout the public and private sector as well as the citizens themselves. The greater the rule of law is strengthened, the better it is for the success of the nation. Our laws expose many a loophole which the guilty may use as a gateway to impunity. There are also other laws that are obsolete and need reconsideration as to how well it might apply to this present day. These can be scrutinized with the assistance of legal experts and remedied.

Humanity is restored only be treating all citizens equally, irrespective of the religion, caste, or race they hail from. Our next government must also be mindful to practice humanity above all other practices, and not only respect but nurture and foster the revival and sustenance of the many cultures, languages and values that constitute the diversity of this nation. Minority populations including women must be given greater prominence in policymaking. In staying true to this sentiment, fundamental rights and human rights must also be addressed with far more severity than at present. In general, the policies of Sri Lanka must go beyond the election promises that are sure to run rampant in the following weeks, and must spring from the real necessities and issues plaguing the citizens of the country and remedy these issues in a convincing manner. Failing which, the upcoming government will be no different to any of its predecessors.

It is the indisputable duty of a government that practices good governance to promote human rights and basic human dignity in every aspect of their governance. Respectively, it is also the duty of the citizen to exercise his suffrage wisely, by electing representatives that will truly work towards the development of the nation than his own personal development. Voters are only too willing to be mesmerised by temporary gifts and incentives given by politicians at the entrances to polling booths in order to gain a vote in their favour. These voters should also recognize the difference between material incentives given for personal gain, and substantial change and development that will last for decades in this nation. The next government cannot divorce itself from the issues discussed above, and it will be up to them to decide whether they would prefer to leave a legacy of success or failure once they depart from their offices.

It is also true that society as a whole needs an attitudinal change from one that focuses on individual development, to one that promotes humanity. As a by-product of the opening of the economy in 1977, Sri Lankan society has been converted into one that prioritises money above all else. This is true for almost any society around the world, but this does not mean that we must necessarily follow suit. In this current train of thought our society travels in, the tracks must be changed and the course must be altered. As much as this needs to be propagated from the bottom up, national policies can and must also attempt to collaborate this sentiment in its content. National media can also include itself as one of its promoters. There needs to be a profound discussion on these issues and policies within every sphere of society if we are ever to achieve the change we so desperately yearn for.

1 Comment for “Challenges Facing The Next Govt”

  1. Samantha Perera

    Constitutional changes should not be considered lightly. Sri Lanka has only 2 main minority groups (Muslim and Tamil) and they do not 15% of the total population. Other minority interests consider the existing freedoms are satisfactory and contribute as much as possible to the country, as equal citizens. They are no into carving up the country. Muslim and Tamil community should also follow this example and there would not be a need to change the constitution.

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