Un-Constructiveness in the Northern Periphery ….Why?

Provincial-Map-of-Sri-Lanka The Northern Province was always handicapped with majority of its legislators at the center sitting in opposition and was never consulted on matters related to their province by the subject ministers. As the result Northern Provincial Council was pre-occupied having to devote more time addressing many painful issues of its people that were left as too-hot-to-handle by the legislators during the negative peace years under the oppressive previous regime. Under the new government this trend has somewhat eased after 2015, but lot more needs to be done to recover lost grounds and move with the rest of the country towards development. The Jaffna Investor Forum was a case in point which clearly demonstrates why there is un-constructiveness in the Northern Periphery; it should have been part of a larger socio-economic strategy aimed at ensuring spread of development that has already benefitted the western and central parts of the country.

Last week saw the very first international investor forum held in Jaffna, initiated by the central government without any involvement of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) during the preparatory stage. A continuation of  past practice where the country had moved increasingly toward centralization and unrepresentative decision making in the name of efficiency, giving only lip service to peoples’ wisdom. It resulted in unsustainable decisions leading to two youth uprisings down south that lasted few years each time before being suppressed by the state with external assistance. The third youth uprising began up north gradually engulfed the east that caused external thrust on the rulers to grudgingly introduce the Provincial Council system in 1987 and was always reluctant to implement it properly to devolve power to the periphery. Furthermore as the system was hatched up in a hurry there were many overlapping functions between the center and the provinces making practice difficult. Consequently the third uprising prolonged for three decades into a fully-fledged battle against the state causing misery to the whole population, worst affected were the people in north and east of the country. In 2009, with plenty of external support the past regime were able to end the bloody civil war, thereafter six negative peace years followed when everything turned oppressive in the country and north and east provinces had the worse with the center taking back the devolved powers from the provinces under virtually militarized Governor rule.

By 2015 the civil society groups in the country having witnessed enough of miss-rule throughout the country mobilized the democratically wishy-washy population to vote for a change and disgusted with the past regime majority voted it out. For the first time the two main political parties in the country joined to form the new government and are currently engaged in far-reaching moves to enable more community self-realization whether in the north or other parts of long-neglected peripheries. The new rulers are in the process of drafting new constitution that would give the existing provincial council system more active role to play bringing advantages of community decision making, that would encourage people to govern themselves locally with processes that are inclusive, deliberative, and people powered – each with its own provincial flavor within a united country. However the old administrators with previous mind-set are not helping the cause by continuing with its negative attitude towards the provincial councils. This was seen clearly demonstrated by the Governor’s office and the District Secretariat when organizing the first international investor forum held in Jaffna. The omission was another missed opportunity by the state to demonstrate that the administration under the new government was willing to work with the underutilized provincial council machinery to encourage full-blooded, empowered community decision making that has been missing in the past. The dialogue and deliberation between center and the province would help the government to discover pent-up demand for reliable community interaction by hearing the voices of the people of the North to make the difference. It would have given the opportunity for the people at grassroots in the north and elsewhere in other provinces to demonstrate that they have the ability to make choices that are more ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable. Instead of seeing politics as something national and Colombo-based, and out of reach, the Provincial Council system was created to devolve power to the provinces for the communities with ability to address fundamental issues and create real change with twofold goals: to expand the power of those places in the country where democracy is most vital. There is the gap between the political ideal and the administrative apparatus that enforces laws and regulations, but at the grass root level that gap is much smaller.

The NPC is devoting more time addressing many painful issues of its people and is taking on the too-hot-to-handle concerns—like local activities involving the security forces backed by the state and planning controversies—that often rend communities or go unaddressed because of lack of political will. Most of their time is spent simply trying to solve real problems of their community as the region need to recover not only from decades of utterly destructive warfare but, also, from an even longer period of marginalization in national development by successive regimes in Colombo that actually contributed to the ethnic conflict. Indeed, this marginalization in national development also occurred in other parts of the island distant from Colombo, namely, the down south and south-eastern neighborhood, similarly contributing to no less than two successive rural youth insurgencies in the southern half of the country.

After the end of the civil war when north was under the direct control of the center with Governor’s rule clear messages were given to the administrators by the people addressing many painful issues from the war left unresolved, while organizations at grass root level submitted their own bottom up proposals suitable for the north with the will to implement for consideration.  These projects fell on the deaf ears of past rulers had many plans of their own for the region. If they were implemented then would have by now utilizing the local resources uplifted many families out of a dependency status. Now with the new government it’s worth exploring these avenues again as the probability of success with these projects is high and would benefit more people in the region. In contrast the top down projects taken up at the last week forum could benefit only a few in the province, that would not change the life of the already overburdened and underprivileged—such as those directly handicapped in life due to injuries sustained by the civil war, single working parents, or low-wage earners who are most shut out of the democratic process, and in most need of what any development has to offer.

The country as a whole should have realized that the multiple insurgencies were due to deliberate failure in spreading development to the peripheries and how ignoring of the geographical ‘periphery’ by the political leaderships in Colombo, had produced shock results in elections. Best remedy left is to bring all the district secretariats in each province directly under the provincial administration and get district legislators in parliament to have direct links with their respective provincial council, thus integrating the devolved Provincial Councils to compliment than duplicate the efforts of the legislature with each having clear defined areas, than the present shuffled  responsibilities to ensure that people have the tools to govern themselves in the most inclusive, democratic, empowered, and effective ways possible within a united country.