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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Tsunami report: CBK’s Commission makes recommendations to MR

The Island: 04/11/2006" ...blames media for inaccurate reports By Shamindra Ferdinando

A two-member committee appointed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga during her tenure to explore measures to cope with major natural disasters has handed over its findings to President Mahinda Rajapakse.

The committee comprised Supreme Court Judge Hector S. Yapa and Appeal Court Judge P. H. K. Kulathilaka. Edmond Jayasinghe functioned as Secretary to the Commission.

Urging the government to include the study of natural disasters and disaster management in the school Curriculum, the Commission made a series of recommendations covering practical efforts to involve Sri Lankan experts in the decision making process, improvement to the telecommunication sector and proposals for action in any eventuality. The Commission warned of the impending danger of major natural disasters which could be triggered by the disturbances associated with the ‘13th plate located 350 kms to the south of Sri Lanka.’

It also cleared the Department of Geological Survey of neglect. The media had accused the Department of failing to warn the public of the impending catastrophe. The Commission ruled that the Department could not have intervened effectively as it did not have the required information. With regard to a station established at Pallekkle, the Commission said that although it recorded the seaquake which triggered the tsunami, the data was not available to the Geological Department. Faulting the national press of inaccurate reporting, the Commission claimed that erroneous reporting affected the integrity of important personalities working in some government departments.

The Island learns that a person who volunteered to appear before the Commission but was not given the opportunity as his evidence was not that of an expert revealed that he gave eight calls on his mobile phone to the CGR after the first tsunami waves toppled a train at Pereliya on the southern line. He had also produced a document detailing the eights calls obtained from a leading mobile operator within 32 minutes. CGR authorities when asked for their comments had acknowledged that calls were received. "But would you have believed if a hysterical caller claimed of a train being washed away by sea waves,"? a CGR official had asked.

An official said that whatever the arrangements were in place, the country the disaster would have taken its course. "We could have warned the people. But would they have believed us? In fact a warning could have attracted people to the beaches," he said.

The Presidential Committee made recommendations under two categories namely general recommendations and recommendations relating to various institutions.

(I) Education

One area that was clearly observed by the Commission was that the public had little or no knowledge about Tsunamis or even other natural disasters. Most of the expert witnesses who testified before the Commission strongly urged that immediate action should be taken by the authorities to include the study of natural disasters and even disaster management in the School Curriculum. Therefore, the Commission very strongly recommends that immediate action should be taken by the Education Authorities to have this area of study included in the School Curriculum, not necessarily as a separate subject but as a part of a subject which can be studied by all students at a suitable grade. It must also be noted that when school children are educated about natural disasters and disaster management the chances are that they would pass this knowledge to their parents and their elders. This is one sure way of educating the public as well.

(II) Scientists

In the course of the proceedings before the Commission, it was suggested by some of the expert witnesses that there is no mechanism in place to get the best use of the available scientists in the country. It was pointed that there are more than 2000-3000 scientists who are trained in the best Universities in the world and their services are not solicited. The message that was conveyed to the Commission very strongly was that the scientists cannot make their valuable contribution to the country since they are purposefully kept out of the decision making structure in the country. Therefore, the Commission recommends that early action should be taken by the authorities to evolve a mechanism whereby scientists could be accommodated in the administration not only to advise various Ministries in areas where their expert knowledge could be made use of but also to advise the Prime Minister and the President on issues of scientific importance. In this regard the Commission wishes to make mention of the Indian experience, where there is a Principal Scientific Adviser to the government of India with the rank of a Cabinet Minister.

(III) Telecommunication

Another area that became very obvious to the Commission at the hearing was the problem of the Telecommunication System getting jammed in a situation of disaster or emergency. Several officials and expert witnesses who testified before the Commission stated that on the date of the Tsunami i.e. 26.12.2004, the telephone system was jammed within a matter of few minutes and there were serious difficulties in initiating important calls. As explained by one expert witness on Telecommunications the reason for this situation is that any public Telecommunication System is so designed to cope with a limited number of calls, whenever an abnormal number of calls are originated the exchanges are so designed to shut off non priority subscribers, and then the call exchange will fail if an abnormally large volume of calls are originated, either due to a natural disaster or from any other event, as the telephone system cannot cater to such a demand. Therefore, the Commission recommends that early action should be taken in consultation with the experts in the field to have a Telecomunication System (may be even a separate system) which can be used without a break-down during the time of an emergency for the purpose of getting important messages across.

(IV) Seismologists

Another matter that was brought to the notice of the Commission was the lack of Seismologists in the country. Prof. C. B. Dissanayake said that earthquake research has not been done in this country. He impressed the Commission of the need to for Seismologists. He suggested that Peradeniya and Moratuwa Universities which deal with earth sciences must make provision to have courses in the field of Seismology offering the Master’s Degree and Ph.D He said that institutions such as GSMB and NARA would be better served by having a few seismologists. Therefore, the Commission recommends that early action should be taken by the University Grants Commission to introduce study courses in Seismology at the University of Peradeniya and Moratuwa. In making this recommendation, the Commission took into consideration the impending dangers of earthquakes, tremors and seismic events which could be triggered by the disturbances associated with the 13th plate located 350 km to the south of Sri Lanka.

(V) Media

From the material placed before the Commission, it was found that media had committed serious lapses when reporting the earthquake and the Tsunami of 26.12.2004. These reports had been so erroneous that it had even affected the integrity of important personalities working in certain government institutions. With regard to this matter Prof. C. B. Dissanayake expressed the view that it will be a national asset to have specially trained personnel in each media institution for Science reporting. Under these circumstances the Commission recommends that both State and private media institutions explore the possibility of having knowledgeable and trained personnel for Science reporting.

(VI) Evacuation in times of disaster

At the hearing it was brought to the notice of the Commission that when people were advised to evacuate disaster prone areas they were reluctant to take such advice seriously. Hence, it is very necessary to have legislation for issuing mandatory evacuation orders requiring the people to move out of the danger areas once the warnings are issued. For this purpose shelter areas have to be identified so that people can go to such places, the report said.

(VII) Disaster Management

Even though evidence was led before the Commission in respect of Disaster Management, in view of the legislation passed in the Parliament namely, Sri Lanka Disaster Management Act, No. 13 of 2005 whereby a National Council for Disaster Management is to be established, containing provisions for the preparation of disaster management plans, the declaration of a state of disaster etc., it is not necessary for the Commission to make any recommendations.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Good governance: Needs endless process of ‘projects and consultancies’

Daily Mirror: 02/11/2006" By Nikhil Mustaffa

By and large ‘good governance’ means a lot of good intentions and an endless process of ‘projects and consultancies’. The topic of ‘good governance ‘was triggered this week by an email which sought to pay tribute to an illustrious diplomat in Bangladesh. He concluded his career as the Foreign Secretary and was a leading a personality in the interim Government which oversaw elections in post-Ershad period. He was one of a handful of independent personalities who ran the government between transition from people’s power and elections.

The period institutionalized the concept of caretaker governments in Bangladesh. This was 1991.A sudden upsurge of people’s power in which it was the students followed by government servants who refused to stay off the streets which saw the end of military rule. A few in this period held their nerve and spoke with Begum Khalida Zia and Sheikh Hasina the two principal political leaders then and now.

The gentleman in question Fakhruddin Ahmed was one of those civic minded honest interlocuters. He ran the foreign office in the interim government until elctions. The Chief Justice a reluctant occupant of the Office of President and the head of the interim government did a superb job in managing a fractious bunch of politicians and civic activists out for the blood of those ran the country during the period of General Ershad. The Foreign Service as well as many other branches of government had individuals of exceptional character and skill.

Notwithstanding perceptions of a poverty stricken country prone to disasters caused by seasonal flooding, the country as whole boasts a rich culture and the administrative habits of yore .

One of the most poignant events in the country is the remembrance of National Language Day for which people died under Pakistani rule. On this auspicious day in most towns people walk barefooted from their homes and dwellings to commemorative signposts.

Successive elections after 1991 has been accompanied by violence and ill tempered elections. In one, a ballot box was hurled into a village pond requiring a redpoll for the area subsequently! The current disputes around who should head the Interim Government seems set to raise tensions again.

About the same time as the changes occurring in Bangladesh, Nepal began a bloody transition to democracy. Durbar square witnessed the final showdown with the loss of lives with a negotiated transition. The then Chief Justice was instrumental as Chair of the Constitutional Drafting Committee in preparing what was then hailed as one of the finest models, second only to the new South African constitution.

Notwithstanding the opportunity given to political parties, most of whom never completed a full term, the country never made the promised progress for its citizens and found itself in the mist of rising violent dissent by the Maoists.

Fifteen years after the politicians failed them, they are in another transition to further democracy. The current ceasefire and terms of talks were reportedly brokered by the CP (M) in India with leaders of the Maoists, travelling to Delhi for advice and drafting of the several point agenda which formed the basis of talks between the government and the Maoists.

Nepal too had individuals of the same ilk as Fakhruddin. One such individual who had retired as Finance secretary was Devendra Ral Pandey. He too became a leading light in the transition and was the finance minister in the short period of transition to democracy. A man of huge integrity and maverick he was kept in solitary confinement by the government appointed by the King since he was too dangerous prior to the beginning of the current negotiations.!

The continent in South Asia was turbulent in the late 80’s and early 90’s.General Zia had died in an aircrash, which paved way for ‘democracy’ in Pakistan.Benazir Bhutto came in and sent out of office as was Nawaz Sharriff subsequently and both ended in exile. Pakistan’s history is quite simply bewildering.

Post partition, the country has seen many rewritings of the constitution. In many of the stages, the nexus of military and beuracracy was ever present. Pakistan is a country of raw beauty. It had extremes of luxury and poverty slung across the nation.

Here too persons of the kind of Justice Dorab Patel,of Parsee descent comes to mind. He was the only Supreme Court judge to dissent in the judgment which decided to hang Zulfikar AliBhutto. A rich scion of a distinguished family he would take his annual holidays in London and lodge at a Club in which he was a member. A gentlemen of a very modest build his integrity gave him extraordinary stature.

Once he was` seen walking into the Sindh Club for dinner, with hundreds of diners already seated. On seeing his presence seating himself every single diner stood until he sat! It is a horrendous state of affairs when two of their principal leaders remain in exile. There are many a tale of abuse of power including corruption, coups, criminals who hold elected positions and sheer vulgarity of personal enrichment.

One common strand of those whose names have featured as exceptional individuals, is that all served as election observers in Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries.

Speaking of elections, there lives an ex public official who could offer personal testimony of how the DDC elections of 1981 were wrecked in Jaffna with the public library coming down in flames for good measure. One of the reported wrecking agents went onto hold many a distinguished position in public service, no doubt providing sufficient incentives of those youth who knew to turn militant.

Recent fiascos around electing a mayor for Colombo has shown untrammelled abuse of civic rights of those who voted with the elected making a mockery of the process. A conclusion is pending at the Human Rights Commission of a petition by a voter who was disenfranchised at the last Presidential poll. The arguments evidently had gone well, when the HRC would announce its decision, it would be interesting.

Governance is not only about elections. It includes public service which is humane, above board and non discriminatory. A service which maintains a distinct public profile is the Police department.

A fascinating scene had been enacted at Narahenpita Police station last week, when a complainant who was a Tamil made an entry in English, escorted a Tamil domestic to the station. The police asked questions in Sinhala, and received responses in Tamil or at best in the weakest version of Sinhala.

They recorded the proceedings in Sinhala and the signature of the domestic was affixed thereafter. The proceedings were monitored by the complainant herself a lawyer in the company of another lawyer by sitting beside the domestic! The upshot being the domestic unable to read the proceedings nor vouch for the content she had been asked to sign.

Another facet of governance is the maintenance of law and order. The citizens committee of Mano Ganeshan, Vasu etc are increasingly finding difficult to bear the truth around the fate of abductions which lead to extortion and increasing numbers of victims turn up dead. This is an ugly dimension of the current war.

Governance is one of the items in the MoU menu between the SLFP and UNP. They have promised to rectify anomalies in the 17th amendment and to proceed to practical implementation of the amendment in letter and spirit.

A military attache was heard to say recently that the British PM is accompanied by a security official and a single escort. It would be wonderful to move about freely without sudden roadblocks, checks and fears of bombings. The Bishop of Jaffna was heard to say tonight that people were close to starvation while the CGES commissioned supplies keeps getting unloaded. War has discriminated against the people in a manner utterly reprehensible.

We hope one day soon, this country will be a decent place to live where children are free to dream a future, parents are confident of the future for their families, we have seriously made inroads on many of the inequities which bedevil us and the processof reconciliation begins to feel sincerely for all our past and present failures.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

SL growth pattern “alarming” - WB

Daily Mirror: 01/11/2006" High growth of poverty, bureaucratic regulation, increased electricity costs, lack of infrastructure, lack of skilled HR – key impediments to growth By Ayesha Zuhair

Country Director of the World Bank Naoko Ishii yesterday pointed out that even though Sri Lanka has enjoyed remarkable economic growth annually over the lastfive years, the pattern by region was “alarming” as growth has been lop-sided.

Addressing a distinguished gathering at the Key Persons Forum organised by the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka (FCCISL) last afternoon, the World Bank Country Director said that economic growth has been concentrated in the Western Province with other regions lagging behind.

Although the Western Province had grown by 40% between 1990 and 2002, other regions had grown only by approximately one-half (i.e. 20%) comparatively. While poverty too in the Western Province had reduced by over 40%, poverty had reduced much less in other regions and as a result, inequality has been rising. “This is the real picture of Sri Lanka,” she said.

The World Bank’s new Country Director in Colombo who assumed duties just two months ago said, “Accelerated growth and poverty reduction requires integration of the rural economy into the growth enjoyed by the Western Province and promotion of production and export of goods and services with higher value addition.”

“The private sector is the engine of those activities and the public sector could support the private sector by creating a conducive regulatory framework by improving infrastructure and the factor markets. It could also facilitate the private sector efforts in the above mentioned activities within a partnership framework,” she outlined, adding that “A well-functioning financial sector can contribute significantly to growth and poverty reduction.”

She also asserted that the country’s regulatory regime did not hold in its favour. “Sri Lanka’s current environment is challenging and it ranks at 89 out of 175 countries. Heavy regulation of market entry takes its toll and although Sri Lanka has made some gains in the last year, high barriers to entry have slowed the process,” she said.

“Starting a new business requires eight different procedures and still takes 50 days. Enforcing a contract takes 837 days on average and there is extreme labour rigidity. As we all know that creating jobs is the best form of poverty reduction, and Sri Lanka therefore needs to have a flexible labour market,” the World Bank representative explained.

Ishii cited electricity as the most serious obstacle to doing business in Sri Lanka, asserting that Sri Lankan businesses pay a high price for electricity which exceeds that of countries such as Indonesia, India, USA, Thailand and Pakistan. She observed that less than 70% of rural enterprises use electricity from the national grid with 80% connected in the West and less than 10% accounting for usage from the North.

She stated that the road network needs upgrading in order to facilitate business growth as a lack of transport results in long delivery times, low productivity and absenteeism.

Contrary to a perception that Sri Lanka offers a human resource advantage for investors, this was not the case according to Ishii, who stressed, “Infrastructure and skilled human resources are an urgent need.”

According to her, Sri Lanka had experienced accelerated growth during late 1970s - early 1980s and mid-90s owing to economic liberalisation, export-promotion policy and private sector involvement in key industry sectors.

Ishii described Sri Lanka as an island “full of resources to be tapped” because of its close proximity to India and South East Asia; along coastal line, agricultural resources; rich culture and history; bio-diversity and wild life; educated and healthy human capital; open trade regime and quality institutions.

Speaking on the World Bank’s Role in Private Sector Development, Ishii said that the Bank supports government efforts to foster the growth and development of the economy and the private sector through: undertaking research and knowledge sharing; carrying policy dialogue; providing training; funding key infrastructure; assisting the service delivery in education and health; and empowering communities.

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