Jaffna revisited: Quintessential devolution at grass root levels
Posted on December 18th, 2011

By Philip Fernando in Los Angeles

Devolution in its most acclaimed version provided everyone the capacity to pursue life, liberty and happiness within meaningful levels. The impression I took away from Jaffna recently was that the average man and woman seemed better equipped for that task after an epoch of lethal militarism that traumatised many. I believed that quintessential devolution seemed taking shape in the smallest cell of activity and may eventually reach the composite of villages, cities and larger areas.

 For starters, the cohesive ambiance prevalent in many Sri Lankan cities like Colombo, Galle and Kandy provided an insight and great hope. For me that contrasted sharply with segregation in several cities in US, UK and Europe which were a scourge with only semblances of devolution worthwhile noting. In Jaffna, undoubtedly, instances of devolution sprouting were notably distinguishable in agriculture, fishing, communications, tourism and overall industrialization.

 Here are two examples: The potential for resurrecting the Atchuvely Industry Zone (AIZ) in Jaffna district came to mind immediately. Yes, I had visited the area during my undergraduate days. Providing access to better jobs, better schools, hospitals, clean water, roads and other amenities would uplift a highly motivated segment of people. According to the United Nations Office for Project Service (UNOPS) potentialities of the AIZ were many””‚that may set in motion a climate of growth with high probability of investors venturing into areas hitherto unavailable. Infrastructure and utilities would be crucial to its success. The reconstruction of the Elephant Pass saltern would similarly energize a depressing war torn area. Both these projects seemed like common-sense approaches to devolution.

 Jaffna had been short of economic activity in areas like textiles, plastic and leather products, food processing, agro-based industries, oil and fiber products. Evverything had been made secondary to the overall military demands for decades””‚no facilities for turning out apprentices in varied fields of activity were rarely thought of””‚military training had been paramount for decades.

 The well-springs of sustainable devolution would flow with access roads, water supply systems and treatment plant, power generation, sewerage and waste disposal systems and training of manpower. A 25 acre area at AIZ offered the best potential for employment, both direct and indirect for about 2,000 people. Total investment outlay was about Rs. 200 million according to UNOPS.

 Resettlement dynamics

 Devolution is also closely allied with post-war resettlement and well-being of displaced persons in the Northern province in the areas of shelter””‚actually””‚brick, mortar, roofing sheets and cement bags, health-care including emergency medical relief, organizing artificial limbs refit and replacement hospitals, livelihood generation “”…”really meant the provision of fishing equipment, tractors, agricultural equipment and seeds, education- primarily repairs of schools and setting up of Northern Railway lines, and rehabilitation of Palaly Airport and KKS harbour.

 The field of communications offered, perhaps, the most attractive avenues for Jaffna people””‚especially the young. The Jaffna public library would out-score any other for the optimum return garnered by its users in terms of hours spent and research done. When I stopped at the Library, I felt like visiting a shrine””‚they were all fully immersed in their work””‚I could hear a pin drop. It is quite obvious that Jaffna’s Post-graduate Institute of Management had become a veritable lightening rod that show-cased latent management skills waiting to be tapped.

 Devolution from the top down remained highly debated””‚as it traversed harsh terrain. Splintering opinion groups voicing dissent seemed deafening. The 13th Amendment seemed a vehicle for the antagonists to ride their hobby horses.

 Making the issues more pliable seemed the obvious thing to do. How connected are the average Tamil or the Sinhala man and woman to what is being debated? So it was in the US. It took over decades for Martin Luther’s “dream” to see some fruition. The incompatibilities keep on cropping up as tensions mount. Reconciliation at the grass-root level had shown better results than those prescribed from above.

 As we take a long-term view, it is clear that harder- Civil Rights guaranteed by law always took time to evolve. Even after three decades of post civil rights-activism in US, African Americans got the worst jobs and were paid poorly. Near insoluble differences existed between the Black and While worlds.

 The need to foster a feeling of accomplishment must be met. There is agreement regarding the use of language in schools, courts and administration. Yet several Jaffna residents felt that they were not able to record complaints at police stations in the Tamil language. There aren’t enough police officers with sufficient knowledge of Tamil. How soon could this be solved? It should be done within a year.

 North-South dialogue

 On the other hand gains in eliminating disparities in health and mortality, housing, access to clean water and energy needs are being gradually achieved. A hypothesis can be made that the tempo of devolution in Uva, Sabaragamuwa, Wayamba and certain remote parts of the South seemed easily comparable with the North, while Jaffna was ahead in some areas of activity. Thus making the path to devolution a point of national focus encompassing a generality of principles applicable across the board would soften antagonisms associated with North-East dialogue.

 Devolution must tackle the issue of raising income levels of all. Job creation is a key to that and the prospects in Jaffna would not have been rosier. I saw the tide of construction rising””‚the housing projects, the reconstruction of the Yal Devi and the multiple projects being earmarked for rehabilitation of ex-cadres– were undoubtedly the best signs emerging from the North.

 In the final analysis when levels of pre-natal care and overall health of mothers became nearly identical in many parts of Sri Lanka, there would not be debate about investment outlays being earmarked for one area only. Similarly as education facilities become easily available for all, the disparities in achievement levels would vanish. As the mobility of labour becomes a common occurrence, the competition for jobs would become non-discriminatory as everyone gets a fair opportunity and inequity would vanish like morning dew at the onset of piercing sunshine. .

 Ingrained stereotypical images may still crop up and dominate within the national dialogue. In US they often castigate the black men as been likely to be criminals. I believe the time is ripe to work towards greater cohesion and Jaffna may set a good example.

 Protecting the territorial integrity of the country and devolution need not be at logger heads. In a Unitary Constitution, all power resided at the centre. Whatever powers were exercised now or in the future by any policeman is solely at the discretion of the central authority. The notion that a provincial group would drain away power inherently central to a Unitary State cannot be averted by simply having a 13th Amendment. Eternal vigilance capable of dousing the embers of separation by timely action would ensure the unitary form of governance remained.

 Devolution would eventually lead to birth of diverse communities with empathy for each other while striving to achieve a better level of co-existence sharing their experiences amidst seeking a work ethic that is unique to each.

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