Colombo, October 17 (Counterpoint): One of the motivating factors in the popular movement “Aragalaya” was the intense thirst for participatory democracy in Sri Lanka. It was felt that established institutions of democracy such as the Parliament, the Provincial Councils and the Local Bodies were unresponsive to the demands of the people, inefficient, partisan, and corrupt besides being a burden on the exchequer.
This sentiment had been in the public domain for long, as the 2016 report of the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform will testify. This is what the report said: “ The Committee received many representations on local government. Those who argued for strengthening local government were basically demanding smaller local government units with greater citizen participation.”
“Representations made to the Committee revealed that people expect more from the local government than what they are getting at present. Further, the people expected mechanisms that would enable some form of control over local-level elected representative bodies. They were also expecting community governance in local level affairs and acceleration of the local development process which should be based on the principles of democracy, participation, inclusion, accessibility, transparency, empowerment, ownership and self-rule by citizens.”
“According to the views of the public, although a large number of public representatives have been elected to different political institutions including Parliament, Provincial Councils and Local Government Authorities over the years, the problems and issues related to grassroots-level development and their day-to-day activities remained unresolved.”
“Although large sums of public money are spent, peoples’ grievances and problems were not fully addressed. Furthermore, a significant number of people expressed their views on malpractices in public service delivery such as corruption, misuse of power, wastage of resources, lack of transparency, lack of accountability to the public, weak cost-effectiveness and un-friendly behavior of officers towards the public or customers. “
“Projects were initiated by the government or external sources without consulting local people. They felt that development projects/ programs must be initiated with the participation of local people.”
It is against this background that President Ranil Wickremesinghe with the assistance of the Chairperson of National Movement for Social Justice former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya proposed a grassroots-level, non-partisan, participatory institution called the Jana Sabha stretching from the village to the national level. It will function in an advisory and consultative capacity on both local and national issues.
As per Jayasuriya’s concept paper, at the bottom of the tier there will be a Grameeya Jana Sabha (GJS) in each Grama Niladhari Division (GND); a Pradeshiya Jana Sabha (PJS) at the Pradeshiya Sabha level; and a Jathika Mahajana Sabha (JMS) at the national level. There will also be a Jathika Jana Sabha Secretariat (JJSS) at the national level. The Jana Sabha system will be a fully independent entity, set up by an act of parliament with powers to communicate with parliament and the President’s office.
Ideally, there should be one GJS for every 500 families. Therefore 14022 GJS may have to be established. Every GJS will have a Secretary, who is a Development Officer belonging to the Public Service and attached to the Divisional Secretariat.
All residents of the GND, over the age of 16, can participate in the GJS. The GJS, as well as its chairperson and committee, will have a one-year term. Females and youths should be considered for the post of Chairperson, whenever possible. Once appointed as Chairman, a person can contest for the post again only after two years. He will be chosen by consensus. There is no room for party politics.
The GJS will have a maximum of 25 members, chosen by consensus. At least 30% of the members selected should be women and at least 25% youth. Minority ethnic and religious groups should be represented as per their percentage in the local population. Committee members and the Chairperson will hold their positions on a voluntary basis. All public officials related to the GND will also be members of the committee but without the vote.
In addition to the 25 selected from the community, the committee can admit those who are active in volunteer work or are chairpersons of a registered society in the Divisional Secretariat. No government contractor can be a member.
The primary function of the GJS would be giving suggestions on development work in the village to the Provincial and Central governments, ensuring community participation in the activities of Local Government institutions, and participating in the decision-making process at the Regional Development Committee. In the implementation of government policy related to the GND, the relevant officials will consult the GJS committee.
The Jana Sabha has no constitutionally vested monetary powers and cannot undertake any money-making activities. However, the Sabha could have a fund maintained on a non-profit basis.
Pradeshiya Jana Sabha
The Pradeshiya Jana Sabha (PJS) comprises Chairpersons of GJSs within the Divisional Secretariat Division. Public officials, including the Divisional Secretary, will participate in its meetings, held once a month. Meetings will be chaired by the Divisional Secretary. The PJS will have a Director of Planning to be nominated by the Divisional Secretary. The Pradeshiya Jana Sabha will have a Management Committee to discuss matters relating to the Jana Sabhas. A report on PJS meetings should be submitted to the Jathika Jana Sabha Secretariat (JJSS).
Jathika MahaJana Sabha
The Jathija Mahajana Sabha (JMS) is at the apex of the Jana Sabha structure. It is through the JMS that people of the periphery contribute to national policy formulation and comment on policy implementation.
The JMS will have 100 members, with 75 of them taken from the committee members of the GJSs, and 25 taken on the basis of merit from amongst professional experts, civil society activists, women and youth activists. The JMS will meet in the last week of every month.
The Chairpersonship of the JSS is an honorary position. The Chairperson will be appointed on the basis of nominations submitted to the Parliamentary Council (or the Constitutional Council after the 22nd. Amendment is passed). The tenure of the chairperson will be three years.
The 100 members of the JMS are not permanent. The members of the committees of all the GJS will be registered in a digital data system. The topics to be discussed by the JMS at a proposed meeting will be indicated to them. The GJS committee members will be asked to state whether he/she has an opinion on that topic. Based on this, 70 individuals from those who requested an opportunity to participate are randomly selected district-wise. Applications will also be invited from professional organizations and civil activists, and 30 individuals randomly selected from among these.
The JMS is entitled to make observations on special bills and treaties with foreign countries and submit questions to be tabled in Parliament.
Proceedings of the JMS, its observations and queries, will be forwarded to the relevant Minister and the Chairperson of the parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee. In the event that the President wants to seek the opinion of the JMS on a particular matter, he could call a special meeting of the JMS.
Jana Sabha Secretariat
The Jana Sabha Secretariat (JSS) is to be established prior to the establishment of the Grameeiya Jana Sabhas. The JSS should prepare the Jana Sabha Act by conducting further discussions with various parties based on the preliminary concept paper. After drafting the Act, the JSS should submit it to parliament through the Cabinet of Ministers.
The JSS should conduct necessary research and development activities to strengthen the Jana Sabha system and to see that its objectives are attained.
Pilot Project Urged
Former Speaker Jayasuriya suggests that prior to the full implementation of the Jana Sabha system, the JS Secretariat should organize pilot projects in 25 Divisional Secretariat Divisions in 25 Districts. This will help develop the preliminary concept paper, he added.