End of term exam vs devolution

Crisis after crisis in the education sector has hit the headlines in recent weeks. As authorities battled with a spate of errors in end of term examination papers throughout the country, a student of a leading Colombo school committed suicide over an incident related to a mobile phone. The latest issues are graduates staging hunger strikes and university students being detained for engaging in anti-government propaganda.

There is no doubt that the education sector is on the boil, but it is on the issue of the end of term examinations and the hideous howlers found therein that we wish to focus on, for this matter highlights the broader issue of devolving powers to the periphery, at a time when the entire country is debating the pros and cons of the provincial council (PC) system.

It was Education Minister Susil Premajayantha who did bell the cat. Hounded and harried by the media over the end of term examination fiasco, Premajayantha, who is also the general secretary of the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), accused provincial administrations, particularly their education officials of neglecting their duty and caving into political pressures.
Premajayantha’s hypothesis was founded on the evidence of what transpired in the newly liberated Northern Province: there, no provincial administration exists still, and as a result, there were no provincial minions who could meddle with the ‘system’. The result: An error free end of term examination conducted with minimum fanfare, but with maximum transparency and integrity.
Premajayantha went so far as to say that the absence of a chief minister in the Northern province contributed significantly to the unqualified success of the examinations there - a stinging remark indeed, considering that it comes from the man who is the general secretary of the party which has appointed its own members as chief ministers in most of the provinces.

Whether Premajayanth is justified in passing the buck and abdicating himself from all responsibility is a moot point, but the issue that he raises is nevertheless a valid one. This is especially so when the country is at a critical crossroads in the post-war phase. A significant section of the political hierarchy believes that the PCs hold the key to successful devolution of power to all communities, to ensure that a durable political solution is evolved to redress the grievances of all Sri Lankans.
It is no secret that the concept of PCs was not a well thought out mechanism to achieve this objective. Instead, it was an instrument of political expediency that was choked down the throats of unwilling Sri Lankans by the then government of India, whose aim it was to prevent a military annihilation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

With such dubious credentials relating to its origin, it would have been surprising if the PC system delivered the goods and resulted in efficient devolution of power that eased the day-to-day burdens of the average citizen. But the issue was further compounded by the appointment of ‘B’ grade politicians and other assorted hangers-on to the councils.
These individuals, barring the occasional exception, were essentially the ‘also rans’ in the parliamentary stakes, who failed to make the grade, but had to be now ‘looked after’. Their reward for loyalty to the party was a seat in the PC, regardless of their competency or credibility.

That has been the dominant trend over the last twenty-odd years since the PCs came into effect. It is also pertinent to note that this has been the practice adopted by the two major political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the various alliances led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

The ultimate irony is that the Northern and Eastern provinces, the regions for which the concept was designed for, have been spared the agony of this maladministration, because they did not have properly constituted PCs - merged or de-merged - because of the inability to hold free and fair elections in these constituencies, due to the then omnipresent threat of terrorism.
We also make bold to say that the current mess regarding the end of term examinations in the different provinces, as hypothesised by Minister Premajayantha, is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many maladies afflicting various sectors, all of which contribute significantly to the detriment of the nation.

Maladministration at a provincial level is an issue that is all the more worthy of closer scrutiny, because of the heightened importance accorded to the PC concept in the post-war era, with phrases such as ‘maximum devolution’ being bandied about with gay abandon.

This is not to suggest in any way that the concept of provincial autonomy should be discarded forthwith. Sri Lanka has struggled for six decades of independence to find a suitable framework where all communities could share power equally without feeling marginalised. If the concept of PCs is the panacea for that, so be it.

But leaders, policymakers and bureaucrats alike would do well to realise that any concept aimed at devolving power would only be as good as the efficiency with which it is implemented and credible as those who are implementing it.
That is the lesson that has been thrown into forgotten limbo over the past two decades when the PCs were in operation. We can only hope that this lesson has been learnt well and truly by those who matter, because of the recent end of term examination fiasco, even though it has been at the expense of thousands of irate school children.