|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
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
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
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.