Ideas for Sri Lanka after the war

Mar 09, 2009 (LBO) – I have been asked why I do not write about the war. I did not, because I could not see the clear value addition. But now, as the LTTE’s 18-year control of territory is about to end, things must change. And ideas can play an important role.

There has been consensus across the political spectrum, except at the lunatic fringes, that the legitimate demands of the Tamil speaking people must be addressed.

Deeds, not words

D.S. Senanayake understood this when he inducted the then political leader of the Tamil community and the proponent of 50:50, G.G. Ponnambalam, into his Cabinet.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike knew this when he signed an agreement with the then leader of the Tamil community, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, as did Dudley Senanayake a decade later.

J.R. Jayawardene was instrumental in creating both the DDC system and then the 13th Amendment. R. Premadasa negotiated.

Chandrika Kumaratunge tried to push through the “package” while fighting the LTTE. Ranil Wickremesinghe tried under the CFA as did Mahinda Rajapaksa in the early days of his presidency.

The grand gestures of Constitutional reform have been degraded. We have had 20 years of greater and lesser violations of the 13th Amendment; four plus years of blatant disregard for the provisions of the 17th Amendment; and the nibbling away of the principle of Parliamentary control of government finance by all arms of government. What value is law that is heeded by none?

It need not be one or the other. Let those who believe in Constitutional reforms do their thing. Their exertions will be supported by measurable progress on the ground that I propose. All this time we have had words, not deeds. What if primacy is given to deeds?

Any official language, anywhere, any time

Let us take as an example the lowest hanging fruit: enabling a Tamil-speaking citizen to interact with the government on mundane everyday matters in her own language.

I am robbed; I am threatened; I am mugged. I need to communicate with the Police. Is it too much to ask that I be able to do this in language I am comfortable in, without having to take my neighbor along as an interlocutor? It appears to be so, in much of the country today.

We simply do not have enough bilingual government servants, even though we have more people working for government, per capita, than any place on the planet. Mr Lionel Fernando tried to solve this problem; Mr D.E.W. Gunasekera is still at it. But the evidence is clear. Conventional approaches are not working.

The solution is staring us in the face. The ubiquitous telephone.

With just a little tweaking of the 1919 Government Information Center, we can enable any citizen anywhere to speak to any government servant in any official language of his choice. Even today, 1919 is one place in government where questions are answered in all three official languages, politely. Why not just extend it into a full-fledged government interpretation service?

If anyone has trouble communicating with a government official, all she would have to do is dial 1919. Ideally this would be a free call. Even if not, it’s better than what we now have. All sorts of bells and whistles can be built in starting with simple conference calling, so that there’d be no need to pass the phone from ear to ear.

Does the government official have to be at her desk? No. Mobile phones work everywhere. You can call from a check point. You can call from the middle of Yala. Will this be limited to the rich? Oh no. LIRNEasia research shows that by October 2008, over 70 percent of households at the bottom of the pyramid (defined as socio-economic classifications D and E, corresponding to households earning less than USD 2 a day) in the country, excluding the North and the East, have some kind of phone. If that is the case for those with the least income, it has to be higher for those at the top of the pyramid.

If someone wants to be picky, they can start a rent-a-phone service. Rent-a-phone is easier than rent-a-neighbor. But there really is no need.

How long would it take to offer anytime, anywhere interpretation services? Weeks, not months. The private company currently operating the 1919 center can be asked to go 24/7 and increase the number of calls that can be handled at any given time. Improve the connectivity of government offices. All very cheap: telecom is the only thing going down in prices these days. But note, you need to buy from the cheapest supplier.

Find bilingual speakers and add them to the current team; take them out of government offices if need be. Accelerate the development of the databases currently used to provide information to callers so that some calls can be handled without connecting back to the government office at all.

Use the built-in capabilities of call centers, analyze the sources, types and times of calls that come in and use that data not only to improve the services from 1919, but also from the physical interfaces of government.

Start using mobile payments. Conference calling. MMS. Imagination is the limit.

More ideas now

Imagine this service rolled out by May Day. Would this not be a good way of showing that the government is more likely to meet the aspirations of the Tamil speaking people than the LTTE?

Not enough, by far. But not a bad start. And much, much better than endless talk that results in dead-letter law.

This is just to get the conversations started. We don’t need more villagers getting massacred and bombs going off. The LTTE will no longer have land. Let us deprive them of their true oxygen: people.

Wait too long and their failures will be forgotten. Address the needs of all our people, including Tamil speaking people, and we will have a united, peaceful country.

That is the choice.

We need more ideas and less celebration. Your ideas as well as mine. Now.

We need more action and less words. Not necessarily the government’s actions. Ours too.