Jana Sabha: tapping grassroot level for development | Sunday Observer

Jana Sabha: tapping grassroot level for development

9 July, 2023
National Jana Sabha Secretariat Secretary Ravindra Hewavitharana
National Jana Sabha Secretariat Secretary Ravindra Hewavitharana

National Jana Sabha Secretariat Secretary Ravindra Hewavitharana said that at present the Jana Sabha concept has been presented to the Cabinet of Ministers and they gave their principle approval to it on October 17, 2022. Based on the concept paper, they have set up the National Jana Sabha Secretariat and asked it to further inquire into this concept and come up with suggestions. 

Hewavitharana in an interview with the Sunday Observer said that they had submitted their suggestions to the Cabinet on June 5 and asked for another two weeks to peruse those proposals. The Cabinet has appointed a six-member committee to evaluate this and they will submit their recommendations to the Legal Draftsman. Therefore, it will take at least another one or two months to present the Jana Sabha Bill in Parliament.  

The main function of the Jana Sabha is to bring all the grassroot level people who are over 16 and ask them to nominate 20 to 25 representatives to handle the planning process in the Grama Niladhari division. They need to give representation to at least 30 percent women and 25 percent youth. They will be trained to identify the resource base, especially human resources and natural resources. They will identify what is the strategy to overcome poverty and enrich the lives of the people.

Village level official committee

The process to identify the resource base and proper market opportunities, potential businesses and formulate projects will be strengthened by the village level official committee consisting of the Agriculture Research and Production Assistant, Samurdhi Development Officer, Grama Niladhari, Economic Development Officer and others. The official committee will provide information which is collected by their departments. When it comes to agrarian service, they have soil structures, soil fertility information, water availability and rainfall data. If they don’t have that, they can consult the Land Used Policy Planning Department (LUPPD). They have data layers for all the sectors.

Based on this information, the Jana Sabha Secretariat has a digital infrastructure development program. So, they will provide assistance. They are developing a digital dashboard for grassroot level requirements. These village level priorities and the project proposals will be submitted to the Divisional Secretariat. Under the Jana Sabha program, we have formed divisional level planning committees. Their job is to identify those villages level priorities and they have to decide divisional level priorities. So, it is treated as a divisional level economic entity which is supported by the village level plans. After preparing those divisional plans, they will be sent to district level.

The district level is the most important level where the District Secretaries are responsible for district development plans consisting of Divisional Secretaries. Then they will submit it to Provincial Councils and Provincial Ministries when it is relevant to them. If it is directly related to Local Government institutions, it will be directed to them.

When it comes to central level roads, irrigation, agriculture and health, they will be directed to the relevant Ministries. Then the Ministries have to formulate their plans to entertain these proposals at ministry level headed by the Minister, Ministry Secretary and the Planning Director. Their planning committees will assist Jana Sabha proposals at grassroot level.

The Jana Sabha concept will regularise this by introducing an Act - to give more powers to the Jana Sabha system. There are legal bindings and if they breach those, there are remedies as well. Therefore, this will be a firm structure to address the gaps at the grassroot level.

Development priorities

At present, development projects at rural level are being identified by somebody else and not the community. Their elected representatives at Local Government institutions, Provincial Councils or Parliament have powers to allocate funds for certain projects. So, the development priorities are being selected by the elite group of the society based on elite proposals and it is under the control of politicians. Sometimes, public servants decide on the project to be implemented and rural level communities complain that they don’t get proper benefits through the Government spending projects. That is what we are going to rectify.

When we select Jana Sabha committees from the entire population, we will select suitable people to handle the development process. No politician or public servant can intervene. They have to introduce the Jana Sabha concept and they have to be independent regarding the appointment of women, youth and other representatives.

Pradeshiya Sabha members or politicians cannot represent these committees. Without considering their race, ethnicity and political affiliations, the representatives will be given an equal opportunity to get proposed into these committees.

People in rural ares have the right to nominate their representatives to represent their specific group. However, equal opportunities are ensured and nobody can intervene. If somebody distrupts some ethnic group or religious group, it will be a punishable offence. An independent Jana Sabha Commission has been introduced to ensure this. It will look into the entire process whether this is happening as per the aspirations of the original legislative objective. There is also a proper way to complain regarding any issues that may arise.  

Jana Sabhas will get the development priorities done and implement proposals. It is not only development priorities; there are a few other sectors as well. One is development proposals on a resource base. The other, is that they will look into public grievances and prioritise them and it will be presented to the next level.

The other aspect is welfare needs. They will properly assess the welfare needs of the community and come up with the priority list and it will also be presented to the next level. Similarly, they will also look into the socio-cultural and other project needs as well. All those will be presented to the next level and it will go up to the Ministry level.

Digital dashboard

A digital dashboard will indicate what happens to their development proposals that they had made. They can check at any time whether their proposals have been properly considered by the authorities. If not, they can complain to the Jana Sabha Commission. The Commission has the power to inquire into those matters from the authorities.   

If the Government has a mechanism to identify the development potential of the country at grassroot level, it would help address the real situation, especially the resource base of the country. If you properly identify the resource base, you have to compare it with the market opportunity based on their grassroot level potential. They have to think of proper market opportunities in the local and the outside market.

They have to think of technology, high quality products and identify markets. Then they will be happy with that situation. Unfortunately, there is no way to identify a proper resource base, but they need some technical assistance, data collection, analysis and proper understanding so that they need to get certain assistance from outsiders. They have no idea of the proper market opportunities and the products which are requested by the market segments. There are lots of difficulties in the process.

This Jana Sabha concept has a long history. The Choksy Commission was appointed in 1953. It had proposed to take up certain matters to improve people’s participation in the local government system. Grassroot level people complain about the mismatch of the development proposals which they proposed to implement but unfortunately politicians or elite of the society handle the entire process.

Solutions and suggestions

Therefore, the people had grievances. After the Choksy Commission, there were nearly seven Commissions to address it. The committees were appointed time and again and they came up with certain solutions and suggestions, but they were not properly considered. The Victor Tennakoon Committee has given its recommendations and Gramodhaya Mandalas were introduced based on them during the tenure of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Hence, this Jana Sabha is not a newly introduced concept, but it has evolved over a long period of time.

A system to address the people’s needs has not been implemented so far. They have instructed in so many ways from time to time. They issued circulars and instructed Divisional Secretaries to consult the people when the proposals were made. Politicians were given certain instructions when implementing development programs such as decentralised budget proposals. Instructions were given, but those were not fulfilled properly. Then this grievance was a longstanding one.  

With the Covid-19 pandemic, the entire process was disrupted and the people experienced many hardships without having adequate fuel, transportation and medication. Many difficulties were encountered and people came to the streets and agitated for a system change.

Chairperson of the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ), Karu Jayasuriya and several others including veteran journalist Victor Ivan proposed to rectify this error.  That is how this Jana Sabha concept emerged. NMSJ Chairperson, former Speaker Jayasuriya and other social activists started inquiring about this matter.

Concept note

They have interviewed hundreds of civil activists, various movements and trade unions. Ultimately, they came up with a concept note including all the opinions from various segments of the society. That was duly prepared by NMSJ Chairperson Jayasuriya and it was submitted to the Government. The Government took a decision to submit it to the Cabinet. The Cabinet gave its principle approval to it on October 17, 2022. They set up the National Jana Sabha Secretariat.

The Government appointed a senior public servant as its Secretary and another 50 staff members to further study this proposal and improve it by consulting various social groups and public officials. We have already developed that concept and we have presented it to the Cabinet for the second time. We also proposed a draft Act for this to make it more formal rather than earlier proposals.

Previous proposals were vague because recommendations had been made to get the maximum participation at grassroot level. Unfortunately, it hadn’t been properly accepted by the authorities. This was evident in the 2022 Aragalaya protests. My understanding is that society has many grievances. One is the low income by those who engaged in agriculture and industries. They get insufficient returns for their labour - either they are marginal farmers or industrialists. If they are engaged in animal husbandry, their result is not up to the expected level.

Therefore, they always feel that they don’t get sufficient returns for their efforts. The issue of poverty and low income is always prevails, and they cannot afford to buy food and other requirements.

They cannot provide a proper education to their children and innumerable hardships were experienced. Hence, they felt that this model was not favourable for them and they sought something new. They took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction towards the system without having a proper idea, he said.