|Thursday, 15 April 2004|
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The No. 1 priority
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga with commendable speed has got down to the job in hand, the No. 1 priority.
Last Friday, she presided over the first round of discussions on the urgently needed Constitutional Reforms. The meeting was attended by legal and constitutional experts.
The United People's Freedom Alliance received an overwhelming mandate from the country for constitutional reforms. In fact, if the first past the post system was in force the Freedom Alliance would have won around two thirds of the seats.
But, thanks to the Proportional Representation (PR) system the results were a complete distortion of the facts.
Under the first past the post system a candidate is elected to Parliament on winning his electorate, but under the PR System, a candidate who loses his electorate can win a seat in Parliament, for the selection is on a district level, with preferential votes thrown into make matters worse.
On the other hand, a candidate winning his electorate, often loses under the PR System. This clearly proves that the aspirations of the people are not reflected under this electoral system.
It is ironic, that the architect of the PR System, swept to power by a 5/6th majority on the first past the Post Westminster System and then one year later scuttled it. Why? the answer is very clear. Surmising that the UNP had the largest block vote, he wanted to ensure that even if the uncle-nephew party lost, the party forming the government would have a wafer thin majority or would have to form a minority government.
The Proportional Representation System goes against the spirit of parliamentary democracy. It is an absolute misrepresentation of the will of the people, incongruous, illogical, ill conceived and has caused immeasurable damage.
Sri Lanka was a showpiece, until, J. R. Jayawardene stepped in and began demolishing democracy in Sri Lanka. The 1978 J. R. Jayewardene constitution is one of the worst things that happened to this country.
Using his steam roller majority in parliament, Jayawardene introduced a new constitution with which we are saddled. The Executive Presidency and the PR electoral system were the cornerstones of the 1978 constitution.
The people have given the UPFA a overwhelming mandate to remove both. The Freedom Alliance sought and received the authority from the people to convene a Constituent Assembly to strengthen democracy by abolishing the Executive Presidency, and replacing it with a Cabinet and Parliamentary form of Government and introduce a new electoral system that would be more democratic and representative. After the formulation of the Constitution the draft will be placed before the people at a Referendum before enactment.
And, once more democracy will be at optimum.
Dams are highly controversial structures. The average dam costs millions of dollars to build and that is before one considers the cost of resettlement of affected families. The environmental cost is another vital factor.
A new kind of dam now appearing across Bangladesh has none of these disadvantages. Yet it fulfils the same aim of irrigating land. For a start, the dam is made of rubber, not concrete. This in itself leads to a huge reduction of expenditure.
Bangladesh's Local Government Engineering Department has installed seven 'rubber dams' (from 50 metres to 90 metres in length) so far. The dams are fashioned by anchoring black rubber tubes resembling giant pythons to the rubber bed.
The rubber dams have saved thousands of farming families in the country's southeast, where riverbeds stay dry for most of the year until the monsoon arrives. The dams have helped Bangladesh raise its production of rice to about 25 million tonnes in 2003, from about 20 million tonnes a decade earlier.
The rubber balloons need to be changed only once in 20 years and cost next to nothing to maintain. Each dam which can irrigate upto 1,000 hectares, is managed by a cooperative set up by local people.
This is a sound example of 'appropriate technology' that the rest of the developing world should look at seriously. Many third world nations look to the west for development solutions, instead of searching for locally-developed ones.
Sri Lanka which is also striving to raise paddy cultivation levels, must take a leaf out of Bangladesh's book. Lankan agricultural officials must study the rubber dam programme along with their engineering counterparts.
There are hundreds of arable lands in the country which remain uncultivated for want of water. Concrete dams will not be cost effective for such locations but rubber dams could be a viable alternative.
Moreover there are several local companies which will be able to manufacture the rubber tubing given the necessary guidance.
SAARC countries must also initiate a 'technology transfer and exchange' programme whereby they can share information on development initiatives and technologies.
Bangladesh has proved that local engineers can come up with practical and low cost solutions for boosting agriculture. We tend to seek foreign expertise even for the smallest project, be it in agriculture or infrastructure.
Priority should be given to local contractors and engineers where possible. That will help save foreign exchange and recognise their talents. Local inventors who initiative outstanding projects should be rewarded handsomely.
The lesson from Bangladesh is that even the simplest of ideas can make a huge difference to the lives of millions. Such miracles need not be expensive or inaccessible.
Produced by Lake House