When the cameras stop flashing

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently emphasised that going to the grassroots level in order to give swift solutions to public grievances is neither a political gimmick nor media hype, and that his method of governance was not confined to merely giving instructions to officials who live in the comforts of Colombo. He also said that he was different to previous presidents, who he claimed visited villages only when they were members of the Opposition, but not after they became president.

During his latest “Gama Samaga Pilisandarak” (discussion with the village) public meeting in Dickellakanda, the President also said that regardless of those who criticise his methods, he will continue his endeavours. Even though this statement may sound promising as far as this programme is concerned, a country’s leader paying heed to criticisms is usually viewed as a good quality, as it is through criticism one can improve and perfect their endeavours.

The President also emphasised that in the event any party engages in illegal activities, using the decisions taken to resolve the public’s issues as a pretext, stern action would be taken against them. However, what is more important is taking steps to prevent such acts, which is also a president’s duty. As a person who rendered a crucial service as the Defence Secretary to rid the country of the war, he has in fact given the country’s people something to be grateful for. However, governing a country is somewhat different to his previous role, and requires a different type of leadership, which is assessed by how the public benefits from his decisions.

The objective of the aforementioned programme is to reach out to the people living in villages and discuss their issues in order to provide solutions to them through their suggestions. Even though this is the President’s first series of visits to villages to discuss villagers’ issues during his tenure, he embarked on his journey as the newly elected President by paying surprise visits to several government offices in the last two years with the same objectives. Among these public institutions were the Department of Motor Traffic (DMT) in Werahera and the National Housing Development Authority’s office in Narahenpita, where he discussed what improvements need to be made to curb corruption and increase efficiency in these institutions, with the officials and the public who had come seeking services.

Many viewed this as a good start for the new President, and expressed hope that the public service would be improved by expediting services and by taking stern action to rid these institutions of corruption. In fact, several days after the President’s visit to the DMT, several individuals were arrested near the DMT for accepting bribes from service-seekers and it was also reported that the suspects had revealed the names of certain DMT officials who had allegedly abetted their venal activities, which also gave hope to the public. However, a visit to the DMT over the subsequent months told its own story, as it was far from the promised efficient and uncorrupted institution.

Publicising the Government’s programmes aimed at uplifting the people’s lives, whether it was for election or not, was never the issue. The issue, in most cases, is that governments pay more attention to media coverage than to implementing those programmes. Initiating and implementing development programmes, as the President had so boldly claimed, should not be limited to when the cameras are flashing. The decisive factor that makes these programmes a success or a failure is none other than how the public benefits from them. It should be noted that holding public meetings in villages does not ensure that the people living in villages would receive the benefits of such programmes. Sri Lankans have borne witness to many development projects which either failed or never saw the light of day, despite being launched after discussing with the public.

The key is, at the end of the day, the President’s vision should reach the public as it is, and should not be watered down when it reaches the grassroots level. Many parties, who act as the intermediaries between the Government and the President and the public, also have a huge responsibility in this process. It is the Government’s responsibility to see to it that they too fulfil their responsibilities, which ultimately decides whether the President’s visit to the village was worth it, when the cameras stop flashing.