14 February 2020

Devanee vs Sanath: who do you want to back, Citizen?

A YouTube video going viral on social media has a state official going one-on-one with a politician.  Well, not exactly one-on-one because the politician had in his corner what could be assumed was a section of his constituency. Not exactly in the corner. They were in the ring, so to speak. 

It was a discussion about encroachments. The politician, Sanath Nishantha Perera (MP, Puttalam DIstrict, United People’s Freedom Alliance) is the State Minister of Fisheries and Inland Fisheries Industry. He sided with the complainants who were wanted laws and regulations swept aside and mangroves destroyed.

The official, Devanee Jayathilaka is an Assistant Conservator of Forests. She spoke of the law. The minister wasn’t confrontational. He did not, as many other politicians do, berate the official. He was cordial throughout, quite in keeping with the reputation he has built for himself, having come through the ranks, local government to provincial council and parliament. He was playing ‘representative’ which is of course legitimate. He however urged the official to be flexible. Interesting word, there. He was essentially acknowledging the importance of the law but was suggesting that relevant laws could be bent and indeed encouraging her to do so. As he certainly should not have. The Assistant Conservator stood her ground. As she certainly should. 

Then there were the agitated. When the official spoke her piece, they screamed at her. The minister let them spew their anger. The official stood her ground. She insisted, again and again, that laws should be upheld and science should drive decision-making, implying of course that emotion neither helps nor should be deferred to in such matters. The ‘aggrieved’ tried to shout her down. Not nice, but then it is the aggrieved who feels most their grief. Understandable, but not nice. 

Now how did this become ‘news’? Why did the clip go viral on YouTube? In all likelihood it is because it is atypical. A long history, that’s decades long by the way, has created a culture where politicians simply ride roughshod over official and citizen. An equally long history of enforced servility has seen the rise of officials marked by a tenacious resolve to maintain silence. There are benefits that silence yield, this should also be kept in mind. It is against such a history and in such a political culture that the official’s decision to stand up and speak her mind, well, stands out.  

The commentary that followed is interesting. ‘She will be transferred, just wait and see!’ That was a common comment. ‘It looks like there’s a culture that’s taking root which allows officials to stand up to politician, defend the law and do justice to their position.’ That’s another way of looking at it.  However, one swallow, as they said, does not make a summer. A single incident does not indicate culture. One individual is not a front.  Nevertheless, the ‘virality’ does indicate a wish that indeed this should be norm and not exception. 

If all the excitement is peeled off, we are left with three individuals representing three segments of the population: a citizen, a politician and an official. The politician represents or is supposed to represent the citizen. The official is mandated to serve the people. The citizen can make representation and is well within his/her rights to expect efficient and fair service from the official. 

Now let’s take this case. The citizen speaks to the politician who in turn conveys sentiments to the official. The official points out established rules and regulations. Citizen wants rules ignored. Politician wants rules bent. Official says ‘no’.  If laws are made on behalf of the people by their representatives as per expressed sentiments then the citizen is required to uphold the law. However, laws are not cast in stone. Situations change. Laws at times need to be amended. There is provision for this. There are mechanisms. It may take time, but then again, that’s the nature of proper and established procedures. Many factors need to be taken into account. A quick amendment may sort out a problem that seems to be in need of an urgent intervention, but such measures amount of precedents that could have seriously negative repercussions. They could generate bigger problems which, typically, the formerly aggrieved but now relieved segments don’t have to worry about. They will necessarily burden the official and to a lesser extent the politician.

It is good for the citizen to express himself or herself. It is good for a politician to listen. It is good for the politician to convey the sentiment to the relevant state authority. It is good for the official to advise a politician about what’s possible within the law and to point out what is out of order. It is good that there are forums where all stakeholders can meet, discuss and look for common ground. It is sad that all things considered we have a weak and docile citizenry, weak and docile officials and a strong, arrogant, ignorant and corrupt political class. In the main. 

So it is not a simple matter of picking Devanee over Sanath or vice versa. It’s not a matter of a citizen’s demand should be met, regardless. It is not as simple as that. 

Instead, it ought to be a matter where public interest gets articulated and is heard with the intention to find sustainable solutions without compromising the regulatory apparatus. In this instance, perhaps the citizen will not get what he or she wants. The solution, if there is one, may not be ideal, but there must be an honest effort to obtain an optimal resolution. Typically it ends up with an official empowered by integrity being seen as an obstacle and therefore removed. Typically, laws and bent. Typically the solution is framed by political expedience. Typically self interest triumphs. That should change. If this issue is taken as a litmus test for a more rational approach to solving problems, we would be moving in the right direction. If not, it would be same old, same old. 

Sure, there’ll be cheers and jeers. Some of it would be informed by political preference. Some by even misplaced belief that official, politician or citizen cannot be wrong, ever. Once the noise dies down, there’ll be space for sobriety.  Hopefully reason will prevail over emotion.

This article was first published in the DAILY MIRROR [February 13, 2020]

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