Towards a New Approach for Rural Development — Part 4

The change of name from Pradeshiya Saba to Divisional Municipal Council would positively change the backward mentality and foster the image and forward-looking attitude.

13 mins read
A woman sells Sri Lankan flags on a road ahead of independence celebrations in February 2020.

Read Part Three of this series

4.1 Turning point.

Since independence, our development policies have been inconsistent. Policymakers who occasionally take the reins of governance think they are smarter than their predecessors; hence, they are reluctant to learn from past experiences and keep changing policies from one extreme to another instead of building upon the positives. However, despite changing strategies, the priority for rural development has continued for over eight decades, achieving the main objectives, with some adverse side effects as discussed above. The positive results have created a breathing space and a conducive environment for take-off to an advanced economy. Even at this late juncture, we must capitalise on the ground situation shaped by rural development and jump to the next step. However, the focus shifting to a new direction must be done cautiously, without upsetting the apple cart, because it deals with the well-being of 81% of the country’s population. The objective of reengineering rural development should align with the aspirations of the young generation and the global development trends. It should provide urban facilities for everybody and facilitate positive linking with the national and global economy and society. The new strategy must induce market forces to use the sizeable rural workforce, land, infrastructure, and other resources to contribute to the national economy.

4.2 Regional Development as a Strategy for Urban and Rural Development.   

One possible approach to this end is all-inclusive regional development embracing rural and urban development. Planning should be done for the entire region and the sub-regions, including urban and rural areas, as one entity without separating them. Regional/sub-regional development plans must integrate economic and spatial aspects and urban and rural areas. Under this concept, the city must be considered the nucleus (epi-centre or engine) that can boost the development of its whole region, build urban-rural linkages, and improve the efficiency of transport, energy, and infrastructure. Then, regional development would contribute to the national economy while ensuring a better income and wealth distribution among regions and individuals.The planning entity may be a politico-administrative region or a resource-based region. Sometimes, one resource base may cut across several administrative regions. In such instances, an administrative boundary-based plan may become pragmatic. As a compromise, the resource-based regional plan can be prepared as the skeleton or the basic structure of the regional plan. The detailed plans may be prepared based on administrative boundaries for the convenience of implementation and enforcement.

4.3   Rural Development Through City-entered Regional Development:    Cities as Hearts of Rural Regions

Regional development does not mean that it should happen evenly and uniformly in the whole region. Development happens around specific locations(poles) where some potentials exist. Usually, urban centres are evolving around such potentials, which work as growth poles. Such cities could be the engine of growth in a region or a sub-region by forming centrifugal and centripetal forces. Cities can offer income and employment for their residents and the migrants from the rural periphery. Cities also work as sources of revenue for governments and city councils. Moreover, the government can meet many people’s basic needs at a lower cost in cities than in rural areas because higher population density reduces a unit’s capital and distribution/maintenance costs and permits economies of scale. In other words, the unit cost to help the urban poor is much lower than helping the poor in rural areas. Yet, the poor can find more gainful employment in cities than in villages.

As highlighted in many development initiatives, the prime objective of rural development is to reduce poverty and improve the living standard of poor people. Development programmes are focused on rural areas, as many of the poor live there, not because we want to change the landscape of the rural regions. If that is the case, development must be done where possible instead of pondering whether rural or urban. So, the central strategy for alleviating poverty should be regional development, using cities as the engine of regional growth, including urban and rural areas, without separating them. City-based economic growth will reduce environmental damage and allow the rational use of rural land and other natural resources. According to this concept, most people must work and live in cities to improve the efficiency of the overall socioeconomic system. In contrast, a minimum number live in villages to manage/operate rural resources. Villages will have to function like satellites of the city. Based on the above views, this paper suggests that Regional Development focused on Urban Development is the best solution to reduce poverty, which is the explicit objective of conventional rural development strategies. Pulling forces from the cities and pushing forces from the villages are essential to activate this process.

4.4 Pulling and Pushing Forces

 Agriculture must be changed to capital-intensive farming with modern technology to reduce the demand for labour and thereby create a pushing force from the village side.  Moreover, correcting legal impediments enables the disposal of uneconomical or unwanted land plots and encourages land augmentation and migration to cities for gainful employment. Urbanisation will release a large land area from shelter to economically productive activities. Also, it will reduce the need for an extensive infrastructure network. Roads and other physical infrastructure should focus on the economical use of natural resources in the village, not for the welfare or vote luring.

Meanwhile, cities must be attractive, equipped with all the services required for easy living, and provide essential services to the rural periphery, which includes income and employment, decent shelter with utility services, health, education, shopping, leisure, etc. Instead of subsistent economic activities, cities must offer wage employment through secondary and tertiary sector development, which meets the young generation’s expectations. Factory-based small and medium industries can stimulate agriculture in the rural periphery through backward and forward linkages (providing food, raw materials, and agriculture inputs).  Rural industries must generate wage employment and target the wider national and international market without limiting themselves to a narrow local market. The habitually supported, off-farm employment or self-employment could be supplementary/secondary income sources in rural and urban settlements but not the primary income generation strategy. Further, cities in rural regions must develop as the nucleus for IT-based services for the rural community. However, discouraging rural living and farm employment has no meaning without creating a pulling force in cities. It will not encourage urbanisation or off-farm employment but further aggravate urban and rural problems.

4.5 Institutional Dilemma in Regional Development and Administration    

According to the socioeconomic and political situation and subnational administration system in Sri Lanka, identifying regions and sub-regions for planning is a critical issue.  Territories of the politico-administrative sub-regions have been demarcated based on political and social factors rather than economic factors. Resource regions are not recognized by the politico-administrative system or by the people. We have nine (9) provinces, twenty- five (25) districts, three hundred and thirty-one (331) divisional secretary divisions and three hundred and forty (340) local authority areas administered by independent entities.

The local government system comprises twenty-four (24) municipal councils (MC), forty-one (41) urban councils (UC) for cities and 275 Pradeshiya Sabhas (Divisional Councils) for rural areas. Precincts of MCs and UCs are limited to urban areas. Territories of Divisional secretaries and divisional councils( rural local government bodies) are almost the same, but their boundaries are not precisely co-terminus. Colonial administrators have demarcated provinces and districts for their controlling convenience, not for development purposes. Over time, the district has been established at the sub-national(regional) level and the divisional secretary (earlier Divisional Revenue Officer’s division) at the local(subregional)level administrative units. Along with the devolution of political power, the provinces have been established as the subnational level politico-administrative unit since 1988.

There is a contradiction in the perception of regional identity between the mindsets of politicians, administrators, and the people. According to politicians’ perceptions, the province(region) is the sub-national level (the region), and the Pradeshiya Saba is the sub-region. For the bureaucrats, province, district, and divisional secretariat are the regions and sub-regions. However, according to the people’s mindset, they do not identify as being from a particular province, Pradeshiya-saba, or the divisional secretariat. Instead, they identify as being from a particular district and the nearest town. The district is closer to the people’s heart as the sub-national administrative unit, while the nearest township is the functional and practical sub-region. Under these circumstances, adapting administrative (district and DS division) or political regions (province and divisional council) is not logical for regional and sub-regional planning and development.

4.6 Institutional and Spatial Arrangement for Rural Development (poverty alleviation) through City-centered Regional Development in Sri Lanka

As discussed above, according to the historical development and people’s mindset, the district and the nearest township are the regional and sub-regional identities. So, practically, those are the ideal regional and sub-regional levels for development planning and politico-administrative purposes. However, provinces have been in operation as regions for over three decades as a solution for ethnic conflict.  In the above context, as a compromise, without disturbing the ethnic sentiments, this article proposes to use the province as the region for planning sketchily. However, the catchments/service areas of cities/towns are considered sub-regions for decentralized public administration, detailed development planning and implementation. On different scales, Sri Lankan cities have been developed with their catchment areas (service areas/hinterlands) based on socioeconomic forces that followed development trends and have emerged as functional sub-regions. So, they are practical self-spontaneous growth poles. It is compatible with the settlement pattern, people’s mindset, and the normal urbanization process in Sri Lanka.

4.6.1 Metropolitan Areas as Sub-regions for Planning, Implementation and Enforcement

According to the local government system, the first-order cities (metropolises) are governed by municipal councils (MC), and urban councils (UC) govern the second-order cities. They may continue to deal with urban areas.  However, urban planning is limited to preparing zoning plans and urban designs for a built environment and enforcement within the declared boundaries. Under the proposed system, the scope of MC and UC’s planning must be widened, enabling an integrated planning system, which includes economic, physical, spatial, and linkages with sub-urbs and peripheral sister cities to ensure a smooth interdependency between central cities and their catchment areas.The cities (MCs and UCs) must be planned to be the engine or heart of the region, covering its entire catchment area, including sub-regions. However, this does not mean that MC/UC must plan for its whole catchment area extending beyond city limits. Nevertheless, when deciding on city development activities, the integrated plan must consider its service area’s needs, linkages, and expectations. According to the present system, precincts of urban councils cover only a small geographical area (buildup area). Their semi-urban areas and rural peripheries in the vicinity come under different Pradeshiya Sabahas (rural). The precinct of urban councils must be widened to incorporate semi-urban areas and nearby functionally connected villages as one entity.

4.6.2 Rural Sub-regions for Planning, Implementation, and Enforcement

The third-order cities (medium-level towns), below the urban council, are in precincts of divisional councils (Pradeshiya sabas). The mandate of Pradeshiya Sabas is different from that of municipal and urban councils, and those councils are not concerned about city development and management. Moreover, development plans or enforceable physical plans for their territories are not mandatory; hence, development activities are unregulated and physical development occurs haphazardly in towns and rural areas. Those towns are unorganized and inconvenient for service providers and service recipients. Presently, these towns are not pro-active, can’t stimulate the growth of their rural periphery, and only react to the demand from the village. Councils’ revenue collection system is geared towards delivering rural services, not much for city development and management.

Under the concept of rural development through city-entered regional development, it is proposed to consider the total catchment, inclusive of urban and rural areas, of the third-order cities (medium-level towns located in divisional council areas), to form the subregions for planning, implementing and enforcement of development programmes. In the case of more than one township in a particular divisional council area, those must be divided into separate subregions incorporating the service area of each town, and separate councils must be established. Also, if any divisional council is without an important township, such councils must be abolished, and those territories must be incorporated into the functionally connected nearest councils. Also, some areas may be administratively belonging to a different council while functionally linked to a town in another council. Such areas must be connected to the functionally relevant sub-region. Most Pradeshiya Sabhas (Divisional Councils) may require re-demarcating their boundaries to form functional sub-regions to comply with the new concept of rural development. Accordingly, the precincts of all local government institutions will be centred around a town to energize the development of their rural periphery.

4.6.3 Space Management

The central location and its adjoining Gram Niladari Divisions that meet the urban parameters may be demarcated as the city area of the sub-region, and the population in that area must be classified as urban. Its periphery, which demonstrates rural characteristics such as low-density housing, agriculture, fishing, dairy, mining, forestry, heritage sites, environmentally sensitive and protected areas, etc., should be considered rural. The city area must become the heart (the engine of rural development) of the divisional council area, which provides off-farm employment, facilities for housing and essential services for the community and the rural economy. Its rural area should perform as other body organs, which can’t be separated. Under this model, migration within the sub-region will form cities instead of from villages to metropolises. Pushing and pulling forces from the rural periphery to the town centre within the subregion must be activated through planning, development, and enforcement. The concept is that each council must have a town to drive the growth in the sub-region, for which the rural periphery is part and parcel. Each subregion becomes functionally integrated within its territory (Rural and Urban) and connected to the higher-order cities.

4.6.4 Planning for the Sub-region  

Re-demarcated Pradeshiya Sabas may be upgraded to the status with powers, functions, and revenue base like Urban Councils. The change of name from Pradeshiya Saba to Divisional Municipal Council would positively change the backward mentality and foster the image and forward-looking attitude. Each divisional municipality must prepare an enforceable integrated development plan inclusive of urban, rural, physical, and economic aspects, which must be mandatory. The zoning plan must provide space within the city area to locate secondary and tertiary sector activities, high and low-density housing, etc. The divisional municipal council must have control over the construction and locating of the utility services provided by sectoral and provincial agencies. Those agencies must comply with the integrated plan of the divisional municipality. Moreover, the cities of divisional municipalities must be well connected with similar cities in adjoining municipalities and nearest higher-order cities through a good road network, which is the responsibility of provincial councils and the central government.

Under this concept, multidisciplinary planning, regulation, and enforcement become the main tools for which local government authorities are the best institutions. Therefore, proposed divisional municipalities must have an appropriate legal mandate and high-level human resources capacities, especially interdisciplinary planning and management skills. Most graduates unproductively attached to divisional secretariats may be trained in this aspect.

The concept of rural development through city-centred regional development will be more profound if the present divisional secretariat (the third-level administrative division) is converted to the proposed Divisional Municipality’s secretariat. At the time of establishing Pradeshiya Sabhas (divisional councils), Mr R. Premadasa, then minister of local government, on several occasions, had expressed his desire to convert the Assistant Government Agent’s (AGA)offices into the secretariats of the Pradeshiya Sabhas. However, having considered the concerns and worries of the bureaucracy, it did not happen. Later, AGA offices became divisional secretariats as an extended arm of the central government and provincial councils, which weakened the local government system and the devolution of powers to local levels.  

4.6.5 Setting the Trend for In-Situ Urbanization

Though the scale is small, the above concept is like IN-SITU urbanisation to a considerable extent. Instead of thousands of scattered small townships (Kadamandiya) or a few large urban agglomerates, about 275 third-order cities with appropriate scales of operations for health, education, industry, and other services would emerge. This concept does not mean immediately abandoning the large rural periphery, disturbing the present balance between the city and the village, and creating a new set of urban and rural problems. Implementing the new concept will not resolve all rural issues immediately. However, it can prevent the unhealthy expansion of rural settlements and set the trend for the gradual expansion of cities to accommodate the increasing village population and to provide employment. It is a futuristic foundation for rural, regional, and national development. Firstly, it should stop uneconomical/ inappropriate land fragmentation and the proliferation of unviable rural settlements. Then, migration within the municipality should be encouraged by creating pulling and pushing forces. These forces can be made by enforcing land zoning plans, land acquisition and redistribution per the physical plan, concentrating on physical infrastructure and service provider institutions in the city area, and introducing farm mechanisation and modern technology to the agriculture sector. Further, the Land Development Ordinance needs amendments to facilitate land transfer and augmentation to allow market forces to gradually emerge following the new concept’s implementation.

4.6.6 The Village

This concept does not mean everybody should flock to cities, abandoning the vast rural land area. The town/city will be the nerve centre of thedivisional municipality area, and satellite villages will perform as the blood and flesh of the sub-region. There can be scattered villages with housing clusters for special reasons, such as tourist sites, mining sites, farmers, etc., as they should live near the resource base.  They also must live in clusters instead of living far and widely in scattered housing, enabling them to receive urban facilities at a reasonable distance and cost and release the vast land area for agriculture and other economic uses. Villages will be satellites to towns. However, such small villages should not be allowed to expand beyond the resource’s income and employment-generating capacity.

4.6.7 Is This a Practical Concept?  

For instance, Norway is a unitary state with a population of 5.5 million. Like Sri Lanka, it has a two-tier local government system, 11 county authorities (provincial governments) and 356 municipalities at the lowest level. Each municipality has a large territory with a central city area, a rural periphery, and a clear legal mandate for various functions. A Joint Study of ULLC & OECD-October 2016 on the local government system of Norway says, “Municipal functions include education (pre-school, primary and lower secondary schools), health and social care (care for elderly, disabled and children, social services, primary health care, housing support etc.), local roads, utilities (water supply and sewerage, wastes,), local town planning, environment protection, culture, firefighting, etc.  County responsibilities include regional planning and development, roads and public transport, upper secondary education, dental health, culture, environmental protection, etc.”  (cite reference). In the early 1990s, under the Hambantota Integrated Rural Development Project, the Norwegian agency for development cooperation (Norad) proposed a technical assistance programme to improve the planning and implementation capacity of Pradeshiya Sahabhas to prevent encroaching local government functions by provincial and sectoral agencies and to empower it as the leading local level government institution. They could have proposed it based on Norwegian experiences. However, it did not materialize as there was little interest from the provincial council and the centre. During this period, the priority was to strengthen the Divisional Secretariat system, the extended arm of the central government.  

4.7 Advantage of the Proposed Model

Economic opportunities in most villages are diminishing rapidly, which may inspire rural-urban migration without expanding employment, housing, and other city facilities.  The above proposal is to build further from what the rural development has achieved instead of waiting for a new massive rural and urban socioeconomic problem and another political crisis. Rural development through city-centred regional development will have the following benefits:

  • Create less complicated and manageable-sized cities with a rural atmosphere.
  • Such cities will be equitably distributed throughout the country, and all citizens will have access to urban facilities within a reasonable distance.
  • It will minimize the urban sprawl around major cities, traffic congestion, and the need for transport from and to urban agglomerates.
  • The local government system will become more democratic, and devolution and decentralization of development and administration will be meaningful.
  • The cascade of cities will link rural areas with the economy’s mainstream, including the global market.
  • Rural development will shift from welfare to growth orientation.
  • It will simplify the presently complicated sub-national administration system.
  • Foster good governance and decentralization of development administration.
  • Human settlements will be in clusters, resulting in low infrastructure costs, adequate scale of operation for service delivery and industrial production, and more lands for agriculture, forestry, parks, parking, open space, etc.
  •  Land fragmentation for housing in the rural periphery and unviable settlements would be discouraged.

Sirisena Amarasekara

Sirisena Amarasekara is a Sri Lankan public servant and diplomat. He is the former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana, and Eswatin. He had functioned as the secretary to the Prime Minister on two occasions, and as the secretary to the Cabinet of Sri Lanka. Having completed more than 50 years of public service, Amarasekara is one of the most senior Sri Lankan public servants.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog