PC reforms focal point in coming months

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  • President outlines policy on power devolution; process likely to delay elections
  • The initiative came from President and was not made in India or under pressure from it
  • Opposition charges bribery and corruption rampant in health sector; but puts off till next month no-confidence motion against minister
  • Minister threatens to resign over non extension of service of his Ministry Secretary

Devolution of power to the provinces is not the only programme the President is pushing these days: He is seen here discussing with agriculture experts an ambitious plan to digitalise and modernise the agriculture with a view to ensuring food security for Sri Lankans

By Our Political Editor

There are some important takeaways from Wednesday’s ‘special statement’ in Parliament by President Ranil Wickremesinghe — these border on pronouncements of policy on key issues related to further devolution.

The execution of these aspects is bound to push back indefinitely the conduct of Provincial Council (PC) elections. These PCs were the byproduct of India’s mediation and are covered by the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987. The nine councils whose terms ended at different times between 2015 and 2017 have remained defunct. The previous yahapalana (good governance) government introduced legislation to empower itself to delay the polls. Interesting enough, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), key beneficiaries of the devolution exercise,  staunchly backed this move.  For each province, governors appointed by the President now exercise most functions.

The issue surfaced again when President Ranil Wickremesinghe visited New Delhi in July. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. That meant the inclusion of a provision for PCs to have a provincial police force. However, President Wickremesinghe has now offered a 13A without these police powers. The offer was much ahead of his visit to New Delhi. Contrary to belief in some sections of the Sri Lankan polity, neither his move to further strengthen Provincial Councils nor the offer of an enhanced devolution package was the result of pressure from India. It is an initiative of his own though India is happy if it meets its own outlines.  No doubt it is a task that is politically challenging and one that has been cautiously avoided by seven of his predecessors. If he does succeed, though the road is riddled with many obstacles, that would be a feather in his political cap and make him a national hero.

A negative outcome, one is not wrong in saying, could be disastrous both for the President and the United National Party (UNP), which he is now trying to nurture on a new path. Significantly, he is embarking on the task on his own having smelt success in persuading the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to grant an Extended Fund Facility. There again, the second tranche, due in September, is anxiously awaited.

Wednesday’s statement by President Wickremesinghe spelled out measures to reform the PCs. Pointing out that at the all-party meetings “we could not arrive at a comprehensive agreement on power devolution,” he said, “it is time to change the situation.” He added: “The division of power and authority between provincial councils, the central government, and local governing bodies lacks clarity. Consequently, he declared, subjects overlap between provincial councils and the central government, resulting in duplication of efforts and delayed actions. Instead of resolving people’s issues, problems are escalating due to these inefficiencies “

Highlights from
President’s speech

Here are some of the highlights of President Wickremesinghe’s statement which make clear that besides delayed PC polls, the reforms envisaged for Provincial Councils would also take much time. The reformed PCs will not be in place until sometime later next year. This again could be the earliest since a string of intended legislative measures has to be presented in Parliament amidst other businesses. Added to that will be constitutional amendments envisaged. Thus, elections to Provincial Councils would become uncertain, much the same as the polls for local councils. Since Parliament is required for the passage of laws, a general election too would be on the back burner leaving only the presidential elections to come first.

President Wickremesinghe said, “Following the revision of laws pertaining to Provincial Councils and the implementation of new legislation, should the Parliament endorse the amending the Provincial Council Voting Act, which includes voting based on the District Proportional System and allows Members of Parliament the right to contest in Provincial Councils, with a minimum of 25% female representation.” President Wickremesinghe noted that once discussions have been held and consensus reached regarding the proposed increase in the number of provincial councils, measures will be undertaken to conduct provincial council elections.

“The executive and administrative powers required to enact the decentralised subjects will remain under the jurisdiction of the Provincial Councils. The province will retain the executive or administrative powers (implementation powers) with regard to the said devolved power; I will present the above proposals to parliament as constitutional amendments so the House could take them forward for necessary action.

“In response to the interim report, several parties including the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna, the Tamil United Liberation Front, Jathika Hela Urumaya, United Opposition, All Ceylon Muslim Congress, All Ceylon People’s Congress, Eelam People’s Democratic Party, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Tamil Progressive Party of Mr. Douglas Devananda, and President’s Counsel Mr. Jayampathi Wickramaratne presented documents. This aspect should also be noted. Furthermore, attention should be directed towards the report from the committee established to examine the relationship between Parliament and the Provincial Councils, as well as the report from the Sub-Committee on Centre Periphery Relations……..

“Today, I present my proposals and forthcoming actions concerning the 13th Amendment and the devolution of powers to this esteemed House. I urge a thorough examination of these suggestions. I invite you to contribute your ideas as well. Taking all these viewpoints into careful consideration, the responsibility of arriving at the final decision regarding the role and future of provincial councils rests solely with this honourable council (sic).”  Note: The reference is to Parliament. “What characterises modern democracies? The establishment of decentralised governance as opposed to devolution. Devolution of power serves to bring political, economic, social, and cultural matters closer to the people. This goal is pursued using diverse methods in different nations across the globe. Decentralisation is recognised as a pathway to achieving a form of direct democracy. While no governmental system can fully transition to a direct democracy where all citizens gather to make decisions, it’s feasible to construct an institutional framework that facilitates people’s participation and their expression of will in political, economic, and social processes.

“The provincial council system serves as one such framework that brings power to the people. Furthermore, we recently initiated several other strategies to empower the populace. We have bolstered sectoral committees and fostered youth involvement for this purpose. Concurrently, efforts are underway to establish public assemblies, aiming to involve citizens in grassroots governance. The Janasabha Secretariat has been launched, and once model assemblies are established, we advance the Assembly Act. Considering these advancements, I believe our focus should be on devising methods and strategies to further empower the people through provincial councils. By doing so, we can transform provincial councils into institutions that safeguard national unity.

“In recent years, numerous committees associated with Parliament have produced several documents that thoroughly examine the subject of provincial councils and their prospective trajectory. Among these documents is the interim report released on September 21, 2017, by the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Council of Sri Lanka, under my leadership. Importantly, all parties represented within Parliament endorsed the recommendations outlined in this interim report. The interim report offers recommendations concerning amendments to Articles 3, 4, and 5 of the Constitution. We are now bringing forward these proposed constitutional amendments for consideration by Parliament….”

The ‘special statement’ which runs into 15 pages also incorporates the proposals President Wickremesinghe made before meetings of the party leaders on two different occasions. One is made up of 15 pages and the other 16. Since, his proposals will come for discussion before leaders of political parties represented in Parliament, the critical question is how the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), whose government Wickremesinghe leads, will respond to them. The main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) has taken up the position that Provincial Council elections should be held before any reforms are considered. Its General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said, “We are in favour of devolution and the 13th Amendment. However, we do not want them to be used as smokescreens to delay elections.”

The ruling SLPP is yet to react officially. At least one formidable faction is opposed to the move on the grounds that it did not cover President Wickremesinghe’s mandate. The claim is that he had been elected by Parliament to complete his predecessor’s term which did not have a public endorsement to broaden the concept of PCs.

However, there is a segment that has remained in favour of President Wickremesinghe supporting his economic initiatives. How they would respond remains to be seen. Other than that, several organisations, including those representing the clergy, are preparing themselves to protest. President Wickremesinghe’s proposals, like those of other political parties, will come up for discussion at a meeting of political parties represented in Parliament. Thereafter, a final set of proposals will have to come before the House for final approval.

No-faith motion against Rambukwella

Another matter of concern for the main opposition SJB is the vote of no confidence against Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella over the present crisis in the health sector where urgently needed medicine has been unavailable or in short supply. At Wednesday’s sittings of Parliament, President Wickremesinghe sprung a surprise on the SJB by offering to debate the motion last Thursday, Friday and even Saturday. He charged that Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa was not keen on pursuing the matter. Premadasa, however, responded that the opposition first wanted to debate the case of plantation workers, due for that day, and take three days thereafter at a future sitting to discuss the no-confidence motion.

SJB parliamentarian S.M. Marikkar said yesterday that their members have begun a campaign on Thursday to create more public awareness of the no-confidence motion. “We protested outside the Ministry of Health and will continue our campaign. We are also collecting signatures to a petition addressed to the President about the present situation in the state health sector where shortage of medicines persists. We have reason to believe large-scale corruption and the import of poor-quality medicinal drugs have become rampant. Sittings of Parliament this week saw Health Minister Rambukwella talking to parliamentary colleagues to seek their support when the motion is taken up for debate. The motion, in the name of 46 opposition MPs states:

“Whereas solutions have not been put forward so far for the crisis that has arisen in the health sector at present;

“And whereas the opinion of the experts is that most of the sorrowful incidents that are reported from hospitals day by day are deaths and impairments caused due to the use of drugs which are either substandard or low in quality;

“And whereas he is accountable as the Minister of Health for not duly appointing the Board of Directors of the National Medicines Regulatory Authority, for the importing of low quality drugs, for the importing of drugs deviating from the tender procedure, for the importing of drugs at exorbitant prices, for the scarcity of essential drugs and shortage of laboratory equipment in the hospital system and for the purchasing of unregistered drugs on the pretext of emergency purchases thereby resulting in deaths and impairments due to their use;

“And whereas the Minister of Health has neglected to duly regulate the process of importing drugs to this country in a manner not inconsistent with the guiding principles of State Policy stipulated in Article 27 of the Constitution regardless of the fact that the government is bound to uphold the Principles therein;

“And whereas the Minister has acted ruining the safe health service available for people, thereby breaching the pledge he has given in terms of Article 53 of the

Constitution;  “And whereas the Minister has neglected his fundamental duties required by Article 28 of the Constitution and people have to pay the price of his irresponsible conduct with their lives;

“That this Parliament resolves that it has no confidence in the competence of Hon. Keheliya Rambukwella, Minister of Health, to function as a Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers any longer.”

The motion is in the names of opposition parliamentarians Sajith Premadasa, R. M. Ranjith Madduma Bandara,  Lakshman Kiriella, Rajitha Senarathne, Kumara Welgama, Chandima Weerakkody,  M. S. Thowfeek, Imran Maharoof, Hesha Withanage, Selvarajah Kajendren, Chaminda Wijesiri, Velu Kumar, Gayantha Karunatilleka, Ashok Abeysinghe, Kabir Hashim, Kavinda Heshan Jayawardhana, Thushara Indunil Amarasena, Kins Nelson, Waruna Liyanage,  Patali Champika Ranawaka,  W. H. M. Dharmasena, V. Radhakrishnan,  S. M. Marikkar, Harshana Rajakaruna Wasantha Yapabandara, Eran Wickramaratne,  Harsha de Silva, Niroshan Perera,  Buddhika Pathirana,  J. C. Alawathuwala, Jayarathna Herath,  K. Sujith Sanjaya Perera, Nalin Bandara Jayam Aha, Dilip Wedaarachchi,  Thalatha Athukorala, Ishak Rahuman, Ajith Mannapperuma, . Hector Appuhamy, Mayantha Dissanayake,  Rohana Bandara,  Mano Ganesan, Vijitha Herath, M. Udayakumar, Harini Amarasuriya and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka.

Asked whether there was any reluctance on the part of the opposition not to go ahead with the motion early, having made urgent demands for it, SJB General Secretary Ranjit Madduma Bandara replied, “We would not work according to the government’s agenda. We have our own agenda. Therefore, we would debate the no-confidence motion according to our agenda. We plan to have the debate on the first parliamentary sitting week of September. We already have the support of the opposition. We must see how government members will respond to what we will reveal during the debate.”

In another development, the government averted a serious political crisis when a cabinet minister threatened to resign. The reason – a move by the Presidential Secretariat to name a new Secretary to his Ministry after the incumbent had reached the age of 60, the limit allowed for these officers. When the request by the official for a further extension was declined, the Minister concerned intervened. He insisted that a further extension would have to be given to him since that was the official who knew the subject. Otherwise, he warned that he would immediately tender his resignation. Such a resignation by the Minister would have triggered a crisis not only in the Cabinet of Ministers but also created issues in a key region where the Minister had undertaken several projects.

The Presidential Secretariat has now declared that all Secretaries due to retire would be allowed to continue in office until December 31. Thereafter, there would be no extensions of service to those who have reached the age of 60.

President Wickremesinghe’s new proposals to broaden the role of the Provincial Councils would no doubt be a focal point in the government’s decentralisation project. It will allow parliamentarians to contest PCs, raise women’s representation to 25% or higher and Advisory Councils to guide governors; and PCs are no doubt new milestones. With their current strength in Parliament, the SLPP government will be able to overcome the no-confidence vote on Minister Rambukwella. Nevertheless, the opposition parties are armed with some alarming details of shortcomings in the health sector, which they say has become a den of corruption.

Kshenuka to take over from Milinda in New Delhi

Kshenuka Dhireni Senewiratne will be Sri Lanka’s New High Commissioner to New Delhi.

She will succeed Milinda Moragoda who will relinquish duties in September. Ms Senewiratne is presently serving as Director General (Foreign Media) at the Presidential Secretariat.  Besides serving as Foreign Secretary, Ms Senewiratne also served as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations in New York, High Commissioner in the United Kingdom and later as
Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Thailand.


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