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Devolution outside 13A box

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The President made a renewed call to Parliament this week to implement the controversial 13th Amendment to the Constitution (13A) in the name of reconciliation and national unity. Critics were quick to ask if he’s only reopened an old ‘can of worms’ and needlessly dug into wounds that were ostensibly healing, as they are wont to do with the passage of time. Only ‘interested parties’ want to keep these old wounds festering.

In his address to the House, the President acknowledged that the Provincial Councils which were the outcome of 13A lacked clarity, resulted in duplication of efforts leading to delayed implementation of development projects and were a drain on the national budget to the tune of Rs. 550 billion annually. In fact, he had said earlier that the three-tiered system of government i.e. the Central Government, Provincial Councils and Local Councils resulted in three agencies digging the same drain. But he also conceded that the Provincial Councils had come to stay and cannot be excised from the country’s administrative system or political landscape.

He pointed out how some political parties had objected to the introduction of the PC system when it was brought in back in the 1987 post-Indo-Lanka Accord period only to later participate in them; which must be read as — how they (then SLFP and JVP) enjoy the perks of office and political power in the periphery the system gives them.

In a wide-ranging policy statement, the President mentioned the need to increase the number of PCs. Whether he meant to increase them from the nine existing provinces into small units was left open. Many have argued that for a small country like Sri Lanka, the unit of devolution must be smaller than a province – like a district, or the least, something in between the size of a district and a province. This will mean the delimitation of the boundaries largely drawn during the British colonial period.

The President’s references to other countries where the Central Government’s power has been devolved – the United States, Canada, Japan and even the UK are not comparable to Sri Lanka, size-wise. He said global trends and cases worldwide must be explored.

Why go far? Go to India.

The country preaching devolution in Sri Lanka is doing exactly the antithesis of it at home. A ‘do as we say, not as we do’ policy. The Central Government only last week took control of appointments to the administrative service in the Union Territory of Delhi because it is in the hands of an anti-ruling party administration. A year ago it stripped the provincial state of Kashmir of its special autonomous status.

Fortunately, the President has realised that granting police powers to the PCs is too sensitive an issue and suggested it be left on the back burner for a later date without getting into it now and jeopardising what else is on the table for discussion.

It is argued that Appendix I of 13A provides for the Central Government to have ‘control’ over a provincial police and that national security is well within the authority of the Central Government. Having the provincial police under a Chief Minister is a recipe for disaster as this does not apply only to the North or Eastern provinces but to the ‘South’ as well. A legitimate, even armed police under a Chief Minister should send shivers down the inhabitants of that province. And in the North and East, given the continuing communal environment drummed up by bankrupt politicians, emergency rule, mutinies and clashes with the security forces are all on the cards, making the ordinary people relive the hell they went through during the three decades of conflict not so long ago.

The President may be well-meaning and mindful of the Southern sentiments that are sceptical about Indian hegemony in the North – and the East. He would surely want to be the Head of a sovereign state rather than a de facto Chief Minister of another sovereign state. The North and East cannot be the sole and exclusive preserve of another country. While the national security concerns of India are legitimate grounds to be considered, its imprimatur for every foreign investment project in the region, surely need not be required. There may even come a time, if it has not come already, that what may seem a good investment in the region needs to be vetted with Sri Lanka’s own long-term national interests, not being a vassal state for a mess of pottage.

The President referred to “global trends”. Global trends have moved away from ethnic enclaves, but on the other hand, active moves for prepollency among the big powers is on the rise in the growing-politics of the Indian Ocean.

Distances, travel time and lots of similar difficulties of yesteryear that made devolution of administrative power — not so much political power from Colombo to the periphery — a necessity are now increasingly overcome by communications. Connectivity from road highways to information superhighways and digital systems are making life easier, bringing government within closer reach of the citizen – even paying bills from home and very soon, maybe, getting a passport mailed to one’s residence. It will leave the communal politicians bereft of the ‘tribalism card’ very soon.

A debate on 13A will only give a lifeline to those extremist elements, some genuine no doubt, while some see it for purely narrow and opportunistic vote-grabbing purposes or paying homage to the Diaspora and foreign powers.

The immediate aftermath of the President’s presentation of his policy statement on 13A did not augur well for any signs of national unity that he called for from MPs on all sides of the House. If that was the mood of the House, this exercise is a non-starter.

Many express the point that economic development alone will not assuage the fundamental need of the people of the North and East which is their quest for a ‘homeland’. Some still demand Federalism. But the Tamil political parties don’t talk of an economic plan. They don’t have one it seems. They don’t defend their fishermen. They only want political power. They, or some of them, are too beholden to India. The voice of the region’s politicians may not necessarily be the voice of the people.

13A is not limited to the North and East and whether it cannot be excised from the country’s political landscape is also debatable. There is no reason why meaningful devolution cannot be brought outside the box of 13A.

 

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