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Devolution in Sri Lanka: ‘Some of out of the box’ thoughts

Nov 4, 2010 12:57:46 PM- transcurrents.com

By: Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

" How much more legitimate is it to say with the wise Plato, that the perfect felicity of a kingdom consists in the obedience of subjects to their prince, and of the prince to the laws, and in the laws being just and constantly directed to the public good!"-Jean Jacques Rousseau in his essay on 'The social contract'.

The possibility of an independent Tamil Eelam within the island of Sri Lanka is as dead as a 'DODO' now. Those who yet expect it to become a reality are living in a world of fantasy. Those yet actively scheming to resurrect the Tamil Eelam project should be aware that they are also simultaneously digging a mass grave for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. What are the alternatives?

Devolution of powers to the periphery, particularly to the northern and eastern provinces, has once again assumed centre stage in the debate on how to manage the majority-minority equation within the island. Full- fledged federalism, with extensive devolution of powers, has to be ruled out because the Sinhala polity is convinced it is tantamount to separation.

Sri Lanka is at present defined as a unitary state, a position that will not change for decades to come, in view of rigid perceptions that have emerged in the context of the call for a separate State for the Tamils of the north and east and the war fought over it. To the majority Sinhala community, unitary is united. This position is rigidly cast in reinforced concrete.

A quasi-federal state like India, suggested by Mr.V.Anandasangary, is also not a serious alternative, as the Sinhala polity does not see it as any different from a federal state. It may take decades, if not centuries of inter-communal peace and relative prosperity in the island, for levels of trust and confidence to be established, permitting these rigid positions to change.

The Sinhala people are now indifferent to the 13th amendment, which gave birth to the Provincial Councils, under Indian pressure. Though severely emasculated through various devices deployed by successive governments, it remains a symbol of insult to Sri Lankan sovereignty for many. These Councils as presently constituted perform some services, but have no major impact on the people they serve. The Colombo government continues to be the puppeteer, which orchestrates all matters great and small in Sri Lanka. Even the Municipal Councils, Urban Councils and the Gam Sabhas (Village Councils) have progressively lost their independence. There has been a trend towards greater centralization, rather than decentralization or devolution over several decades despite the national turmoil and a war for a separate State for the Tamils. The recent decision that the defense ministry will regulate billboards in Colombo here after, is a pointer to the direction we are moving.

Devolution, as an exercise to empower the minorities in Sri Lanka, cannot be imposed on an unwilling/ unconvinced government and a disinclined Sinhala polity. It is pertinent to note that there was no demand for devolution from the Sinhalese and the Provincial Councils were thrust on the seven (out of nine) provinces where they are a majority, in order to accommodate the demands of the Tamils. Any greater degree of devolution grudgingly accepted because of external pressures, is likely to be rendered meaningless, as the 13th amendment. It is futile to waste our time discussing, debating and demanding the full implementation of the 13th amendment with +/-, or any other devolution mechanism in the prevailing circumstances. Seeking Indian pressure on the Sri Lankan government on issues relating to devolution and power sharing will definitely prove counter-productive for the Tamils.

Governments in Sri Lanka, irrespective of the persons heading them, have been masters at the art of dodge and swerve, show and hide, and hide and seek, to buy time to avoid confronting the issue of devolution head on. If the reigning government offers devolution, the opposition will be against it. This is our history. It is a well-synchronized game! The powers that be in Sri Lanka have never shown the inclination or the will to devolve power. The present government headed by President Mahinda Rajapakse is no different. Even if this government is inclined to tread the path of devolution to any meaningful distance, a Sinhala polity that has lived with the consequences of the separatist war and rejoiced at its brutal end, will not countenance it. For them once again, devolution is equivalent to separation. Mahinda Rajapakse, the populist politician, is no fool to swim against the tide.

The Tamil politicians of today as those of yester-year have miserably failed to understand the Sinhala psyche. As Tamil demands escalated, culminating in the demand for a separate State and a war, the position of the Sinhala politicians and polity, also progressively hardened. The reverse is also true. The Tamils or those who claimed to represent them waged a prolonged war for a separate State, which ended with no gains, but debilitated the Tamils to an unimaginable extent.

Is it time for the Tamils and their politicians to seek a different path towards securing their place within Sri Lanka? Is it time to think out of the box? The political objectives of the Tamils should be defined clearly at this stage. Do the Tamils want power for powers sake or for the sake of improving their lives? If the latter is true, what is it that the Tamils need most now?

Primarily the Tamils need help to recover from the devastating effects of the prolonged war. They also need security –of person and property- to live as a free people without fear, equal citizenship rights and equal opportunities in all aspects of life. They have to be guaranteed their cultural and linguistic rights as individuals and a people. During the coming years, the northern and eastern provinces should be developed to provide means of livelihood and higher standards of living for the people. Could there be another way of achieving these objectives?

There are yet Tamils who have failed to understand the current situation in Sri Lanka. The Tamils have been debilitated to an extent that day- to- day survival has become a priority to a very large number. Language, culture, religion and concepts of homeland have become distant considerations. The need to find food, shelter, health-care, livelihood and other basics of human life far outweigh the need to exercise power over their affairs as articulated by their so-called leaders. The hunger for power felt by their so-called leaders and leadership aspirants does not reflect the sentiments of the Tamils at large. The basic needs of the Tamils are so acute and the northern and eastern provinces so impoverished that only the central government with whatever international assistance it can procure is capable of providing relief.

Provincial Councils in most provinces are very dependent on the central government for their finances, and in the north and east, under the present circumstances, they are more so. Those aspiring to positions of power within the Tamil community at present are largely the dredges of society (proportionately higher than in the Sinhala community), who should not be trusted with any power. In these circumstances, do we need a second tier of government?

The Tamils yet persisting with the demands of yester-year do not also understand that the Sinhala attitudes towards the minorities have changed. They no longer feel a disadvantaged majority. They are a confident people, who now feel their destiny is firmly in their control. They can no longer be described as a 'Majority with a minority complex'. Issues of language and religion no longer are their greatest concern. The ordinary Sinhala people have found their place in the sun. The extreme elements among the Sinhalese are firmly under the control of this government. They are incapable of rousing divisive passions any longer and cannot strike a chord with the Sinhala people.

The Sinhalese are now seeking development and economic prosperity above everything else. They understand that unless there is peace in the country these objectives cannot be achieved. They now have a stake in the economic pie. They want to learn English now to pursue their ambitions, in a culturally and economically globalizing world. English is no longer the 'Kaduwa' (sword) they once despised. The other welcome development is that a very large number feel the grievances of the Tamils, with respect of equal citizenship and language rights need to be addressed within the framework of a unitary Sri Lanka. Having experienced the war and seen the aftermath, they empathize with the Tamils. The Rajapakse government resonates to these sentiments. When the Rajapakse government talks of a homespun solution, it is articulating a desire to find a solution that will reconcile the set positions and current sentiments of the Sinhalese with the needs of the minorities. Models of devolution imposed from outside may not satisfy these criteria.

The window of opportunity that has opened for all minorities including the Tamils should not be permitted to slip. Politics is the art of the possible and compromise is its essence. Of course, many Tamils influenced by the politics of confrontation of the past would ask why the Tamils should compromise. My answer would be that it is common sense to do so and the height of hypocrisy/ stupidity not to accept current realities. If Tamils cannot reach the sky, as they had wanted and fallen into a quagmire of misery, they have to climb to the top of the nearest and strongest tree available, to avoid drowning. Tamils have to compromise their historical stance for new and effective political arrangements that would serve the needs of the time. The Tamils cannot talk the language of a minority with a majority complex any more. History, as perceived by many Tamils may prove that they had an independent Kingdom before the Portuguese invasion and hence they have a right to self-rule of sorts, if not a separate State. Unfortunately, history that is more recent has pointed the Tamils in the direction to find their place within a unitary Sri Lankan State. Rather than accept flawed and debilitated Provincial Councils, it may be prudent for the Tamils to seek alternate arrangements, which would be easily acceptable to the Sinhala polity and cater to their current needs and those of at least the next few decades.

In my opinion, it is better for the representatives of the Tamils and Muslims to participate in the politics of the center and pursue the interest of their people through mechanisms that will be acceptable to the majority Sinhala polity. Such an approach will also take advantage of the current sentiments prevailing in the Sinhala polity. This approach may require jettisoning the Provincial Councils set up under the 13th amendment, and taking a diametrically opposite direction.

I suggest in broad outline approaches that have the potential to ensure for the minorities what they seek:

1. A bill of rights, covenant or social contract in the constitution that will enshrine as an entrenched principle that all citizens are equal and have inalienable rights to,

a. Security of person and property, wherever they freely choose to live in the island.

b. Equal opportunities in education, chosen profession and employment, based on merit.

c. Live in accordance to their culture; be educated in the language of their choice (Sinhala, Tamil, English or a combinations of these) and practice their religion.

d. Total and unqualified equality in the eyes of the prevailing laws and administrative mechanisms.

e. Non-discrimination based on professed identity, language, religion, beliefs, political affiliations and place of residence.

f. Preserve and develop their distinctive identity and its associated visible symbols.

g. Deal with the government at various levels and its agencies in either Sinhala, Tamil or English.

2. The above bill of rights, covenant or social contract should be given effect through appropriate laws that have teeth and which cannot be abridged by other clauses in the constitution or other laws.

3. Elected members of parliament from each province should be constituted into bodies (nine in total) that serve as the political link between the legislature, executive and the provinces. They could be called the 'Provincial Advisory Councils'

These bodies:

a. Should be permitted to monitor and report on various aspects of provincial life-administrative services, police services, education, health care, transport services, industries, agriculture, forestry, water conservation, infrastructure, tourism, land use, ecological issues etc. - to the legislature and the executive.

b. Should constitute themselves into committees, to address various aspects of life in the provinces coming under their preview.

c. Should propose development projects and administrative improvements in respect of their provinces to the cabinet.

4. A member of parliament from each province, acceptable to the president (other criteria may be defined), should be appointed as a minister in the cabinet. Thus, there will be nine additional cabinet ministers, each representing a province, in the national cabinet.

They would:

a. Serve as a link between the provincial grouping of parliamentarians and the executive.

b. Serve as the links between the provincial bodies

c. Pursue the interests and concerns of their respective provinces at cabinet level.

d. Participate in national affairs at cabinet level.

e. Chair meetings of the body consisting of the members of parliament from each province.

f. Not have any executive functions in their respective provinces, but would have the right to co-ordinate with various subject ministers in the cabinet and access information from the existing provincial administrations and co-ordinate with the District Secretaries (Government Agents) on issues of concern

This proposal if fleshed out, refined and better defined, would serve several purposes:

1. Permit the minorities to participate effectively in national governance.

2. Permit the minorities to have a say in the affairs of the provinces they reside.

3. Permit the provinces to have a greater say in the affairs concerning them.

4. Make the government more aware of the needs of the provinces.

5. Make members of parliament aware of the needs of their provinces.

6. Reduce the cost of administration (no separate Provincial Council administration).

7. Eliminate a tier of governance that has proved to be or rendered ineffective.

8. Eliminate the position of an appointed Governor in the provinces and give elected members of parliament greater say in provincial affairs, through interactions within the cabinet and the legislature.

9. Make members of parliament answerable to their electorates in terms of performance.

10. Make members of parliament earn their keep

11. Make members of parliament learn to work together, irrespective of party affiliations, for the common good.

12. Make cabinet ministers (other than the provincial ministers) participate in affairs of the provinces as members of parliament from a particular province. This will pave the way for another dimension of province –centre interaction.

Aspects of these proposals pertaining to members of parliament from the various provinces can be implemented initially through ad-hoc arrangements, without constitutional sanction. However, constitutional amendments to entrench the bill of rights, covenant or social contract and consolidate the system proposed would be imperative at the earliest. I am not sure whether a two third majority in parliament and a national referendum would be required to accommodate these proposals in the constitution. I do not however foresee any problems regarding these, as the governments commands a two third majority at present and the public has no reason to reject these proposals. These constitutional arrangements should supersede the 13th amendment.

My hope is that this proposal will encourage a focused debate and discussion that would permit complementary or alternate ideas to emerge to untangle a proverbial Gordian knot.

"யாதும் ஊரெ யாவரும் கேளீர்
தீதும் நன்மையும் பிற்ர் தர வாரா” – புறநானாணூறு

Translation (mine):

"All ye hear! All cities/ towns/villages belong to every one and
the bad and the good are not begotten from others"

The above lines from the Puranaanuuru (Sangam Tamil poetry), points that we Sri Lankans have to accept Sri Lanka is the home for all her peoples and that the bad and the good we beget are our own making. We should broaden our outlook beyond our parochial identities and work to achieve a unity in our diversity. This is the lesson we have to learn from the blood history of our 62- years as an independent nation.
The approach I am suggesting here may be the first step in the direction of national reconciliation and nation building.