Groundviews

Attitudinal change necessary to give momentum to the Provincial councils

Image courtesy Sri Lanka Guardian

Sri Lanka on the threshold of change needs an overhaul of the entire democratic process and good governance. The three decade old war is over and expectations have been raised for a more tranquil future. People are looking forward to a life enriched by greater equity in society, guided by enlightened leadership, with emphasis on fairness in governance, quality education, health and reasonably habitable housing along with accelerated progress in arts and culture and sports. The South has effectively put to rest the crisis filled years of the Southern Youth challenge to the State. Since then the movement has embraced ( been permitted to) democracy with a healthy respect for parliamentary traditions and human rights. At this moment in history the country needs enlightened leadership, a leadership that adopts a healthy philosophy that can decry repetition of the use of violence for change as witnessed in the South and in the North.

Change of attitude to the working of the Provincial Council system has become imperative following the election of the Northern Provincial Council. The NPC election was projected as the forerunner for a new beginning for the stabilization of peace, for the building of trust and friendship, for accelerated development and for solutions to urgent problems of war widows and orphans, displaced persons (during and after the war), PTA detainees lingering in jail unable to access the judicial process for relief and other vulnerable sections in the Northern society.But the ambivalent attitude of the government and some of the detractors from the Tamil leadership has resulted in near zero expectation from the newly elected NPC.

Devolution and the sharing of power by the central government with the Northern provincial council must accompany a deep understanding of the reasons for the crafting of the PC mechanism by the government together with India. At the time this was considered the best approach to accommodate Tamil aspirations. The rationale for power sharing as an ‘aide’ to cohabitation of a multi ethnic, multi religious populace needs dissemination among the various segments in society, the government meaning the decision makers and the administrative units responsible for policy implementation, the majority and the minority communities, the intelligentsia, the business community and indeed throughout the entire spectrum of the plural polity. That this has not happened to date is partly due to the shortfall in leadership and partly because of the hostile attitude of important political leaders from the constituent parties of the UPFA, high profile officials from the Administration and Defense. The anti -devolution lobby has charged that no constructive progress has been achieved through the Provincial Council system. Reference is constantly made to the threat to national security and the unitary status of the country; it is often mentioned as an imminent certainty that the North will move out and the division of the nation state be imminent.

When leading stake holders of the government make such unambiguous statements how can the NPC system take root and become functional? Government continues to be silent over these controversial views. The question need be asked: What is the government’s stand on power sharing with the minorities?

Perhaps the government looks upon the success of the TNA at the NPC election as a threat to the nation and its unitary status. At the elections the TNA won 30 seats, Muslims 1 and the government and its coalition partner EPDP took 7 seats. The voter participation at this election almost doubled from 33% at the general elections to 68% at the NPC elections. It is also significant that the voter base of EPDP has dropped sharply, from 34% in 2010 to 18% at the NPC election.

It would be inadvisable to construe the voting pattern as a reflection of hostility to the government per se; it is at best a negative vote for the government and the EPDP (working in the Northern community) which highlights the sense of hopelessness amongst the people. It is important that a proper analysis is made of these statistics so as to work out the future direction of the government. It must include government’s attitude to its allies, to the NPC and the Northern constituency, an integral unit of the island polity.

This is also an opportune moment to review the decision to replicate the PC system to the nine provinces, a mechanism that was especially designed to appease the aspirations for identity and cultural distinction of the minority community. Could it be surmised that the extension of PCs to areas that made no claim for devolved power has contributed to the PCs being considered a ‘white elephant’? Is it that the successive governments have been interested only on winning a majority in the PCs which has detracted selectors from focusing on the ‘right’ choice for candidates? Is it also that PCs are ineffective because space and encouragement are not given to Councilors to plot their different paths to accommodate the specific needs of their constituents? Or is it that the replication of perks and privileges of MPs to the PC members has made them comfortable and transformed Councilors into robots willing to be led by the central government? Honest answers to the questions raised here will facilitate transformation in attitudes to make provincial councils function efficiently.

Throughout post- independence experiments were undertaken to have greater cohesion between the government administrative machinery and the people. The rationale was that by engaging with people at the local level their needs can be better accessed, assessed and be solution centric. Political authority, decentralized budget, taking government machinery to the districts (during President Premadasa’s tenure), were all pro people programs. This is the first time power sharing between the government and the provinces is provided for in the constitution. However, these experiments stemmed from the fountain of a centralized system while the provincial councils have their mandate from the constitution. Perhaps the difficulty to accept devolution in practice is the inability to loosen central control over the entire administrative system and substitute with power sharing through the PCs. Micro management for efficiency is widely accepted and power sharing at the provincial level is based on similar principle. – The state however remains ‘de jure unitary’-!

Devolution will be feasible when the fear of a division of the nation state is removed. The minorities in control of power in the PCs must give confidence to the government and the country of their intent to stay within the unitary system without any hidden agendas. It is unfortunate that oft times men of experience and scholarship have failed to give leadership to the Tamil community by making statements empathizing with the extremists that destabilizes the confidence building process. There has also been inconsistency in the President’s stand on minority issues which makes the minorities suspicious of the government. The reconciliation process might have been accelerated if the Executive President and his advisors have kept faith on decisions taken at the various confabs. It is therefore evident that both government and the minorities need to sharpen their skills at negotiation in a spirit of compromise.

The NPC Chief Minister has made the plea that the NPC has to be supported despite it being controlled by the opposition. But as stated in the Economist of 22nd Sept. 2013 it is “up to the TNA to try to turn a symbolic victory into something real without stoking fears elsewhere in the country that Tamils would again seek secession”. This is good advice and the NPC must substitute advocacy of constituency needs as priority for urgent attention and abandon Ideological and emotive issues.   A decisive attitudinal change has to be established by the minorities if a quid pro quo is expected from the government. One such demonstration is the decision by the CM to take the oath of office before the President of the country. He has set a precedent for Tamil politics by putting “wisdom and proper diligence” before other considerations. The CM has since requested the administration to stop viewing the North as “terrorist areas”. To give muscle to his request he publicly eschewed secession and violence thus projecting the moderate voice of the minority. No doubt in the immediate post war context elements of extremism will be visible amongst some political parties who though they played a pro- active role in the past were later decimated by the LTTE. These individuals and minor groups continue to flex their muscle to have their presence felt. A mature government and a CM with legal experience must have in their portmanteau methods to handle such deviance tactfully.

Government cooperation is necessary for the many issues that need clearance. The call for attitudinal change is a two pronged process; both the government and the NPC must adopt pragmatism and realism as tools for the success of power- sharing. ‘Matcho’ posturing will not help to ease tensions between the government and an opposition party in power. A number of significant road blocks are visible that can stall the forward movement of the deliberations of the council. A persistent demand for the removal of the Governor and for his replacement with a civilian has been made.

The Governor the Chief Executive has the authority to appoint the Board of Ministers on the advice of the CM and to allocate their functions. While the Chief Minister and the Board of Ministers are entitled to offer advice to the governor on matters of policy and administration the Governor is not obligated to act on their advice. Governor’s decisions are final and the fact he is not answerable in a court of law makes matters more complex.

The Governor is the Director of Establishments of the public service commission; he is also responsible for the terms and conditions of recruitment of the provincial public service cadres. The elected representatives appear to have significantly less power. Even though the Provincial Council is the legislative body with power to pass legislation on any subject assigned to it, the Governor’s sanction is necessary for it to become law.

The Governor’s control over finance is total. The Annual financial statement presented to the Council is prepared by him. He also frames all rules of the council regulating the activities relating to the Provincial Fund and Emergency fund of the Province.  Monies cannot be withdrawn from the provincial fund without the sanction of the Governor. The elected body representing the people cannot pass any statute improving or altering provincial taxes or authorizing the receipt of money without the recommendation from the governor. In a situation of a stand off with the Governor he stands equipped to obstruct the work of the council. Power sharing becomes a myth.

Police and Public order is vested with the President. Provincial police force is appointed by the IGP who comes directly under the President. A strong appeal was made for police powers to be vested in the Council and Tamil speaking force appointed for easy communication. This has been denied in the interest of national security.

Recently the government appealed against the ruling of the lower court that the Provincial Council High Courts had jurisdiction over legal disputes regarding state lands. The Supreme Court ruled that power over land should remain with the Central government. Chief Justice has declared that “the Centre has not ceded its dominium over state lands to the provincial councils except in some limited circumstances.” This is in contradiction to the constitutional provision that “land shall be a provincial council subject” to “administer, control and utilize such state land”. The ruling however is in resonance with the declared policy of the Government that land and police powers will not be devolved. The matter rests.

The complexity in power sharing arrangement can be from the reported agreement to transfer the Chief Secretary by the President on the request by the Chief Minister. Subsequently this understanding was not upheld fearing opposition from the SLAS. Now the problem has been further aggravated by the Chief Secretary seeking judicial intervention. The administration in the NPC has a three pronged confrontation among its important functionaries, the Governor, the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary. The CM it would seem has become the soft target, a further illustration that politics is instrumental in the rebuttal of a mechanism for power sharing introduced primarily for better and smoother build- up of relationships. By not attempting to remove the obstacles the Centre has created a major imbalance in the power configuration within the PC system. The NPC is in its nascent days and institutions must be imaginatively introduced and communication lines established to deal swiftly with problems as they surface. Otherwise frustration and discontent will increase and challenges to the authority of the government will surface as in the past.

It is only when an institution is in operation that shortcomings will surface and the need to rectify them will become necessary. It is inconceivable that so much power and authority is vested in the Governor, the representative of the President, significantly more than in the elected members of the council. Is this then a mechanism for devolution of power or for centralization by another route.

As a priority, the government must view sympathetically the request to replace the Governor retired from the military with a civilian of the President’s choice. It would be an act of noblesse to appoint a civilian governor because of the perception, that an army man as the chief Executive amidst a high level of military presence, High security Zones, makes the environment seem under military siege. This should not become a prestige issue but be one of pragmatism. It has to be seen as a compromise that would ease tensions and pave the way for better working conditions.

A recovery Plan for the Economy in the North

The Corporate Social Responsibility, the much touted moral alert of the entrepreneurial class has to be encouraged to play a significant role in rebuilding the economy of the North and modernize the prevalent trade practices. This will give encouragement for investments to come in when proven entrepreneurs taken the initiative to work a development program for the North, a recovery plan as well as for reintegration of the Northern economy with the rest of the country and internationally as well. Resultant employment generation and income generation will help to improve the quality of life and discourage the spread of anti- societal activities.

Civil Society

Civil society must be alerted of its moral responsibility to rise and think; to rise and lead with understanding and conviction of what is right and wrong; to rise and study controversial issues with objectivity; to rise and abjure vested interests from misleading. The moral vacuum in society has made people accept levels of political chicanery not encountered before; silent acquiescence of corruption and a -moral ways of wealth as never before; drug trafficking and the consequent increase in drug use amongst the youth both in the urban and rural areas not arrested by the long arm of the law enforcement agencies. ‘Positive’ government has to be the strong call to prevent the destabilization of society. Pursuit of power and ego trips must not be permitted to be the barometer of success. These lapses have been compounded by a marked deficit in upholding law and order and the passive acceptance of such lapses by society. The religious leaders must expound their philosophies to the people seriously and humanely. No religious leader should pursue partisan prejudicial path to further divide society creating social disharmony. Creating divisiveness in society by radicals from among clergy is on the rise. All religions teach peace, love and non- violence. Let the men of wisdom from the clergy and laity provide the leadership to the country for peace and reconciliation and not allow the people to be misled by misguided men in religious garb.

Unfortunately whatever development has taken place has been eclipsed by mal governance. Nothing significant has happened since the end of the war to bond people together. It is not only an ethnic divide that is a prominent feature; but there still exist the sharp rich and poor divide, and caste divisions; religious hate a threat to cohabitation is a new phenomenon. The hopes of the youth remain unreachable- greater equity in society, jobs for better quality of life; access to education, health, environment for happiness and peace – In the years since the end of the war it was hoped that some bits and pieces of these hopes were within reach. Unfortunately neither in the South nor in the North has these been sufficiently realizable, a sad reflection of the politics of the time in the country. No great effort has been put into building relationships between communities. In the immediate post war years it is vital to give hope for contentment, containment and happiness. If there is constant surveillance there is no hope for social relationships to be built. Last week saw an upsurge in detection of LTTE revival. That without a doubt such an uprising should be nipped will never be contested. What is disturbing is that the three individuals who were identified as LTTErs and killed were all in their 20s with many years ahead of them. That they should take the risk of certain death if accosted is a choice they made. That there can be a financial incentive cannot be dismissed. It is possible that the leadership failed to give hopes for a better future and that this propelled them to gamble with their lives. But this crisis must not be an opening to dump everyone into the same basket. There are many who cherish the end of war and the relative peace and quiet available to them. No doubt many fall within this category although no media worth its name is willing to let their voices be heard by the rest of the country. The shortfall in communication and propaganda for the better profile of these people is a major lapse. Government by utilizing the devolution process can be the “means for expanding the horizon of freedom, creating opportunity, and making a society both more powerful and more just” (Paul Starr)

Muscle power is not the means by which to achieve this goal.

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This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.