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Sri Lanka, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, has been facing multiple and endless crises for decades. Effective solutions must be found to resolve the political, economic, cultural and relationship issues between the majority and minority groups that have stifled the country’s progress since independence 75 years ago. A fresh look at the failed unitary government and curtailing the powers of the unaccountable executive presidency is essential if the country’s future is to be changed for the better. Devolution of powers to the regions and better checks and balances between the executive, judiciary, and parliament are indispensable.
It is in this broader perspective that this article should be viewed. The class-based issues that fuel the national question will not be addressed here. Suffice it to say that under neo-liberalism, differences in plural societies are exploited to sustain authoritarian capitalist governance systems that are beset with crises.
Nation building is an evolutionary and long-term course of action. It needs to evolve and grow through a consensual internal political process; external intervention will not have much positive impact. Institutions that advocate and protect the fundamental rights of all communities, and citizens’ willingness to maintain harmonious co-existence are crucial for achieving socioeconomic prosperity and equitable society. This requires equitable access to education, jobs, housing and health, among others, for the empowerment of all peoples of a country.
For nation building to be successful, we need to recognize the importance of democratic values within the civic sphere that will develop and sustain it in the long run, as opposed to just emphasizing economic development and state building. There is no room for an ethnocentric approach or imposition of policies and practices by coercive means. The reality is we hear merely meaningless platitudes from the political elite who have very little understanding of this critical need.
Decentralization is increasingly seen as a basic principle of democracy. A system of good governance needs people to have the ability to elect their own leaders and representatives to institutions that wield real power to respond to people’s needs. Political decentralization plays an important role in addressing the democratic deficit in centralized decision making. Grassroots movements championing more empowered local and regional governments have emerged. This is not surprising as an overweening central power has repeatedly failed to meet the needs of the people as attested by the current economic crisis.
Greater participation is assumed to lead to better informed decision-making that are more relevant to the plural societies like Sri Lanka. With political decentralization, citizens will come to better know their representatives and in turn their representatives will be more cognisant of the needs and desires of their electorates. Decentralization transfers responsibility for planning, financing and managing certain public duties from the centre and its agencies to regional ones, thus making it more local and accountable. This can be achieved by de-concentration, delegation, and devolution of authority with each of these having their own characteristics.
It should be noted that centralization and decentralization do not need to be an “either-or” scenario. Practical examples around the globe have demonstrated that an appropriate balance of centralization and decentralization can ensure effective and efficient government service delivery. Centres can play a crucial role in promoting and sustaining decentralization efforts. This can be done by developing proper and effective national policies and regulations needed for decentralization, thus creating the necessary enabling environments that allow regional, provincial, and local units to take on more responsibilities for undertaking new functions.
As a whole, genuine efforts at decentralization can cut cumbersome bureaucratic red tape. It can make local and national public servants more sensitive to local conditions and needs. It allows political representation of diverse political, ethnic, religious, and cultural groups in plural societies in decision-making processes, thus contributing to better political stability and national unity. A growing number of countries have adopted federal systems, decentralizing some elements of government responsibility from the centre down to local government as a means of giving different ethnic and regional groups some autonomy and control over their destiny.
The two insurrections in the south and the three decade long armed conflict in the north and east are examples of the fact that if people are excluded from sharing political power, they are more likely to challenge the legitimacy of the existing system. Federalism or devolution is a means of sharing power among diverse political entities irrespective of their ethnic or regional ties. Democracy will survive better if successes and burdens are shared fairly and equitably.
Sri Lanka’s current political system is based on a winner take all system, where one political party or group monopolises all the privileges and economic benefits. Devolution in contrast allows different ethnic and regional groups the ability to determine their own affairs, thus making them feel more secure. They may gain more confidence in, and commitment to the system, and a general sense that the system is fair and inclusive. Several studies show that decentralization can be instrumental in facilitating development and democratic governance, particularly in multi-ethnic societies. And various forms of decentralization are being successfully used around the world.
Historically, governments in Sri Lanka have tended to centralize all powers. Yet, the late 20th century witnessed an increasing global tendency to reduce central governmental power, by devolving power to the peripheral governing bodies such as state, regional, provincial and/or local bodies. Many countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America have adopted diverse devolutionary measures to empower their plural communities. France in the 1980s and the United Kingdom in the late 1990s are the most appropriate examples. France was one of the most centralised states. All major decisions of the regions, departments, and communes, from annual budgets to naming streets and schools, had to be authorized by the central government. Due to the pressure the peripheries exerted on the central government, the François Mitterrand administration (1981-95) removed most of the authorisations needed in policy making matters.
In the UK devolution became a major political issue in the early 1970s, as Scotland and Wales demanded greater control over their own affairs. A referendum was held in 1979 to determine the people’s will for devolution. It needed the electorate to approve it with a two-fifths majority, but voters in Wales and Scotland rejected it. However, in 1999, under Tony Blair’s regime, power was devolved, Scotland had a parliament, and later Wales a Welsh Assembly. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 provided Northern Ireland with its own parliament.
In Sri Lanka, proponents of devolution have been demanding clearly defined powers that the Provinces can wield. During the constitutional reform process under the previous regime led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, the Chief Ministers of the seven “southern” provinces asked for proper devolution as envisaged under the 13thAmendment. However, nothing came to fruition.