Photo courtesy of Dawn
The history of devolution in Sri Lanka is riddled with disappointments and missed opportunities. Although the armed conflict ended in 2009, the political conflict that led to the nearly 25 years of death and destruction has not been resolved. A settlement can only be achieved by offering a power sharing arrangement to the Tamil speaking communities in the North and East within a framework of a united and undivided Sri Lanka. Many Sri Lankans in the country and overseas have yet to come to terms with this inevitable compromise.
Sri Lanka is presently an overwhelmingly declining unitary state. In 2018, one of the former Auditor Generals pointed out that with respect to public sector misappropriation and corruption, Sri Lanka ranked the topmost country in the world. The country’s parliamentary system has woefully neglected its primary responsibility for formulating, enacting, and implementing sound policies, equitable laws and a transparent public financial system. People lured by false campaigns, sentimental speeches and briberies during election times over and over elected dishonest politicians who use their ill-gotten power and wealth to sustain their autocratic rule.
All of these have culminated in disastrous consequences for the people in more recent times. In 2022, the aragalaya protests ousted the last elected president. With severe shortages of food, fuel and medications, rolling blackouts, depleted foreign exchange reserves and defaulting on a massive debt of over $56 billion, the country encountered multiple catastrophic crises simultaneously. Those who could leave the country have been going in droves. With its reputation tarnished, the installed president Ranil Wickremesinghe assured the people of relief and political stability. However, scores of people continue to face unprecedentedly low socioeconomic conditions and the associated psychological impacts.
From schools and hospitals to the justice system and utility services, much of the country’s administrative functions have stagnated. Much blame should be attributed to corruption, mismanagement, wastage, political patronage and a lack of transparency and accountability that prevailed in the public sector for the last four decades. The Rajapaksas, who caused the crisis to escalate to epic proportions, have yet to apologise or be held accountable. Instead, they are very much aiming to regain power by rebuilding their chauvinist fundamentalist bases with whatever resources and opportunities available to them, including by making tacit deals with the president they installed.
It is in this context that we should look at nation building with new ideas and a positive approach.
District Development Councils that did not last very long
The J.R. Jayewardene regime that began in 1977 introduced an open economy and adopted more liberal economic policies promoting private sector led development. This free market economy contributed to deepening social contradictions as it benefited mostly private investors, the wealthy and the politically powerful. The income gap between the rural poor and the urban middle class kept widening. The economy opened up almost overnight to international competition. Many among the Sinhala majority population felt left behind, particularly the small businesses and farmers. The Tamil people in the Northeast also felt frustrated as the importation of chillies, onions and staple foods from India destroyed their major means of living. They have been seeking better opportunities and a fairer contribution to the country’s productivity growth. But the denial of equitable access to the national agricultural market, combined with other discriminatory policies and practices and language issues, escalated the call for regional autonomy.
This demand is not novel. It has a history running back to the days of the Legislative Council in 1926 where the possibility of a second tier of government was discussed. The issue was again discussed at the Donoughmore Commission of 1928, which had recognized the need for decentralization of powers so that much of the administrative work carried out at the centre could be performed more directly at the local level, leaving the government to concentrate on the macro affairs of running the country. The commission pronounced its proposals for Provincial Councils. It also suggested that “the special views of the different races predominant in the different parts of the island” might have an effect “in the administration of these parts.” But the recommendations for Provincial Councils were not implemented, largely due to the opposition of politicians and bureaucrats, who were not prepared to share their authority with the local leaders in the provinces and districts.
The clarion call for federalism by the Tamil speaking people since 1949 fell on deaf ears. A large majority of them, including some Muslims in the North and East, felt that the only effective way to freely determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development was to form an autonomous state called Tamil Eelam. And at the August 1977 general elections the Tamil political leadership, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), sought and received an overwhelming mandate to work out a political program to achieve this. Socially, economically and politically the country was facing a chaotic and disintegrating situation and the Jayewardene regime resorted to more authoritarian ways of enforcing its dictates.
In 1981, the regime established District Development Councils (DDCs) for each administrative district as a supposed instrument of devolution. But the DDCs were politically toothless. They could not independently attend to matters under their jurisdiction as there was no separate administrative mechanism established to allow them to function. So the DDCs had to depend on the bureaucracies of local and central government agencies and resources to do their work[i]. In practice, the system only helped the Sinhalese political elite garner more influence in district administration, creating another state tier to muster and sustain political party patronage.[ii] In addition, the ministers of the government subdued the DDCs, inhibiting the activities that fell under their jurisdiction. If the JVP experience is anything to go by, the DDCs did not have any powers of financial management. Frustrated with its incapability, the Chairman of the Jaffna DDC thew it away in July 1983.
The unilateral abrogation of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact (July 1957) and the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact (March 1965) and the outright rejection of the mandate given to Tamil leadership in August 1977 fuelled the armed conflict to rage in the North and East until July 1987 when the Indian government intervened to negotiate some form of power devolution for the Tamil speaking people.
Since then, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution purportedly to maintain peace, normalcy and unity in Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic and multi-lingual plural society has been in the Constitution for nearly three and a half decades without being fully implemented. Starting with the Jayewardene regime, all regimes resolutely held absolute control over land and police powers, and severely restricted the financial powers of the Provincial Councils. This is despite many complaints made by the Provincial Councils that they do not have any real administrative control over their regions and do not have enough money even to buy the essential necessities of those councils.
History of constitutional amendments
Currently the executive, the legislature, Provincial Councils and the local governments have about 10,000 elected and nominated representatives and are supposed to address the socio-economic, political and multicultural issues of the entire country. However, the governance system has become a complete failure. Moving from crisis to crisis, the authoritarian, centralized and non-accountable governance system has plunged the country into what may be called a polycrisis. Supplemented by corruption, wastage, mismanagement and impunity for those who commit terror and violence to protect the ruling elite, ruination and mortification continue to prevail in every nook and cranny of the country.
If we examine the last four amendments made to the Constitution, the good governance regime elected in 2015 enacted the 19th Amendment but was not fully committed to implementing it with sufficient responsibility and speed. Despite the election pledges made in 2015 to abolish the authoritarian powers acquired by the previous Rajapaksa regime, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did not show the political will to bring it to fruition in meaningful ways.
This paved the way for the 20th Amendment enacted in 2020, which crippled the audit processes that prevailed to ensure accountability and transparency with regard to public financial transactions. This amendment was to have introduced a Parliamentary Council that could make observations regarding appointments to independent commissions. However, the president had total discretion in making those appointments. Later, the 21st Amendment was enacted to restore the executive presidency’s powers and perks taken away by the 19th Amendment.
Then the 22nd Amendment was brought to reduce certain powers granted to the president under the 20th Amendment by re-establishing a Constitutional Council. This, too, allowed the president to hold defence and any other portfolio that he wished to hold. However, it did not significantly impact the powers vested in the President, as evidenced by President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s unpresidential behavior during the last two years. This notable failure to curtail the excessive powers of the executive presidency has undoubtedly proven to be disastrous for the country’s economy and the rule of law.
Read Part 1 here: https://groundviews.org/2023/09/25/nation-building-is-possible-with-full-implementation-of-13th-amendment-part-1/
[i] De Alwis, R. K. 2009, History of and Prospects for Public Sector Reforms in Sri Lanka. 209, Unpublished PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, Cited in Jayasundera S 2022, An uneasy hegemony: Politics of State Building and Struggles for Justice in Sri Lanka, 173, Cambridge University Press.
[ii] Ibid, 175