the Basics of (genuine) decentralisation
The devolution/decentralisation debate in Sri Lanka has been historically
centered around management and resolution of the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic
conflict. However, it would be only fair to conclude that each attempt
to resolve the conflict through measures of devolution, (considered
to be appropriate for that particular moment in history), has been
politically expedient and consequently destructive rather than empowering
the minorities or the marginalised in Sri Lanka.
present antagonistic positions taken up by the various political
parties on changing the Constitution and the powers of the Presidency
as well as the discussions on the joint mechanism to handle tsunami
aid in the North East is a continuation of this trend.
key analysis emerging out of past experience has been that the post
colonial political systems, (centered around the Western models
of democratic politics), have, in fact, accentuated conflict, destroyed
democratic institutions and created intractable ethnic conflict.
These tensions assumed a particular nature at the local level. In
the early days after independence, local government had a special
significance in the political structures, often serving as a testing
ground for local level politicians aspiring to enter national politics.
Once in the National Assembly, these politicians remained faithful,
for the most part, to their rural responsibilities, within the framework
of the ward system which compelled close loyalties between representatives
and their constituents.
contrast, the introduction of the proportional representation system
whittled down these loyalties, reducing the closeness between MPs
and their constituents to a much more free ranging responsibility
towards a district as a whole. These changes, as far as national
level representation was concerned, was not accompanied by a parallel
strengthening of local government structures which might have compensated
for this shift in the manner of political representation.
existing local government structures by early 1977 in Sri Lanka
were creations of immediate pre or post independent enactments creating
four types of local authorities, namely Municipals Councils (under
ordinance No 16 of 1947), Urban Councils (under ordinance No 61
of 1939, Town Councils (under ordinance No 3 of 1946) and Village
Councils (under ordinance No 9 of 1924).
1977 however, along with the change in the electoral systems from
ward system to proportional representation at all political levels,
far reaching changes were made to local government by the Local
Authorities (Special Provisions) Law No 24 of 1977. This law reinforced
the existing political ethic that it was the party that was important
and not the individual. While ward representation was abolished,
other provisions took away the right to election of mayoral posts
etc by majority votes of the elected representatives and the requirement
to hold a by-election when the office of a representative falls
vacant. This radically changed the manner in which local authorities
functioned, closing the spaces for the entry of those disadvantaged
including minority candidates and women and postulating the political
party as the single most important entity.
the United National Party (UNP), the party in power from 1977 to
1994 made greater changes to local government structures, the old
Town Councils and Village Councils were replaced with a system of
district administration in specious attempts to greater decentralise
the implementation of development activities. The excessive politicisation
of these Councils and significant malpractices in their process
of elections resulted in the DDCs becoming a failed experiment at
decentralisation in a manner that is well documented. It was after
their failure that the Pradeshiya Sabhas were created by Act No
15 of 1987, as another tier of local government.
these bodies had particular subjects and functions assigned to them
by law which were however subject to specific limitations that effectively
worked against their empowerment as truly development centred bodies.
While they remained responsible for some regulatory and administrative
functions, for provision of physical infrastructure and for promotion
of public health, there was no independent power given to them as
far as development activities were concerned. Mainly, these local
government bodies had little financial autonomy with funds being
provided through the central ministry. Though periodic reports from
pre independence days had identified lack of resources as the primary
problem crippling local government in Sri Lanka, no significant
efforts were made to remedy this.
context within which the Provincial Councils were created (by the
13th Amendment to the Constitution followed by the enacting of the
Provincial Councils Act No 42 of 1987 and the Provincial Councils
(Consequential Provisions) Act No 12 of 1989) is too well known
now to need repetition. Ostensibly meant to provide a corrective
to minority grievances, the PCs proved to be otherwise in practice,
wreaking in the process whatever structures of decentralisation
that had, in fact, survived the eccentricities of expedient political
maneuvering in the past.
statutory and constitutional changes, touted as devolution of power,
were in fact, highly paradoxical in nature. From one perspective,
the 13th Amendment established structures that were not only devolved
but bordered close to 'quasi-federal structures' as has been convincingly
argued. The ninth schedule to the 13th Amendment clearly made an
'explicit constitutional demarcation of the spheres of authority
of the centre and the constituent units' or Provincial Councils.
on the other hand, it also personified a classic case of 'giving
with one hand and taking away with the other' in that while it contained
three lists detailing the subjects retained by the centre (the Reserved
List), subjects handed over to the provinces (the Provincial List)
and subjects common to both (the Concurrent List), the central government
in practice treated both the Reserved List and the Concurrent List
as its exclusive domain. The Reserved List allowed the centre the
overriding power to determine national policy on subjects even coming
within the Provincial Councils List.
of the clauses of the 13th Amendment meant to foster and encourage
devolved structures with regard to education, police and land were
only partially implemented or not at all, thus frustrating the purpose
for which the Constitution was amended. Accordingly, even though
the system of Provincial Councils were put into place with unrealistic
expectations, their actual working over the past thirteen years
has been far worse than what the most hopeless pessimist could have
envisaged. Workable devolved structures did not come into being.
Rather, the 13th Amendment resulted in the creation of unwieldy
provincial political structures and provincial political dynasties
which did little to help the lot of the people in the provinces
but merely improved the situations of regional politicians, politically
of party politics, what this country needs now is a realistic look
at how genuine decentralisation may be achieved, perhaps even without
striking for grandiose 'federal' solutions proposed by many. Where
the current frantic political scenario is concerned however, this
remains even more a distant dream than at any point in the past.
And so we dance on.