Revisiting 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.

The 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.

One 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.

In 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.

The 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).

In 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.

When 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.

Cumulatively, 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.

The 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.

These 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.

However, 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.

Many 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 and financially.

Instead 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.

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