Need to move on
We have in our International section today, an article from the London Sunday Times where a British historian argues that it was the sheer disinterest of post-World War II socialist Prime Minister of England Clement Atlee that was largely to blame for facilitating mass murder and the world's largest migration of people in history -- the partition of India.
Despite India being on the verge of incipient breakdown, Atlee, he says, took nine months to get his Secretary of State to send a delegation to seek a constitutional settlement; two months to reply important memos from the British viceroy in Delhi and then suddenly gave a six-week ultimatum to British barrister Cyril Radcliffe to draw up the boundaries of India and Pakistan. When they were announced, all hell broke loose with 1 million people being killed and 14 million being displaced.
That same day, Premier Atlee called an emergency cabinet meeting. Top of the agenda was the rationing of meat, and the banning of foreign holidays due to the foreign exchange crisis. India was furthest from his mind. In the Sri Lankan context today, it is that vacillating and delaying when the inexorable currents of history are moving dangerously fast, can have disastrous consequences. That is why the collapse, once again, of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) that is straining to find some consensus on a Devolution Package, is so alarming.
The reasons for this collapse are manifold and in the coalition pot-pourri that is the Government today, to find that consensus can be as elusive as the wind.
The Chairman of the Committee has been virtually called a "terrorist", or at least someone who supports the LTTE and the separatists. That too, by members in his own coalition Government.
Unfortunately, the Government made the wrong choice for a Chairman. Prof. Tissa Vitharana is a member of a Trotskyite party which has long been prisoners of an outdated ideology. The Chairman is at pains to say that what he has proposed are only suggestions for further discussion, but his, or more so, his party's credibility is such that a mere suggestion is enough for him to be labeled as someone who has fallen into the trap of 'foreign separatist forces'.
The two most contentious issues facing the APRC are the unit of devolution; and the nature of the State - whether unitary, united or federal.
The question of a unitary State, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) say, is non-negotiable. The argument stops there considering the Government's wafer-thin majority. On the question of the unit of devolution, there seems to be greater flexibility but no way are the JVP and the JHU in a mood to look at anything beyond what exists today. Boosted by the military successes in the East, this view will only be strengthened not weakened.
Ironically, the JVP was one party (the Sri Lanka Freedom Party or SLFP the other) that burnt buses and electricity pylons in 1987 when the Provincial Councils were introduced. Today, sitting in those very same Councils, they don't seem in any particular urgency to abolish them -- even though they are in a position to do so.
The UNP's position is utterly vague. It says that that the Province must be the unit of devolution and that if the District is chosen as the unit of devolution it would be difficult to maintain uniformity in development. On the other hand, it says, if there is a District that needs special attention, the respective Province should address the issues of that District.
The Provincial Councils have proved to be a dead loss administratively and a white elephant financially. And in the areas for which they were meant, i.e. the North and East, they do not even function.
District-level devolution can be re-introduced purely as an administrative exercise -- and for good governance -- not embroiled in the murky 'ethnic conflict'. Whether the separatist elements really want any form of devolution is also debatable.
There is a need too, to review administrative reforms that will be of real value to the ordinary people. These must include not just carving out boundaries but providing better infrastructure like highways linking the different districts, better transport and telecom services that make Sri Lanka a more efficient and less costly place to live in and work, for ordinary people.
Back in 1994, the then newly elected President and her Constitutional Affairs Minister said that the Executive Presidency will be abolished on the 15th of July, 1995. This was to be introduced through a 'package' of constitutional reforms. When asked why its abolition must be linked to a whole package, the answer was that no piece-meal measures must be adopted. The country is still waiting for this 'package'. Why doesn't the Government, at least, pick out the bits and pieces it can implement, and implement them for the greater good of the people it represents?