APRC and the Bioregional vision

Sri Lanka’s seven River Basin Units

Language-blind politics

The recent statement by the APRC Chairman, Minister Tissa Vitharana at his interview with The Island staff writer C. A. Chandraprema, "…In the APRC, we are trying to avoid having territories carved out on the basis of race or a religion or any factors like that…[language?]" (The Island, 2/6/2009) is of historical significance. Empowerment of people, rather than devolution of power to new sets of local politicians become a reality by selecting spatial units which are language-blind. The political geographic importance of it is further elevated by an equally important geo-political statement made by the Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, "... Government of India has no instrumentality under which it can force a sovereign government to take a particular action. This is not simply possible," (2/18/2009).

However, India expects Sri Lanka to accept what has failed in India for 50 years! India wants a "credible" "devolution" solution in Sri Lanka, but does not speak of "empowerment" of people. This is strange because, India did "devolution" (devolution of power to state politicians not people) based on language in 1956, and it became an unending saga of new demands for new states. Hardly a day passes without Indian military facing separate state demands. Besides, the abject poverty of at least 300 million Indians became an embarrassment to the ruling elites in Delhi as well as in the state capitals. Therefore, as a remedial step India decided in 1993 to "empower" people at the Panchayathi Raj level by the 73 and 74 Constitutional Amendments.

In Sri Lanka race (Tamil, Sinhala or Muslim) or religion (Hindu, Buddhist, Islam or Christian) was never a serious political-constitutional issue. Instead, it was always a language issue since the 1920s. Therefore, one has to presume that the enlightened approach of minister Vitharana excludes race, religion as well as language. If territories are not going to be carved out on the basis of race, religion or language, what should be the most appropriate (scientific/legal?) and reasonable (just and fair?) basis for the smallest spatial unit of citizen empowerment? This is the most important decision in any new constitutional arrangement.

The term empowerment is used to distinguish it from "devolution of powers" because devolution means simply sharing power with a new breed of political leaders. For example, in India after the linguistic state boundary demarcation in 1956 or in Sri Lanka with PC white elephants in 1987, the people (the citizen voter) were not endowed with any governmental power. Instead, a new crop of politicians appeared on the political scene (nurseries for the kith and kin of established-seasoned politicians). Empowerment on the other hand means, giving people governmental power at the lowest possible spatial unit level. The American, Kirkpatrick Sale described this as "human scale" in his book, Human Scale (1980). He says everything works best if it is at a scale (size) manageable by local people. This is akin to what we generally identify as "grass-roots "politics. In a global village one thinks globally, but acts locally. Or, as the former U.S House Speaker Tip O’Neil once said "all politics is local." Empowerment works best at the "Small Is Beautiful" scale.

"God speak in five"

The Panchayathi Raj model in India is based on the principle, the Vedic tradition of God Speaks in Five. Vinoba Bhave explained the Gandhian ideal of decentralization based on Sarvodaya—the good for everybody—at the village level, "it is a common saying in India that if five speak with one voice, it should be understood as the word of God; that is, our ancients believed in working with the consent of all" (India: the most dangerous decades, Selig Harrison, Princeton, New Jersey, 1960, p.316). Compare this picture with UNP, SLFP or JVP supporters attacking and bombing each other at the village level in Sri Lanka!

Bioregional units and the Gram Raj concept

Sale spent decades tracing the phenomenon called the "human scale," but as a Western scholar he missed giving attention in his research to the gram raj concept in Sri Lanka or the panchayathi raj system in India. The village-level system of living and governance that we found in Sri Lanka for thousands of years which was resurrected by the British Governor Henry Ward in 1856, is similar to the Indian Panchayathi system, and it fits neatly with the human scale discussed by Sale.

More importantly, the Gamsabava (village council) of Sri Lanka happened to be an ecological unit that the Western industrial world is accepting as a solution to the social, economic and ecological disasters found under the "developed" democratic capitalism of the industrial world. Instead of big is better, small is beautiful is becoming one of the solutions to global warming and pollution. Bioregions as political-administrative units is promoted by a number of authors such as: Sale, Dwellers in the land: the bioregional vision (1985, 2000); D. Aberley, Boundaries of home: mapping for local empowerment (1993); M. McGinnis, Bioregionalism (1998) and H. Hannum, People, land, and community (1997). A bioregion is an area that shares similar topography, plant and animal life and culture.

Local government ministry

The Sarvodaya leader A.T. Ariayaratne’s 1988 book, The Power Pyramid and the Dharmic Cycle (Chapter 7) explains how the Trinity of village-tank-temple worked as an organic unit in Sri Lanka before colonialism crept in. Each village and a chain of villages functioned with a river, oya or ela and one or several water tanks storing water (hydrological units). Sri Lankan rural landscape is replete with thousands of such small reservoir-based hydrological units. They encompass all 24 agro-ecological regions of Sri Lanka. Brohier’s map of the Walve Basin is like a collection of hundreds of small tanks. In the past people prevented flooding by this short river with this kind of water storage facilities in the upper and mid streams.

After 1948, the village councils came under the Local Government Ministry, and these Colombo agents did not help the VCs to become viable administrative units. Partition politics ruined them with rigid central control from Colombo without financial, resource planning or technical support. After 1978, VCs and TCs were killed alive and territorial representation of people became a mechanical scheme at the national as well as the local level. It is painful to read [t]he Report of the Local Government Reforms Commission (Sessional Paper No. 1 of 1999, (the Abhayewardhana report) which discussed in detail the "death" of the local government system. The report now dusting in some ministry office argued with objective facts why the country needs to go back to the pre-1980 village council system. Recently, from a lawyer’s perspective, Professor C.G. Weeramantry also presented Grama Rajya as a model suitable for Sri Lanka (The Island, 5/20/2007).

Flexibility in size and numbers

In 1981 there were 549 VCs and 7137 wards, (Abhayewardhana report, p. 452). Sri Lanka has 319 AGA divisions, 257 Pradeshiya Sabhas, and 38, 259 "villages" (www. statistics.gov.lk, 2002 data). Until the 1990s Sri Lanka had about 4000 GSN (grama sevaka niladhaaree) divisions, which is now a mind boggling number of 14,009. By selecting river basins/watersheds as the lowest village council level administrative unit for Sri Lanka this GSN list could be reduced to an ecologically appropriate, socially equitable and economically efficient number. The exhaustive water tanks inventory prepared by the late Chief Justice Hema Basnayake could be useful in this regard.

Since watersheds/basins have a hierarchical order of progressively increasing in area/size they can become a large River Basin Region at macro level. For example, seven such River Basin Regions was proposed by the geography professor Madduma Bandara in 1987 in an essay in the Island newspaper. These could advantageously replace the present arbitrary nine Provincial units. (ref. also, Chapter 4, in Fifty years of Sri Lanka’s Independence: a socio economic review, edited by A.V. de S. Indraratna, 1998, p.83). (see Map: 1. Yalpanam, 2. Rajarata, 3. Dambadeni, 4. Mahaveli, 5. Deegavaapi, 6. Kelani, 7. Ruhunu). Sri Lanka will be an example to the world fighting with ethnic and tribal wars if our leaders decide to come out of the box.

Under this spatial demarcation of river basins no unit is unusually large and each unit gets it own coastal front. Each unit is interdependent by way of larger water transfer projects already in operation. Thus the rain water falling on to the two sides of the roof of the police station at Ginigathhena ends up in two river basins, Kelani and Mahaveli, respectively. In Ohio, USA there is a county named Portage because Native Indians/Alaskans coming from the Arctic seas by boats had to carry their boats over a narrow strip of land to get into the Mississippi River System to go to South America! We must not forget that the present PC boundaries came as a result of the decision by the Colonial power to dismantle the Kandyan Kingdom. It had no connection with the history or geography of the island.

While following a natural and not language-based boundary, river basin approach still permits ethnic enclaves to engage in achieving collective public aspirations. For example, in the Panadura Area, there are at least three large Muslim enclaves: Totawatta, Eluvila and Sarikkammulla. Under a VC system based on watersheds these ethnic concentrations can have their own VCs by a combination of GSN areas or wards in larger VC units. Thus the Deegavaapi Region would be able to accommodate the concerns of the Oluvil Declaration. Similarly upcountry Tamils can think of watershed units which are mini-Malaya Nadus. Since the demarcation is by natural boundaries the threat of separatism is however, erased from the political formula.

Mahinda Chinthanaya

Actually, the Bioregional approach is enshrined in the Mahinda Chinthanaya Program (MCP). MCP stated in November 2005 that the ruler should think of land, water, plants and animals as an endowment given in trust for protection and just use and not to destroy or abuse. This was what the Arhat Mahinda told the King Devanampiyatissa. In the West, the Roman Emperor Justinian codified this rule (Sax, Joseph L. (1970), ‘The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resource Law: Effective Judicial Intervention,’ Michigan Law Review 68(3) 471-566) and subsequently became part of the common law of USA (by way of the Magna Carta in England) by the Supreme Court decision in 1892 (Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois, 146 U.S. 387).

MCP activities under the Village reawakening projects are recognition of VC units. The SLFP proposal in April 2007 to empower people at the Gram Raj level thus follows the ancient Buddhist principles as well as the modern Bioregional vision. In the 1940s the late Ven. Kalukondayave Pragnasekera Mahanayaka Thero experimented and implemented a village-based rural development and crime eradication movement with the help of Justice Akbar, Tamil vilagers and young police officer, ASP Osmond de Silva, but the Colombo establishment at that time killed it and the Marxist Malaria aid workers did not support it.


Why Sri Lanka needs Bioregions

Sri Lanka is witnessing today the adverse impact of unwise decisions taken by politicians who are now dead. In the 1940s, Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe was a lonely voice advocating not to build one large reservoir but to develop a series of upstream small water reservoirs under the Gal Oya development project. The economic and environmental costs of ignoring his advice were enormous. In the 1980s the same mistake was done in two projects. The Mahaveli project should have been based on smaller reservoirs but it was a colossal waste of money at the expense of the rest of the country, where paved roads ended up as gravel paths covered by trees even in places so close to Colombo such as Panadura. The earth subsidence and earth slips so frequent now in the adjacent areas of the Mahaveli could be due to adjustments taking place on the earth’s crust because of the weight of the huge water reservoirs in a limestone region. The second blunder was to have a new state capital just 10 miles from the old capital erected by reclaiming the swamp regions in the Kotte Area. This disruption of drainage basins led to subsequent flooding of homes even in Colombo 7! Thus we do not need examples from other countries to realize the importance of taking the bioregional approach.

In New Zealand, a small country with small river basins like in Sri Lanka, local governments units follow river basin boundaries under the Resources Management Act of 1991 (www.dia.govt.nz/www.stats.govt.nz). In North America, bioregional vision is spreading in the face of energy crisis, pollution, water shortages and environmental degradation. In the year 2000, a map of eco-regions of North America was prepared by Robert G. Bailey identifying 63 such regions. California divided the state into 11 distinct bioregions according to watersheds and specific flora and fauna and charted plans for preserving biodiversity on bioregional grounds. There are now bioregional councils of local residents and watershed organizations. The Province of Ontario in Canada undertook a study in the 1990s to reconcile the various zoning and planning ordinances of cities, towns and municipalities in its jurisdiction to develop a peninsular bioregion for the Province. India has a plan already in place dividing the sub-continent by major river basins.

Grievances vs. aspirations

A bioregion is an area that shares similar topography, plant and animal life and culture (www.bioregionalsim.org). Because culture is a component shaping the bioregional unit, the collective aspirations of people, even though it is a subjective matter, can be accommodated within the bioregion concept. The fear that the Sinhala people have that a North or North plus East regional unit would secretly work with Tamil Nadu separatists is erased when larger units evolve from smaller watershed-based ecological-political units of VCs. What Sri Lanka needs is empower people so that each person/citizen achieves his or her personal and family aspirations in a system of fairness and equal opportunity within a democratic framework. VCs based on bioregions provide the most effective and reasonable vehicle in this regard. Sri Lanka therefore, already has its homegrown solution instead of buying solutions offered by foreign agencies.

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