Working of Provincial Councils: Another point of view


By Gamini Gunawardane

MPA ( Harvard)

A summary of a review done under the above topic by the Institute of Constitutional Studies (ICS) was published in two parts in The Island of Jan. 24 and 25. The following is an attempt to examine this effort from another perspective.

The ICS review proceeds on this exercise based on the premise that the 13th Amendment Bill that introduced the Provincial Councils to this country is a constitutional reality. On reading this review one gets the impression that overall, this institution has failed in this country, for no fault of the Provincial councils per say. It makes the following observations in this regard: " The implementation of the 13th Amendment has been manipulated by the political regimes in Colombo to achieve their power objectives."

(Observation: The very 1978 Constitution by its nature, was geared at centralization of power as a concept, by emasculating even the Parliament. Hence, the ‘devolution’ idea if any in the Provincial Councils itself, runs against the very grain of the ’78 constitution. We saw & see yet how every President from JRJ onwards manipulated the Constitution to arrogate more and more power to themselves even abusing the age old traditions. No need to mention the 18th Amendment! It has given all politicians an unbridled zest for centralization of power.)

" … successive governments were engaged in the recentralization of the powers already given."(Observation: Over time we saw how some hospitals in the Provincial capitals and some of the important Provincial schools too were brought back under the central government. Some of these hospitals were probably deliberately made to fail, running short of vital medicines by not providing them the funds. On the other hand, people too held the central government accountable whenever the Provincial Councils failed, as in the case where there was an embarrassing mess up in school question papers in some provincially administered schools. Then we also witnessed the crude fiascos of a government MP or a Provincial Council minister ‘declaring open’ by force in the previous night, a construction put up by the other party!)

" Provincial Councils were never given the necessary pubic space to justify their relevance to the Sri Lankan polity." ( Observation: And mind you, this is not to the Provincial Councils in the North-East which were hardly functioning after the mavericks of Chief Minister Perumal. This conflict of power was between the central government and Provincial Councils in the South. (So no communal discrimination here!)

"Finally both proactive and reactive politics involving Provincial Council system have made the Provincial Councils yet another extended apparatus of the centralized governance system initiated by the 1978 Constitution".(Observation: This is the way that the Provincial Councils had been accommodated into this system. It appears as if Provincial Councils is ill-treated like an unwanted child.) We shall deal with the question of their relevance, next.

The ICS of course, judging by the summary published, does not seem to have engaged in an exercise of a total cost benefit analysis, to determine whatever had been achieved against the expenditure incurred in maintaining the Provincial Councils and holding elections etc. etc.

The ICS has not, apart from dealing with the ways the Provincial Council had been made to fail, gone into the reasons why it happened that way. It has not gone beyond the reluctance on the part of the central government to share its power with the periphery. We do have to agree that the reluctance of the politicians of all hues in the central government who hated losing any powers that they had arrogated to themselves, powers that were legitimately theirs and those that were not. I think we need to examine why this happened, going beyond the centralization problem.

Now why were the Provincial Councils ill-treated like an unwanted baby? The simple answer is that it was because PCs were an unwanted baby! This was a child that was not wanted by both the ‘mother’ (JRJ) and the father(?) (Prbhakaran). The day she was born, there were riots in the country followed by a virtual rebellion. A naval rating on the guard of honour offered to Rajiv Gandhi who was her God Father, assaulted him with a rifle butt, to kill him. The 13th Amendment was rejected outright by Prabhakaran himself despite the fact that it was drafted to appease him, in order to entice him to drop his arms with a view to draw him into the main stream. The Amendment together with its provision to amalgamate the Northern and Eastern Provinces immediately by Emergency Regulation, together with Police and Land powers, was virtually offering elam on a platter. JRJ though coerced to agree to this amendment expressed in so many ways his dislike towards it. He did everything he could, to subvert it covertly. The government MPs who voted for it were made to live the previous night in a hotel to be herded in a bus to the Parliament probably to make sure that they did not desert or changed their mind. The Supreme Court that decided the amendment was in order, did so on a split decision. Thus, this ‘unwanted baby’ reminds one of the old Baila line: Oluwa lokui, bada mahathai, kehethage apalay!

Neither this amendment nor the Provincial Councils were asked by any one in this country, whether Tamil, Muslim, Sinhalese or any other, as a solution to our problems. It was forced on this country by the then Indian Prime Minister, after the infamous ‘Parippu Invasion’ which again was a despicable intrusion into this independent country . A constitution is believed to be the formal statement of country on what it wants to be and how it wants to be governed. It is best arrived at by consensus. It cannot be prescribed by any other source. This particular amendment on the contrary was introduced by force by a foreigner much against the wishes of all its people. I do not know whether there is any other instance in world history where such a dastardly act of aggression was committed on a sovereign nation. The funny thing is that the whole world with all their Human Rights guns cocked, looked on while all this happened. Could any nation with an iota of self respect afford to continue with such an anomaly, even after she had defeated the very circumstance that it sought to address? Hence is it any surprise that all governments to date, did every thing possible to abort the Provincial Councils? The 13th Amendment thus remains a constitutional aberration, an embarrassment. Hence it is no surprise that the system rejects it. So much for the ‘relevance’ of this piece of legislation.

Another thing that has not to be lost sight of is the fact that though the powers have not been properly devolved to the Provincial Councils, corruption has effectively seeped down! It is now happily enjoyed by the members of the Provincial Councils as well as those of the Pradesheeya Sabhas. They are having a whale of a time. They want the police and land powers for the same purpose. I do not think if a referendum is held on this, many people would agree to this kind of ‘devolution’.

Then there is also the basic question of how the geographical units for the Provincial Councils were determined. The very concept of Provincial Councils was developed by India, probably superficially modelled on the way India was administratively divided on a state basis. They little realized that Sri Lanka was so much smaller than the smallest Indian state in size and population. Some 25,000 sq. miles and 20 million people. Besides, the division of Sri Lanka into 9 provinces was done by the British in 1833, in order to facilitate their own administrative system and revenue collection. Also the meagre road transport and poor communication facilities at that time would have influenced their decision. Today, with dramatic improvements in road, railway & air transport systems and tele-communications with the information revolution, the need for a provincial administration has to be re-looked at. We need to re-look at this question whether, for an effective administrative system a proper de-centralization with enhanced e governance, would not meet the expectation of the people instead of a proven ineffective and expensive Provincial system which nobody wants.

Apart from that, the very provincial demarcation system has been subject to re-scrutiny. There is the suggestion of Dr. Sudath Gunasekera who has suggested going back to the Tri Rata (Ruhunu, Maya, Pihiti) demarcation, on the strength of the fact that this is the administrative division that effectively held this country together for 16 centuries, affording the administrative cover to facilitate the peak in our ancient civilization. His contention is that it is a time tested administrative arrangement. This is a historical approach, while Prof. Maddumabandara, adopts a geophysical approach when he recommends a fresh division of the country into 22 administrative districts based on river basins, in an economic perspective.

Then there is the question ‘if not the Provincial councils, then what? In this regard, firstly, it is best that we get over our fixation with Provincial Council idea & start thinking afresh. I think the real problem is that the Provincial Councils idea is an attempt to devolve from top down which is being resisted from the center irrespective of whether it is to the North, East or the South. The politicians just do not want to share any power that they have arrogated for themselves. The crudest example is the ‘power struggle’, which really is struggle for the booty, between Mervyn Silva and the Kelaniya Pradesheeya Sabha. But the silver lining in this squabble is that the bottom can, if empowered, shake the top.

This brings us to the concept developed by CIMOGG after years of deliberation and some experimentation too. They have advanced the Grama Rajya concept. It is real home grown which has the old Gamsabha idea as a distant model. The basic idea is that governance commences from the bottom, not from the top. It gradually reaches to the top to realize the aspirations of the bottom. It will be a democracy of the people and not of the politicians. Politicians will be their servants not masters as they are now. Now, politicians seem to think they know what is best for the people. People have to agitate sometimes sacrificing their life, to drive home to the politicians that, ‘no, that is not what we want’. Under the proposed system the elected representative could be called back if the voters find that what their man is doing is not what they want him to do. (Imagine people of Kelaniya being able to call back Mevyn Silva!). I think it is now time that both President and the people of this country had a hard look at this proposed new model. Perhaps there may lay the solution that we are looking for, to the conflict in the North and the East. CIMOGG has already tried out this model in a village called Wattegedera in Pannala area, with the villagers volunteering to try it out. This informal village government is doing well.

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