The TNA’s case for land powers to provinces


By Neville Lasdduwahetty

The TNA Member of Parliament M.A. Sumanthiran in presenting his case for devolving Land Powers to Provincial Councils has cited 3 principal reasons, as reported in The Island, February 25, 2012.

In essence, the 3 reasons are:

1: That "…decisions over land must be made at a unit of governance that is close to the people and by decision makers who understand the specific needs of the people in the area. Land issues by their very nature are region specific, and influenced by hundreds if not thousands of years of history and culture".

2: "Decisions over land must be made by those who are directly accountable to the people most affected by such decisions. This is a condition that is essential to any democratic functioning. Provincial Councillors, who directly answer to people within the Province, are more likely than central politicians to be held accountable for the decisions relating to land made within the Province".

3: "If devolution must be made meaningful, land powers must be devolved and decision makers must be accessible and accountable to the people most affected by their decisions".


Thus the fundamental issue is whether the Province as a unit of governance is the most suitable or whether any ‘other Unit’ could be better suited to meet Mr. Sumanthiran’s 3 stated conditions for meaningful devolution, namely, closeness of people to decision makers who understand the specific needs of the people and for the decision makers to be accessible and accountable to the people most affected by their decisions. Would not devolution to a smaller unit such as a District or a Pradeshiya Sabah (PS) be better positioned to meet the needed conditions? Although the smaller the unit the better it may appear to be suited to meet the stated conditions, the interaction of the Center with small units such as PSs that number over 250 would present serious problems. The 25 Districts on the other hand would be a better compromise, being smaller than the Province, yet larger than the PS. Therefore serious consideration should be given to the District as the unit of governance for devolution to be meaningful and manageable.

According to the 2011 Enumeration of the Northern Province by the SL Census Department, the total population in the Northern Province (NP) is 997,754 within an area of 8884 sq. km. The Mullaithivu District is the largest of the 5 Districts in the NP, with an area of 2617 (30% of NP), but is the least populated - 66,526 (6.6%). The District of Mannar on the other hand is the second largest with an area of 1996 (22.5% of NP) and a population of 95,430 (9.5%). The District of Jaffna by contrast has an area of 1025 (12% of NP), with the highest population of 567,229 (57%).

Representation to Provincial Councils being on the basis of area and population, it is most likely that the majority of the Councillors would represent the Jaffna District. Consequently, the focus of Provincial Council attention would be the Jaffna District, with little attention to the Districts of Mullaitivu and Mannar, negating Mr. Sumanthiran’s rationale. On the other hand, if the unit of governance is the District, Mr. Sumanthiran’s criteria of meaningful devolution would be fulfilled better.

The most compelling argument for the District in preference to the Province is one of accessibility. For instance, the distance from Jaffna to Mannar is 219 km, and to Vavuniya is 142 km. according to travel guides. For a person from the latter 2 towns to go to the Provincial office, it can take a whole day. This applies to the Eastern and Southern Provinces too, where, with Provincial offices located in Trincomalee and Galle respectively, persons from either Ampara or Hambantota would need to devote a whole day to conduct his/her business. This would be simplified if the District be made the unit of governance.

The District as peripheral unit was advocated for very similar reasons to those presented by Mr. Sumanthiran by Hon. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1940 on behalf of the Executive Committee for Local Government. He stated: "Though the word ‘provincial’ is used here, I would point out that this body would be restricted to a revenue district, not necessarily to a province as we have it now, but to a revenue district".

The Marga Institute too, in a draft publication titled "Inter-Racial Equity and National Unity in Sri Lanka (Circa 1984) presented several reasons for advocating the District as the most satisfactory unit for "a system of devolution". "First, under-developed districts such as Mulaitivu in the Tamil-speaking areas, or Monaragala in the Sinhala areas, will receive attention for itself without being submerged in a larger unit together with a highly developed district. Secondly, districts such as Trincomalee or Mannar, which have a different ethnic composition will evolve its (sic) own pattern of development and form of accommodation appropriate to its own characteristics. Thirdly, the district as a territorial unit is small enough to enable the people themselves to participate more actively in the processes of decision-making, plan formulation and plan implementation" (pp. 59 – 60). It so happens that the 3 reasons advanced in the Marga Institute paper are very similar to the reasons advanced by Mr. Sumanthiran.


In the current post-conflict background, a considerable majority is apprehensive about devolving power to provinces because of the potential for the Northern and Eastern Provinces to merge to form a Tamil homeland for eventual separation and division of the country. This apprehension is rooted NOT in devolution per se, but in the present unit of devolution, the Province. If instead, the unit of devolution is the District with constitutional safeguards to prevent the merger of two or more Districts as in the US and Swiss Constitutions, such apprehensions would be assuaged because of guarantees of territorial integrity. A compromise could be to legitimately share Executive and Legislative Power at the Center. Such an approach would move the political discourse from its current stagnant position to one of compromise and reconciliation.

What needs to be realized by both the TNA and those apprehensive of devolution to Provinces is that devolution by itself would not resolve the national question. It is through a combination of devolution to units that do not threaten the territorial integrity of the State, together with sharing Executive and Legislative Power at the Center that the national question could be resolved. If agreement to such a proposition is not possible through negotiations, the Government owes it to the People to conduct a national referendum calling the People to decide whether to legitimize the Province as the unit of devolution, OR to reject it. To deny the People the freedom to make such a choice freely, is to deny the fundamental human right to choose the structure under which they are governed.

It is claimed by some that the outcome of such a referendum would be the rejection of the Province as the peripheral unit. Such a definitive outcome would only demonstrate the opposition of a majority to the Province as the peripheral unit. To persist with the current arrangement in the face of such expected opposition, and to impose devolution to Provinces simply because it was legitimized by the duplicity of a past Government is to continue with a fraud forced on the people. This fundamental right of self-determination of the Sri Lankan people is long overdue.


In presenting his case for land powers to Provinces, Mr. Sumanthiran offers 3 reasons as the basis for his claim. His 3 cited reasons suit a smaller peripheral unit of governance such as the District, rather than the Province. These reasons also belie the genuineness of the claim for the Province in the name of the people, and confirm serious doubts in the South as to the real reasons for the Province as the unit of governance. If the People’s interests are to be addressed, the unit of governance should be the District for the very reasons stated by Mr. Sumanthiran. Towards the fulfillment of the interests of the political leadership, Executive and Legislative powers could be shared by all communities in ratio of their representation in Parliament. It is only such a two-track approach that could take the political discourse forward from its current stagnant position, where it is mired by a single track approach based only on devolution to Provinces.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...