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The meaning and purpose of devolution  
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The meaning and purpose of devolution

The devolution debate in Sri Lanka has once again arrived at centre stage. Two recent developments have led to this: First the triumphant march of the security forces into the LTTE’s heartland has made the pro-Eelam lobby, both here and abroad, uneasy and are trying to persuade the Indian government to ‘intervene’ in the Vanni operations and compel Sri Lanka to halt it forthwith, and proceed instead with the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the ultimate object being the rescuing of the Eelam project;

Second, the politically enlightened sections of the community in the country have begun to question the need to perpetuate the provincial council system imposed upon us by India because it has no useful function to perform. A leading weekend newspaper, for instance, editorially posed the question "Are we going to be saddled with the Provincial Council system for ever merely because that is the wish of India?"

The Oxford Dictionary defines the term devolution as "delegation of power to local administration". Besides, the concept of devolution is universally used to signify the process whereby certain powers and functions of government are transferred from central institutions that are representative of all the people, namely, parliament and the central executive (parliament in the case of the executive presidency or the cabinet of ministers in the case of the Westminster system) to certain peripheral units.

In the case of unitary states, it is essential that the delegation of such powers and functions has to be considered in terms of the following three headings:

(a) Why devolution is considered necessary?, 

(b) What are the peripheral units to which powers should be devolved? and

(c) What are the powers that need to be so devolved?

The answer to (a) is that in order to enable the residents of a given region to look after their own local public affairs instead of by a distant centre, because it is obvious that a local centre for the administration of subjects and functions of immediate concern to its residents will be able to handle them quicker and with the added advantage of the first hand knowledge of the local socio-economic environment.

If devolution is solely for this purpose there cannot be any serious objection to it. In fact, such a step has to be encouraged. Given that this is precisely the purpose of devolution answering (b) and (c) poses no difficulty at all.

However, the devolutionary process referred to in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is intended to be used for an entirely different purpose, namely, as a solution to a so-called ethnic problem presumed to be existing in this country. It is precisely this hidden intention, as it were, that has bedevilled this entire matter and led to much confusion, not only in the minds of the public, but also in the minds of politicians.

Neither the 1972 Constitution nor the 1978 edition of it contained any hint of devolution. In the case of the 1972 Constitution, supreme legislative and executive powers were centralised in the National State Assembly and the Cabinet of Ministers; and in the current Constitution these powers are vested in the Parliament and the Executive President and his Cabinet of Ministers.

On the other hand, there has never been a demand for devolution from any segment of the country’s population as envisaged in the 13th Amendment. It was India that imposed it on us in pursuance of her hegemonic designs which required, inter alia, the creation of a strong pro-India dominated unit covering one third of the country and 60% of the coast line closest to India, not to mention the strategically important Trincomalee harbour.

India’s designs in regard to this particular aspect of her national policy have now been amply documented, the latest revelations being those contained in the Jain Commission Report and in the memoirs of a former Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, J. N. Dixit. Moreover, India has neither a clear perception of the intricacies involved in the so-called ethnic problem referred to in the 13th Amendment which it professes to solve, nor the genuine interest to do so.

In regard to the so-called ethnic problem referred to above, it must be pointed out that there is no ethnic problem in this country in the sense of a problem arising solely from the fact of ethnicity. Although there are five different ethnic groups in it, namely the Sinhalas, Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims, Malays and Tamils of recent Indian origin, only the Sri Lankan Tamils complain of an ethnic problem. It is clearly an imaginary problem which arises from the vainglory and the unrealistic notions that they hold about themselves. For example, the Sri Lankan Tamils seem to consider themselves as a separate nation - separate from the rest of the Sri Lankan nation consisting of the five ethnic groups referred to above; they also claim to have the right to self-determination. Both of these claims were put forward by them at the Thimpu Talks in 1985, and were decisively rejected, as inadmissible, partly for want of historically recognised evidence to establish the former, and partly because their claim to self-determination runs counter to the letter and spirit of the United Nations Resolution 1514 (xv) which clearly states that "one group of people living in an independent and sovereign state does not have the right to determine their political status independently of the rest of the people living in that country and does not(therefore) have the right to secede from the existing state".

Devolution can therefore be justified only if it is to be utilised for the purposes referred to in paragraphs 2 and 3 above, namely, as a means of enabling the local residents in a given locality or district to have a voice in matters that are of immediate concern to them. In this particular sense, devolution is not a new experience to Sri Lanka, for the decentralisation of administrative powers of the central government goes back to the Colebrook Reforms of 1833 under the British Colonial rule when certain administrative and development functions were delegated to the Government Agencies in District capitals. Along with the Government Agencies, elected Municipal Councils, Urban Councils, Town Councils and Village Committees functioned side by side. This system worked fairly effectively until the imposition of the provincial council system under the 13th Amendment. The provincial councils tend to mirror the Central Government and have therefore become superfluous with no specific function to perform, particularly since President Premadasa appointed 274 District and Divisional Secretaries to function side by side the provincial councils.

It must be emphasised that this country being a small island of just over 25,000 square miles (roughly 1/16th of the size of the Province of Ontario in Canada) does not pose any serious problem of administration, especially in this age of rapid communication when the remotest parts of the country could access the centre or vice versa in a few seconds. One does not, therefore, see the logic of further proliferating the number of bureaucratic institutions and cadres to administer it. The country already has 517 institutions charged with purely administrative functions, spread throughout the country as follows:

  • Provincial Councils 08

  • Municipalities 14

  • Urban Councils 38

  • Pradeshiya Sabhas 183

  • District Secretaries 25

  • Divisional Secretaries 249

The first four categories of these institutions are elected bodies and are reported to consist approximately 5500 elected representatives at four different levels with their own substantial administrative apparatus. The others are centrally run establishment with large bureaucracies. Very often there is duplication and even triplication of functions between them, with the inevitable result that public funds and human resources are fritted away when the national need is to conserve and channel them into development. Sri Lanka is, perhaps, a notorious example of a developing country that spends a larger proportion of its revenue on routine administrative functions thereby seriously restricting funds for national development.

What is now needed therefore is to reconstitute the entire local government structure after a comprehensive study, preferably by a competent Presidential Commission, with a view to achieving two fundamental objectives:

(1) Provide for the effective participation of the local population to actively engage in the formulation of peripheral development plans under a District Council system, periodically elected by the people and define their powers and functions. In doing so, certain vital functions such as finance, defence including the police, foreign relations, land and land use, irrigation, telecommunication, ports and harbours, civil aviation, archaeology, natural resources and education must necessarily be reserved for the central government;

(11) The establishment of a truly efficient and capable administrative machinery to implement these development plans. For the convenience of effective administration and implementation each development plan may be confined to the existing administrative district.

Our own experience of the working of the Provincial Council system since 1987 has proved that the province is too large a unit for efficient administration and, that almost all provincial councils depend largely, if not solely, on the Government for funding.


Source URL : http://www.island.lk/2008/09/08/features10.html

Saturday, 13 September 2008

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