Two contrasting petitions, and an attempt to stimulate consensus

I have received recently two very different petitions, one from a body that calls itself the World Alliance for Peace in Sri Lanka, the other from a body that calls itself the Friday Forum. They present two very different points of view, the one asking that the 13th Amendment be abolished, the other that no changes be made to it.

I think we need to understand the fears of both sides, and in both cases reasons have been given for the positions presented. My own view is that we need to look at the problem from three different angles, all of which are equally important.

The first is the moral position. From that perspective, it would be wrong for the present Sri Lankan government to abolish Provincial Councils, given that it clearly pledged to implement the provisions of the 13th amendment. However, in also committing itself to go further, it could propose further devolution of power, which indeed is what WAPS suggests.

They believe that too great an accretion of power to the Provincial Councils could lead to disruption of the unitary character of the country. I believe that this fear is unfounded, though I could understand it at the time of an enforced merger which was pushed through contrary to the provisions in the Bill that permitted this. It is for this reason that I see nothing wrong with getting rid of the Constitutional provision that permits merger. To reimpose the merger was not part of the pledge made by the current government, and it would be wrong to insist that it abides by a previous measure that has been ruled unconstitutional and was achieved through sleight of hand.

If it can be accepted that merger is prohibited, fears about provincial councils leading to greater and greater autonomy are I believe misplaced. However this is where the practical element comes in, because clearly provincial councils cannot fulfill the principle on which discussion of devolution was, and should be, based, namely that it should bring government closer to the people.

However it would be inappropriate to move to District Councils, because these would be a challenge to Provincial Councils, and lead to duplication at what is an appropriate level for institutionalizing systems, but is not appropriate for ensuring delivery. That is why I believe both those against Provincial Councils as now constituted, and those in favour of them, should join together to increase the powers of local government, in particular in areas in which the public need services that neither Centre nor Province now supply. In addition to the amenities that local government is now supposed to be responsible for, they should also be endowed with clear responsibilities with regard to education and health and transport and other services of which rural areas are relatively deprived.

This would also help with the third dimension that needs to be considered, namely the political. In this regard we need to consider both internal and external politics. With regard to internal politics, we need to promote consensus, not the efforts on either side now to insist on just one viewpoint triumphing. I believe acceptance of the current provisions for Provincial Councils minus the merger, with agreement to strengthen local government, will assuage fears on either side, while serving the people more satisfactorily.

This will also help to satisfy the international interlocutors who are interested in Sri Lanka. While I do not think we have a moral obligation to please those countries which tried to stop our efforts to eradicate terrorism, and which subsequently made it clear that they would prefer any alternative to the current government, we must keep faith with those who supported us. I believe that India was amongst these, and no one doubts that Japan was. Countries such as the other BRICS as well as those in the Organization of Islamic Countries stood by us and, while they will help us to resist efforts to divide Sri Lanka, they also believed in the commitments to pluralism we enunciated throughout our war effort. They should not be let down.

They will I believe be satisfied with further empowerment of all groups through ensuring greater consultation at the grass roots and making government more responsive to local needs. India certainly should be happy because, while the 13th amendment was based on a two tier system of government that India along with other countries had in place, India has since introduced Panchayats. We should also note that the South African constitution, which brought peace between previously hostile groups, was radically changed through improving local government systems. These are international trends we should not ignore through insisting either on greater centralization, or more power for large units which cannot address local issues with knowledge and sensitivity.

Finally, we must also think of greater professionalization of the administration. We have remained stuck for too long in the British concept of gifted amateurs, ie politicians who are assumed to necessarily have administrative capacity. Indeed we have made it worse, because we have completely got rid of the safe seat concept that parliamentary democracies rely on, and instead privileged those who can achieve election in mass electorates.

Shenali Waduge, a columnist I disagree with on occasion, but who has sharp insights into many problems, argued recently that Provincial Councils should be abolished was the appalling quality of many of their members. To prove this she cited many Pradeshiya Sabha members who had done things she abhorred, though unfortunately she did not think to extend this analysis to Parliamentarians.

On her argument, all political bodies should be abolished, given the iniquities of some of their members. This I believe is going too far, but certainly we must not only change our electoral system, to ensure greater accountability, we must also think of a better system of selecting holders of executive office.

My own view is that we should elect a Chief Executive for local bodies, just as we elect an Executive President. Both should run the areas entrusted to them through those with proven professional and technical and administrative capacity. But these should be responsible to a parliament or a local council that has legislative powers but also satisfactorily exercises financial controls as well as oversight. Professional politicians are not needed for this, which is why we could allow such parliamentarians to continue with jobs which give them a satisfactory income, while paying them only allowances for the contributions they make. That would limit the rent seeking which causes such problems now.

I realize this last suggestion is too radical to admit of ready acceptance, but it should be considered, while the other proposals I have made about governmental structures will I hope be studied by those who are interested in addressing the concerns of all our citizens.

Rajiva Wijesinha

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