A historical perspective
Devolution in Sri Lanka is a story of missed opportunities. The armed conflict ended in 2009, but the political conflict has not. A settlement to the political conflict can be achieved only by offering a share of state power to all communities within a framework of democratic governance. Many Sri Lankans in the country and overseas are yet to be convinced of this requirement.
Sri Lanka is an overwhelmingly stagnating unitary state. In 2018, one of the former Auditor Generals stated that Sri Lanka was ranked the topmost country in terms of public sector misappropriation and corruption. The country’s parliamentary system has neglected its primary responsibilities of formulating policies, enacting laws and implementing transparent public financial systems. And the general public, ignorant of facts due to misinformation and deception, has repeatedly elected a set of crooks who have used ‘rule by law’, instead of ‘rule of law’ to maintain their autocratic rule.
All of these led to catastrophic consequences for the people in recent times. In 2022, the ‘ARAGALAYA’ protests ousted the last elected Sri Lankan President. With the severe shortage of essentials and defaulted debt payments, the country has encountered a poly-crisis. Despite the assurances made by the installed President Ranil Wickremasinghe, many people continue to suffer terribly. Those who can leave the country are leaving in droves, looking for greener pastures.
From schools and hospitals to the justice system and utility services, much of the country’s administrative functions have come to a grinding halt. Corruption, mismanagement, wastage, political patronage, and a lack of transparency and accountability that have prevailed for the last four decades contributed to a combined economic and political firestorm. The Rajapaksas, who are responsible for aggravating the crisis to its epic proportions are waiting in the wings to regain power by tacitly supporting the president they installed. They are rebuilding their chauvinist fundamentalist bases, utilizing whatever opportunities and resources they can get their hands on to divide the society and capture power.
District Development Councils – a history
In 1977, the J R Jayawardene regime introduced an open economy and provided commercial interests the opportunity to invigorate the private sector. However, this intensified social contradictions due to the general public not given opportunities to enjoy the positive outcomes offered by the expanding economy. Many, particularly among the Sinhala majority population, felt left behind. The Tamil people in the Northeast also felt frustrated as the economy opened up almost overnight to international competition. The importation of chilies, onions, staple foods, etc from India destroyed their major means of living – agriculture.They have been demanding better opportunities for upward social mobility and a greater share of national productivity growth.
This demand has a history running back to the days of the Legislative Council in 1926, where the possibility of a second tier of government was discussed. The issue was again discussed at the Donoughmore Commission of 1928. It had recognized the need for decentralization of powers so that much of the administrative work carried out at the centre could be performed more directly at the local level, leaving the government to concentrate on the macro affairs of running the country. The Commission also pronounced its proposals for Provincial Councils. Those proposals also suggested that “the special views of the different races predominant in the different parts of the island” might have an effect “in the administration of these parts.” Unfortunately, the recommendations regarding Provincial Councils were not implemented. This was possibly due to the opposition of politicians and bureaucrats, who were not willing to share their authority with those in the provinces or districts.
A large segment of the Tamil community increasingly felt the only effective solution to address their right to self-determination was to form their own autonomous state – Tamil Eelam. For this they gave an overwhelming mandate to their political leadership, the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF), at the August 1977 General Elections. Socially, economically and politically the country was facing a chaotic and disintegrating situation. And the Jayawardene regime resorted to more authoritarian ways of enforcing its dictates. In 1981, the Jayawardene regime established District Development Councils (DDCs) for each administrative district as a supposed instrument of devolution.
However, the DDCs were politically toothless. They could not independently attend to matters under their jurisdiction as there was no separate administrative mechanism established to allow them to function. So, the DDCs had to depend on the bureaucracies of the local and central government agencies and resources to do their work.[i] In practice, this system helped the Sinhalese political elite to garner more influence in district administration, creating another state tier to muster and sustain political party patronage.[ii] In addition, the Ministers of the then government overpowered the DDCs, impeding the activities that fell under their jurisdiction. If the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) experience is anything to go by, the DDCs did not have any powers of financial management. Frustrated with its incapability, the Chairman of the Jaffna DDC thew it away in July 1983[iii].
The first remedy that allowed for devolution, since the unilateral abrogation of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam (B-C) pact and the Dudley-Chelvanayakam (D-C) pact, was imposed under the auspices of the Indian Government in 1987. Since then, the Thirteenth Amendment has been in the Constitution for nearly three and a half decades without being fully implemented. Starting with the Jayawardene regime, all regimes have resolutely held absolute control over land and police powers. They even seriously restricted financial powers of Provincial Councils. This is despite many complaints made by the Provincial Councils that they do not have any real administrative control over their regions and do not have enough money even to buy the essential necessities of those councils.
History of constitutional amendments
Currently the executive, the legislature, provincial councils and the local governments of the country have about 10,000 elected and nominated representatives. They are supposed to address the socio-economic, political and multicultural issues of the entire country. However, the governance system has become a complete failure. Moving from crisis to crisis, the authoritarian, centralised, non-accountable governance system has plunged the country into the current poly-crisis. This system is accompanied by corruption, wastage, mismanagement, and impunity for those who commit terror and violence to protect the ruling elite. This debasement and mortification continue to prevail in every nook and cranny of the country.
Let us examine the last four amendments made to the Constitution of Sri Lanka. The good governance regime elected in 2015 enacted the 19th Amendment but was not fully committed to implementing it with sufficient responsibility and speed. Despite the election pledges made in 2015 to abolish the authoritarian powers acquired by the previous Rajapaksa regime, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe did not have the political will to bring it to fruition in any meaningful way.
This situation paved the way for the 20th Amendment enacted in 2020. It allegedly crippled the whole audit process that was there to ensure accountability and transparency to public financial transactions. A Parliamentary Council was to be introduced that could make observations regarding appointments to independent commissions. However, the president wielded total discretion in making those appointments. Later, the 21st Amendment was enacted to restore the executive presidency’s powers and perks taken away by the 19th Amendment.
Then the 22nd Amendment was brought intending to reduce certain powers granted to the president under the 20th Amendment by re-establishing a Constitutional Council. It, too, allowed the president to hold defence and any other portfolio he wished to hold. However, it did not significantly impact the powers vested in the President, as was evident from the now-President RanilWickremasinghe’s unpresidential behaviour during the last two years. Failure to curtail the excessive power in the executive presidency has proven to be disastrous for the country’s economy and the rule of law.
to be continued
[i] De Alwis, R. K. 2009, History of and Prospects for Public Sector Reforms in Sri Lanka. 209, Unpublished PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, Cited in Jayasundera S 2022, An uneasy hegemony: Politics of State Building and Struggles for Justice in Sri Lanka, 173, Cambridge University Press.
[ii] Ibid, 175
[iii] Sivathasan S 2013, Jaffna Development Council Election 1981, available at: https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/jaffna-development-council-election-1981/