By R.M.B Senanayake –
Everybody talks of a “Grama Rajya” as a great and good thing. It is perhaps one proposal where everybody will agree is necessary. But they do not know how to proceed to establish one. The Grama Rajya concept requires the re-establishment of the old Village Committee which was based on the traditional village. Unfortunately the village is no longer the unit of administration at the level of the village. It was abolished in the 1980s by the UNP Government and replaced with Pradeshiya Sabhas by an Act of Parliament in 1987 as part of the reforms under the 13th Amendment under which Provincial Councils were established.
“Sri Lanka has a long history of local government. According to the Mahavamsa the earliest Sinhalese settlements, dating to the 4th century BC, were village based. These villages were used by the Sinhalese kings as a unit of administration. Each village was independently administered. Village Councils (Gam Sabhas) administered local affairs, addressed people’s grievances and settled minor disputes. The village based administration continued for centuries in one form or the other. The village council prior to British era was not an institution embracing a large area and was very often an organization confined to a particular caste village. Such Village Councils were found in rural in agricultural Villages served by a tank of the dry zone”. (Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Local Government 1999)
The British colonial government initially abolished the traditional Village Committee or Gam Sabha in 1818. The British revived these Village Committee in 1871. These Councils thereafter functioned as organizations represented by respectable persons in the area serving on a voluntary basis. With the introduction of universal franchise in 1931 the representatives were elected by popular vote, but on the basis of their desire to serve the people and from among the Village elite rather than on political patronage or party affiliation.
The district administration under the central government was based on the Kachcheri which was under the Government Agent. They were first established in the provincial capitals. Later Assistant Government Agents were appointed for a district within the province. The latter were appointed to supervise the District. Below the Assistant Government Agent the British first used the traditional chieftains or Dissavas. Later they appointed Divisional Revenue officers from the District to be in charge of a Division which was demarcated out of a District.
Below them were the Village Headmen who were appointed from the village. The appointment was made from those in the village who commanded respect and influence. The Government Agents appointed the Headmen after a careful selection process. They wanted them to be drawn from village leaders. After 1956 the SLFP abolished the Village Headmen because they were supposed to be supporting the United National Party. The SLFP government introduced instead the Grama Sevaka who was appointed on a centralized basis from those with a minimum educational qualification. I think they were selected through a competitive examination. So they were outsiders to the villages they were appointed to serve- a serious drawback in administration. They were also transferable. These Grama Sevakas continued to report to the Divisional Revenue Officer. Such then was the district level administration of the Central Government which extended up to the village level.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution transferred the control and supervision of local government from Central Government to the newly created Provincial Councils. However, powers relating to the form, structure and national policy on local government remained with the Central Government. This is an anomaly. It meant that only the Central Government could create new local authorities, promote them, dissolve them and call an election
In the 1980s the Village Committees were abolished and replaced with Pradesiya Sabhas which spanned several villages and also included towns and urban areas. They were set up for each Divisional Revenue Officer’s area. But there are serious effects in these Pradesiya Sabhas and these disadvantages were reported on by the Commission of Inquiry into Local Government in 1999.Firstly they had no community sense. Under the new system 257 Pradeshiya Sabhas were constituted.
Another problem is that they include urban areas and are not confined to rural villages. The Report of the Commission of 1999 pointed out these disadvantages. Here is what they said
“The former Town Councils and Village Councils which were democratic institutions totaling 682, were amalgamated to a reduced number of 257 Pradeshiya Sabhas in order to meet the government’s requirements. Accordingly when two or more Local Authorities were combined one was to function as the Head Office and the others as sub-offices. The Village Councils and Town Councils offices which had previously been closest to the people thus became sub-offices of a distant institution and the sub-office had the responsibility of collecting the taxes and remitting to the headquarters. This situation caused a setback in the performance of services. This is a major shortcoming in the Pradeshiya Sabha system”.
The establishment of Pradeshiya Sabhas gave rise to a mixture of urban and rural areas, while the majority of representatives were elected from urban areas. This resulted in many Pradeshiya Sabhas paying greater attention, to the urban areas which require different type of services than the rural agricultural areas. This too is a major disadvantage of the Pradesiya Sabhas.
The fact that even through the Pradeshiya Sabhas people’s aspirations are not realized is evident from the people’s present attitudes towards these institutions. The Chairmen of these Pradesiya Sabhas are showing that they do not respect the law and behave like criminals mainly because they have no electoral base. They are mere creatures of the political parties who put them on the List under the Proportional Representation System of voting.
So what should be done to have a Grama Rajya? The present Pradeshiya Sabha system is most unsuccessful said the Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Local Government Reforms 1999.The introduction of the Proportional Representation system of voting compounded matters. The Members of the Pradesiya Sabhas do not represent the village. The Commission recommended the re-establishment of Village Committees. The abolition of Pradesiya Sabhas will reduce the costs of the devolved administration. It will help in promoting local self government.
The new Village Councils could appoint a Chairman from among the elected members who will be the Chief executive of the Village Council.
It is better for the MPs to study whether the Pradesiya Sabhas should not be abolished and replaced with Village Councils as recommended by the Commission of 1999.