27 June, 2022


Balancing The Need For National Integration With Provincial Autonomy

By R.M.B Senanayake

R.M.B. Senanayake

R.M.B. Senanayake

The reason for the devolution of power to provincial Councils under the 13th Amendment is to facilitate the performance of certain operating functions in the field which deal directly with the people who in the case of the Northern Provincial Council happen to belong to a different ethnic group from the majority in the nation. There is much to be said for it even in the Sinhalese dominated areas for real economic development can take place only when the people themselves take charge of the process at the village level through their empowerment. Paternalistic schemes have more often failed rather than succeeded. Economists refer to this empowerment as the mobilization of the people for development and it requires the leadership to be with the people not some bureaucratic agency. But for too long the people in the South have been too dependent on politicians that they have not seen the need for self governance and not taken responsibility for the development of their areas.  As for the North the people have always been self reliant and looked much less to the government for their development. The Co-operative movement in Jaffna was the best example of such self reliance. The plantain growers of Neervely and the red onion farmers of Tinnevelly only wanted the government to ensure an open market for their produce in Colombo where they could get remunerative prices for their produce. So if the provincial councils are to be effective they must have sufficient power and authority to exercise discretion and run affairs without having to take orders from the central government or an appendage from the Central Government like the District Minister – an institution which Sirimavo established in the 1970s but soon lost interest and gave up when she realized it was an administrative blunder undermining good governance; replacing it with a politicized administration which was far from democratic.

The President and the Ministers of the Central Government must reconcile themselves to the fact that there will be an erosion of the unlimited power they exerted hitherto through their nominees instead of through elected representatives of the people. This is no doubt hard but it is no reason to scream that the NPC is espousing separatism. There is no room for another political head as a District Minister for the elected Executive is the Chief Minister of the P.C. Popular control is ensured by placing power in one elected official- the Chief Executive and he should be the Chief Minister of the PC. It is the Chief Minister and the P.C that will reflect provincial public opinion and not the District Minister. By trying to re-centralize power through a District Minister, the government will only undermine the incentives to good administration. It is the local people who can keep an effective surveillance over the agencies of the government in the province. A central government Minister has no role in such control. Popular control of the government institutions in the Province is best ensured by having a system of law which is impartially enforced by the institutions whether they belong to the central government or the PC.

But people want social services, jobs in the government , access to the popular schools and access to health facilities. These should be provided by an impersonal bureaucratic mechanism and not as favors to their political supporters by the politicians. But they provide an opportunity for the politicians to strengthen their personal power as we see in the South. But that does not provide good governance. The schools, the universities, the hospitals should be run on a non-political basis. This is something we in the South once had but have lost and perhaps lost forever unless there is a major change in the workings of the political system.

It will take time to evolve an operating structure under the PC system. Meanwhile given goodwill on both sides the problems can be sorted out in accordance with the time honored principles of public administration of which our politicians are woefully ignorant.

A dispute seems to be looming over the District Co-ordinating Committee. Prior to the 13th Amendment the Government Agent was all powerful in the District. He drew his powers from various legislative enactments which made him the authority to enforce the powers provided for in the particular legislation. This situation I believe has not been corrected with the devolution of power under the 13th Amendment which seems to have been blundered by the Premadasa regime. Originally the District Co-ordinating Committee was a mechanism to provide for co-ordination of the different functions of the government in the field with the Kachcheri performing the housekeeping services for the whole district and carrying out general administration. It included the District Heads of the various Departments functioning in the area. It was presided over by the Government Agent. But after the SLFP came to power in 1956 there was pressure from the local MPs to be vested with power. So they became members too. Soon they exercised power to get officials transferred who did not want to bend the rules. Governance was then in terms of rules and did not differ from person to person according to the political influence a person was able to mobilize in his cause. So the local MPs exercised power without responsibility since legally they had no role in the district administration. This of course is disastrous for good governance. The district administration like the head office administration became politicized.

Sirimavo during the 1970s set up District Political Authorities. They too were not legally empowered and soon she realized that the district administration was getting into a muddle. She dropped the project. But the present regime has put in place a District Minister for the district who was elected to the National Parliament to be a legislator and not function as an Executive Minister. The practice of co-opting political henchmen from the Tamil community to exercise political power in the North is an old one. We have seen several Tamil Ministers. But when there is an elected Provincial Council to run the affairs of the province there is no case for a District Minister from the central government.

Ideally in the allocation of functions between the Central Government and the Provincial Councils, the Central Government should have confined itself to specialized technical functions performed by departments like the Survey Dept. the Archeology Dept. the Irrigation and Forest Departments which had their own field offices prior to the 13th Amendment. The kachcheri which was engaged in general administration should have been placed under the Provincial Council. The District Co-ordinating Committee was only an advisory body. Yes there is a case for such a District Co-ordinating Committee but it should deal with problems of co-ordination between the central government departments in the province and the Provincial Council. While there is a case for the DCC there is hardly any case for a District Minister. The departments of the central government in the province are specialist departments (though not all due to the faulty allocation of functions under the 13th Amendment). At most, the District Minister should only supervise the central government department field offices in the province. He was elected to be a legislator and not to be part of the Executive.

But it is true that there must be some degree of uniformity and consistency in the administration of particular functions throughout the country. So there has to be some conformity by the different Provincial Councils in the administration of the functions which are performed throughout the country. But it is also necessary that similar functions in a particular province be sufficiently flexible so that they can be adapted to the circumstances peculiar to each province. The case for integration of the field offices of the central government departments under the scheme of devolution of power is not strong since they are specialized departments. The several functions of such different departments affect different groups of clients while the functions of the Provincial Council affects and should affect all the citizens of the province. But this distinction was not taken account by President Premadasa. A District Minister who seeks to exercise general functions affecting the whole people is likely to clash with the Chief Minister and the Provincial Council.

The Provincial Councils were set up to deal not only with the routine functions but also to carry out development. The central government will have to stick to its functions and allow the P.C to exercise its functions without undue interference. But the need for some sharing of knowledge and co-ordination of activity is needed and hence the PC should be provided the role of leader in such district  co-ordination. Perhaps the district co-ordination should come under the purview of the Governor rather than of the District Minister of the central government since it is the Governor who is the representative of the President in the Province. The PCs were set up not to function as local authorities but as devolved agencies where the central government has devolved power to them. The central government should have confined its activities to the specialized functions in the province and left the general functions including development to the P.C. In short the kachcheri and its functions should have been part of the P.C Secretariat. But be that as it may, the best course in the present circumstances is to have a DCC with the Governor as the Chairman and for the DCC to confine its activities to the general discussion of issues rather than engage in particular decisions or activities. It should be a forum for the expression of views which reflect local opinion of the people. So the two entities should co-operate and work in harmony.

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  • 0

    This appears to be an enlightened view. No district minister appointed by the Central government should have over riding powers over the devolved powers of the provincial council.

    Sengodan. M

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