By Siri Gamage –
More powers to determine public affairs by the elected representatives in Provinces and Local Government areas should be viewed as a democratic right to be gained by the people living in these areas rather than diluting the powers that the Central Government in Colombo wields at present. The Central Government and its decision-making processes are far removed from the people living in far-flung Provinces and the grass roots level. Though people elect representatives to the parliament and some of them become ministers and deputies in the central government, due to the very nature of the unique political and family culture evolved in Sri Lanka since the 1956 political changes, key decisions in economic and social spheres are made with little public consultations. A top down decision-making process has been in place in the country, particularly after the introduction of an executive style Presidential system of governance since 1978. The current round of constitutional dialogue and associated public consultations are an exception.
Power is best used when it is exercised by elected representatives closer to the home rather than in Colombo. The more people gain power to determine their affairs closer to places of their living, the more they should be happy because this allows them to have a say in the decision making processes and influence the same in accordance with their desires, needs, and aspirations. Being able to participate in discussions on issues affecting people whether it is in a Local Government or Provincial Council area allows people or electors in these to be stakeholders rather than onlookers as it happens today. However, for such democratic rights to be effective after devolution of power, there has to be significant changes in the political culture that we have inherited from our ruling class over the decades. Otherwise, it could be more of the same. An active citizenry is also required.
To give an example, there is an ongoing campaign by interested and concerned citizens in various parts of Australia, in particular the regions, to introduce and expand solar power to Local Government areas. A small town near me called Uralla in the New England region has decided to go solar 100 per cent. Another small town called Manila has just announced its desire to do so. When people in such small country towns decide to do something about the critical issue of sustainable living and climate change, their elected representatives have to fall in line though the latter are influenced by lobbyists from coal fired power generation companies. Thus we see the introduction of wind farms and solar farms around the countryside in Australia. Such initiatives are gaining momentum due to the intelligent, dedicated and hardworking citizens who work with professionals to bring about changes in the way electricity is generated, sold and consumed. This is a bottom up process where people living on the margins take power into their own hands to achieve a specific community goal with individual dividends. They can do these things because the Local Government Act allows them to make such decisions within their local government areas. If the existing government in Sri Lanka is preparing the ground to devolve more powers to the Provinces and perhaps Local Government bodies within them, people need to embrace such initiatives with both hands. The risks of devolving power to the provinces, reducing currently held powers of the central government appointed Governors etc should not be viewed purely from the prism of Northern and Eastern provinces alone. If we do so, we miss the point about greater opportunities to decide own affairs closer to home through elected representatives and better public consultations.
In this regard, it is useful to read a recent contribution to the constitutional discourse in Sri Lanka published this year by Laksiri Fernando titled Issues of New Constitution Making in Sri Lanka: Towards ethnic Reconciliation, CreateSpace, Charleston, USA. It provides much food for thought and constructive suggestions suitable for a plural and multicultural society. If we deny this pluralist and multicultural reality after the bitter experiences of a separatist war in the last few decades in shaping our constitution and rely purely on Sinhala nationalist rhetoric, then we are doing a serious injustice to future generations and ourselves. As a matured democracy, we should be able to shape a new vision and a constitution for the country in order to travel on a path to prosperity, democracy and reconciliation with political will. If someone argues that the devolution of more powers to the Provinces and reducing powers held by the Central Government is going to reduce the status of Sinhala Buddhists in the country, it is an argument based on a fallacy because even today it is not the Sinhala Buddhists who hold power. Rather it is the political class drawn from all sections of the diverse society and augmented by the state that holds power to rule.
More than on he fact of devolving further powers to the Provinces, what should occupy the minds of citizens ought to be what more opportunities will they and their elected representatives get after the proposed constitutional changes to have a better say in the matters pertaining to the Provinces? How will the changes allow them to participate in decision-making processes at the Province levels and more importantly Local Government levels? Are the proposals aimed at more grassroots democracy and citizen involvement or strengthening political party influences to the provinces and local government areas through vertical hierarchies? Are there sufficient checks and balances and dispute resolution mechanisms included? Whether the proposed changes will enable the installment of a provincial ruling class aligned to the central ruling class, as it exists today? What political culture changes will be introduced as a result of the proposed structural changes in the constitution? In short, Will citizens in the provinces and Local Government areas be more empowered or less empowered as a result of proposed changes to the constitution?