27 October, 2020

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Devolution Of Power To Province Or Region, & To Local Government Level

By Kumudu Kusum Kumara

Dr. Kumudu Kusum Kumara

Dr. Kumudu Kusum Kumara

The Report of the Public Representations Committee (PRC) on Constitutional Reform (see, yourconsitution.lk) has generated public discussion and one area that attracts interest in these discussions is devolution of power. Such discussions have highlighted that the PRC has recommended retaining the Province as the unit of Devolution and gone onto discuss its political implications for democracy. The intention of this article is to point out that the PRC report goes beyond the Province as the unit of devolution. The report in addition to the Province as the unit of devolution in Chapter 9, also recommends (in Chapter 7) Region as a possible alternative unit of devolution, and Local Government as the next tier of devolution. Let me elaborate.

Chapter 5 of the PRC report (The Nature of the State) refers to proposals from the public to establish a Union of Regions (p.20). Having considered them, the report, in Chapter 7 ( Forms and Tiers of Government) states that the PRC unanimously recommends that “[T]here shall be 3 tiers of government: National, Provincial or Regional and Local Government. Local Government shall be made the next tier of devolution after the Province or Region” (Italics added). It recommends that “[T]he role, powers and functions of local government should be expanded and empowered to make them effective institutions based on the following principles: (a) Closest level of people’s sovereignty, (b) Local democracy, (c) Local development, (d) Citizen participation in governance, (e) Inclusive democracy (Inclusion of marginalized / interest groups & communities).” It goes onto say that “[I]n order to make such a transformation, more attention should be paid to the structures and processes of the lowest units of local government” (p.40).

In Chapter 9 (Devolution), again representations on devolving power to a regional unit as an alternative to the Province are discussed and one committee member recommends such a unit for devolution (p.53). Then under the subheading ‘Scope of Devolution,’ recommendations of the PRC consistently refer to “Provincial/Regional level” (pp. 63-64).

Chapter 10 (Local Government) has a discussion on ‘Local Government as the Second Tier of Devolution’ (p.77). Following up on the earlier recommendation that local government should be made the second tier of devolution, it is proposed in this Chapter that “[I]n order to make such a transformation more attention should be paid to the lowest units of local government, going below the Pradeshiya Sabhas which are too big to play this role.” Accordingly, smaller units below the Pradeshiya Sabha level should be established which may be called Grama Sabhas. They should be made relatively independent of provincial councils with direct funding to Grama Sabhas from the central government. At the same time it is necessary to institutionalise measures to prevent the capture of Grama Sabhas by village elites, ruling party agents and political brokers. Chapter 10 thus recommends as an alternative, to establish Gam Sabhas and Town Sabhas in addition to the existing Municipal Councils and Urban Councils, instead of the present Pradeshiya Sabhas; to make the human settlements in the estates part of the new local government system; and to empower all these different units to administratively coordinate and take action for the larger good of the people of the areas (p.80).

The above extracts from the PRC report highlight that members of the public in their representations have not limited themselves to proposing Province as the unit of devolution. The significance attributed to the Province as the main unit of devolution in the report is partly due to that Tamil political representatives, especially those representing the Northern and Eastern provinces are determined to see that maximum power is devolved to the two provinces and that this should be the central focus of constitutional reform. The rationale for such a position is that given the history of the ethnic conflict in the country, devolving political power to the affected ethnic communities/ areas will go a long way in bringing about much desired reconciliation between ethnic communities. That such a devolution of power to those provinces will establish the rule of Tamil elite over the ordinary people, even Tamils, in those areas, is a foregone conclusion under the parliamentary representative system. However, it cannot be denied that ordinary Tamil people also would like to see a system of governance established in those areas where they is assured of protection by the state authorities such as the police, the bureaucracy, and the judiciary etc. against discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, language, and religion. Hence we cannot overlook that Tamil people living in the Northern and Eastern provinces in general would prefer to be ruled by Tamil elite rather than an elite from another community, with the provision that the Eastern province Tamils would prefer to be ruled by a Tamil elite from the Province rather than by that from the Northern province. However, it also became evident in the public representations that the main demand of the public across the country is to have a system of government that would make themselves the bearers of political power rather than the elite even if it is from one’s own ethnic community. A very strong demand for an effective system of democracy is evident in the powerful critique made in the representations across the country on the democracy deficit.

Politically, this desire is evident in the public demand for devolving power beyond the province to the local government level, down to the village level. The PRC report observes that “public representations on Grama Rajya, Grama Sabha or Gam Sabha as it is variously named are generally in agreement that political power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, namely the village, as a form of local government” (p.72). However they differ widely in mechanisms proposed to establish such a system of governance. A stronger formulation of devolution of power to the village level makes the important suggestion to create an “institutional structure to function with representatives elected on the basis of common sectoral interests (instead of representatives based on divisive party politics) such as production (farming, fisheries etc.) (ii) youth (iii) women (iv) industry and services (education, infrastructure, health etc.) (v) resources (environment, culture, religion, community leaders, elders etc.)” (pp.76-77).

Taking such ideas to their logical conclusion public representations have been made to go beyond such Grama Sabhas “to push further the idea of democracy to conceptualise a political structure that would enable citizens at the local level to have a more direct and active role in national level politics enhancing direct participatory democracy” (p.78), making devolution of power complete and giving federalism a new interpretation acceptable to all, perhaps except the political elite. It aims at providing a coherent answer to the concerns on the limitations of existing representative democracy. It would successfully address the failure of representative democracy to be accountable to the electors, and provide direct democratic checks and balances with power to recall citizens’ representatives participating at all levels of government (p.78).

What is thus proposed is “a confederated council system where direct participation of citizens is assured by electing representatives who act as delegates of the citizens to successively higher sets of councils rising up to the national level. Representation of various social categories is also assured at the national level. It provides a way of linking the different tiers of governance structure – central/provincial/local – in a manner that enables increased participation of town/village level citizens in deliberating on the common good at the national level politics. The two main criteria are the ‘Right of Recall’ and small and manageable institutions” (pp. 78-80). The PRC report argues that while such a restructuring of political institutions would address the issue of the failure of representative democracy by means of providing for direct participation of citizens at politics at the national level, establishing such a system would require a radical social imaginary to be developed among the citizenry.

If we can develop our social imaginary to think along the lines suggested and establish a political system on the principles outlined, then we would be able to successful and simultaneously address the twin issue of devolution of power and establishing a genuine people’s democracy.

In the interim, in my view, abolishing the Pradeshiya Sabhas, and establishing in its place Gam Sabhas and Town Sabhas in addition to the existing Municipal Councils and Urban Councils constitutionally empowering their relative autonomy is a form of devolution of power that would counter balance the possible negative impact of establishing new power elites at the provincial level through devolution. Human settlements in the estates also need to be incorporated into the proposed structure. These organs of political power with elected representative should be empowered to administratively coordinate and take action for the larger public good. The proposed Grama Rajya, with an advisory and supervisory role in the functioning of the local government institutions and deemed as the Public Consultative Bodies, in my view should not be considered an alternative, but playing only a complementary role in devolving political power to Gam Sabhas and Town Sabhas.

*The writer is a member of the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform

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Latest comments

  • 5
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    Village empowerment should be at the base of the pyramid in the devolution exercise contemplated. The governance structure in Sri Lanka cannot and should not continue as it is now. It is elitist and oppressive. Politics for the sake of politics, divorced from the service aspect, that should be at its core, is a curse. Sovereignty does not empower the poor and hence does not mean anything to those in the villages and in the periphery of cities and towns. Our poltical system empowers the politician and the bureucrat.

    To see villages in the country , where people go to the bush yet to relieve themselves for want of toilets, walk long distances to bathe, wash and get cooking water, where there is no water for even home gardens, men and women of productive age are idle all day, there are no visible avenues of productive employment and where people have no hope for the future, is shocking to see in this day and age, in a country that claims to be the miracle of Asia!

    The villages are only a vote bank for the politicians. Most projects that have been intiated in the villages are with the sole objective of spending budgetary allocations before the financial year ends. They are not thought through, are inadequately funded, are incomplete and there is no system to sustain and manage them. Of course, there ale also probably riddled with corruption!

    It is sad to see homes without even a toilet and water supply, having TV sets, bought on an installment basis from traders who visit them in vans to deliver and collect installments. I am told there are many suicides because of the inability to pay the installments. There are also many motor cycles in these villages, bought on easy credit, once again. A necessity, because public transport is unavailable. However, a burden, because scarse money that should go for food and other essential needs, is diverted.

    The people in the villagers are well dressed, but once again spend scarse money on this. External appearances in terms of clothing and motor cycles, is a mirage. They do not also generate enough money to save for productive investment. The dependence on charity is a soul destroying curse. It is demeaning and an insult to the very construct of the human. Collectively, village life has been rendered a curse.

    The worst is that they are at the mercy of an overbearing bureaucracy that is no longer composed of public servants, but public masters. The overbearing and condescending manner in which they talk and deal with the villagers is hard to watch. They do not get paid in most instances to help, but hinder. They ate politicians servants and public masters!

    The villages are not part of the decision making process in village-related matters, despite the existence of Rural Development Societies. The government’s services are not delivered properly to the villages efficiently nor adequately, although the government spends colossal sums of money with the intent of doing so. The whole system is dilapidated, beyond repair in the current context. It is over staffed and over pampered, but absolutes ineffective.

    The villagers however are aware of what they need to become oroductive and in most instances how it can be achieved. They have leaders, thinkers and dreamers amongst them. They have been rendered poor and charity dependent by a pernicious structure of governance, which is founded on the trickle down approach. Wealth and prosperity must be built in this country with a bottom up approach, starting with politically empowering the villages, to mind their affairs, as much as possible.

    Unless the villages, singly or in clusters are developed as self-sustaining units, to meet their needs, depending on their, present status, location, resources and a vision based on this, Sri Lanka will continue to be a poor country, pretending to be be prosperous- ‘Boru Show’ . Projects such as megapolis and port city, will not make a difference to the rural poor, a vast majority. They will continue to be poor, frustrated amidst call the glitter of the big cities and towns. They will continue to migrate to the cities and add to the problems we are facing. We will continue to be a country that generates high expectations, but increasingly unable to deliver.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 1
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    The whole purpose of this exercise to draw up a new consitution, is to get rid of the 13th Amendment for two reasons. Firstly majority of the Sinhalese are against it and will never allow it to be implementd in true spirit, and hence the behaviour of all the successive governments since 1987 not only to avoid implementing it, but also in sabotaging whatever provisions that were implemented. Secondly whenever Srilanka government officials meet either western country or Indian officials they are asking them to implement 13th amendment fully which is in the constitution. Therefore if 13th amendment is got rid off, there will be no such pressure. Unfortunately what is being contemplated by the Sinhalese is something that no self respecting Tamil will accept.

    Village level devolution should be last line of devolution and not one at the top. From the parliament, powers should be first devolved to regions, then to sub-regions and so on and finally to villages. The argument that Tamil ordinary citizens do not like them to be ruled by Tamil elites holds good for not only Sinhala elites ruling ordinary Sinhalese but also Sinhala elites ruling entire Tamils. Therefore this big talk of empowering villages is nothing but a dishonest attempt to prevent Tamils enjoying a seat of power in their historic territory similar to the power enjoyed by Sinhalese elsewhere in Srilanka. Only meagre powers will be granted to these village units only for purpose of devolopment and not for exercising sovereignty over their lands.

    If anyone is seriously interested in establishing peace spontanoeusly must make constitutional provisions for Tamils to live in dignity and safety in their lands of historic habitation without any interference by the Sinhalese. If there is a will among the Sinhalese, this demand can easily be accomodated without division of the country. The problem is that Sinhalese embarked on an ambitious program since independance to convert Srilanka into a homogenous Sinhala Buddhist country and any devolution of power will end this project. Colonisation of Sinhalese in Tamil homelands, deportation of Tamils of recent Indian origin and ethnic cleansing of Tamils are part and parcel of this scheme. Like in the past, this constitution also will not grant justice to Tamils.

    • 0
      1

      Dr. Gnana Sankaralingam,

      Kumudu Kusum Kumara, as a member of the Public Representations Committee has been instrumental in ensuring that his views got prioritised in that Report of the Committee.

      Here, he is at it again, trying to draw attention to his very same view, over those of the others. It is obvious that he is on a mission.

      Do I have a right to advise you on how to carry yourself in this forum? No. But, wouldn’t ignoring him and his trash be a much better response!

      NB: I am not treating Dr. Kumudu Kusum Kumara any different from the way I treat our know-it-all Dr. Rajasingham Narendran.

      • 1
        1

        Dear Nathan,
        Have you heard the saying “silence is acceptance”. If no protest is made the author will take it for granted that his views are correct and need to be implemented. This view of powerless grama rajya controlled directly by central government is being touted around by Sinhalese to bypass the Tamil demand of a power center for Tamils to share soverignty between Sinhalese and Tamils.

        • 0
          2

          Dr. Gnana Sankaralingam,

          Mine was a piece of advice expressed in good faith. Every barking dog need not be responded.

          ‘Speech is of Time, Silence is of Eternity’.

      • 1
        0

        Nathan,

        Your ‘not knowing’ or ‘ knowing less’ on some matters does not render me a ‘Know-it-all’, but only a ‘know more’.

        Is it a crime to ‘ know more’ and ‘learn more’, than you do, about areas of interest to me?

        I have seen villages, particularly in the north and east, and am presently working on a development project in a remote village, as a volunteer. I spend considerable time in this village and those around, and talk to the people there. I have gained a fair understanding of the problems confronting these villages.

        On the basis of what I know, would it be right to conclude that you are a ‘ ignoramus’? Definitely, not.

        Many who have made submissions to the Lal Wijenake committee have raised the need to make the villages the base of the devolution pyramid. I agree.

        Dr.RN

        • 0
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          Dr.RN,

          Still waters run deep; empty vessels make the most noise.

          If you want to exhibit your emptiness, come back!

          I have nothing more to say. I have already said all that you need to be told.

          • 0
            0

            Nathan,

            Ditto.

            Dr.RN

  • 0
    1

    Empowerment of local councils is meaningless without a mechanism for coordinated allocation of funds. Presently the political instrument for allocation of funds for local councils are Provincial Councils. Why not put in place District Coordinating Committees/Councils comprising the Heads and Opposition Leaders of local councils? The GA/District Secretary can be the Secretary of the Committee/Council.

    Some local councils do not have a resource base for generating funds for local public amenities. However they are blessed with local trade chambers, whose members have money for investments through PPP. However, our politicians do not like this approach because they cannot have their names engraved on plaques.

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