By 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