By Jehan Perera –
There are many unresolved grievances that face the war-affected people of all communities after the end of the war, and which the centralized system of government has so far failed to adequately address. These include the resettlement of persons who were displaced during the war, such as Muslims displaced over twenty years ago, who have still to go back to their original places. Over 2,000 displaced persons in the North have filed action in the courts of law against the expropriation of their lands by the government for military use that amounts to over 6300 acres or 2/3 the amount of land on which Colombo city is located. There is also the vexed issue of those who went missing during the war, and those who were made to disappear. There are tens of thousands who continue to be unaccounted for, if pre-war and post-war statistics for population in the North are to be believed.
Another emerging problem in the North relates to the government’s plan to industrialise it but without consultation with the elected representatives of the people of those areas. Recently the government entered into negotiations with an international company of Nepalese origin, to restart and revamp the long closed cement factory in Kankesanthurai in the northernmost part of the island. On the face of it, this would appear to be a very positive action as the factory to be built will produce on a large scale for the international market and this could mean that there will be a lot of job openings soon in the Northern Province. However, concern is being expressed that this massive project has been formulated without consideration for the environmental damage that could result from the large scale extraction of limestone and the potential pollution of the underground water that feeds agriculture in that part of the country.
While centralized decision making has the advantage of being quick and decisive it can take place without sufficient concern for the different local level priorities of people living in the provinces. The example of the cement factory at Kankesanthurai is a relevant one. When it was a relatively small factory meant for local production it made a positive contribution to the economy of the area. However, a much larger factory with a production level that enables it to export can become detrimental to local interests, unless carefully managed. An elected provincial council with devolved powers, and which represents the people’s interests can be a counter-balance to centrally driven plans that too often benefit those at the centre more than those on whose land the project is based. It is in this context that the government’s decision to hold the provincial council elections for the Northern Province in September has been welcomed by those who see Sri Lanka’s main challenge as being post-war reconciliation.
The provincial council system of devolved government came as a result of attempts to end the ethnic conflict through political means. However the need for a system of government that is responsive to local level or provincial needs goes beyond ethnicity. This point was brought out most forcefully at a seminar on the Lessons learnt and Reconciliation Commission that took place in Polonnaruwa last week. The participants were a mix of senior civil society activists and more junior local level government officials. In keeping with the experience in other parts of the country where such discussions have taken place, the general opinion was favorable to the LLRC recommendations. But there was also a new and very harsh aspect in the Polonnaruwa discussions that I have not encountered elsewhere.
People are generally moved emotionally when something affects them personally. Nothing affects people more than matters of life and death. This is why throughout the country there is gratitude to the government for having brought the war to an end. Even if the cost of living is much higher than it was during the war, and even if misuse of government resources is also high, people still give thanks that they can travel on the roads without fear of being blown up by a bomb or shot at in an ambush or massacred in a storm trooper attack. The special problem in Polonnaruwa that is not to be found in other parts of the country is an issue of life and death to the people, and that is why the discussion on the LLRC brought out emotion in its rawest form.
The high level of kidney related diseases and deaths arising from them in the North Central Province in which Polonnaruwa is located has been regularly featured in the media. But what is a distant news report to most people, is an immediate tragedy to those who live there. Several of the participants at the seminar who spoke up said that their next door neighbours or relatives were suffering from kidney disease and had either died or were at death’s door. One gave the example of a family that had already lost two members and was in the process of losing a third. The participants believed that the government had done little to remedy the situation. There is possibly more than an iota of truth in this complaint. Those who are distant decision makers in Colombo would see the kidney disease problem as a distant one that does not call for their immediate and prioritized attention. The priority concern of decision makers in Colombo might be to get loans from abroad for big infrastructure projects or ensuring the country’s sovereignty.
The value of devolved government is that it permits local level problems to be identified and decided by the local authorities. Those who are elected representatives of the people in the provincial council will be under more and closer scrutiny by their electors than those who are central government decision makers. In Jaffna, which is a Tamil majority area, the priorities of the people are not being met by the government. The Jaffna people’s priorities, as expressed in the seminar they attended on the LLRC in Jaffna, are to find their missing ones and to get back their confiscated houses and land. In Polonnaruwa, which is a Sinhalese majority area, the people’s priorities are to ensure that those suffering from kidney disease are looked after, and that the cause of the disease should be found. The participants at the seminar made it clear that they held the government responsible for creating the disease by distributing sub-standard fertilizers and pesticides.
The question, however, is whether the provincial council to be elected for the Northern Province will be able to succeed where the provincial council elected for the North Central Province has failed. One of the drawbacks of the provincial council system at this time is that the party in power in the central government invariably also captures power in the provincial councils. This is because the voters are aware that the central government is the source of financial and other resources which are utilized by the provincial councils. The problem is that having the same political party ruling both at the centre and the provincial levels is a recipe for the subordination of the provincial council to the central government. On the other hand, such a scenario is not likely to unfold in the case of the Northern Provincial Council alone. This is because of the continuing ethnic divide which will prompt the overwhelmingly Tamil majority voters of the Northern Province to opt for a Tamil opposition party over the ruling party at the centre.
The forthcoming provincial council elections in the North is therefore going to be of great importance to the country, not only in terms of empowering the ethnic minorities who live in the North, but also in terms of showing the way to greater local level autonomy to the other eight provincial councils, which are currently under total central government control. By deciding to hold the provincial elections for the Northern Province as promised, the government will also be sending a positive message to the people of the North that it is keeping a promise that it has made and can be trusted by the minorities. At the same time an elected Tamil majority provincial administration created through free and fair provincial elections would further increase the level of trust in the democratic process and in the value of devolution of power as part of the long awaited political solution. The most hopeful vision is that the example of the Northern Provincial Council, once it is elected, will also help to revitalise the provincial council system by showing to the other provincial councils how they can better protect and promote the interests of the people in each of their provinces.