By Charitha Ratwatte –
The Secretary to the President in a recent Twitter session stated that ‘Devolution must be to the village. Power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, the village – the Grama Rajya’.
Given the fundamental factors of Sri Lanka, population, geographical size, literacy and numeracy, health, infrastructure and access, it is eminently feasible to provide more capacity and power to the local, village and community level. From time immemorial this has been the mantra of historians and development commentators and analysts.
Historically, until the British colonialists administratively and judicially unified the island, the national trait had been one of remoteness. The villagers led their own cycle of life, at their own pace. One can draw an analogy with the line in that famous West End play, ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ where in the old Russian Empire, in a Jewish community, who were being discriminated against and harassed by the Czar in Moscow and his Slav officials, one Jewish villager asks the Rabbi for a prayer for the Tsar. The Rabbi responds: ‘May God protect and keep the Tsar, far away from us!’
The village in old Lanka lived such an isolated life, far away from the palace and its intrigues, other than those rare instances in which the King or his representative or the colonial government intervened, to mobilise the citizen militia to wage war or collect taxes, etc. Robert Knox among others has commented on this feature.
Indeed, even during Colonial times, the local administrators were empowered to an extent unimaginable today. The official and personal diaries and other writings of legends like Leonard Woolf, AGA Hambantota, and Dyke GA of the Northern Province and Freeman GA of the North Central Province reflect this. Their autonomy extended to an extent unimaginable in today’s context of telephones, fax and e-mail! Not to mention rampant politicisation.
An analogy may be drawn from India’s British Raj, where one colonial District Commissioner, in a remote part of India’s North East Meghalaya District , once declared that a circular issued by the Colonial Government’s Viceroy in Calcutta was ‘utter and complete nonsense’ and placed on record in his official diary, which would end up, at some future date in with the Colonial Government in Calcutta, that ‘as long as I am the District Commissioner, this nonsensical circular will not apply in my District!’
May be the District Commissioner was sure that communication and infrastructure in his remote area of the North East Meghalaya was so difficult and inaccessible that the papers would reach the Governor only after the DC’s retirement!
The Diaries of Ceylon’s colonial administrators are replete with examples of the absolute discretion which the Government Agent and the Assistant Government Agent had in carrying out their administrative duties, subject to law. Things changed with road access improving, the railway and the telegraph.
Rise of centralisation
The final nail in the coffin of regional empowerment was when the Supreme Court, declared that the Kandyan Law was a personal law and not a regional law, applying to those domiciled in the Kandyan Provinces. A British planter had divorced his wife, under the Kandyan Law, which allows no fault divorce, on establishing incompatibility, but on appeal, the Court held that non-Kandyans, although residing and domiciled in the Kandyan Provinces, could not be subject to the Kandyan Law, since it was a personal law applying only to Kandyan people.
The Colebrooke/Cameron reforms which administratively consolidated the whole island, abolishing the special status of the former Kandyan Kingdom, which was the death knell of regional autonomy and the rise of centralisation and the Colombo centric development ethos which has been the bane of the country , leading to an unequal distribution of investment. It has been consistently a case of the Western Province sucking in all the resources, like a vacuum cleaner, leading to the neglect and deprivation of other areas.
As long as the port of Galle was the main import export hub for the island, the dominance of Colombo was not so complete. But when the Colombo break water and harbour was developed, the Galle harbour went into disuse and the decline of the south started. Whether the investments being made in the recent past, the Hambantota Harbour, Mattala Airport, the Southern Highway etc., will be able to arrest this decline remains to be seen.
The same applied to Trincomalee, whose heyday was when the British Far East Fleet was based there, when into decline after the British empire ceased to exist, but was resurrected to some extent after the civil war necessitated the expansion of the naval and defence establishments and today’s tourist and leisure revival.
One researcher did an interesting analysis by superimposing on a blank map of Sri Lanka all the large development schemes. Historically the Raja Rata was the Granary of the East, subsequently, after the dismantling of the hydraulic civilisation, which required intensive maintenance, and the ravages of malaria, the drift to the south west took place. That was the push factor. Spices were the pull factor, traders for west Asia visiting our western coast for trade in spices.
After Western colonial domination the initial investment in the plantations in the Central Hills took place with the destruction of the natural forests. The rise of the south around the Galle Harbour, the irrigation restoration of the North Central Province and the colonisation schemes, the Gal Oya Valley scheme, the Integrated Rural Development Projects, the Greater Colombo Economic Commission, the Accelerated Mahaweli Project, Gam Udawa , the 200 garment factories, Janasaviya, Samurdhi, Divi Neguma, etc.
A large stretch of the land mass from Puttalam in the north west to Dambulla in the north centre, Polonnaruwa in the north east up to Monaragala and Hambantota saw an absence of planned investments in all schemes, other than those few of national reach. Even for those projects disparities in implementation capacity in the peripheral areas took its toll, creating disparities in the quality of the services provided. The south west quarter of the island drew most of the money.
The fact that the pioneering micro finance institution, the Co-operative Rural Banks, whose assets were used for setting up the People’s Bank, which has now been transformed into a run-of-the-mill commercial bank, forgetting its grass root beginning, is a case in point. Rural savings are collected and transferred to head office in Colombo to finance letters of credit to pay for imports! This is the story of all financial service providers – mobilise funds in the rural areas and invest in Colombo! Has anyone done an analysis of the amount mobilised, say in Monaragala, and the proportion of that invested in Monaragala itself? If done, it will be a revelation of the development disparity, which is our curse.
The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce in August 2006, making its submissions to the Government’s Sub Committee on Constitutional Reforms, anticipated the Secretary’s proposal made on the Twitter interaction… In paragraph 22 of the Ceylon Chamber’s proposals, prepared by a Sub Committee on Constitutional Reforms chaired by senior business leader Charitha P. de Silva, under the caption ‘The Reserved List and the Provincial List, the Chamber stated: ‘The lists contained in the 13th Amendment have been revisited in the draft 2000 constitution. We recommend the adoption of these lists as stated in the draft 2000 constitution. Two significant changes in the draft 2000 constitution have been the omission of the Concurrent List and the item “national policy on all subjects and functions,” which appeared in the Reserved List. It would have been observed that the provisions in the present constitution (the Concurrent List and National Policy) enable the Centre to undermine devolution. Under the provisions of the draft 2000 Constitution all residuary subjects go to the Centre. We recommend that the residuary subjects go to the Local List (go to the Pradeshiya Sabhas).’
The Chamber further recommended: ‘Recognition of Pradeshiya Sabhas as the Basic Unit of Government: We recommend that the Pradeshiya Sabhas be recognised as the basic unit of Government, in consonance with the principle of subsidiarity. We also recommend the entrenchment of the legislative and executive powers of the Pradeshiya Sabha in the Constitution, as has been done by Article 156 of the South African Constitution entrenching the legislative and executive powers of Municipalities and the 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution (articles 243A to 243L) entrenching the Panchayat system.’
The Chamber recommended that the powers of the Pradeshiya Sabhas be set out in the Constitution itself. The Finance Commission should have the responsibility to allocate funds to the Pradeshiya Sabhas on transparent criteria. Co-operation between Pradeshiya Sabhas on subjects assigned to them, Pradeshiya Sabhas should be permitted by the constitution to create common institutions, similar to the power in the Swiss Constitution for Cantons ‘to create common organisations and institutions’ (Article 48) Partnerships between Pradeshiya Sabhas should also be permitted by the Constitution.
The Secretary to the President in his Tweet also referred to India’s Panchayat. The Panchayat system was studied by the group of politicians from Sri Lanka some time ago who issued a report. A 1992 amendment to the Indian Constitution set up the Panchayat Raj for local self governance. An Indian Gram Panchayat consists between seven and 17 members, elected from the wards of the village. 1/8 of the seats in a Panchayat are reserved for women. Many Panchayats are presided over by women. The main source of income of the Panchayat is the property tax levied on buildings and open spaces within the village. Other sources of income include a professional tax, taxes on pilgrimages, animal trade, grants received from the State Government in proportion to the land revenue and level of local government above – the Zilla Parishad.
Analysts say that the Panchayat system has greatly strengthened the role of women in local self government. Anecdotes abound – one extremely rich one: the husband of the chairperson turned up for the meeting and when asked where his wife who had to preside was, said, ‘she is cooking’. The Panchayat Members ordered him, ‘You go back and cook and send your wife to preside over the meeting!’
As stated earlier, given the investments made in Sri Lanka form the 1930s, from the time of universal adult franchise, in 1931, in social development, mainly education and health, there is a very strong case for empowering communities as against politicians or bureaucrats at the national or sub national level, by allocating powers and functions in a National or Provincial List.
Sri Lanka’s first world class social indicators, if anything reflect and indicate a capacity which the formal system does not acknowledge nor provide the space to operate effectively, it is dominated by politicians and bureaucrats .
The critical role of village level indigenous institutions like Death Aid Societies (Marana Adhara Samithi), Rotating Savings and Credit Organisations (ROSCAs/cheetus) is a reflection of this capacity and the yearning to get on with their lives, in the face of massive and frustrating politicisation and bureaucratic inaction and paralysis.
All religious institutions like Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, churches and mosques have their voluntary boards of management.
When the State set up genuinely depoliticised rural organisations , such as D.S. Senanayake’s Rural Development Societies, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s Praja Mandalas, Ranasinghe Premadasa’s Gramodaya Mandalas, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Yauvvana Samaja (Youth Clubs), Women’s Organisations and Co-operatives, the people responded, magnificently. Unfortunately the political space for these institutions to operate in a depoliticised environment did not last long and were soon captured by local political strongmen.
One recurring criticism of any suggestion of empowering the Pradeshiya Sabhas is today objected to on the grounds of the numerous misdemeanours Pradeshiya Sabha members have been accused of in the recent past. These range from murder and rape, to kidnapping, assault of pedagogues, policemen and members of the public, etc. Their progeny also have got involved in this sort of behaviour!
The British High Commission in Colombo has expressed its deep disappointment over the fact that a trial has not commended in one of these matters, although18 months have elapsed since the incident. The short answer to this criticism, which ironically has a semblance of truth, regarding to the quality of people who put themselves up for election at the local level, is the powerlessness of the current Pradeshiya Sabhas.
Quality men and women of eminence and standing do not put themselves up for election, when they have no viable functions. If the local level authorities have actual power, the ability to get things done and genuinely respond to community needs, better quality people will consider taking office and the voter will certainly elect capable people, instead of run-of-the-mill thugs, murderers, cattle thieves and moonshiners.
The Panchayat experiment in India, which the Secretary to the President referred to and which has been studied by our local politicians, while still being a work in progress, is declared by analysts to be having cautiously positive outcomes. In the present devolution debate going on in Sri Lanka, given the socio economic development context and the total domination of Colombo centric, politicised and bureaucrat dominated planning and implementation, this injection of a further additional genuinely empowered level of government at the Pradeshiya Sabha or Grama Niladhari Division level is indeed a refreshing input.
The fact that Sri Lanka’s leading business organisation, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, proposed this as far back as in the year 2006 and today, seven years later, a high official in the President’s office has, through a Tweet, reiterated the position is a refreshing and positive development.
The only factor which makes Sri Lanka different, in a developmental sense, from the rest of South Asia, and even the developing world, is the inherent capacity of its people. To justify the massive investments made in the past, sometimes to the detriment of other sectors of the economy, to achieve this, in education, healthcare, social development and to meet the reasonable aspirations of our people, it is imperative that a local empowered level of government be considered very seriously. It is rare indeed very that a top bureaucrat and the business community are of one voice on a matter of this nature.