By R.M.B Senanayake –
If the people are to participate in governance then devolution of power to the periphery is essential. This reflects Tocqueville’ assertion of decentralization being indispensable for a system of active popular rule – power to the people and equal opportunities for all.
But politicians who get elected don’t want people’s participation thereafter. They would prefer the people to mind their business until the next election. The colonial state was not a democracy. With the mobilization of the majority Sinhala Buddhists carried out by SWRD in 19566 the State disinherited the Tamil population. The post 1956 State became a majoritarian State and it failed to carry out the twin tasks of ‘nation-building and non-discriminatory economic development. Powers were concentrated, and with the progress of the war the powers became authoritarian, and the law made an unmediated instrument of force where administrative fiat was more a rule, than the rule of law. This is where we are today after the passing of the 18th Amendment and the subjection of the Judiciary to the Executive Presidency.
Presently, the political space is monopolized by a centralized authoritarian system. The fear of losing power is not the fear of the Sinhalese people but of the politicians in power who do not want to devolve power not even to those Provincial Councils where their own party is in control. So they project their fear of loss of power to the Sinhalese masses invoking the risk of secession. So to allow a Northern Provincial Council to function will be a great step forward.
The next question is to what extent is centralized political authority willing to relinquish power to the periphery? The Government doesn’t want to devolve police and land powers. But the Police powers were to be subject to the independent Police Commission and the powers of land alienation were to be subject to the control of the National Land Commission. But these important checks and balances were done away with by the present regime and it now wants to amend the 13th Amendment to remove these powers. An important issue is the attitude of India which wants devolution of power as a solution to the grievances of the Tamil people. What is the attitude of the international community towards the devolution of power? They certainly welcome the devolution of power to enable the local people to decide matters for themselves.
The implementation of policy and programmes by the public service must be under the surveillance of the people and exerted through their elected representatives. But there must be a clear separation between the role of the elected representative and the bureaucracy. Under the present regime the elected representatives although lacking in knowledge and competency have taken full control of the public service. But the role of the politician vis a vis the public service is not to interfere in technical decision making or in running the department but only in supervising the bureaucracy to ensure that their decision making is transparent and in the public interest. They are required to act according to the law and without discrimination. It cannot be gainsaid that “the citizen has a surveillance role to play to ensure that the public servant comply with the mandate that was given them” [Hilliard and Kemp 1949:43].So the appointment, promotion and discipline of the bureaucracy is under the purview of an independent Provincial Public Service Commission. Elected representatives should not take these powers to themselves.
The Provincial Council is a collective body in the nature of an assembly with the Executive power in the hands of the Chief Minister. It must focus its efforts and resources on improving the quality of life of the communities. In addition to enhancing understanding of needs, civil society participation enhances understanding of the impact of policy and programmes as well as promotes the development of priorities. It is though interaction with the public that the state and local authorities can discover what citizens expects from their governments, local and national, areas where the implementation of policy and programmes are inadequate, and thereby promote the development of priorities.
It must be borne in mind that this institution was worked out under the Indo-Lanka Agreement to provide minorities the opportunity to share power with the Centre. While devolution although primarily focuses on power sharing for the ethnic minorities, it must also be viewed as an institution that can play a vital role in bringing the rural sector in partnership as a stake holder in managing the priorities of the area and the community. If this institution is given the freedom to function freely within its mandate, it can act as the mechanism to resolve the grievances of the people. Community participatory engagement with the leverage to take initiatives at the community level will undoubtedly bring satisfaction to the people and keep them away from ‘disruptive politics’ and social upheavals as experienced in the country with the ‘71 and ‘87 southern revolts. This holds true for the ethnic conflict too.
The problem will be the role of the Governor who is expected to be a figurehead but unfortunately have become involved in acting as a channel for the ruling power and the ruling politicians at the Center. One hopes the Provincial Council for the North won’t end up the way the Jaffna District Council ended up.