Colombo Telegraph

The Story Of Successful Devolved Governance

By Mahesan Niranjan

Prof. Mahesan Niranjan

Fast forwarding to the Eighteenth of May 2016, we observe noisy scenes in the Sri Lankan Parliament. A few members insist that the Prime Minister should intervene and stop separation from happening. They are a noisy minority. The majority, however, agree with Prime Minster Wikramaathiththan’s stubborn stance: “The right to separation has already been subject to maximum devolution. The central government will not interfere.”

Gosh! Who is Prime Minister Wikramaathiththan, and how can he devolve the most sensitive topics in our politics – the right to separation?

The recently formed jumbo cabinet of ministers was a disappointment to several of you. “Have we gone back to the bad old days?” you worried. Distracted by that, you failed to notice an innovation, the appointment of a Minister for National Dialog.

“But we already have dialog no?” an aunt of mine remarked, thinking of the telephone company.

The new Ministry for National Dialog has, as a starting point of achieving their objectives, given new names, with minimal edits to their present ones, to the main characters in the governance of our country. The aim is to remind those in power that reconciliation starts by the thought experiment of putting yourself in the other man’s shoes.

“Let peace begin with me,” is the slogan written on the entrance to the new ministry.

Wikramaathiththan is one such name, the epistemology of which I will explain now, and leave others to your imaginations.

Regular readers of ampulimaamaa will know this character – a king whose job it was to catch a genie living in the banyan tree and bottle it. The genie was smart and each time he caught it, it would tell him a story to distract his attention and escape back the banyan tree. The king, however, was not someone to give up in the face of serial failures. He tried and tried, again and again, and in the most recent attempt had caught the genie. Will he be able to hold onto it, we are not sure yet.

*Photograph of King Wikramaathiththan capturing the ghost scanned from the author’s ampulimaamaa archives

Prime Minister Wikramaathiththan had introduced a bill to set up a form of governance that was to devolve much power and responsibility to regions of various granularities: provinces, districts, municipalities and villages. Each village chief was given a Pajero jeep, petrol allowance and had devolved power to decide what questions should be asked on the five page form to be filled before cutting down a palmyrah tree in your back garden. Obviously, if palmyrah does not grow in you part of the country, there is no need for this five-page form, is there? That is the beauty of devolved governance.

PM Wikramaathiththan made persuasive arguments in support of his devolution bill.

“Consider how we Sri Lankans have been poor at solving problems. We do not address problems of our youth in time. Instead we just let them get worse, let the pressure of frustration build up so our youth take up arms and rebel. That is when we bring out our tried and tested solution, don’t we?

“We kill.

“Consider how we handled problems faced by minorities in our country. We have recognized these problems, have set up so many commissions, held inquiries and have signed several pacts. Despite the diligence with which gentlemen tasked with finding solutions worked, when it came to implementation, we just shelved the reports and ditched the Pacts, didn’t we? We had a tried and tested response when challenged on this performance.

“What problem?”

The PM, given his track record in politics must have felt duty bound to think of a long term solution. After all, during his long career, he had observed, among other things, how his uncle sponsored the riots of 1977 and 1983, how his mates travelled to the North to make sure that the library was burnt, how the Hanuman army forced an Accord on us, how a past president ordered the surrender of some 600 policemen who were then lined up and shot, and, above all, he must have been a bit more than bystander of the brutality with which the rebellion in the 1988-90 period was put down.

Desirous of putting all that in the past, we welcome his devolution plan to achieve ever-lasting peace in our country.

However, the Devolution Bill faced strong objections from the Leader of the Opposition, Rt. Hon. Trigonometry Aarachchige Sampath (a new name given to him by the Ministry for National Dialogue, of course).

Rt. Hon. Sampath said, as leader of the opposition, he had to represent the majority Sinhala people as well. Hence he held the view that any devolution should be opposed — nipped in the bud, so to speak, because it is the first step towards separation.

“Which school did you go to? Did they not teach you authoritative texts of history to know that warriors from Tamil Nadu will swim across the Palk Strait and butcher us? Our culture, unique in the known Universe, will be ruined, this being the only country we have. Would the Prime Minister note they [Tamil Nadu fellows] are already engaged in doing just that, with low quality television soaps with Sinhala sub-titles broadcast on several channels

“Cultural genocide is what I call it!” Hon. Sampath roared like a lion in Parliament.

Contrary to repeated polite requests from the Ministry for National Dialog, Hon Sampath has not given up the “G-word”, as he is much indebted to it for his electoral prospects. If he didn’t say it often enough, Chief Minister Gandalf might gain ownership of it, he feared.

Throughout the debate, one member was chanting a mantra from a corner of the House. It was the Vanni representative, Rt. Hon. Ku Rangupillai. “Police powers, land powers, police powers, land powers” he was heard repeating to himself.

The constitutional lawyer Hon. Samaanthiram MP intervened. He is either a member of the government or probably from the opposition, we are not really sure. Yet that ambiguity is to be celebrated as a particular innovation of our new-found democracy. Hon. Samaanthiram patiently explained, in all three languages, the following: “Policing is not about power; policing should be a service.”

“In Sri Lanka,” Samaanthiram said, “police had the power to beat confessions out of suspects, and based on those confessions, people could be locked up and keys thrown away. In theory, this is still possible because the laws enabling these are still in place.

“But remember, prior to 2009, such power was devolved and practiced in the Vanni, with threats of hands being chopped off for voting at elections, legs getting chopped off for running away without carrying out your patriotic duty of acting as human shields, and bullets in your head if you thought anything different from what the thought police had thought, right? Do you want to go back to those dark days?” Samaanthiram asked.

“And it is unwise to claim power over land in such low-lying areas,” the eminent lawyer continued, “have you not heard of global warning? If we want to protect our culture for centuries to come, we need to find real estate on high ground somewhere. I am sure you have heard about Poompukaar,” he reminded his colleague of the ancient city of Tamil civilization, now lost to the sea. “Mind you, over half of our people live outside the land over which you claim power.”

The apparent logic in his explanations had no effect on Hon. Ku Rangupillai who continued to chant “police powers, land powers, police powers, land powers,” for he knew doing so was important for his future electoral prospects.

From the opposition benches Rt. Hon Patriotwasa was also opposed to the Devolution Bill. Now, Mr Patriotwasa is someone who claims to be a descendent of the lion, but the popular belief in Sri Lanka is he is a descendent of the donkey. A donkey in lions clothing, you might say. No, it is more complicated. He barks. The PM says that this behaviour is similar to that of monkeys. Geneticists reconstructing evolutionary trees are much puzzled by all this. Which of the four did our patriot actually descend from?

Hon. Patriotwasa strongly condemned the bill and in order to demonstrate his patriotism vowed to go on a hunger strike: “I shall starve until you withdraw the bill or my body and soul separate, whichever happens first” he shouted and walked out of the House.

That is the separation – the potential separation of the body and soul of the most patriotic member of our Parliament – is what was mentioned at the beginning of this story.

Are you surprised that Prime Minsiter Wikramaathiththan’s refusal to intervene – of the centre not interfering with local decision making — had strong support in the House?

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