Sri Lanka Brief
FeaturesNewsWhy devolution of power is required by the minority communities

Why devolution of power is required by the minority communities


Hegemonic nationalists oppose any devolution. They assert that any relaxation of direct control or authority introduces the possibility of secession. But safeguards can be put in place both constitutionally and administratively. This problem has to be addressed but it is no fundamental ground for rejecting devolution. The removal of the concurrent list is not enough.

28 May 2011,/ by R.M.B.Senanayake

The Kachcheri

During the colonial regime the public services at the village or field level were provided through the Kachcheris. There were also the Divisional Revenue Officers and the Village Headmen who had their offices to deal with the public.

The registration of births, deaths, marriages as well as land was done in the Kachcheri. The Government Agent was the head of the civil administration in the district. He even had some police power and was expected to read out the Riot Act before the Police could shoot to suppress a civil commotion.

The British were primarily but not solely interested in maintaining law and order and collecting tax revenue to fund the government expenditure without being a burden to the home country. Only the technical departments like Irrigation and Survey had their own field offices under the control of their head offices. This system of governance based on administrative devolution or decentralization worked reasonably well to provide the limited services undertaken by the State. Any lapses were at the level of the village headmen.

But it was not democracy at work. In a democracy the people who are being governed should have a reasonable say in the decision-making and should be able to hold the decision makers accountable to them. The British had introduced a totally bureaucratic system of governance with no place for the people to exert any influence in decision making or administrative processes.

The advent of the MP – Power without responsibility

After Independence and particularly after 1956, governance has been completely transformed although the structures may remain under different names. After the social mobilization of the masses in 1956 the elected Member of Parliament in the Sinhalese areas, began to play a dominant role in the district administration in the name of the local people. They began to exert pressure on the GA and the district and divisional level officers. The MPs interfered even in the internal administration of the Kachcheri and other field offices.

But the Tamil politicians had no such space to follow their Sinhalese counterparts. The Sinhalese MPs were a law unto themselves and nobody in the State machinery, not even in the police, could hold them to account. They now act with sole disregard to the law and are doing so with impunity. They failed to appreciate that public administration in a democratic state had to be carried out in a transparent manner and in conformity to the law and the Financial Regulations which bound all government officials. They became petty kings of the district and still are.

Was the system democratic? Not really since they were not accountable to the people. The people should control their elected representatives who exercise power in their name. This is done through the institutions set up by the people in the Constitution like the independent Judiciary and the Police who are required to act according to the Police Ordinance and the Criminal Procedure Code. But the MPs were able to prevail over these institutions of the people.

This system could not function since the role of the MP in district administration had no legal basis. In law he was a Member of Parliament and his duties were in relation to law making. But they preferred to exercise power at the district level where their political interest lay. But their interference undermined the efficiency of the services provided by the Kachcheris. Apart from any arguments for devolution to ensure the participation of the people, the district administration has to be made more efficient. This requires accountability of the bureaucracy to the people.

But the Member of Parliament cannot be equated to the people. The MP is only a creature of Parliament although attempts were made by SLFP governments to confer legal authority on them through the appointment of a District Political Authority. But this was not a structure compatible with democracy. It was giving power without responsibility – the privilege of the harlot. If we want active participation of the people then a considerable measure of devolution of power to the locally elected politicians is necessary as pointed out by De Tocqueville who also pointed out that the woes of local democracy requires more not less democracy.

But their power must be accompanied by accountability as the people must pay for the wrong doing of their representatives through local taxation. The gap in actual performance and the performance expected by the people cannot be bridged unless the people understand the processes of administration in a democratic framework where accountability is to be enforced not by tying up errant officials to trees but through due process of law and internal administrative procedures in organizations.

But they certainly need to be held accountable and the present structure of centralized governance is wanting in this respect. The present administration in the districts seems to be in disarray with politicians ruling the roost. The public have to learn how to control the bureaucracy and their elected representatives and this requires them to be empowered not individually but as a Council. The local councils should as far as possible be free from party politics in their decision-making.

The self interest of politicians

Politicians who get into power want to use their power for their self interest although they may pretend to serve the public interest. They serve the public interest only when such interest coincides with their own interest in pursuit of perpetuation of power, privilege and influence. So while the bureaucrats have to be held accountable so should the politicians. This requires a politically neutral police and an independent judiciary both in the Center and in the Provinces.

The colonial regime is often accused of practicing divide and rule. But after 1956 our politicians have done the same. They appealed to differences in caste, ethnicity and religion to win votes and come to power. In the process they alienated the minorities. Once in power they catered exclusively to those who had voted for them and sometimes took revenge on those who voted for other parties. All this is accepted as democracy although it flouts the very foundations of democracy.

Misunderstanding the State

The State is different from society and stands apart from it. Our politicians educated in Swabasha do not understand what constitutes the State. The State refers to the aggregate of relatively permanent institutions of governance. The police, the judiciary and the bureaucracy are structures of the state. Like Louis XIV of France our Presidents after 1978 think they are the State. They think what is in their interest is the same as the public interest. So the Attorney General withdraws criminal cases of murder and rape against members of the ruling party. There is no longer any Rule of Law. In this set up the minorities don’t count and can be dispensed with and that has happened since 1958 riots.

Our ruling politicians also see the state as an autonomous institution, autonomous from society as well as from the UN. Since they are the state it means they are autonomous and sovereign too. They believe in a centralized state which gives them unlimited power. But the centralized state has not filled the aspirations of the people – be they Tamils or Sinhalese. Ask any Sinhalese in the villages whether he is satisfied with the state offices he comes into contact with and you will invariably be told that the police, the grama sevaka or the District Secretary’s office are unsatisfactory. Just imagine how they would treat the Tamils or Muslims when the Sinhalese themselves get shoddy treatment.

Need for Devolution to ensure rights

It is in this set up that the minorities need an entry point into this politicized state which will ensure them some consideration. They need such an entry point below the level of the centralized national government. They have been asking for Provincial Councils as provided for in the 13th Amendment. They need to have such a Council to ensure that business can be carried out in the Tamil language and through Tamil speaking officers. They need to control the bureaucracy not in the way that the Sinhalese politicians do but in a democratic way through lawful methods of accountability. There is no place for para-military autocrats in their midst. They need elected bodies and such bodies should function in the usual ways that democracies function.

These elected politicians can then articulate their policies to reflect their needs and priorities. A dual control of the bureaucracy both by the central government and the provincial council will not work. No man can serve two masters. Dual control will lead also to divide and rule management. This doesn’t mean that the local politicians can ride rough shod over the local bureaucracy as is the case among the Sinhalese. While the colonial rulers manipulated the diverse ethnic groups into a functional state, the post Independence custodians of power have merely intensified the hatred and widened the divide between the communities. Outwardly there is no sign of ethnic disunity because the north and east are under tight control through the military. There is no freedom from fear since the buck stops at the military and the civil administration is playing second fiddle to the military

Hegemonic nationalists oppose any devolution. They assert that any relaxation of direct control or authority introduces the possibility of secession. But safeguards can be put in place both constitutionally and administratively. This problem has to be addressed but it is no fundamental ground for rejecting devolution. The removal of the concurrent list is not enough. The Provincial Council offices should rank as equal to the Ministry offices of the central government and their field offices should not be in a position to give orders to the latter. The best course is for the Central Government Ministries to work through the Provincial Council offices in respect of functions within their purview.

Back to Top