Moves to set up a Divineguma Department estimated to be worth more than Rs. 80 billion by bringing together the existing Samurdhi Authority, the Southern Development Authority and the Udarata Development Authority (the successor to the Kandyan Peasantry Commission) have seemingly run into a judicial-political storm.
A storm in a teacup it may be eventually, but as our Political Editor seems to think, the Government is determined to steamroll its way through the Legislature, notwithstanding what appears to be a stand-off with the Judiciary on the provisions contained in the Bill insofar as its constitutionality is concerned.
The Judiciary has already put a spoke in the Government juggernaut by saying that the Bill requires the approval of the Provincial Councils. The raison d’etre for this decision was that the Bill contravenes the 13th Amendment (13A) to the Constitution because it takes away some of the provisions already devolved to these councils.
The Government reacted angrily to this decision, but nevertheless, and wisely so, complied with the Supreme Court’s order and sought the approval of these provincial councils to ensure the passage of the Bill to law. The fact that these councils are under the control of the Government helps, though there exists a contentious legal argument pending before the country’s apex court with regard to the non-functional Northern Provincial Council and whether the Governor of that province can exercise the powers of a council that does not exist.
That the forces of federalism are at work is the Government’s complaint. It argues that by centralising the functions of the different government agencies, it is only engaging in the upliftment of the poor and the destitute, especially in the rural areas. According to official statistics, despite Sri Lanka being upgraded in the global financial marketplace to a ‘middle income country’, as many as 35 per cent of the country’s 20 million population are Samurdhi beneficiaries, i.e. those living on handouts from the State. It is a well known fact that there are many who do not deserve these handouts and are well above the poverty-line, but receive them anyway by circumventing the rules or through corrupt methods. Yet, the figures do reflect the stark reality that there is poverty in the country, big time.
The Government’s argument that it is trying to better coordinate poverty alleviation is clearly aimed at countering the criticism that it is taking away the powers devolved from Colombo to the periphery. But, the Government cannot have it both ways. It must not allow the 13A to remain as much as it is not in favour of it, merely because of external pressure (and having to stick to promises made to, in fact, give even more than 13A by way of ’13plus’), and at the same time be accused of insidiously whittling down the powers given to the Provincial Councils through 13A.
More so, when the Government only just recently used the Provincial Council system to hold elections and perpetuate such a system — so that it can win the polls and then tell the world that the people of this country are with it, come what may.
If the Government wants to do away with 13A, which we have long said it must, especially in regard to the utterly useless Provincial Councils, it must propose a new system of devolution (which in principle is acceptable to the vast majority of the people as long as it is outside the scope of 13A). We have suggested that the Government hold a referendum of the people, as provided for in the Constitution and seek their views on 13A.
District Councils with adequate powers that do not compromise a unitary state within a Central Government is what many advocate except that international pressure by countries ten times and more the size of Sri Lanka is for a federal-style of Government here for reasons best known to them. This pressure is stymieing attempts by the Government to make changes to 13A. Instead, the Government is trying to ‘keep the cake (13A) and eat it’ as well, so to say.
That apart, the Divineguma Bill has ominous signs of ‘centralisation’ that is unacceptable even within a Central Government set-up. It is replete with contradictions of Government policy itself. For instance, it will create finance company-like funds and be exempt from the Banking Act, as well as supervision by the Monetary Board. It will be outside the purview of the Microfinance Bill just gazetted by this very Government recently. It will be a law unto itself.
Then, Section 20 (2) of the Bill states; “the monies lying to the credit of the Divineguma Development Fund may be utilised for such purposes and in such a manner as may be prescribed by the Minister”. This is a fund of Rs. 80 billion, and certain to grow; is it to be left in the hands of the Minister (and not with the Secretary who is traditionally the chief accounting officer of any ministry) is this a deviation of what has long been an administrative and fiscal norm and will be outside the normal banking regulations with officials bound by a secrecy oath not to divulge information to anyone other than a court of law.
It is completely contrary to the principles of good governance and transparency practised by modern democracies. Such provisions are a clear signal that the Government is not interested in empowering the citizens of this country with what more than a hundred democracies around the world have enacted by way of a Right to Information Act. As a matter of fact, this is the very antithesis to a citizen’s right to information.
There is justifiable concern that this huge volume of funds will be under the absolute control of a ruling party minister at a time when a General Election is held with Parliament dissolved and a caretaker Cabinet running the Government.
While many other issues arise from this far-reaching Bill, that the Government is determined to pass it into law without any amendments to it, is arguably, the most significant of them all. It is crystal clear that the intention of the Government is to take more and more control of the State machinery and concentrate it under a small coterie. There is no escape from seeing more than a tinge of authoritarianism creeping in through this proposed Bill.