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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

‘Divineguma’ Bill: Disempowering Provincial Councils via Legislative Measures is a Permanent Fixture on Rajapaksa Agenda

By Tisaranee Gunasekara
 “….everything that was ever invented by knavery to impose upon imbecility”.Voltaire (A Philosophical Dictionary)
 The Rajapaksas are world class, and more, when it comes to building innocuous facades to hide insalubrious realties.  Who would expect a bill regarding the self-employment scheme sponsored by the Ministry of Economic Development, a bill harmlessly, even trifle boringly, titled ‘Divineguma (Uplifting Lives), to be a front for an insidious attempt to dismantle devolution?

Gathering all reins of power into Familial hands is a central tenet in Rajapaksa thought. Measures to empower the Siblings by disempowering Lankan citizens and Lankan institutions have been a ubiquitous feature of Rajapaksa rule.

The plan to disempower provincial councils via legislative measures is thus a permanent fixture on the Rajapaksa agenda. One such effort was the Jana Sabha scheme. The Jana Sabhas (another misnomer) Bill aimed at transferring powers allocated by constitution and by tradition to provincial councils, local government institutions and even parliamentarians to an unelected institution under Rajapaksa thumbs.

The Jana Sabhas, as the UPFA General-Secretary Susil Premjayanth pointed out, were to have the power to prepare their own budgets and development plans and to obtain the necessary financial allocations from the central government. The elected provincial councils and local government authorities were to be legally obliged to seek approval from the unelected Jana Sabhas to launch any project. The Jana Sabhas were also to be given control over the development funds of parliamentarians, including how the money is to be spent and monitoring of related projects.

These unelected and über-powerful Jana Sabhas were supposed to come under the ‘purview’ of Basil Rajapaksa. Before public pressure compelled the regime to place the scheme on the backburner, Mr. Rajapaksa enrolled 5000 graduates to man the Jana Sabhas, sans interviews, reportedly on the recommendation of the SLFP electoral organizers. Obviously the Jana Sabhas were imagined and structured to function as the basic building bloc of the emerging Rajapaksa state.

Other attempts to empower the Rajapaksas at the expense of provincial and local authorities included the failed efforts to amend the Town and Country Planning Act and to set up a ‘Corporation’ under the purview of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to take over the functions currently allocated to CMC and several other municipal councils.

The regime had to ‘give up’ each of these measures due to judicial intervention and public opposition.

That is why the Divineguma Bill was prepared in such careful secrecy. As the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) pointed out, “the lack of discussion and transparency prior to the tabling of the Bill and of any known consultation among communities and others who will be affected is extremely troubling” (Colombo Telegraph – 18.8.2012). That secrecy and lack of transparency was necessary for the success of this latest Rajapaksa power-grab (and was made possible by the Presidential takeover of both the AG’s Department and the Legal Draftsman’s Department). Given the insidious nature of the legislation, the last thing the Rajapaksas would want is discussion or transparency.

Both the CPA and the Samurdhi Development Officers Union have challenged the Bill before the courts for being unconstitutional. According to the CPA, “The Bill, if enacted, provides wide powers to the Minister in charge of Economic Development to regulate and decide on a wide range of issues including subjects within the purview of the Provincial Councils, with limited checks and balances.….

Furthermore, the Bill if enacted will take away the ambit of oversight mechanisms, especially in the area of financial control and accountability. The Bill also contains provision for officers and servants of the Department established through the Bill to sign a declaration pledging secrecy related to work of the said Department, raising questions as to why such a provision should be included in respect of a Department that is meant to serve and be accountable to the people” (ibid).

In other words, the aim of the Bill is to transfer to Minister Basil Rajapaksa many of the powers currently enjoyed by provincial and local authorities. It is the old Jana Sabha bill under a different name and a less alarming cover.

The timing of the Bill is also important. Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review is set to take place at the September – October sessions of the UNHRC. India, Benin and Spain have been assigned to review the Lankan case. The regime is clearly eager to avoid a negative report and is making a show of cooperating with the UNHRC in consequence. Since winning over India will be central to ensuring that the UPR Report is not a negative one, the regime is also likely to make the usual empty overtures to Delhi including new devolutionary promises. This is particularly likely after the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo underscored the importance not just of the full implementation of the LLRC but also of a political solution to the ethnic problem.

That the Rajapaksas are enacting a Bill aimed at negating the limited degree of devolution currently in existence is a clear indication of the deceptive and untrustworthy nature of the regime.

Under Rajapaksa rule, the search for a political solution was turned from a serious exercise into a soap opera. For instance, the Rajapaksas set up the APRC in 2006 to silence India and the West and then proceeded to subvert it every step of the way. When the Expert Committee of the APRC came up with a reasonable devolution plan, it was hounded by Rajapaksa allies and rejected by the President himself.

Whenever the APRC produced some document, as it did several times, the President disagreed with it and sent the Committee back to the drawing board. He used the EPDP to impose a minimalist document on the APRC and consigned even this denuded proposal to oblivion. The President also used numerous ruses to delay the APRC proceedings. For instance, once the JHU and the MEP walked out of the APRC protesting the non-inclusion of the Pilliyan Group in the deliberations. Even if one assumed that the JHU acted of its own volition no such thoughts could be entertained about the MEP. The MEP would not have engaged in this preposterous act without an order from the President.

Thus the President was able to sabotage the APRC while keeping his hands clean, while maintaining the façade of the moderate leader under extremist pressure.

The Ruling Siblings do not want to share power even with fellow Sinhalese or SLFPers, let alone Tamils and Muslims. That is why they have used every imaginable – and some unimaginable – tactics to evade offering a political solution to the ethnic problem. Even the 13th Amendment is anathema to them. Since Indian and Western pressure makes the scrapping of the provincial council system a near impossibility, the plan is to keep the structure in place while disempowering it to the point of impotence. If the Divineguma Bill becomes the law, it would constitute a great leap in that anti-devolution and anti-democratic direction.

The Rajapaksas have a phenomenal ability to depict their make-believe universe far more compellingly real than the actual one. For instance, they did manage to sustain the lie of a no-fire zone, even after the no-fire-zone became a killing field. The same sleight-of-hand tactics were used in parading as welfare villages the barbed-wire enclosures in which almost 300,000 people (the entire populace of the formerly Tiger-controlled Northern districts) were imprisoned.

So to make promises to protect and enhance devolution even as they machinate to turn the existing provincial councils (and local government authorities) into powerless husks is quite in the Rajapaksa character.

In 2005, many believed that Presidential Candidate Rajapaksa’s adherence to the unitary state in his election manifesto, Mahinda Chinthanaya, was merely a gimmick to win Southern vote and would be forgotten the day after the election. But the commitment turned out to be real. The Rajapaksa antipathy towards devolution is in part a function of their determination to concentrate all power in their hands (thus the 18th Amendment which killed the democratic 17th Amendment).

In this sense Mahinda Rajapaksa represent a real change from every single Lankan leader since the Indo-Lanka Accord. He is committed to a Sinhala supremacist agenda (because it suits his own Familial Project perfectly) and, despite the ‘on-and-off’ promises to India and Washington, he is committed to a revanchist programme aimed at turning back the institutional and ideological changes which happened through and as a result of the Indo-Lanka Accord.

The Rajapaksas need to turn the 13th Amendment into a dead letter for a host of reasons, from ideological and political to economic. Selling and leasing land to foreigners is a favourite Rajapaksa method of making ends meet. And there are many lands in the North and the East, lands of pristine beauty or of agricultural and industrial value which can be sold or leased. Unfortunately under the 13th Amendment, land is a devolved subject. This provision is being ignored in practice, but so long as it exists, an elected provincial council can impede Rajapaksa plan to flog Lankan lands to any moneyed foreigner.

Some months ago, the land minister of the UPFA controlled Eastern provincial council, Wimalaweera Dissanayake, publicly complained that “the people in the former war-torn areas will not be able to enjoy the hard won freedom after decades of war if the government does not settle them back in their ancestral lands” (BBC – 25.3.2012).

He made these remarks at a meeting in Eravur when the mainly Muslim residents complained that “they are prevented from re-cultivating their land by officials of the the central government. Displaced people quoted government officials saying thousands of acres of paddy land has been set aside for grazing” (ibid). This is an indication that so long as land remains a devolved subject and so long as provincial councils retain even a limited degree of power, they can impede the Rajapaksa march toward limitless and timeless power.

The Rajapaksas excel at reinventing the wheel; they know that memories are short and old wine in old bottles can be dusted off to look new. All you need are a few Gobbelsian lies. If the ‘Divineguma’ effort fails, they will come up with another one, and another one.

Denuding the provincial councils of even the limited degree of power they enjoy currently will alienate Tamils of all political persuasions still further. Such a measure would be the clearest possible indication that the Rajapaksas are as uninterested in solving the ethnic issue as they are in promoting a consensual peace. But the Rajapaksas would not care. Defence costs are kept at an astronomical high and the armies are being beefed up precisely because the Siblings know that force will be needed to respond to Northern political discontents and Southern economic discontents.


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