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Sri Lanka – Nation Building, Devolution and the 13th Amendment (01)- Lionel Bopage

Introduction

Sri Lanka is facing multiple crises – economic, political and cultural. How the government deals with these is crucial to the future of the country. The failed unitary form of government, in particular, the excessive powers of the executive presidency need to be curtailed. Devolution of power and a more equal balance between the executive, judiciary, parliament, bureaucracy and regions need to be renegotiated if we are to come out of the crises.

It is in this macro light that this paper should be viewed. However, this paper will not focus on the class based issues underpinning the national question, except to note that under neo-liberalism, differences in plural societies are utilised to prop up authoritarian capitalist governance systems that are beset with crises.

Nation-Building

Nation building is an evolutionary and long-term course of action, rather than a revolutionary and overnight process. It needs to develop and grow through an internal process, not via an external intervention or by an imposed agenda. It also needs economic, social, and political development as well as institutions that protect the fundamental rights of the people and communities. In addition, the nation-building effort needs to ensure equal access to jobs, education, and health for all among other things.

For long-term democratic nation-building to be successful, we need to recognise the importance of democratic values, within the civic sphere that will develop and sustain them; rather than just emphasising economic development or state-building. Currently we have only received rhetorical banalities from the political elite shorn of any real meaning of this crucial issue.

Decentralization

Decentralization is increasingly seen as a basic principle of democracy. A system of good governance needs people to have the ability to elect their own leaders and representatives to institutions that wield real power to respond to people’s needs. Grassroots movements have emerged championing it. This is not surprising as an overweening central power has repeatedly failed to meet the needs of the people as attested by the current economic crisis.

Political decentralization can empower citizens or their representatives engaging in decision-making processes. Greater participation is assumed to lead to better informed decision making that are more relevant to the plural societies like Sri Lanka. With political decentralisation, citizens will come to better know their representatives and in turn they will be more cognisant of the needs and desires of their electorates. For decentralisation transfers responsibility for planning, financing and managing certain public duties from the centre and its agencies to regional ones, thus making it more local and accountable. This can be achieved by de-concentration, delegation, and devolution of authority with each of these having their own characteristics.

It should be noted that centralization and decentralization do not need to be an “either-or” scenario. Practical examples around the globe have demonstrated that an appropriate balance of centralization and decentralization can ensure effective and efficient government service delivery. Centres can play a crucial role in promoting and sustaining decentralization efforts. This can be done by developing proper and effective national policies and regulations needed for decentralization, thus creating or maintaining the necessary enabling environments that allow regional, provincial, and local units to take on more responsibilities for undertaking new functions.

As a whole, genuine efforts at decentralization can cut cumbersome bureaucratic red tape. It can make local and national public servants more sensitive to local conditions and needs. Decentralization if done well, can allow political representation of diverse political, ethnic, religious, and cultural groups in plural societies in the decision-making processes. It can contribute to better political stability and national unity as citizens get access to better public programs at the local level. A growing number of countries have adapted federal systems, decentralizing some elements of government responsibility from the centre down to local government, as a means of giving different ethnic and regional groups some autonomy and control over their destiny.

Historically, governments in Sri Lanka have tended to centralize all powers. Yet, the late 20th century witnessed an increasing global tendency to reduce central governmental power, by devolving power to the peripheral governing bodies such as state, regional, provincial and/or local bodies.

The two uprisings in the south and the three decade long armed conflict in the north are examples that reflect the fact that if people are excluded from sharing any political power, they are more likely to challenge the legitimacy of the existing system. Federalism or devolution is a means of sharing power among diverse political entities irrespective of their ethnic or regional ties. Democracy will survive better if successes and burdens are shared fairly and equitably.

The current political system is based on ‘winner-take-all’ system, where one political party or group monopolise all the privileges and economic benefits. Devolution in contrast allows different ethnic and regional groups an ability to determine their own affairs, thus making them feel more secure. They may gain more confidence in and commitment to the existing system, and a general sense that the system is fair and inclusive.

Devolution

Historically, governments in Sri Lanka have tended to centralize all powers. Yet, the late 20th century witnessed an increasing global tendency to reduce central governmental power, by devolving power to the peripheral governing bodies such as state, regional, provincial and/or local bodies. Many countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America have adopted diverse devolutionary measures to empower their plural communities. In this regard, France in the 1980s and the United Kingdom in the late 1990s are the most appropriate examples. France was one of the most centralized states. All decisions of the régions, départements and communes from annual budgets to naming streets and schools had to be authorized by the central government under a system known as the “tutelle” (supervision). Due to the pressure the peripheries exerted on the central government; the François Mitterrand administration (1981-95) removed most of the authorisations needed in policy making matters.[i]

In the UK devolution became a major political issue in the early 1970s, as Scotland and Wales demanded greater control over their own affairs. A referendum was held in 1979, to determine the people’s will for devolution. The electorate was needed to approve it with a two-fifths majority, but voters in Wales and Scotland rejected it. However, in 1999 under Tony Blair’s regime, power was devolved, Scotland had a parliament and later, Wales a Welsh Assembly. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 provided Northern Ireland with its own parliament.[ii]

In Sri Lanka, proponents of devolution have been demanding clearly defined powers the Provinces can wield. During the Constitutional reform process under the previous regime led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, the Chief Ministers of the seven ‘southern’ provinces asked for proper devolution as envisaged under the 13th Amendment. However, nothing came to fruition.

24 September 2023

To be continued

[i] Reiter R, Grohs S, Ebinger F, Kuhlmann S and Bogumil J 2010, Impacts of decentralization: The French experience in a comparative perspective, Ruhr-Universität; Published in French Politics 8(2010), 2, 166-189, Available at: https://d-nb.info/1078649812/34

[ii] Baldersheim H 2009, Decentralisation in practice: European patterns and experiences, Ministry of Public Administration and Local Self Government, Available at: https://www.undp.org/sites/g/files/zskgke326/files/migration/rs/UNDP_SRB_Decentralisation_in_practice-European_Patterns_and_Experiences.pdf

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