In defence of Provincial Councils
By Dr. Nrmala Chandrahasan
December 28, 2020
The Provincial Councils, like the windmills in Cervante’s Don Quixote, are having brickbats thrown at, and cantankerous knights tilting at them. In this piece, I would like to answer some of the criticisms made against the Provincial Councils. But before I do so I note that the Prime Minister has announced that the Provincial Council elections will be held once the ground situation is ready for it. This welcome statement puts paid to all the critics, it is generally acknowledged that the Prime Minister as an experienced and consummate politician would know the political climate in the country and act accordingly.
One of the frequent criticisms is that the Provincial Councils were imposed upon the Sri Lankan polity by the Government of India. To recapitulate the sequence of events, following up on the July 1983 pogrom (riots) against the Tamil citizens of the Country and the outbreak of civil unrest in Sri Lanka, the then Prime minister of India, Shrimathi Indhira Gandhi sent an envoy as part of a diplomatic initiative to find ways of bringing the country back to normalcy. A process of negotiations was begun between the Governments of India and Sri Lanka with India playing the role of an interlocutor bringing the Tamil parties and the Government of Sri Lanka to the negotiating table, in order to solve the ongoing insurgency by Tamil militants and the ethnic problem in the island through Constitutional proposals.
The outcome of these negotiations was the India –Sri Lanka: Agreement to Establish Peace and Normalcy in Sri Lanka, i. e. the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord in July 1987, and the drawing up of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the Provincial Councils Act no: 42 of November 1987.
By virtue of these two Acts, Provincial Councils were set up. The opponents of the Provincial Councils argue that it is not a homegrown institution but one imposed by a foreign power. In this connection, I would refer the readers to a very informative and well-researched article by Professor Gamini Keerawella in The Island newspaper of 16th September 2020 titled “Genealogy of Concept and Genesis of 13th Amendment”, in which he traces the genesis of Provincial Councils from the Donoughmore Commission Recommendations in 1931 through the Regional Councils of the Bandaranaike –Chelvanayakam pact 1956, the Dudley Senanayake –Chelvanayakam agreement, and even the promised but not forthcoming Devolution proposals made by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government before the 1974 bye-elections in Kankesanthurai. This proves that the matter of devolution and provincial councils has been on the political anvil in this country for a long time and is not a foreign imposition but a homegrown one.
In fact, the 13th Amendment came out of extensive discussions between the J. R . Jayewardene government and the TULF the Tamil party led by Mr. Amithalingam, in July- August 1986. Secretary to the discussion was Felix Dias Abeysinghe retired Commissioner of Elections. The indo-Sri Lanka treaty was signed one year later in July 1987. The 13th Amendment and the Provincial Councils Act were passed in November 1987. One might say that the leverage for the passing of the 13th Amendment was the Treaty between India and Sri Lanka which provided for devolution.
In the negotiations, the TULF negotiating team was no match for the astute Mr. Jayewardene who outmaneuvered them. It was only subsequently that they came to realize that the Bills as framed were below their expectations and they distanced themselves from the whole exercise. Mr. Amirthalingam in a letter to Shri Rajiv Gandhi in October 1987, set out his disappointment with the two Bills, saying that contrary to the belief that the Chapter pertaining to Provincial Councils would confer on the Provinces a measure of credible autonomy, the present Bills enabled Parliament and the Central Executive to continue to exercise its authority even in respect of those powers conferred on the Province.
In my view, the problem lay with the Provincial Councils Act which negates many of the powers given under the 13th Amendment. This could have been, and can still be remedied by a few amendments to the Provincial Councils Act. I will return to this later.
Although the Provincial Councils and the devolution proposals were meant for the North East which was the Tamil speaking part of the country and intended to settle the ongoing armed conflict, the Jayewardene government extended the Provincial Council system to all the provinces of the country. Hence the present Provincial Council system is based not on any specific regional or ethnic criteria but is directed to all the people of the country and seeks to empower the people in their own localities be it in Jaffna or Matara. This system allows for decisions pertaining to the Provinces to be taken closer to the local people and communities and not only by politicians and bureaucrats in Colombo, i. e. the ‘Colombites’ to use a phrase coined by Gomin Dayasri.
In hindsight, this was a good move as it made it an all-island system. Thus, we might say that the Indian intervention brought something that was beneficial to the country and to all the communities. However, foreign intervention may not always bring good results. A lesson to be learnt from this episode is that when you do not keep your house in order and there is dissension and disaffection, the neighbours and not so near neighbours will certainly want to look in, seeking to interfere and usually it is for their own benefit. If at the behest of a few people, i. e. ultranationalists and authoritarian oriented elements, we start to upset the existing political system and cause the minority communities to feel insecure and agitated it can once again lead to a situation where third parties intervene.
The best policy is to keep the ship afloat, particularly in the context of the grim economic situation without destabilizing the political structure by abolishing the Provincial Councils, as is being suggested in some quarters.
Another criticism made is that the province is not the appropriate unit of devolution. As a counter to this, I would refer to the Majority Report of the Experts Committee appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006 to advise on the constitutional changes, and of which I was myself a member. I cite from the Report as follows, “Unit of Devolution. The group held extensive discussions on the various options and the different aspects of the options.
We are of the view that a unit of devolution should as far as practicable consist of geographically contiguous territory, be conducive to balanced regional development and be designed to enhance administrative efficiency. Differences in endowments are to be expected among units. In this context, the group is of the view that the appropriate Unit of Devolution would be the Province”.
I might mention that there were no members of any political party in the Experts panel which included lawyers, academics and experienced members of the judicial and administrative services and the discussions were based on factual and spatial considerations.
Another criticism made is that the Provincial Councils are like white elephants and have not been effective in delivering any services to the people while the State incurs additional expenses in keeping them running. This criticism has some substance to it and the reasons for its inability to deliver have to be examined while comparing it to similar bodies in other countries. In the United Kingdom which is a Unitary state similar powers have been devolved on the different ethnic regional units, i. e. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, (which is the Province of Ulster).
All these units have their own legislative assemblies, and in the case of Scotland a Parliament while at the same time they are represented in the Parliament in West Minster. In India too which has a quasi-federal Constitution, the States have a Governor and Legislative Assemblies exercising powers not very different from those set out in the 13th Amendment. In all the above instances devolution has worked efficiently and the regional/ provincial units have been able to work efficiently and deliver the required services to the people. So we have to see why Provincial Councils in Lanka have not worked so well.
To begin with in order to work efficiently adequate financial funding is required. Under the provisions of the Provincial Councils Act, the Governor of the Province is given a controlling power over the finances of the province. The Provincial Council cannot pass any Statute imposing or abolishing any taxes without the consent of the Governor. Governors have not been cooperative in this regard. Hence the Councils have to depend largely on Central grants.
The report of the Parliamentary Sub – Committee on Centre –Periphery Relations, November 2016, points out that in addition to the limited tax-raising power vested in the Provinces are the limitations placed on obtaining loans and investments, and on seeking or at least administering projects financed by foreign aid and investments. The Committee concluded that “the corrosive effect of inadequate or unprincipled financing arrangements is that they impair Provincial and local service delivery, leading to an erosion of confidence in what are constitutionally established democratic institutions”.
The Provincial Councils Act gives the Governor control of the Provincial Public service and the provincial Public Service Commission. These are powers which even the President does not exercise over the National Public service. In Provinces where the ruling party at the Centre is also the party in control of a Provincial Council, Governors have been less assertive of their prerogatives and the Chief Ministers have been better able to operate efficiently. However, the Provincial Councils of the North and the East have had less leeway. In India on the other hand the Governors of the States act like constitutional heads and do not take over executive functions.
Another area which needs re-organization is the administrative service in the Province. The Majority Report of the Experts Committee 2006, recommended that for devolution of power to be effective it should be devoid of duality and hence there should be a restructuring of the administration in the Provincial. Another matter of concern is that of the allocation of subjects. Although the 13th Amendment sets out the allocation of subjects between the Province and the Centre in two lists and a third concurrent list, there are overlapping powers and the Provincial area of competence has come to be circumscribed. In order to function efficiently, there has to be clarity in the allocation of subjects and this too is a matter which has to be looked into.
I have outlined the shortcomings of the Provincial Council system which have impeded their efficient functioning. Most of these stem from the Provincial Councils Act. This Act can be amended by a simple majority in Parliament. The administrative changes and restructuring of the administrative services in the Province can be done by gazette notifications by the President as provided for in the 13th Amendment itself. This will not need any major constitutional changes.
Despite its shortcomings and the restrictions and encroachments by the Central Government, the Provincial Council system has taken root in the Country. It provides for people to enter into and engage in political activity at the Provincial level. Persons who have gained experience of political issues at the local level can thereafter gravitate to the national level. The minorities Tamil and Muslim are able to feel that they have some say in the management of their own affairs and within their localities. This is a safety valve which is necessary in any multi-ethnic state, as we see in the United Kingdom (UK) where the ethnic Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have devolution of powers in respect of their local areas.
Without attempting to do away with the Provincial Council System it should be implemented in full while making the necessary changes through amendments and administrative action, so as to make them more efficient in the delivery of services to the people in their localities.
Provincial Councils have been part of the Sri Lankan Constitution for over 30 years. It is time the bureaucrats in Colombo and the government ministers stopped viewing them with suspicion or antipathy, and see them as supportive institutions in the governance of the country, making for a more efficient administration and a more democratic form of governance for the whole country.
The Tamil parties could, by working towards meaningful devolution and further empowered systems of Provincial Councils and Local Authorities, become engaged in a process that is in the national interest while promoting the aspirations and interests of the Tamil speaking people. It is to be hoped that the Provincial Council elections will be held early in the coming year and the continuity of the existing political system maintained.