Should Provincial Councils Be Abolished?
Born out of the Indo-Lanka Accord, the 13th amendment to the Constitution facilitated the setting up of Provincial Councils (PC) and the devolution of power away from the Centre. It was an attempt to address the ethno-cultural aspirations of the people, mostly those of the Tamil community, who for long have been agitating for a separate homeland.
While there was vociferous opposition to the 13th amendment even in 1987 when it was introduced, with an aggrieved “Sinhala nation” alleging power sharing was a first step towards a divided country, even today, there is a school of thought that wants the 13th amendment abolished. Those who propose the repealing of the amendment argue that Provincial Councils are ineffective and are a financial burden to the Treasury.
They argue that the best method to address the increased polarisation of society is to do away with the Provincial Council system and replace it with a senate or upper house that is empowered to address critical issues concerning religious, ethnic, and regional diversity, while community level matters are dealt by local government bodies.
Between September 2018 and October 2019, the 9 provincial councils have been dissolved. Elections to the Councils have been delayed following an amendment to the Provincial Councils Elections Act, which required demarcation of the constituencies, and the rejection of the Delimitation Committee Report on that matter.
So, have Provincial Councils met the aspirations of those who demand devolution of power and have the Councils fulfilled the mandate for which they were created? If not, what ails the provincial councils?
Those whose views Counterpoint sought, agreed that it would be a good idea to review the Provincial Council system which has been in existence for 32 years. However, they do not agree that PC’s should be abolished, instead, they advocate reforming the system.
Says Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the Eastern University, Prof. Thanabalasingam Krishnamohan, since the 13th amendment came about through Indian intervention, it may not be that easy to simply abolish it. Sri Lanka would have to entertain India’s point of view and also consider the Indo-Lanka accord and its provisions before repealing the amendment. While Provincial Councils were created to address a specific need, that is the ethnic question, the devolving of power to the provinces was also to provide for more regional development.
However, he points out, that does not happen, because most of the power is still with the Central Government. For instance, he says, National schools fall under the Central government and are better funded and developed. “Schools are due to re-open under a different situation now, with safety regulations in place to ensure students will be protected from COVID-19. The National schools are ready, but that is the not case with the schools run by Provincial Councils, as they are underfunded.’ That itself results in inequality. Naturally, he says, parents prefer to send their children to the National Schools.
Professor Krishnamohan also feels that the Eastern Provincial Council is run better than the Northern PC, which seems to be more critical of the Central government.
He also points out that the Central government has the say over land, which is a common issue for all communities. The Central Government exercises its control over land, through the District Secretaries (Government Agent). Both the Central government and Provincial governments want control. It is important that powers are clearly defined. “Then we have the Provincial Governors, appointed by the President, who want to carry out the President’s agenda,” he said.
Former Governor of the Southern and Central Provinces, Keerthi Thennakoon concurs. “You cannot say that the PC system is a failure, it is the Central Government that makes it look like a failure,’ he told Counterpoint. Though the plan is for the PC’s to be the implementing bodies with the Center having reduced powers, what happens is the reverse, he stated. “The Central government should concern itself with policy making, though it even fails at that, and leave implementation of programmes and developing infrastructure to the Provincial Councils, which are more than capable of doing their job,’ he added.
The Central government talks of the best school being the closest school concept, but only National schools are well developed. He alleged that the Southern province had been working out this policy well, until politicians and influential personalities interfered.
“The country has failed to implement anything within the given period. It was the same with the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact., the reverse of what was expected occurred.’ (The Bandaranaike–Chelvanayakam Pact was an agreement signed between the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and the leader of the main Tamil political party in Sri Lanka S. J. V. Chelvanayakam on July 26, 1957. It advocated the creation of a series of regional councils in Sri Lanka as a means to giving a certain level of autonomy to the Tamil people of the country, and was intended to solve the communal disagreements that were occurring in the country at the time. Source Wikepedia)
Mr. Thennakoon also alleged that the Finance Commission, which handles allocation of funds to PC’s releases only about 10% of the requirement ‘just enough to pay the salaries and administrative costs.” Provincial staff know the ground realities, but have to act to suit the commands of someone else, and also work with limited resources, he pointed out.
Information found in a report submitted by the Finance Commission to then President Maithripala Sirisena, on recommendations on capital and recurrent needs of PC’s for 2018 gives a breakdown of disbursement of funds to Provincial Councils from 2013 to 2017.
As shown in our graphics, the allocation and release of funds for that period, for ‘Block Grants’ which deal with the recurrent expenses such as salaries and sustaining and improving service delivery, have been more or less consistent in meeting those financial needs. Conversely, the table showing the Province Specific Development Grant (PSDG), ‘allocated mainly for financing development projects of a capital nature, paying special attention to infrastructure development under different devolved subjects,’ indicate quite a difference between the allocation and actual release of funds to the provinces.
There is no real fiscal devolution to the provinces, says Social Activist S C C Elankovan, who points out that 80% of budget is spent on recurrent expenditure. The role of the PC is more like the ‘housekeeper, where the house is kept neat and tidy, without the ability to make decisions or change the design of the place.’ The process of governance must move upwards from ground level. People are interested in seeing power devolved to the maximum, though that has become difficult owing to the setup, where the Center exerts control, he explained.
“The Governors too get in the way of the PC’s fulfilling their mandate.”
Corruption and nepotism has also added to the gap between the expectations of the people and what the PC’s have actually delivered, he added.
The the issue is the parallel system, with District Secretaries reporting to the Centre and the Provincial Councils attempting to govern their own regions “In India, regional administration falls under the State government.’ With regard to schools, he points out that those falling under Provincial administration have grown into vibrant institutions, if they are in the so called better localities, and have the backing of Alumni and distinguished personalities. Those in the more rural areas are neglected, in the North and that is a fact across the country, he pointed out.
Executive Director of the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL, Rohana Hettiarachchie told Counterpoint that the powers vested with the PC’s may be second only to the Parliament. “The Chief Minister has at his/her disposal a large amount of money, and we need to see that it is effectively utilised. This is public money.” While it is necessary to determine whether or not real development and economic empowerment has occurred in the Provinces, the more important issue is whether PC’s have achieved what it was set up for; devolution of power and a resolution to the ethnic issue. “That can be determined only by obtaining the views of the people this system is meant to serve.’ If it has not, he added, then, it could be amended or abolished. While a Senate or Upper House may be a good idea, he pointed out that such a change should not be introduced without taking into consideration the views of the people of the North and East. “It cannot be a conversation only in the South.”
It is the people who are the stakeholders in any decision regarding this matter, and though there will never be a 100% acceptance to any proposal, whatever change that is introduced, must be practical, acceptable, impactful and designed to last fifty to hundred years, he said.
Tracing the history of the 13th amendment and the establishment of the PC’s, Attorney-at-law and former Director General, Government Information Department, Sudharshana Gunawardana explained that the first elections to the PC’s which were created in 1988 were boycotted by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), however they had contested subsequent elections. While the ruling party of the day the United National Party (UNP) had won some of the councils, with time, the Party that created the Councils have failed to secure victory at PC elections. Hence, the Councils have been for the most part held by the SLFP or its alliances and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) etc. Senior parliamentarians of the UNP had resigned to contest the first PC elections, given the powers they would have through the PC’s. In later years, those elected to the PC’s had resigned to contest parliamentary elections. Such action had resulted in PC’s being headed by second tier or rooky politicians. Financial neglect had also set in, as provincial taxes have been abolished, resulting in PC’s depending on registration fees etc. as a revenue source, thus making them totally reliant on the Central government.
Successive government have also failed to agree on issues such as police powers and land etc. which are crucial to the PC system being a success. When opposing political parties hold power at the Centre and in the Provinces, it is difficult to achieve anything, he said. This was obvious when the UNP was in government while the PC’s were held by the UPFA, he said. There are several such issues that dog the PC system, he pointed out, adding that while the Attorney Generals department appears for the Central government, the PC’s do not have their own legal departments to represent them. As well, Provincial Governors, who are presidential appointees, try to undermine the powers of the PC’s.
‘In the North, we see the TNA engaging with the Central government, while the leaders of that Council do not co-operate.’
“Both Sinhalese and Tamils feel cheated, because successive governments have not fully addressed the grievances. The Sinhalese want a unitary state, the Tamils the right to form their own nation state. In all of these, the Muslims are left out.’ The 13th amendment came about through Indian intervention, but has found no legitimacy amongst the people, he added.
Therefore, it is necessary to rethink how PC’s are run, and a more efficient structure that could actually deliver the mandate of the PC’s. For that, the 19th amendment is a good place to start. Parliament must be strengthened not the hand of the President. “We have seen how well parliamentary oversight committees have worked.’
Simply abolishing the PC system and replacing with a Senate is not the way to go, he added. What we need is a more efficient structure that will address the issues that have dogged the nation all these years.