A Fresh Aproach To Devolution
Posted on August 22nd, 2018

The Island of August 11, 2018 reports an attempt by State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Wasantha Senanayake, “to overcome (the) devolution impasse”. The main thrust of his approach is to repeal the 13th Amendment and devolve power to District Councils. The State Minister’s “Proposal for Devolution” states: “… those for whom devolution seemed most vital now grant that Provincial Councils, as they exist today, do not significantly bring about devolution as intended”.


The fact that devolution as intended is not working from the stand point of serving the People is an accepted fact by the overwhelming majority of all communities except for the political leadership involved in the operation of Provincial Councils. Therefore, while the State Minister should be commended for the bold and courageous step taken by him to initiate a fresh approach to devolution, he has concluded that the primary reason why devolution is not working is because the unit of devolution is the Province. This has led him to recommend the District as the unit of devolution.

According to the State Minister the reason why smaller Districts are disadvantaged over larger and more dominant Districts is “…made worse by the existing system of election to Provincial Councils, since members are elected not by the province they are supposed to represent but by the district. They work therefore for the district to increase their popularity so they can be re-elected, and this reinforces a situation where the larger/dominant district gets exaggerated importance over the smaller and less dominant”. In addition to the members to Provincial Councils being elected by District, even the operation of Provincial functions are undertaken by the Districts. Therefore, the Province as the unit of devolution does not make any sense whatsoever.

Notwithstanding all of the above reasons, the most compelling reason is that the District assures greater territorial integrity whereas the Province is a real threat to the Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity, particularly with the provision for the merger of two or more adjoining Provinces in the Draft Constitution to the Steering Committee, because the proposed constitutional safeguards such as the State being “undivided and indivisible” is a “thin reed to lean on”.

Sri Lanka’s experience with devolution is with the Province as the peripheral unit. However, it needs to be appreciated that the current system functions under a dual system where Line Ministry functions and Provincial functions operate concurrently through the District to the level of the Divisional Secretary. If such an arrangement is to continue with the District as the unit, the dual arrangement that currently exists would also continue. And if the existence of a dual system is the primary cause as to why devolution is not working as intended, changing the size of the unit from Province to a District may turn out to be as ineffective as the existing Provincial system. Therefore, there is an urgent need to select a suitable unit of devolution within a structural arrangement that eliminates the dual system which currently exists, and facilitate Line Ministry and devolved functions to be extended to the People.


Devolution is the transfer of political power from the center to the periphery. Such transfers are justified on the basis that since peripheries are more familiar with their needs and priorities than the center, the structure of the State should be so organized as to facilitate the realization of the needs determined by the peripheries. When transferred powers are subordinate to the center, meaning that the center could exercise its authority over the periphery, the structure of the State is described as being Unitary. On the other hand, if the powers devolved are independent and free of the center meaning that peripheries are sovereign within their respective spheres of influence the State is described as being Federal.

Powers transferred to Provinces under the 13th Amendment are supposed to be subordinate to the Center. This fact is attributed as the primary reason why devolution is not working as intended. This flawed reasoning has caused the Draft Constitution to the Steering Committee to transform Sri Lanka into a de-facto Federal State thereby making the Provinces independent of the Center within their spheres of influence to the greatest extent possible. The resistance to such attempts is because of the inherent opposition to Federalism as a system of government, because it makes the state vulnerable in regard to its territorial integrity. Therefore, in the particular context of Sri Lanka, the nonnegotiable facts are that the structural framework of Sri Lanka has to be Unitary which means whatever powers are devolved must necessarily be subordinate to the authority of the Center or the devolved unit should be sufficiently small (as for instance the District), to guarantee that territorial integrity remains inviolate.

The reason why devolution in its current form does not work in Sri Lanka is because powers of Line Ministries act concurrently with powers devolved to the peripheries, whether it is the Province or the District. The primary reason for the influence of Line ministries at the periphery is because of the financial dependence of the periphery on the Center, because whether it is the Province or the District neither is financially independent of the Center. A further reason for this dependence is the shortage of human resources by way of skills and expertise available to the peripheries. This dependence invariably results in the Center making its presence felt at the periphery; a fact that makes the existence of two parallel systems for the exercise of devolved powers inevitable. Since this is a reality one has to live with, the transfer of power should be to units small enough such as Local government units wherein powers are assigned by the Center to Local Government entities such as Pradeshiya Sabhas (PS), Municipal Councils, Urban Councils etc., while the District continues to administer Line Ministry functions since it is best equipped to do so by way of finances, skills and expertise. Under such an arrangement, the Local government activities could be coordinated by the Districts and the peripheral units would be free of the Center to carry out their assigned functions, thus minimizing the negative impact of two parallel systems operating concurrently.


The primary objective of a fresh approach should be to minimize consequences arising from two parallel systems being associated with providing goods and services to the People. Such an approach would make Center/periphery relations healthy without getting in each other’s way as it is with current arrangements. The primary structures in the periphery should be the District and the Pradeshiya Sabhas. Since there are 25 Districts and nearly 250 PSs, each District would be coordinating activities of an average of 10 PSs.

This approach would make the District the operating unit for Line Ministry functions with the District Secretary responsible for coordinating Line Ministry activities in the Districts. Funds for each District would be allocated by the Finance Commission to the District Secretary as the Chief Accounting Officer for distribution to the Divisional Secretaries in each PS. The District Secretary would also be monitoring and coordinating functions and activities assigned to Local Governments within each District. The Local Governments would be exercising its assigned powers within the budgetary provisions allocated from the Central Government to each PS. The Divisional Secretary would be the Chief Accounting Officer in each PS.

The District Council would be made up of the Chairman and the Leader of the Opposition of each PS being appointed as ex-officio members of the District Council along with the Members of Parliament associated with each respective District.

Activities of the District Council would be coordinated by the District Secretary. Each PS would make its determinations relating to the assigned subjects with the Divisional Secretary as the Chief Accounting Officer responsible for implementing the determinations made by the PS.

The above proposed arrangement would result in enormous savings since it would totally eliminate the cost of maintain Provincial Councils with all its attendant overheads. In addition, it would also eliminate the cost of conducting Provincial Council Elections or District Council elections. Furthermore, since the structure at the District level would only be that needed by the District Secretary, the proposed arrangement would save the cost of maintaining 25 District Councils with all its attendant overheads.


The State Minister for Foreign Wasantha Senanayake in his proposal to the Steering Committee for Constitutional reform has submitted a fresh approach to the question of devolution by way of repealing the 13th Amendment and reviving the concept of District Councils to overcome the “devolution impasse”. In the background of the inevitability of having to live with Provincial Councils despite awareness that they do not work as intended, for the State Minister to take this bold and courageous initiative is indeed a glimmer of hope in these dark days.

Despite the many benefits of District Councils over Provincial Councils, a word of caution is needed if power is devolved to District on lines similar to Provincial Councils, because it would only continue to perpetuate two parallel systems, one operating Line Ministry functions and the other fulfilling devolved functions. The need for Line Ministries to be involved in the Districts is not only because of their financial dependence on the Center, but also because of shortages in human resources by way of skills and expertise at the peripheries, whether it is the Province or the District. This dependence would continue even if the structure is de-facto Federal as proposed in the Draft Constitution before the Steering Committee.

Under these particularities, that are unique to Sri Lanka what is proposed herein is to make the District Council the hub to coordinate Line Ministry functions and Local Government functions, and in particular, the Pradeshiya Sabhas. The District Council should NOT be another elected body. Instead, it should be created by the elected Chairman and Leader of the Opposition of the PSs being ex-officio members of the District Council along with Members of Parliament associated with the District. Thus, the only elections would be to Parliament and to Local Governments. The activities of the District Council would be coordinated by the District Secretary as the Chief Accounting Officer, and the activities of the PSs would be coordinated by each Divisional Secretary as its Chief Accounting Officer.

The cost benefit of eliminating a third tier election would be considerable. In addition, since the District Council would be made up of ex-officio members, the savings arising from not having to bear the cost of maintaining a body of elected members at the District level would be considerable too. Above all, devolution under the scheme proposed would be meaningful. Therefore, it is imperative that what is proposed is given serious consideration.

Notwithstanding the decided merits of what is proposed by State Minister Wasantha Senanayake, or what is proposed herein, at the end of the day the political ambitions of the leaderships in all communities is what would override all other considerations such as the human development of the People. As long as that culture remains, devolution would continue to be at an impasse.

13 Responses to “A Fresh Aproach To Devolution”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    Far worse than current province based devolution.

    If District becomes the devolution unit, administration costs will increase three fold (25 instead of 9 units). There will be 26 Cabinets instead o 10 at the moment. It will also introduce separatism to areas where there is no separatism today. Nuwara Eliya district council will declare Malaya Nadu. Central government control of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara districts through the eastern PC will disappear. Due to the demographic balance, a separatist party cannot win in the EPC. However, if district councils are created, Batticaloa council will go to TNA and Trincomalee and Ampara councils will go to SLMC. Central government totally loses all control.

    Colombo, Badulla and Puttlam districts will have minority kingmakers. At the moment high minority percentages of these districts are more than nullified by merging with larger Sinhala districts. This advantage will be lost with district based devolution.

    A small nation like Sri Lanka does not need so many devolution units. If devolution is needed, merge the 7 provinces outside the north and east. Only politicians representing the north and east demand devolution. It makes no sense elsewhere. The 7 provinces must be combined.

  2. Hiranthe Says:

    I agree with Dilrook.

    The simplest way is to go back to GA system. No election for GA’s . They are educated and qualified people.
    No ministers. Only GA, AGA and a bunch of Grama Sevakas will form a part of the administrative network.

  3. Ananda-USA Says:

    I agree with both Dilrookand Hiranthe.

    In fact that is EXACTLY what I have LONG ESPOUSED here at LankaWeb: a District ADMINISTRATIVE system similar to the old GA system under the British. This administration by the ELECTED National Government SHOULD NOT BE ELECTED, but its head (District Governor/GA ) it should be APPOINTED by the National Government.

    DO AWAY with ALL Sub-National Regional Government Units (such as Provincial Councils), and adopt an EXECUTIVE Presidential system with a Vice-President who is elected together with the President as a member of a two-person team. The CABINET will report to the President. ELIMINATE the post of Prime Minister as UNNECESSARY BAGGAGE!

    To give MORE District Level representation independent of the population-based system that elects MPs to the National Parliament, CREATE a SENATE as the second chamber of the Parliament, comprised of 2 ELECTED Senators from each District. THe Senate will have the power to approve/disapprove bills that MUST BE ORIGINATED by the House of Commons. Both chambers of Parliament muust pass all bills and be signed by the EXECUTIVE President for the bills to become law.

    Retain the position of SPEAKER who PRESIDES over the House of Commons, and CREATE an equivalent position in the Senate for a Vice-President who PRESIDES over the Senate.

    Such a system of government will ELIMINATE CENTRIFUGAL Elected Sub-National Regional Governments, hand the PURSE STRINGS to the Legislature and the EXECUTIVE POWER to DEFEND and ADMINISTER the Nation to the Executive President.

    MOST IMPORTANTLY, ELIMINATE LIMITS on the Presidential TERMS, and allow the VOTERS of the ENTIRE COUNTRY … and NO ONE ELSE …. to DECIDE voting together whether to RETAIN or OUST a President!

  4. nilwala Says:

    All 3 of you above appear to have NOT CAREFULLY READ what is being proposed by the author as a District-based System.
    As I understand it…………..
    1. Currently there are 3 elections: Parliamentary, Provincial, and Local Government.
    2. Instead of the current 3, there will only be 2 elections. The Provincial Government election will be completely eliminated.
    3. Thus, with this elimination, the costs of maintaining Provincial Councils are also eliminated.
    4. The proposed District Councils are all comprised of ex-officio members of the 2 elections: they will be from the Praadeshiya Sabhas
    and MPs of the Districts. There will be no separate administrative costs for maintaining elected District Councils, as argued.
    5. Thus, the scheme WILL be cost-effective.
    6. Both finance and expertise being currently unavailable to the needed extents at the periphery, the Centre will have to play its role in management of same.
    7. Some powers MUST be assigned to the peripheral small units, but within a careful and Centrally managed framework in order to avoid dissatisfaction and attendant frustration peripherally, while the whole is coordinated centrally.
    8. Even under the old GA system, the administrative structure was under the AGA, and the country was under colonial rule It will no longer serve today’s population with its aspirations, energy, and eagerness for rapid development.

  5. Ananda-USA Says:


    The point is we should not have ELECTED District Councils or any other sub-national ELECTED Local governments. We should have ONE ELECTED Government at the CENTER, and that is ENOUGH!

    In Sri Lanka, ELECTED Local Governments of ANY SIZE will be EXPLOITED by SEPARATISTS to DISINTEGRATE the country.

    Moreover, ELECTED Local Governments SPAWN MORE BUREACRACIES for LEECHES to suck the blood of CITIZENS.

    Just EMPOWER the Elected MPs to do more REAL WORK for their constituencies, BUT DONT SPAWN more NEW Bureaucracies than what the the National Government provides. In this way, we REINFORCE the CENTRAL Government and make it MORE RESPONSIVE to local needs, without SPAWNING MULTIPLE LEVELS of Bureacracy!

    Just try to get something as simple as getting a house or business building built in SL Lanka and you will see the massive number of LEECHES who need to be paid off to get it done. This SMALL country CANNOT PROGRESS with the CURRENT LEVEL OF DO-NOTHING CORRUPT OFFICIALS & EXCESSIVE REDTAPE!

  6. Dilrook Says:

    What Nilwala says may be remotely true if disctrict councils are appointed, not elected. It is called decentralization. Not devolution. Don’t mix up the two.

    Nilwala has missed the separatism part. District as a unit of devolution worsens separatism. It adds new territory to the list of separatist areas. Nuwara Eliya, Ampara and Trincomalee will be vying for separation. At the moment these areas cannot even think of separation. In addition, Puttlam and Badulla will also join separatism with their demographic divisions tipping scaled in favour of separation. Colombo will also go that way.

    What Neville suggests is a move from the frying pan to the fire!

    Whatever devolution model, the 7 provinces (outside the north and east) must be unified into one unit. It makes no sense to keep Sinhalese divided into 7 parts.

  7. nilwala Says:

    Ananda-USA has concerns that : ” ELECTED Local Governments of ANY SIZE will be EXPLOITED by SEPARATISTS to DISINTEGRATE the country.” It is indeed the paranoia of all of us who have experienced the horror of successive Eelam wars, the machinations of the TNA leadership and even those of more recent settlers like the Muslims who seek external meddling in order to divide the island ethnically, and that they, who had historically and throughout the colonial period been considered “minorities” could continue to use their external “link powers” on call to interfere in the country, and turn its ~80% majority Sinhalese into another Minority through whatever power grab could be made of the island’s territory. Diaspora threats continue today in adding serious threats to national security. Agreed.

    The Province is a carry over from the Indo-Lanka Accord. Even the 1978 Constitution describes Sri Lanka in terms of the District, NOT per the Province. The Province has become the basis mainly for those aspiring for eventual separatism.
    So, we have to find a MODERATE solution which will also be compatible with PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY wherein the people expect to have some say in…. perhaps through some DEVOLUTION & DECENTRALISATION (a matter of semantics?), to the DISTRICTS, combined with CENTRAL POWER SHARING?.

    This, I think, is what Neville Ladduwahetty is proposing.

  8. nilwala Says:

    Dilrook says: “What Nilwala says may be remotely true if disctrict councils are appointed, not elected. It is called decentralization. Not devolution. Don’t mix up the two.” Also that “District as a unit of devolution worsens separatism.”

    We can talk for a month of Sundays on the interpretations of Decentralization v. Devolution, and that issue may never be resolved.
    Be that as it may, it depends on the extent of Central control. What Dilrook wishes is for total control of the Districts by the Center, with all administrative appointments to the Districts made by the Center.
    1. The People will NOT accept Dilrook’s suggested arrangement considering the extent of Central leadership fraud and legislative thuggery that now exists, and the bottoming -out of any trust of the Center, ever since what has been exposed since the CBSL fraud as well as other sell-outs of the country’s assets.
    2. The Districts as units of devolution are less viable as independent units, especially with mergers legislatively denied. ANY NEW Constitution has to enforce it legislatively, as well as the Govt. protect it vigilantly, just as the Indian Constitution does. India cannot morally object.
    3. What NevilleL suggests is a practical and workable legislative/administrative system that will deliver goods and services to the periphery while retaining reasonable and shared Central administrative control that leaves room for trust to evolve between the ethnic communities SANS the current trends of an imposed reconciliation using ethnic territories as the solution, as envisaged in the New Draft Constitution.

  9. Dilrook Says:

    What Neville suggests is not practical at all. Sinhalese never wanted devolution. Only Tamils and Muslims want devolution. Both have rejected the district unit. So the district basis is unwanted by all.

    If devolution is essential (I don’t see why), merge the 7 Sinhala majority provinces into one. There is no justification for those 7 provinces to be divided. It is absolute lunacy. Tamils and Muslims can have their “political solution” in the north and east as they demand. Sinhalese need not be divided elsewhere for them to have their “political solution”.

  10. nilwala Says:

    Dilrook now asserts: “Tamils and Muslims can have their “political solution” in the north and east as they demand. “…..

    What an idiotic, ignorant statement after all that this country has gone through with the Eelam wars won after 30yr. but with the loss of life, limb and so much suffering of both sides, and the movement of Northerners to the South for safety, making the current demographics of Tamils >54% in the South!! Dilrook’s solution is in effect supporting the DIVISION OF THE COUNTRY!!

    He is being facetious about a very serious national issue.

  11. nilwala Says:

    Of the total Tamil population in Sri Lanka, >54% live in the South among the Sinhalese. i.e., they are not resident in the North and East
    which is being claimed

  12. Randeniyage Says:

    Nilwala did not understand Dilrook, who is saying “Nethi Hakurata Naandanne, Theyena Hakura Rekaganne”.

    Yes, combine the 7 provinces and develop. Don’t give a cent to the rebel provinces. Except for the armed forces to control, let them handle their budgets. Make Sinhala only in this unit and other provinces 3 languages. Teach English vigorously to beat them. Give all the trouble to pass any development. Provide no water, no electricity, no education free. Charge for everything.

  13. Dilrook Says:


    Read it in the context please. The north and east provincial councils are a reality which has been termed a political solution. I don’t suggest anything additional.

    Here is the context.

    If devolution is essential (I don’t see why), merge the 7 Sinhala majority provinces into one. There is no justification for those 7 provinces to be divided. It is absolute lunacy. Tamils and Muslims can have their “political solution” in the north and east as they demand. Sinhalese need not be divided elsewhere for them to have their “political solution”.

    It is utterly idiotic to split this tiny nation into 25 as if 9 splits are not sufficient!

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