New Constitution should convert Provincial Councils to Multi-District Councils within a Centre strong Unitary Set-Up
Posted on January 26th, 2019

Mahinda Gunasekera

Federal vs Unitary:

Broadly speaking, most are fully in favour of retaining a Unitary Structure of governance as opposed to a Federal, Quasi-Federal based on the Indian model, or other multi-level structure where powers need to be devolved to the semi-autonomous units that are to be set-up for various regions within the tiny island of Sri Lanka, which is the common homeland of all her people.  Federal or quasi-federal systems have been successful to some extent where countries such as Canada, the United States of America, and India with an extensive landmass, involving the coming together of independent colonies in the first two countries, and the weaving together of disparate ethnic and linguistic groups as found in India, to form a single federal state or country.  Federal systems where limited powers have been devolved to linguistic regions in Switzerland and Belgium too would not fit into Sri Lanka’’s demography which is multi-ethnic and multi-religious in character, except for the northern province which has been ethnically cleansed of the Sinhala and Muslim communities who were driven out of the region after 1981.  Furthermore, Sri Lanka is a tiny island which cannot afford to create artificial regional barriers based on language or ethnicity that tend to divide the nation state, as her pluralistic society and territorial integrity could best be safeguarded via a locally crafted unitary system of governance that improves on the existing arrangement which is well understood by the people at all levels.

The new Constitution should be drawn up with a great deal of care after a wide ranging consultation process with members of the public, professional bodies, trade unions, religious leaders, and all concerned categories of people willing to share their input to build one that is acceptable to the vast majority of the nation’s population.  Its framework should be based on a unitary system of governance with the Centre having an overriding say in the matters of national importance while the peripheral units will cover items of regional value not in conflict with the centre. It should at the same time seek to share a greater degree of power with special interest ethnic/religious/and livelihood groups prevailing in the various areas of the country in the power structure at the Centre, so that all issues of a conflicting nature could be freely discussed and resolved in the deliberations taking place in the main body of elected representatives.

Replacement of Provincial Councils by Multi-District Councils:
It would also provide an opportunity to roll back the detrimental impact of the 13th Amendment imposed by our giant neighbour in 1987 creating Provincial Councils deemed ‘white elephants’ by most people, which have failed to deal with the local needs of the resident population.  These have only served to create an additional layer of superfluous politicians feeding on the public purse, and even challenging the unitary character of the state with the combined North and East Provincial Council declaring its independence from the rest of the country soon after its inauguration in March 1990. The solution to preventing a similar situation is not to devolve more powers to the peripheral units but to scale back the powers to fit a lesser council required to serve the day to day needs of the residents. In my opinion, the ideal unit needed to replace the Provincial Councils would be Multi-District Councils tailored to deal with the common problems affecting neighbouring districts as grouped below:

i)   Northern Multi-District Council to be formed by combining the districts of Jaffna, Killinochchi and Mannar;
ii)  North-Eastern Multi-District Council to be formed by combining the districts of Mullaitivu and Trincomalee;
iii) North-Central Multi-District Council to be formed by combining the districts of Vavuniya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa;
iv) North-Western Multi-District Council to be formed by combining the districts of Puttalam and Kurunegala;
v)  Central Hill Country Multi-District Council to be formed by combining the districts of Matale, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya;
vi) South-Eastern Multi-District Council to be formed by combining the districts of Ampara, Batticaloa and Kalmunai;
vii) Megapolis Multi-District Council to be formed by combining the districts of Gampaha, Colombo and Kalutara;
viii) Kegalu-Sabaragamuwa Multi-District Council to be formed by combining the districts of Kegalle and Ratnapura;
ix)   Uva Multi-District Council to be formed by combining the districts of Badulla and Moneragala; and
x)    Southern Multi-District Council to be formed by combining the districts of Galle, Matara and Hambantota.

The members of the Multi-District Councils may be elected by a separate election for a term of up to 3 years, or picked from among local city, town and village council members who will declare their intention to serve both locally as well as at the district level when they present themselves as candidates for the local council.  Each Multi-District Council will be headed by a Multi-District Executive Chairman who may be picked directly by the voting public or by the elected councillors.  The District Secretariats established by the Central Government could be suitably modified to serve the needs of the Multi-District Councils, thereby economizing on staff usage, facilities and administrative expenses.

Some of the powers to be devolved to the Multi-District Councils amongst others to be determined by a competent authority, are listed below for your perusal:

  • Licensing of Automobile Vehicles in the district
  • General Health and Sanitation
  • Local power generation
  • Minor roads and bridges
  • Administration of District Courts, Family Courts and Local Dispute Arbitration
  • Junior Technical Colleges
  • Primary School Education
  • Special Police to handle Court duties, Traffic control and non-criminal offences
  • Welfare services
  • Sports and Cultural activities
  • Small scale industries
  • Agrarian services to localized farming communities

 

An Alternate Constitutional Arrangement:

The present presidential system where a large proportion of power has been vested in a single Executive President who is also the Commander of the Armed Forces could be of use during a period of internal strife, where these powers could be effectively used to combat the insurgent forces and bring about peace, order and stability in the country.  As the aim is to see beyond the era of armed conflict that has been ended, it is best to opt for a Westminster style parliament where a Prime Minister and Cabinet of Ministers would govern in consultation with the elected representatives and voting public.

In order to arrive at the goal of enhanced sharing of political power at the centre, I would recommend a blend of the Westminster model with the old Committee System that prevailed during the State Council days prior to independence, to be able to accommodate the minorities in all aspects of governance entrusted to the elected legislature.  I think that the electoral process should be revamped incorporating the following steps to achieve the desired objective:

  1.                         a) All political parties should nominate their candidate for each electorate as in the past instead of nominating a whole slate for each district.  This would eliminate the need for each                                            candidate to seek ‘preferential votes’ from the entire district at a great deal of time, effort and expense, thereby drastically reducing the total election budget needed by each candidate                                        to a manageable level. This would in addition help to reduce the tendency for elected representatives to acquire funds or other assets through corrupt and illegal means to recover                                     the large sums that they would otherwise spend to seek preferential votes district-wise at the election.

Take steps to curb political interference in public life and ensure that due process will be speedily applied in accordance with the laws of the land.

Scale down the level of politicization and resultant political rivalry which unduly pits one against the other within society, by at least allowing for the election of members of local          government bodies based on individual preferences instead of on party lines for each ward or electorate without the need to confront each other on party lines on a district basis,          as prevailing in most countries.

The leaders should lead by example, by adopting simple lifestyles and taking all necessary steps to reduce graft, corruption and waste.

  1. b) The bonus places or additional seats given to nominees in the National List to which the political parties become eligible could still be determined based on the overall voting strength           of each party.  These additional seats could preferably be reserved for enlisting competent persons who are recognized for their outstanding knowledge, technical skills or volunteer           services to the larger community.
  2.        c) The senior positions in government that may be reserved for members of the minority communities are given below:
  • Minister of Tamil Language and Culture
  • Deputy Minister of Disaster Relief and Re-Settlement
  • Deputy Minister of Community Development and Social Inequity Eradication
  • Deputy Minister of Education
  • Deputy Minister of Health Care and Nutrition
  • Deputy Minister of Local Government and District Councils
  • Deputy Minister of Justice and Law Reform
  • Deputy Minister of Plantation Industries

 

Achieving Peace, Harmony and Reconciliation:
It has been reported in the media that part of the reasons for drafting a new constitution was to give effect to the presence of a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious society in present day Sri Lanka, and to attempt to heal the divisions and differences and bring about a greater degree of reconciliation amongst the resident populace.  Such thinking is flawed as people of different backgrounds lived in harmony in the earlier historical Kingdom of Sinhale pledging their loyalty to the state and in return receiving equal protection from the crown. The problems that we face today is due to foreign colonial powers having exploited the underlying differences in order to divide and rule the people and create hostilities between different communities thereby destroying the communal harmony and peace within the society. The solution does not lie in highlighting such differences and transforming the society into strict ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious compartments, which will continue to pull the nation apart in different directions, but drawing strength from the past and building on the commonalities based on our shared values generating trust free of external divisive influences.

In order that the desired harmony and reconciliation may be achieved, we must refuse to recognize political parties with ethnic or religious labels, and furthermore give positive effect to the fundamental right of ‘Freedom of Movement’ where citizens are free to move to any part of the island which is their common homeland and settle in where they may engage in lawful pursuits to support themselves and their families.  This right of Freedom of Movement is currently not being upheld equally, as the internally displaced Sinhalese and Muslims are not being given equal treatment in the resettlement plans as Tamil IDPs are being given the highest priority.  While in the early 1970’s there were as much as 27,000 Sinhalese and around 75,000 Muslims living in the Northern Province, only about 17 Sinhalese families have been permitted to resettle in the Navattakulli area, with no statistics of resettled Muslims being available in the public domain. The few Sinhalese allowed to resettle too have not been provided the same level of assistance extended to the Tamil IDPs, even though they too were displaced owing to violence directed against them by extremist Tamil separatist terror groups.  The Sinhalese and Muslims of the eastern province too were attacked by the LTTE and other Tamil separatist terror groups in the 1980’s and 1990’s as they sought this region for their proposed mono-ethnic separate state of Tamil Eelam, forcing many thousands to flee the area thereby depriving themselves of their properties and livelihoods to seek safety elsewhere.  They too have a similar right to be resettled in their places of origin with similar assistance being given to Tamil IDPs.  This policy of step-motherly treatment being extended to the Sinhalese and Muslim IDPs is paving the way for Tamil mono-ethnic regions that would tend to drift towards separatism rather than reconciling with the rest in forming a united nation.

Reconciliation between people of different backgrounds could take place mainly through interaction in day to day living, by fostering the sharing of space instead of compartmentalizing of different communities to different regions.  The northern province which is predominantly Tamil following the historical events of ethnic cleansing during the time of Sankili, and subsequently encouraged by our former European colonial masters and the more recent forced evacuations of non-Tamils by Tamil forces seeking a separate state have led the region to become a mono-ethnic enclave with underlying separatist tendencies given voice to by prominent members of the Tamil community.  While the road and rail links have helped somewhat for the meeting and mixing of communities within and outside the region, more needs to be done to encourage non-Tamils to move to the region just as a large percentage Tamils have been welcomed by the Sinhalese and Muslims living elsewhere in the country. I would suggest as a policy measure, that the state formally decide to select new settlers in land development projects island-wide on the basis of National Ethnic Ratios, so that new communities will reflect the nation’s make up.  Even the private sector too should be encouraged to follow a similar policy subject to their finding the necessary skills, so that multicultural communities will come into being everywhere.  This will permit more non-Tamils to settle amongst the Tamils in the north and for more Tamils to settle in other areas leading to more interaction and shared community life that will help to establish inter-communal harmony and true reconciliation.

Retain State Protection and Foremost Place given to Buddhism:
Sri Lanka, being a civilizational state with a recorded history dating back to over 2,500 years, it is incumbent on the present generation to give due recognition to the unique heritage and culture of the people.  It must be reminded that even the last colonial ruler, namely, the British, undertook to safeguard the ‘Religion of the Budhoo’ in the treaty signed in 1815 known as the Kandyan Convention entered into between Britain to whom power had been ceded by the Chieftains of Sinhale.  The religion practiced, followed or adhered to by the vast majority of the people of the island of Sri Lanka going back to the arrival of Arahat Mahinda Thera at the invitation of Sri Lanka’s monarch, King Devanampiyatissa, over 2300 years ago, to impart the Noble Teachings of the Buddha, that which has always been held in pre-eminence by the rulers and people of the land from the earliest of times, whilst granting freedom for the belief and practice of other faiths without discrimination in private or public.  The foremost place granted to Buddhism, the harmonious way of life expounded by the Buddha, by Chapter II, Article 9, of the Second Republican Constitution should be retained without diminishing its standing, in recognition of this nation’s heritage which has been built by the tenets and values of this religious Teaching which has withstood the test of time, and even permitted other faiths to freely flourish within her terrain.

Create an Office of the Ombudsman:
In addition to the existing bodies set up by parliament such as the Human Rights Commission, it is felt that a useful role could be played by an Independent Ombudsmen who may be authorized to look into complaints of abuse by the state sector or other establishment or person, as a large segment of the people are too poor to litigate or seek  redress for wrongs done or perceived to have been done against them.  At the same time,  steps should be taken to ensure equality of all citizens before the law and grant equal protection to every citizen by re-visiting the Fundamental Rights Chapter.
Conclusion:

I have taken up mainly the contentious issues included in the draft proposals made by the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly.  I strongly believe that this submission contains valuable ideas that could be incorporated in drawing up a new constitutional framework creating a workable arrangement which will help the minorities to play an important role in the day to day governance, encourage the establishment of an atmosphere of co-operation amongst competing political forces, whilst making it a home made solution that will remove the threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity faced by the nation from armed separatist groups including what is left of the internationally designated terrorist group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.  I believe that the proposed model will help the various communities to share the tasks of government and benefit equally from the fruits of the unitary state of Sri Lanka, without seeking a separate future that calls for establishing artificial provincial barriers leading to the tearing apart of the island homeland.  I have also emphasized the need for improved human rights monitoring and at the same time having an Ombudsman to befriend the needy who are too poor to seek redress through the normal channels.  Also, to build a society that is free from corruption, the lead needs to be taken at the top, and it must necessarily flow from the highest echelons by each and every person committing themselves to lead lives that are free from exploitation and misappropriation.

Mahinda Gunasekera

January 25, 2019

3 Responses to “New Constitution should convert Provincial Councils to Multi-District Councils within a Centre strong Unitary Set-Up”

  1. Randeniyage Says:

    Agree only if LG bodies are combined to make these “multi-district councils” and Palaath Sabha are gone. We cannot afford 3 sets of potential thieves, namely, Parliament, LG bodies and “multi-district councils” . Only 2 levels maximum.

  2. Dilrook Says:

    District Councils are far more divisive than provincial councils.

    Nothing happens to the north if province is replaced by district. The area will be governed by TNA.

    But it creates a Tamil administration in Nuwara Eliya district in addition leading to Malaya Nadu.
    It puts Colombo and Badulla districts in the hands of minority kingmakers.
    It turns Puttlam district into a Christian and Muslim administration.

    Just merge the all Sinhala majority provinces into one province. This is the best in terms of devolution/decentralization. Why divide this area? It makes no sense. If Tamils in the north and east want devolution as Sri Lanka agreed in 1987, let there be two provinces there but no need to divide the rest.

  3. Christie Says:

    The best constitution we had 48-72. Bring it back.

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