Why political power should be decentralized and not devolved – a submission to the Experts Committee to draft a new Constitution
Posted on November 13th, 2020

Lt Col. A.S.Amarasekera (Retd.)Puselahena Estate, Kindelpitiya, Millewa.

6th November 2020.

The Secretary,
Experts Committee to draft a new constitution,
Room 32 (Block 02) BMICH,
Bauddhaloka Mawatha,
Colombo 7,

Dear Sir,

Why political power should be decentralized and not devolved

The observations made by me first as a military officer and subsequently as the Director of Operations of the Thawalama Development Foundation while working in the Northern and Eastern Provinces since the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution is explained below for your kind consideration when drafting a new constitution for our country.

The English meaning of decentralization and devolution of power seem very similar when looked at superficially. However the important fact that needs to be realized when it comes to the governing power of a country is that decentralization amounts to the transfer of that power from the central government to a provincial council while devolution is on the other hand the removal of central government power and handing that power to a provincial council. Therefore decentralized power if misused by a provincial council could be recalled by the central government while devolved power to a provincial council cannot be recalled by the central government. Taking into consideration the difficulty or virtual impossibility for a central government to recall devolved power to a provincial council let us consider the possible repercussions in such an eventuality to this country with several simple examples.

Firstly let us consider irrigation which is the life blood of the farming community in the northern and eastern provinces. Once this subject is devolved to either the northern or eastern provincial council, if the provincial administration fails to maintain the reservoirs (Wewas) and irrigation canals in the Sinhala villages, there is nothing the central government can do to help the Sinhala cultivators in distress. The only alternative left for them would be to leave those villages in the northern and eastern provinces and migrate to some other province.

Secondly let us consider the subject of health. Once this subject is devolved to either the northern or eastern provincial council if the provincial administration fails to provide adequate funds to maintain the rural hospital buildings serving the Sinhala community or fails to provide adequate doctors, nurses and other staff or even medical supplies to rural hospitals in their provincial council area, the Sinhala villagers will have no other alternative left other than to leave the province and to migrate to some other province where these facilities are available.

Thirdly let us consider the subject of education. Once this subject is devolved to either the northern or eastern provincial council, if the provincial administration fails to appoint the teachers needed to schools in Sinhala villages and also does not allocate adequate funds to maintain and repair school buildings in the Sinhala villages, there is nothing that the central government can do in this regard. The Sinhala population will therefore leave the province and migrate to some other province where good education facilities are available for their children.

These are only three simple examples that I have provided to bring to the attention of the experts committee the danger of devolving power to the northern and eastern provinces. However the situation would be the same with regard to distribution of electricity, repair of roads, purchase of agricultural produce and many other such subjects, if there is devolution of power to the northern and eastern provinces where the Sinhala population is a minority. Therefore while devolution will only hasten the division of the country by creating administrative avenues to encourage the migration of the Sinhala population from the northern and eastern provinces of the country to other provinces, decentralization of power will not encourage such action as these powers can be withdrawn by the central government if found to be misused by any provincial administration.

I have during the time I was serving in the Sri Lanka Army and subsequently while working with volunteer organizations to alleviate poverty in villages affected by LTTE terrorism observed how the provincial administration functions in the northern and eastern provinces in this country. Therefore I am well aware of both the good and the bad qualities of such administrations. The provincial administration introduced after the 13th Amendment has been a total disappointment and an additional burden upon the people of this country with unnecessary duplication of effort and a waste of financial resources the country can ill afford. The district administration to which government power is decentralized on the other hand has been time tested and found to be very effective under the guidance of an efficient Government Agent. I was able to solve many problems in affected villages with assistance from district administrations. 

A good example in this connection is the village of Elapathwewa deep in the jungles of the Anuradhapura district. This village had not been visited by even a Grama Niladhari for many months. I decided to bring the problems faced by these villagers to the attention of the Government Agent of Anuradhapura. On the day I went to see Mr. S. D. Chandradasa, he had just lit the traditional oil lamp and taken over duties as the new Government Agent of Anuradhapura. I was his first visitor. After having patiently listened to my complaint, he immediately decided to travel with me in my vehicle to visit this village and to ascertain the truth. After his visit to this village with me that day he personally ensured that all the difficulties the people in that village had for many months were speedily resolved.

As opposed to the district administration I observed that the provincial administration was highly politicized. When I was serving in the Army as the Officer Commanding Troops in Anuradhapura, the Chief Minister of the provincial administration on a request made by his political supporters tried to interfere even in the deployment of troops in my area of responsibility. Not realizing that I was not obliged to heed to his political agenda he wanted me to redeploy a detachment that I had withdrawn for strategic reasons from the village of Kukulkatuwa. He even spoke to my Divisional Commander and tried to get my decision reversed. However I must give him credit for finally accepting my refusal to agree to his request.

The villages in Weli Oya were situated in a very strategic area of the Yan Oya basin. It was in fact a land mass that was the gateway from the north to the east, which was the key area that the LTTE was trying to ethnically cleanse by attacking Sinhalese villages in the area, in an effort to create a mass exodus of its Sinhalese population to other parts of the country. Some of these villages in Weli Oya were in the Anuradhapura district, while some others were in the Vavuniya district. There were a few villages even in the Mullativu district and the Sinhalese villages adjacent to them were in the Trincomalee district. With the intensification of LTTE activity the district administration in both the Vavuniya and Mullativu districts found it difficult if not impossible to administer the Sinhalese villages under their purview. Therefore during the initial stage of the LTTE problem despite all the difficulties and with little or no support from the northern and eastern provincial administrations, the Sri Lanka Army and the district administration in Anuradhapura was able to sustain these villages with the meager resources available, thus preventing a large scale exodus of its population as envisaged by the LTTE. This proves beyond reasonable doubt that provincial administrations were not an absolute necessity. 

I will now place before the experts committee few more personal observations made by me while working in the northern and eastern provinces. When a subject is devolved to the local administration the ultimate responsibility to ensure that the law of the land is properly implemented becomes the responsibility of that local administration. For example if the distribution of electricity is devolved to the province, the Minister of Power and Energy can shout from the roof top of his Ministry in Colombo that those who tap electricity illegally will be severely dealt with but the implementation of the law has to be carried out by the electricity board of the local authority. These employees will not take action against their own people. Therefore in the Muslim areas of the eastern province tapping of electricity illegally will continue with impunity as it is happening at present.

The next observation of devolved power being misused after the establishment of provincial councils is the alienation of land by the Pottuvil Divisional Secretariat. Land development permits were fraudulently prepared by certain Muslim officers in the Divisional Secretariat to alienate state land to people in their community. When the subject of land alienation has not even been devolved to provincial councils if fraudulent land development permits were prepared with impunity, what will happen if and when this subject is devolved to Provincial Councils? I was told by the former Government Agent and District Secretary of Ampara Mr. Sunil Kannangara that this matter was under investigation.  When LTTE activity intensified in the Pottuvil Divisional Secretariat area, Sinhala people who had obtained land development permits to develop land left that area. Their buildings were ransacked and the land was subsequently occupied by Muslims who are now refusing to hand back these lands to the Sinhalese permit holders. The Pottuvil Divisional Secretariat also has a lackadaisical attitude towards helping the original Sinhalese permit holders to reoccupy their land.

Another observation that was made by me with regard to the inefficiency of devolved power to a province is its inability to prevent the encroachment into state land by the Muslim community. The archeological reservation of the Muhudu Maha Veharaya and the coastal and forest reservations in the Pottuvil Divisional Secretariat area have been encroached by Muslims and even forest reservations in the Lahugala Divisional Secretariat area has been cleared and encroached with impunity. Action by the provincial administration to prevent such activity has been slow if not lethargic due to the fact that most of the officers at the provincial level who implement the law of the land are also Muslims.

With governing power on most subjects devolved to the provincial administration the central government is now finding it difficult if not impossible to prevent such illegal activity as mentioned above where as if power had been decentralized the misused power could have been withdrawn from the provincial administration for direct action by the central government to implement the law of the land. With all the information provided by me in this letter the experts committee I believe will not hesitate to repeal the 13th Amendment when drafting the new Constitution.

Yours faithfully,

Anil Amarasekera/-

Lt Col. A.S.Amarasekera (Retd.)

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