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Empowering people - principal issue in devolution

ISSUES: The President of the country set in motion a dialogue with all the political parties to draw up proposals for devolution of power to the minority communities - a very commendable step.

He also appointed a panel of experts to advise the APC on this task. We must try to understand the rationale behind this action. The most pressing problem facing this country is poverty with some 45 per cent of the population earning an income of less than US $2 per day.

The main obstacle to its resolution is the political and economic instability arising from the ethnic conflict, which has tied up the country in knots since Independence and kept away investors, who could create jobs.

Apparently the President wanted to find a solution to the ethnic problem, so that he and his government could find the time and the resources necessary to get down to the task of reducing poverty. He must have expected at least the intellectuals of this country could reach consensus on this burning issue.

Committee of experts

The expert committee submitted three reports instead of one, emulating the politicians, who have let the country down time and again. Now the APC led by Prof. Tissa Vitarana, an intellectual himself, has risen to the occasion and tried valiantly to save the situation for the country by preparing its own proposals.

In any case, both groups appear to have missed the bus! They do not seem to have realised, what has exacerbated the situation is the failure of all the institutions in Sri Lanka set up since Independence to deliver on the yearning on the part of the people to make a better life for themselves and their children.

This can be attributed to the deterioration of the quality of governance rendered by them. Governance is defined here as “a) the process by which governments are selected, held accountable, monitored and replaced, b)capacity of governments to manage resources efficiently and to formulate, implement and enforce sound policies and regulations; and c) the respect for institutions that govern economic and social interactions among them” as well as their effectiveness.

It is good governance, which creates the social, economic and political stability required to induce local and foreign consumers to save part of their present consumption to produce more and better goods and services for future consumption.

This is the process by which societies find the resources to create income enhancing employment for job seekers.

The economies of East and South East Asia, which have gained unprecedented prosperity and succeeded in reducing poverty substantially are reported to have invested the equivalent of 35 -40 per cent of their annual income or Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The APC should therefore not only examine institutional and other means to devolve power but also measures to make them more effective in delivering on the aspirations of the people. For this purpose they should devise methods to overcome existing obstacles to devolve power effectively to regions, where there are concentrations of minority communities demanding greater autonomy.

One of the obstacles to be removed is the infamous Concurrent List, (smuggled into the present Constitution via the 13th Amendment), which enabled the Centre to grab power from the Provinces.

The thirteenth Amendment

The 13th Amendment was a ‘fifth column’ in more ways than one. For instance it merely grafted, without any adjustment or adaptation, a ‘foreign’ body, the Provincial Councils, to a simple and less expensive existing administration consisting of Government Agents in each district assisted by Assistant Government Agents and Village Officials.

There were also at the time elected local bodies like the Municipal, Urban, Town and Village Councils. The changes retained the direct government GA system , swept away the Town and Village Councils, introduced the ‘Pradeshiya Sabhas’ (PS), along with the Provincial Councils and converted the AGA divisions to Divisional Secretary’s Divisions ;( the area of authority of a PS is equivalent to that of the DSD).

System of elections

These changes have to be considered along with the system of elections enshrined in the 1978 Constitution.

It is a proportional representation system based on district lists of candidates.

It is mainly this system, which robbed the people of their sovereignty and ended good governance in the country. Being based on a district system, people of a constituency did not know who their MP was.

The district system presenting candidates along with the right by each voter to cast three preference votes ensured that it was impossible for a candidate to contest an election on a shoe-string budget. It created a market for businesses and individuals of dubious character to finance the elections.

While it kept out intellectuals and professionals from contesting elections, candidates once elected, became more or less puppets in the hands of the financiers, who were out to exploit opportunities to earn back the large sums they spent on the election of the candidates by hook or crook.

This system along with the provision in the constitution that enabled politicians to meddle with recruitment, transfer and promotion of public servants, introduced to the country one of the most corrupt systems of government under which a citizen could not obtain any service without paying a bribe or without ‘pulling any strings’.

The poor were the worst affected as they could not afford to make the payments.

The proliferation of ministries resorted to by weak coalition governments elected under the proportional representation system and the numerous agencies, especially at the local level ensured that that the ordinary citizen did not know whom to influence to pull a string for him or her.

Even if he/she knew whom to approach, he/she found to his/her dismay that there was a long line of influence peddlers or with persons with outstretched hands. The question is how to devolve power to the people at the periphery effectively under such a system?

The 17th Amendment to the Constitution was introduced mainly to separate the legislature from the executive to enable the introduction of a more accountable and transparent system of governance.

But the politicians and their legal advisors have found ways to subvert the system and observe it in the breach with commissions which are independent only in name. The expert panel has made the situation worse by recommending a High Posts Commission (presided over by a Vice President, a politician).

The Second Chamber recommended by them and the APC will only serve as a ‘rubber stamping’ authority to the first chamber, unless at least 50 per cent of its members are professionals and representatives of civil society groups appointed on a non-partisan basis.

Devolution and good governance

In other words, whatever methods of devolution that are recommended have to be thought through with the objective not only of devolution of power itself but also with the objective of making it easy for the people to get their work done by their representatives and public officials without difficulty and expense; the institutions created must be politically neutral and made accountable for their omissions and commissions; they should be run efficiently by professionals with proven capability .

If not the people will feel cheated by those who advocated devolution to resolve the ethnic conflict, as in the case of the 13th Amendment.

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Produced by Lake House Copyright 2006 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.

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