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Government Gazette

Local Government laws to undergo reform in Sri Lanka

The local government system in Sri Lanka has a long history, extending to the period of Sinhalese kings, dating back to the fourth century. The most famous chronicle of Sri Lanka, Mahawamsa (sixth century) cites that local administration was carried out by the Nagara Guttika (city Mayor). Village level organizations called Gam Sabhas functioned under village leaders who enjoyed powers to administer local affairs and also perform judicial functions such as addressing minor offences and reconciling disputes. What is understood as local government today is an expanded version of such responsibilities, operating under the democratic system of governance. The local government system underwent many changes from time to time to become what it is today.

Road development at local government level. File photo

With the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1987, the present day local government became a devolved subject under the Provincial Councils, which operate under three legal entities- Municipal Councils, Urban Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas and are governed by three main laws - the Urban Council Ordinance (enacted in 1939) Municipal Council Ordinance (enacted in 1947), and Pradeshiya Sabha Act (enacted in 1987). The Local Government and Provincial Councils Ministry is currently involved in a landmark process of updating and reforming the three main legislations with the view of addressing the challenges faced by the local government, which include resource constraints, weak systems and infrastructure, limited scope in socio-economic development planning of localities and low revenue.

The proposed amendments have updated several provisions which will address these constraints by according new responsibilities to the local authorities to widen their scope with powers, functions, functionaries, funds and other resources, which will ultimately lead to local government strengthening.

“The local government needs further strengthening and the system needs to be updated. The proposed amendments have been made to match the current challenges and try to widen the scope and mandate of the local government with more functions, power and resources,” says Secretary, Local Government and Provincial Councils Ministry Cashian Herath who is very keen in strengthening local self government in the island.

The process

The beginning of the reform process started a decade ago, in 1999, when a Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Local Government was appointed to look into the “existing local government system, the defects and shortcomings and the reforms required to remedy such defects and shortcomings.”

The Commission of Inquiry was also to study the necessary amendments “to have an effective legislative structure to ensure good governance at the local authority level,” and identify the “reforms needed to ensure effective representations of the peoples of the respective areas of authority of local bodies.”

Since the Report of the Presidential Commission was published, the Local Government and Provincial Councils Ministry had been engaged in consultations at regular intervals with the sub national levels of governments (provincial and local) on the suggested gaps, recommendations and necessary amendments put forward by the Commission Report.

After a long process of consultation spanning over a decade, the Ministry is now involved in the process of collating all the proposed amendments to the main laws in order to update the existing legislations.

There are 73, 71 and 104 proposed amendments to the Pradeshiya Sabha Act, Urban Council Ordinance and Municipal Council Ordinance, respectively.

In order to involve all stakeholders in the reform process, the Ministry embarked on its pioneer e-consultation, where the suggested amendments were posted on the Ministry website (www.pclg.gov.lk) for a wider public consultation. The suggestions and recommendations posted by all stakeholders were incorporated into the overall reform process. Furthermore, the Ministry held consultations with all three chapters of the local government sector, i.e. Chairmen of the Urban Councils, Mayors Forum and Heads of Pradeshiya Sabhas on May 29, June 29, and July 7, 2009, respectively to get their views, suggestions and recommendations on the proposed amendments.

“Consultation is an indicator of participatory governance, which we try to promote in Sri Lanka. Involving all the stakeholders is very important as we need to hear their concerns, opinions, suggestions, and recommendations,” states, Sunil Fernando, Advisor to the Local Government and Provincial Councils Ministry.

“The fact that we are re-visiting these Ordinances is very encouraging because we are still using the same old laws which were drafted long time ago. So, it is very good that we are amending these laws to suit the present challenges,” said Mayor Kurunegala and the President of Mayors’ Forum Chandrasiri De Silva. “We need to practically make these amendments and implement them; it is a major challenge,” he added.

When asked about his views on the legal reform process, Chairman Ambalangoda Urban Council and the President of the Urban Councils Forum Aruna Pradeep had this to say, “Updating of these laws is very important as most of them are outdated. If the proposed amendments are implemented, it will help increase the revenue of the Local Authorities, which is a very critical aspect.”


“The ongoing legal reform process is the major development in the local government sector after late Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s period, which was a significant time for the local government in Sri Lanka” noted Secretary, All Island Pradeshiya Sabha Association Nimal Jayawardene.

The existing laws of the local authorities specifies their mandate, which make them the authority of the area charged with the regulation, control and administration of all matters relating to public health, public utility services and thoroughfares. The proposed amendments recommend to widen the functions of the Local Authorities (LAA )by including socio-economic development activities and protection of the environment in their mandate.

“Four new provisions namely, mandatory Committee System, participatory local planning, environmental protection and Citizen’s Charter had been incorporated to the existing governing legislation, with the objective of widening the scope of the Local Authorities” says D.P. Hettiarachchi, Additional Secretary, Local Government and Provincial Councils Ministry. “As per the Presidential Commission report, there was a necessity to expand the functional domain of the Local Authorities. This can only be achieved by giving legal binding to provisions. These new provisions are the current requirements of the society and there was great demand from the civil society for same. This is why these new provisions are incorporated,” he added.

The Committee System had been made mandatory for all LAA and the Standing Committee will facilitate coordination of development activities with wide citizen participation. According to the Committee System, there will be a Standing Committee on Finance and not less than four other Committees with members drawn from the Council and citizens to advice the PS on its duties, responsibilities or any other matter. A new provision had been introduced on local planning where a Local Authority undertakes development and physical planning. The development plans cover a wide spectrum, which include infrastructure development, development of medium term plan for five years as well as annual development plans in collaboration with the Divisional Secretariat and other relevant Governmental and non-Governmental agencies.

Under the physical planning, the new amendments encourage the Local Authorities to formulate zoning schemes and urban development schemes in collaboration with the National Physical Planning Department and the Urban Development Authority. The LAA will be responsible for ensuring the implementation of physical planning by facilitating the enforcement of regulatory measures relating to land utilization. One of the notable features of the amendments is the inclusion of civil society and citizens in participatory planning.

The concept of “Citizens’ Charter” is introduced into the local government system as a measure of good governance practice. The Charter will specify the different categories of services rendered by the Local Authorities, the conditions and time frame within which such services will be performed and completed. The Charter aims to reduce the gap between the Local Authority and the citizenry (the governing and the governed) and bring them closer in understanding the duties and responsibilities of each other.

The proposed amendments further embrace to enhance the powers of the Local Authorities by promotion of agriculture, minor irrigations and animal husbandry, which will allow the LAA to conduct experiments in agriculture and animal husbandry.

The Pradeshiya Sabhas will be able to promote local tourism and will enjoy the ability to run eco-tourism and tourism-related projects, establishment and maintenance of ayurvedic dispensaries, herbaria and the power to grant any person, firm, company or corporation for any purpose, a licence of concession.


With the existing nature of Sri Lanka’s democratic system, there is dependency on the national and sub-national levels of Governments by the local government for decision making, resources, revenue, etc. Thus, policy interventions by these two levels of governments are essential to bring about any change to strengthen the local government system.

The proposed legal amendments have undergone many rounds of consultation among the local and provincial authorities, civil society and local government practitioners.

As the local government is a devolved subject under the Provincial Councils as per the Constitution, the final draft amendments will be presented to the Provincial Councils for concurrence within next couple of weeks by Local Government and Provincial Councils Minister Janaka Bandara Tennakoon who is the driving force behind the entire process.

The proposed amendments aim to strengthen the local government by according them the mandate to improve socio-economic development of localities, increase local revenue through partnerships with the Government and private sectors, act as catalysts for local economic development and emerge as effective models of local, democratic governance with wider citizen participation and collaborative local planning.

These reforms aim to address most of the fundamental challenges faced by the local government and make them more empowered with powers, functions and resources to emerge as local self governing bodies.


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