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