Why Provincial Councils

By N Sathiya Moorthy

The current discourse on a new Constitution, even before the deadline for the submission on ideas to the President-appointed committee for the purpose had elapsed, has focussed near-exclusively on the future and relevance of the Provincial Councils. As if by cue, a one-sided debate has erupted on how irrelevant and purposeless have the PCs become, as if the entire Constitution-making process is aimed at winding them up, nothing more.

In contrast, expanding the scope and purpose and powers of the PC was at the centre of the earlier attempt at Constitution-making attempted by the predecessor Government. However, questions remain as to the seriousness with which the powers-that-be looked at the process. If nothing else, such indications, however vauge, gave legitimacy and credibility to the claims of the 16-member TNA parliamentary group at the time, to continue keeping the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe alive at the time.

This Government does not require any such crutches, hence possibly the shooting-from-the-hip approach now. Especially when the Minister-in-charge, who is supposed to protect and provide for the interests of the Provincial Councils, namely, Rear-Adm Sarath Weerasekara (retd), keeps talking about such dissolution of the PCs for good and through the Constitution-making process, one wonders if he is alive to his responsibilities as the portfolio minister. Whatever Parliament may decide when re-constituted as the Constitution Assembly alongside, it is not for the subject minister to say what he should not have been saying in the first place.

Changing with times

Along such wildly off-the-mark and equally out-dated ideas as the disbanding of PCs, there are those that lent scholarly and academic support, through the media, on the why of such disbandment. Their arguments are as old as the PCs, constituted under the Provincial Councils Act, 1987. It is an acknowledgement that they have not changed with the times, as should have been, and are unable to understand the complexities of governance through the past decades, and accept them, too.

The standard argument is that district councils, administered from a central authority was doing fine before the creation of PCs, and that they should be restored. All such arguments are being put forth only from the majority Sinhala-Buddhist side, and not even any or many of those other segments that have felt the need for such an institution all along.

To be specific, the PCs were created as a part of the political solution aimed at ending the ethnic concerns of the Tamil minorities in the country, and alongside possibly those of another minority in the Muslims. The third minority in the Upcountry Tamils were worried more about their lives and livelihoods with the result, they had little time for seeking more rights. Now, it may be a different situation, in the hill-country, too.

Translated, it is not for those holding the majoritarian view from within the larger majority community to tell the less fortunate that the other shoe did not hurt and that they would go back to wearing the old one, however small it might have become in contrast to the need of the grown-up. It is for the affected Tamils from the post-Independence era to say that they did not want the PCs any more.

Instead, what every Tamil party, for instance, has been demanding is more power for the PCs, going beyond what 13-A promised but have since been surreptitiously withdrawn, through such institutions as National Schools and National Hospitals. Some Tamil parties have even demanded a confederation, in the place of a federation, as sought by others, but both sides are still sworn to a unified Sri Lanka.

It is much different from what the LTTE sought and fought for. The non-LTTE, moderate Tamil parties did not seek a separate nation in the true sense of the term, but needed powers to call their own, to be able to address specific issues of specific concerns to the community, which an ‘outsider community’ like the Sinhalas do not know to be able to understand and appreciate it in the cultural context in which they are set.

The Sinhala-Buddhists alone are to blame for the situation in which there is no clear, leave alone full understanding, of individual communities, and internal complexities, for them to be able to hold sway over what is good or bad for the other(s). Numbers cannot decide it. Only because of such an attitude, starting with say, ‘Sinhala Only’ law did the ethnic issue end up becoming ethnic war and violence.

Victor’s history, ways

It is tempting even in the twenty-first century for sections of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist population to assume that they could have the traditional war victory’s ways and their ways of looking at history, past, present and future. Maybe, history, yes, but recalibrating the present and more so the future, in the victor’s own ways, is not going to pay, through the medium and long terms. They only need to look around the world to see how it has worked elsewhere, where the victor’s ended up telling their own tales, in naitons like, Afghanistan and Iraq, in the Asian neighbourhood, that too in the 21st century.

Politically correct

Letting the PC continue and even more empowered has its own advantages for the ruling dispensation in Colombo than earlier. The critics of the PC system are not alive to the increasing complexities of the emerging global governance structures, where ecology and environment and all livelihood and human security concerns go down to the last man. These require not only a sensitive handling of concerns but an equal understanding of the people’s preferences and sentiments, too.

In the post-war decades, blaming it all on the war-time lack of development, the nation welcomed and also prided itself at the rapid growth, especially of visible infrastructure, in the form of express ways and the like. It may thus be time for a forced slow down of the growth graph, not only owing to the pandemic, but also because the people have lost the blinded enthusiasm for them, their place being taken by focussed and people-centric schemes that touch individuals’ lives and does not steal from his land-holding, jobs and incomes – as the continuing China-funded projects have done through the post-war decade.

Together, they all demand a sensitive handling of governance issues, going beyond corruption and the like. While governments can take pride in being able to make services delivery at individual house-gates, thanks to the expansion of the internet, there can be no real mechanism for reverse osmosis, starting with providing the local people a base to air their grievances at a level slightly larger than that of their local government representatives but a little lower than the Government in Colombo, which should be constantly evolving and engaging with policies and programmes, leaving implementation to authorities a more manageable PC level.

It should go beyond he district-levels, as they are as unmanageable as the local governments, as one is full of bureaucrats, who reflect only the Government’s views to the masses, and not the latter’s concerns to the Government. It is a politician’s job, but a politician who has comprehended the larger picture, as he travels along the bottom-up road to electoral superiority.

Filling the communication gap

Then there is a more pertinent issue that should be of concern for the political class in Colombo. Devoid of patently one-sided elections as in 2019 and 2020, they are going to require delivery mechanisms at all stages and levels, to win elections. It cannot be that the leader wins. As in 2015, the same leader could also lose.

In such circumstances, they require two-way communication apparatuses, which include not only the local government representatives, then MPs and ministers, there need to be further elected intermediaries. The PC members filled the gap. Maybe, for the present Opposition, their fall might not have been this huge if only they had had the PCs and elected PC members.

Then there is the question of who trains and prepares local government representatives to be effective implementors of policies before becoming MPs and ministers? If only the PCs had functioned as envisaged and they had also empowered themselves and expanded on such empowerment, then, Sri Lanka may have had better minister material at the national-level, those that coming to occupy parliamentary positions having been exposed to similar responsibilities at the more manageable Provincial levels earlier.

In today’s world, learning on the job for national-level ministerial positions is just not on. And two, such PC membership has also reduced competition for parliamentary nominations by parties, which in turn get those that are exposed to the requirements of legislative work, however big or small it be. In the absence of PC memberships, for instance, the incumbent national leadership and their competition, can lose out on intermediary-level cadre backing and support, when they would require it the most – for electoral coordination in an election that may seem ify for the rulers of the day!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquarter ed in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)