ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday January 13, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 33
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Devolution begins with the district

Some months ago, in the immediate aftermath of the last annual broadcast to his cadres by the supreme commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) we wrote an editorial titled "Go back to the future". There, and many times before, for several years now, we have been advocating the introduction of the 1981 District Development Council (DDC) system as the first step towards devolution of power to the peripheries.

Why we keep saying this, is that the alternative -- a Federal system of government --does not have universal acceptance in this country. It's a pie in the sky, we said. The District Councils (DCs) were blocked when then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake tried to implement the system in the 1960s. It was left to President J.R. Jayewardene, in power and place as Executive President with the backing of a 5/6th majority in Parliament to push this through with the additional emphasis on Development, to make it the DDCs.

It was only forces from within his own party, who point blank refused any compromise, that scuttled the system and saw to its premature demise. Much water -- and blood -- and misery -- and economic stagnation -- has flowed since.

This Government is now under intense pressure from the International Community (IC) to come up with some form of 'devolution of power' as part of the 'political settlement' or 'negotiated settlement' they have been peddling all along to end the 25- year-old Northern insurgency as if that is the panacea to the demand for a separate state in Sri Lanka.

It is now crystal clear that this Government has made up its mind, egged on by nationalist forces it has to rely on for its parliamentary survival, that it will make a definitive change in the course this seemingly endless war-peace-war-peace insurgency has meandered along.
And yet, it feels obligated to make an attempt at finding this mirage of a 'negotiated settlement', though the heart and soul are not in it.

This week, the Government came up with yet another suggestion with a "why not go back to the future" kind of approach by suggesting that they tag along with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that was shoved down the throat of Sri Lanka by the then Indian Government -- a corollary of the Indo-Lanka Agreement of that year. President Rajapaksa, then an Opposition politician and his Freedom Party (SLFP) were in the forefront of protests at its introduction, together with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) -- some of whose members burnt buses and brought down electricity pylons in their agitation.

The JVP seems to continue its opposition to the re-introduction of the provisions of the 13th Amendment now under consideration by the Rajapaksa Government, but neither it nor the SLFP has been coy about accepting some of the benefits that flowed to their party cadres by contesting seats in the Provincial Councils that mushroomed together with the 13th Amendment, and going on to enjoy the perks and privileges that went with such office in full measure. Both parties, now very much in the seats of power at the Centre, and sitting comfortably in those very Provincial Councils they protested against -- at great public expense -- have done precious little to abolish this moribund system of government.

Therefore, they must empathise with the Tamil political leaders of the North who are asking for the re-activation of the 13th Amendment. This is all about sharing the spoils of public office, by creating 'jobs for the boys'; but if that is the name of the game, then that is why we suggest starting with District Councils, where there is an emphasis on economic development of the district first in a country where the land mass cannot be compared with countries like India, the US or Australia.

And who knows, the DDCs might even be able to actually contribute something to the development of the district and be of service to the ordinary folks. More importantly though, together with this search for the perfect unit of devolution must come the urgent need to re-activate the 17th Amendment to the Constitution -- the proper functioning of the independent Commissions that were appointed in 2001 especially for the administration of the Police and the Public Service, and elections.

The citizenry have been helpless spectators to the gradual breakdown of institutions that are the pillars of any country. Even now, the smaller parties in Parliament stand accused of quibbling about whom to appoint to these Councils.

While the Government focuses its entire attention on the Northern insurgency and the politics that goes with it, it must spare a thought for the institutions that prop up the State. There is, otherwise, a grave danger that the entire edifice could disintegrate and fall on its head, and that of the people.

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