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Districts a superior model for devolution

By Arjuna Hulugalle

It was Abba Eban, the former Israeli Foreign Minister, who once said ‘Nations are capable of acting rationally but only after they have exhausted all other alternatives’. That sums up where we are today. It has taken us over 50 years to reach this point.

The biggest hindrance to act rationally in Third World countries like ours is the lack of self-confidence in ourselves. Many of us seem willing to sacrifice thousands of lives, especially if they do not happen to be one’s kith and kin, to prove that Sri Lanka is a pristine Sinhala country with its 2500 years of history, religious and cultural traditions and identity or to establish the concept of a Tamil Nation within the island with a right to so called self-determination and a homeland. A common vision to work towards a rational, just and equitable society where good governance, justice, a fair distribution of power and wealth, and civilised behaviour prevails is strikingly absent. Such shared values which would transcend the seemingly endemic parochial interests can only come through a new consciousness to create a Sri Lankan identity which respects and extols the diversity of its people.

The potential of the country’s economy and the well-being of its people is widely recognised. With 19 million people the population is larger than that of Australia. The land mass of 65,000 square kilometres and an area of 540,000 square kilometres including the ocean territory under the country’s jurisdiction is not negligible. The country is strategically positioned at the cross-roads between Europe and East Asia. There is nothing between the country and the Antarctic in the south, of Africa in the west, and the Malaysian archipelago in the east. The one large neighbour separated by 36 miles of water is friendly towards the country, and potentially offers a huge market for export. The country has an equable climate. The multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious population is better educated than in most other Third World countries. There is no reason hence why the country cannot be prosperous. There is literally room for everyone.

The wisdom of the day, expressed forcefully by intellectuals in research institutes and the seminar circuit, and, indeed by many in mainstream political parties, is that the sine qua non for promoting unity in diversity and prosperity for all is a constitutional settlement which devolves much more power to regions. Although advocated primarily as a means of ending the LTTE war, its application is to be island-wide. The difficulty is that among the population at large, except for the Tamils, there appears to be little interest in devolution. Devolution so far has made little difference to their lives; they are sceptical of the value of even more decentralisation. People living in different parts of the country (other than the Tamils) just do not feel that they have distinctive regional identities which justifies a further round of devolution.

More devolution, whatever its merits, cannot be imposed by an ukase from the top. A

new, wider devolution package requires the support of two-third of the members of Parliament, as well as approval by a majority of voters in a referendum, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. The case for further devolution thus has to be argued and won both in Parliament and the country. The apathetic majority in the country have to be persuaded firstly of the potential benefits to them of power being decentralised to legislators closer to the people they serve; and secondly, that devolution would not give a fillip to separatism and jeopardise the territorial integrity of the country. The latter is a legitimate fear of the majority in the context of talk of a permanent merger of the Northern Province and the ethnically more diverse Eastern Province, and the potential for even more ‘ethnic cleansing’ than witnessed so far in the two provinces.

Devolution of power to units of government, which are smaller than the existing Provinces, and capable of exercising increased powers wisely, would meet the two criteria mentioned above. The existing districts in Sri Lanka (25 in total) could constitute such units for further devolution. Devolution on a district rather than a Provincial basis would minimise if not dispel the fear that less central power and regulation would endanger the territorial integrity of the country. At the same time districts are large enough to be managed as self-sustaining units by their own assemblies.

Smaller units offer more opportunities for participation by local people. Legislators would be better informed, with the needs and potential of the areas they represent; better equipped to define local priorities; more accountable for their decisions; and more responsive to local needs. The ‘democratic deficit’, which everybody complains of nowadays at a national and provincial level, and fears arising from further devolution (particularly in the North and the East) would be reduced.

It may be argued that the districts are too small to be viable units of devolved government. The argument does not hold. Switzerland, the most democratic and best governed country in the world, and extremely prosperous too, has a population of only 7 million people. Extensive power is exercised there by 20 cantons and 6 half Cantons, self-governing on most matters affecting the everyday lives of people. Devolution to districts in Sri Lanka rather than to larger units (be it Provinces or the merger of Provinces) is better suited to accommodate the regional, political, ethnic, religious and other variations in the country. The complex mix of people and interests within the existing Provinces could be better accommodated with districts as the devolution unit.

The problems associated with any form of further devolution cannot, and should not, be under-estimated. Handing more power to local people to look after themselves implies inevitably far greater diversity and choice in public policy in devolved subjects. Devolution rhetoric and centralistic practice (as at present) can never be reconciled. More devolution implies more diversity. That, in turn, means no more uniform (or universal) access to public services throughout the country at least in respect of decentralised matters. Greater innovation and experimentation would be the norm with regard to the social sector (e.g. schools and health), devolved areas of taxation, subsidies and investment, policing and any other matters where the Centre gives up control.

For example, if education is fully decentralised to districts there could well be variations in the medium of instruction (English in certain districts in the North?), the curriculum, selection to schools and universities, teachers pay. Likewise there could be variations in other areas such as health and local taxation. Some districts may even allow people to challenge public policy of legislators by initiating referendums. The end of country-wide expectations of equity and provision of services would be the price that would have to be paid for more devolution and vibrant local democracy. Would it in practice be any worse than the gross district inequities prevalent today? Hardly likely.

Another problem would relate to financial resources available to districts and decentralised taxation powers. Over time districts should be able to raise a higher proportion of their resources through local taxes (such as income and corporate taxes, vehicle duties, property taxes and rates) and by borrowing; and spend them locally. The present position is that most tax revenue is collected centrally. There is a need to devise an equitable basis for the distribution of taxes such as VAT and import duties to districts, possibly on a population basis with special treatment for less-developed districts.

The third and most important difficulty relates to the powers and authority of the Centre and of the districts; including the authority over island-wide services such as for example telecommunications. There are complex issues pertaining to Centre-periphery powers, part practical part emotional, which have bedevilled the debate so far on devolution. It merits separate examination.

While there are no doubt difficulties in devolving power to districts, its merits should not be overlooked. Working class-based political parties should welcome power being moved closer to the masses. More and more of them would be empowered to take charge of decisions that most affect their lives. Moreover, devolution at district level would open up opportunities for greater political pluralism. The JVP, for example, may well have the opportunity to govern in a Southern district. It would then be able to put into practice policies inspired by its idealism, austere morality, incorruptibility and socialist ideology to provide a better life for local people; efficient district governance could well provide the indispensable springboard for wider popularity elsewhere in the country.

Similarly, a reformed LTTE may well be able to govern districts in the North and the East with wisdom, bankrolled by the Tamil diaspora and foreign assistance. The Tamils living in the Nuwara Eliya district too would have a far greater clout to influence policy to better their conditions, than would be possible in the present larger unit of devolution.

The system of wider devolution will ultimately have to be decided not by foreign powers and facilitators, constitutional pundits, or elitists in the foreign-funded seminar circuit but by the majority of voters in a challenging referendum. The suppliers of devolution ideas, the framers of devolution policies, the makers of claims of the superiority of devolution as a model of governance need to persuade and convince the public. They have not done so as yet. Perhaps devolution to districts based on the Swiss model of cantonal self-governance and centre-periphery relations is the rational path to pursue. -The Island-

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November 27, 2006 - Posted by | News and politics, South Asia

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