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Slow but significant

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

(May 18, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian)
Even as the ethnic war continues to be raging in an increasingly diminishing area in Sri Lanka’s North, two significant developments need attention in terms of the political processes on power-devolution – though they have been slow in coming. It is how these things play out in an unstructured manner outside of predicted templates. It is how the polity and the society, particularly of the Tamil community, need to acknowledge them – and work on them as much as they work with them, to take them closer to what has been their due and what has been promised them.

The first one pertains to the decision of the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, not to press the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Bill in its present form. It is easy to harp on the illegality of the Government stalling a debate on the Bill in the Eastern Provincial Council. It is easy to argue that the Government had an ulterior motive as always, and could have and should have avoided the attending embarrassment.

Governments, like humans, seldom learn from the mistakes of others – and often end up committing the very same mistakes under different circumstances. Yet, they do learn. The learning process is as much an experiment as it is an experience. It is however not known why the Government should have hurried a piece of legislation through Parliament despite palpable inadequacies and inconsistencies. It is more so in the context of the APRC already addressing the larger issues concerned in the matter, along with several others.

Between them, the Judiciary and the Legislature, have applied the brakes on the avoidable initiative of the Executive, in a democratic way, through democratic means. As may be recalled, the Supreme Court ruled that the Provincial Councils had a pre-eminent position, under the Thirteenth Amendment, in clearing the Bill before Parliament could consider it for passage.

This has since been followed by the Tamil-centric Eastern Provincial Council stalling the Bill in its present form. The Eastern Council was not carried away by those in Sabaragamuva and North-Central Provinces giving an easy passage to the Bill, earlier.

Leading the Eastern reservations to the Bill was TMVP Chief Minister S Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan and his powerful Health Minister, M L A M Hisbullah. They were a part of the ruling SLFP-led UPFA coalition, yet that did not deter them from doing what was right by the needs and demands, expectations and aspirations of the people that they represented.

Today, the Central Government has been forced to re-think on the Bill and discuss it with the stake-holders, before re-presenting the same to the Provincial Councils, Parliament and the People. This is what parliamentary democracy is all about. This is also what the undefined and non-quantifiable checks-and-balances system on power-devolution is also about.

The second development pertains to the study of a ruling SLFP sub-committee to delineate the promised Police powers for the Provinces, now residing exclusively in the Central Government. The sweeping suggestion, it seems, would grant policing powers on ‘minor offences’ to the Provinces. There is bound to be consternation in the Tamil and Muslim polity in particular if an exercise of the kind were to be taken up without defining what these ‘minor offences’ are.

It needs to be conceded that inter-Province and international crimes would require an apex body at the level of the Central Government to process, investigate and prosecute. Nations the world over are following such a pattern, and not without reason. In the Sri Lankan context however, there is need for greater clarity as to the offences that would require a Central agency to handle – rather than working the other way round.

It is more about the process of arriving at the definitions and listing them out, in which job the APRC too is engaged . The Tamils have come to call it a mind-set, but the Sinhala polity and the Sri Lankan society have not often acknowledged it. Or, so it seems.

After all, Police powers in the political context of the ethnic issue, war and violence are about Law and Order duties on the one hand, and the administrative control of the provincial police devolving on the provincial administrations, on the other. ‘Crime investigation’ is an aspect over which all sections of the society would be concerned more about the results than the processes.

Mutual suspicions apart, it needs to be acknowledged that the processes of power-devolution even on the policing front would take their own course, once set in motion. Two factors would influence this process. One is the increasing acknowledgement of coalition politics at the national and provincial levels. The other is the evolving non-elitist approach to politics and governance, where regionalism and regional egos would be touched – and, not stopping with the Tamil polity, people and Provinces.

Yet, there are areas about which the Provinces should have a frank discussion and an open admission of their inadequacies that are real and permanent. No Province in Sri Lanka could be expected raise the kind of police force required to man major events. Nor can they be equipped to investigate cross-border crimes and international terror gangs, of which the LTTE may be on the top of Sri Lankan concerns but is not the only one.

These are areas where a Central investigating agencies and a national policing force for coordinated Law and Order duties would be required – ready to be despatched when required by the Provincial administrations. This has also been the successful model that is being practised in other nations, where power-devolution has been practised for long and with great success.

The decision of the UPFA Team, even if outside of the Government, to put their proposals on the working of the Thirteenth Amendment, before the annual Chief Ministers’ Forum is the way it should be.. This should be accompanied by similar consultations with other political parties at all levels, may be in Parliament to ensure stability and continuity for the life of the decisions taken.

It would otherwise be for the Chief Ministers to take back the Proposals to their respective Provincial Councils, to make them as democratic as possible before reporting back to their forum – maybe in a special session. Constitutions need not, and cannot, divine all situations and lay down procedures for all occasions. Political parties and leaders can set healthy precedents.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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