Rethinking local government

| by Shyamon Jayasinghe

(September 28, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) The administrative tier of Provincial Councils (PCs) is still new to Sri Lanka. Introduced as a fall out of the Indian government’s intervention in Sri Lanka under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, it was originally thought to be a part solution to the issue of Tamil autonomy. It will serve no purpose either to the Tamil community targeted or to the general stream of Sri Lankans.

The time has come for us to abolish these structures of local government and rethink our whole local government infrastructure. PC s have proved to be white elephants or parasites that bleed the country. They serve no purpose but to give haven for another set of corrupt politicians to eat out of the public treasury, run around in state-given vehicles and show their pakum to the common man. This second tier of government has needlessly bloated public expenditure and thus become a huge opportunity cost.

Until PCs were introduced Sri Lanka had an effective chain of local governments elected by local people from persons who had won the confidence of the local people. The units were small enough for electors to keep track of their local councillors. This was ideal for the solution of matters of relatively local concern.

The Indian intention was to have a PC introduced with wide devolution of power to the Tamils in the North and East. JR’s idea to apply the institution generally to the rest of the country represented a camouflage to hide the fact of our ignoble capitulation to India.

Let’s get back to the former two-tier-central government and local government system. Even the old Village Council should be revived as a kind of shire. Premadasa abolished that and replaced it with the Pradeshiya Sabha. The Village Councils and the local government system had already run its course for over 100 years and got well rooted in our soil when the damage was done by abolishing Village Councils and bringing a tier above the local government system. Local communities organised under local government provides stability and simplicity in government. People get an invaluable experience in running a democracy through the local government system as these institutions are close to them and they learn to shape and control them. National leaders were born those days out of Village Councils, Town Councils, Urban councils and Municipal Councils. Such leaders came up to the national level by proving themselves locally. It was a wonderful system that worked. Today they are rendered subservient to incompetent PCC.

Local governments may be considered naturally emerging systems of governance. The simple rationale was and is that issues of purely local import should be best addressed and solved by representatives of the locality concerned who have earned the peoples’ respect. In this way the contact between the governed and the governors is immediate; the immediacy makes it easier to have a feedback loop and ensure accountability. This intimacy helps effectiveness and responsible government. It also trains local rulers in the art of negotiation for public benefit and in the art of compromise.

Local, issues can vary depending on particular contexts. Protection of the natural environment, building and maintaining purely local and small infrastructure like village roads and bridges and, community centres for the gathering of local people, care for the elderly, libraries and adult education programs, social welfare, supervising local trade, consumer protection, removal of garbage and cleanliness of the built environment, basic primary health measures including immunization and disease control and so on. Particularly at village level even simple dispute settlement and peace initiatives can be taken.

All these valuable services will need funding. Local rates and taxes, fines, and central government funding are the normal method of resource provision for local governments. Furthermore, central government t can run their nationwide decentralised offices in these localities in partnership with local governments. All this constitute a workable arrangement. The public purse is not required to pay the councillors except for legitimate expenses incurred in carrying out their work. Local councillors in Village, Town, Urban councils and Municipalities work voluntarily and hence are never a burden on the public purse.

It is a different story with PCs where Chief Ministers and other Council Ministers are paid salaries and are given expensive perks. For what? Merely to duplicate ineffectively the work once handled at central government level. Tell me of any function that was handled better after the PCC came into being. We only had difficulties compounded as issues of coordination arose all the time. These functions must get back to central government whether in the head office or at a decentralised (not devolved) district level. District level decentralization of government functions is far superior to the devolution that is envisaged under PCs coming under the 13th Amendment. Sri Lanka is small and with improved road and rail network can be made smaller.

Such a decentralisation is twofold: one, general functions and functions of key national importance like land, power, security, and water resources can be performed in the Kachcheri under the Government Agent as before. This means the status of the Government Agent must be restored to what it was before the PCs came up. Secondly, functions of local relevance can be handled more effectively by locally elected bodies must be given to local governments.

The case of major town- area management provides different challenges requiring a separate overhaul of Municipal Management. Major conglomerations of population gather in these centres. Managerial issues are vastly bigger and more complex. Functions like sewage disposal, garbage disposal, and control of dengue, filarisis, and other environment-generated diseases need a more complex arrangement that ensures better coordination at broader levels. Health inspection and food preparation inspection, power, water and public utility distribution, environmental safety, and the control of communicable disease are difficult and complicated. The financial stakes are far bigger at Municipal level. Human and financial resource management become knotty. Therefore, we have to think of ways to improve structures and procedure in our Municipal Councils. The idea of a City Manager with enhanced executive power working under the jurisdiction of the elected council is something to worth considering. This practice is followed in many countries. Similarly, the idea of a metropolitan structural arrangement around Colombo is worth taking a look at.

The main reason why PCC are parasitic is that their areas of jurisdiction cannot provide adequate financial resources on their own to support them. Hence they necessarily have to depend on central government support for their existence. This entails central government control. This is also why PCC will fail as a means of giving the Tamil population a better local voice and protection. Sri Lanka has not generated self-sustaining areas of management out in the provinces.

The solution to the Tamil issue and the issue of minorities can be more effectively provided for with constitutional changes at the centre. These changes should involve a genuine strengthening of democratic institutions like an independent judiciary, police, and the elections office. It would also require the enactment of laws for effective address issues relating to racial discrimination and human rights. The strengthening of democratic institutions would require abolishing the Executive Presidency or at least the removal of legal immunity from the office of the President. Nobody should be above the law.

( The writer, Former Special Commissioner, Dehiwela -Galkissa Municipality)