Devolution for provinces to protect democracy in Sri Lanka


‘Most private wrongs are done within family walls, and most public wrongs within the borders of States.  If world opinion is to consider state frontiers sacrosanct then there will be no chance for world progress as a whole; tyranny would have received a world charter. Shri Rajagopalachchari -First Governor General of India.

It was always a well-accepted fact that Sri Lanka would have progressed to a leading country in South Asia if not for the ethnic problem. Instead the unsolved ethnic problem dragged the country into a bloody civil war that lasted thirty years and the country paid a heavy price before bringing it to an end seven years ago. But the rulers at that time never paid any attention to resolve the basic cause of the war and the ethnic problem remained unsolved to date. The new rulers have acknowledged this problem, but are bogged down trying to sort-out the mess in the country they inherited over a year ago.

Early this year the Prime Minister made the move in Parliament to convert it into a Constitutional Assembly for the sole purpose of preparing a New Constitution to replace the existing ill prepared and many times amended constitution of the country. It is hoped that the New Constitution will lay the foundation to resolve the ethnic problem in particular and many other ills in the country. All credit to the President and Prime Minister to invite public participation, for it must be appreciated that this is the first in the history of the country the population are consulted in the preparation of the constitution.

President has said one has to first find out what caused the Tamils to ask for devolution of power before opposing it. To overcome this frog in the well mindset of the people and to know more about devolution of power, it is better to take a tour round the world to find out countries that have devolved power. There is devolution of power practiced in Indonesia, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Spain. The devolved states of UK consist of Scottish Parliament, Welsh National Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly; the central government can revoke the independence of the sub-units without changing the constitution. Based on the Provincial Council experience it may be better to avoid these forms of devolution and go for the system used in Austria, where with its Bundesländer it was a unitary state with administrative divisions similar to our Provincial Councils and became federated in 1920. On the other hand the Belgium model may be more appropriate for us. Belgium has been a devolved state from 1970 with major devolved units consisting of 3 communities and 3 regions. Then the governmental or constitutional structure found in Germany formed in 1949, with sixteen Bundesländer is a good example of a devolved state.

We see that devolution is a form of government in which sovereign power is formally divided between a central authority and a number of constituent regions so that each region retains some degree of control over its internal affairs. Devolution may be multi-ethnic and cover a large area of territory (e.g. Russia, the United States, India or Brazil). Today there are 27 countries with a system of rule with a political entity characterized by a union of partially self-governing states or regions in which the self-governing status of the component states, as well as the division of power between them and the central government, are typically constitutionally entrenched and may not be altered by a unilateral decision of either party, the states or the central political body.

In 1949 the breakaway faction from All Ceylon Tamil Congress formed the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchchi in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).  Since then the Tamils have been advocating for a devolved form of government. At that time there were ten countries of the world had a devolved system of government in place. They were  Argentina (1853), Australia (1901), Austria           (1920), Brazil (1889), Canada (1867), Mexico (1821), Russia (1918), Switzerland (1848), United States of America (1776) and Venezuela (1863). In later years the countries like Belgium (1970), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1995),  Comoros (1975), Ethiopia (1995), Germany (1949), India (1950), Iraq (2005), Malaysia (1963), Federated States of Micronesia (1979), Nepal (2015), Nigeria (1963), Pakistan (1956), Saint Kitts and Nevis (1983), Somalia (2012), South Sudan (2011), Sudan (1956) and United Arab Emirates (1971) joined the list of states with a devolved form of government.

The distinction between a devolved state and a unitary state is often quite ambiguous. A unitary state may closely resemble a devolved state in structure and, while a central government may possess the theoretical right to revoke the autonomy of a self-governing region, it may be politically difficult for it to do so in practice. The self-governing regions of some unitary states also often enjoy greater autonomy than those of some devolved states. For these reasons, it is sometimes said that some modern unitary states are de facto devolved states. Spain is suggested as one possible de facto devolved state as it grants more self-government to its autonomous communities than most devolved states allow their constituent parts. For the Spanish parliament to revoke the autonomy of regions such as Galicia, Catalonia or the Basque Country would be a political near-impossibility, though nothing bars it legally. Additionally, some regions such as Navarre or the Basque Country have full control over taxation and spending, transferring a small payment to the central government for the common services (military, foreign relations, macroeconomic policy). Each autonomous community is governed by a Statute of Autonomy (Estatuto de Autonomía) under the Spanish Constitution of 1978. In the People’s Republic of China constitutionally, the power vested in the special administrative regions is granted from the Central People’s Government, through decision by the National People’s Congress. However, there have been certain largely informal grants of power to the provinces, to handle economic affairs and implement national policies, resulting in a system some have termed devolution “with Chinese characteristics”.

The present Provincial Council system with a half backed decentralized system has been in operation for the past thirty years and is not a devolved system. It was cooked up in haste at the time of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of July 1987 without proper consultation with the people. The related 13th Amendment to the present constitution failed to provide any self-determining rights to the Minority Tamils to enable them to coexist peacefully with the Majority Sinhalese community.  To make matters worse previous government weakened and aggravated the decentralized provincial council system by revoking the limited powers given to them both with and without changing the constitution. The Northern Provincial Council that came into operation last has received most of the aggravation from the state. It therefore did not come as a surprise to see the North Provincial Council to come up with a comprehensive devolution proposal to replace the existing arrangement for they are of the opinion that the present decentralized system is not serving the intended purpose.

In the interest of the country the Government should review this proposal of the Northern Provincial Council with them and thereafter present it to the Constitutional Assembly for inclusion with appropriate clauses into the new constitution.