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Recent heated statements about the 13th Amendment confirm the view, heard recently at the Seminar on Indo-Lankan relations held at Osmania University in Hyderabad, that most commentators look on issues through a single prism. They fail to look at the principles that they would like to think they are advancing. Rather they concentrate on slogans, and become emotional, without concentrating on what those slogans are meant to represent.

Perhaps this is a necessary evil in political jousting for, if you looked at the principles, you would have to accept that even people coming from different perspectives have a lot in common. With regard to the question of devolution of power for instance, we find this to be the case, the moment we use the word decentralization instead. Most people don’t understand the distinction between them, understandably so since, for all practical purposes, there is no great distinction.

Thus there is universal agreement that we need decentralization. This is because any administration needs to have clear responsibilities with regard to the people, it needs to consult their wishes as well as be aware of their needs, and it must be accountable to them. This is not possible with regard to day to day matters when you have centralized decision making.

Thus we find that those now opposed to Provincial Councils claim that the best unit for devolution is the District. This rings a bell with me because, in the eighties, the Liberal Party put forward the suggestion that District Councils should be given greater responsibilities. Dudley Senanayake had tried to introduce these in the sixties and failed, because of opposition based on racism, sadly supported in that dark period in their history by the Marxist parties too. What finally made him abandon the plan though was the opposition in his own party, led by Cyril Mathew, supported it should be remembered by D B Wijetunge, but with the shadow of J R Jayewardene lurking in the background.

Jayewardene did introduce a watered down version of the idea through District Development Councils, and those offered a good chance of settling the ethnic problem then – as indeed the JVP understood, in actively participating in the elections. Unfortunately the SLFP, torn by the dissension engineered by the deprivation of Mrs Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights, embraced dogmatic opposition instead, while Jayewardene killed the process from the start by sending Cyril Mathew into the fray in Jaffna – which led to the burning of the Jaffna Public Library and the attacks on Tamils in the rest of the country in 1981. He also prevented the proper operation of those Councils, by with-holding funds, and having them chaired by a District Minister he appointed (though it should be noted that his District Minister for Jaffna, U B Wijekoon, was not a racist and tried to make things go forward, albeit the bitterness Mathew’s antics had engendered prevented this happening).

I have dwelt at some length on history, because we need to remember what happened in order to work out how it would be best to proceed. And it is in part because of the failure of those Councils, though much more because of the enormous amount I have learned in recent months through Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings, that I now feel Districts too would fail to provide adequate services to the people. The unit to which powers should be decentralized, to use a term that no one can disagree with, is the Division.

I assume that those opposed to the 13th Amendment would not disagree even were I to say that powers should be devolved to the Division, since their worry is not the exercise of such powers by small units, but the potential for challenges to the Centre by a large unit, which assumed it had equal power with the Centre. Conversely, the opposition by those ostensibly in favour of devolution to further empowerment of Divisions is based on the assumption that devolution on the basis of Provinces would amount to autonomy of sorts.

That, however, is not the case at all in terms of the current 13th Amendment, which is why I do not understand the effort to do away with it. The Constitution as amended in 1987 makes it crystal clear that National Policy on all subjects belongs with the Central Government, and this makes a nonsense of claims made by those for or against Provincial Councils.

Unfortunately, those who have framed legislation in this country, including those who hastily cobbled together the 13th amendment, did not bother to understand the principles they were fleshing out. Devolution, as envisioned then, was about power being exercised in the interests of the people by those who were close to them, not by distant decision makers who could only make assumptions about their wishes and needs.

However, given that the principle reason for finding decisions made previously by central government was what seemed a racist approach – as exemplified by language policy in particular, but also land allocation and reduction of opportunities in education and state employment (as noted in the original TULF arguments) – the solution seemed to lie in a separate unit for Tamil speaking people. Thus devolution in 1987 seemed to accept the traditional homelands argument, even though divisions between Tamils and Muslims, and the introduction of a more sane language policy, almost simultaneously made the idea of a North East Unit untenable.

I have told the TNA that continuing harking after merger created the wrong impression, and most of my interlocutors granted that this would be abandoned, but had to be used as a bargaining point. But bargaining points rouse emotions, and the result was that the perfectly acceptable claim, that decision making had to be brought closer to the people, was forgotten, and the debate went back to worries about potential for separatism. And though I believe the TNA leadership does not believe in separatism, elements within it may have different ideas.

The Daily News 16 Nov 2012