The unity of this country will be immeasurably enhanced by giving the regions a greater say in decisions made at the Centre – for even the proponents of maximum devolution grant that certain decisions, in particular those relating to national security issues, must be made at the Centre. That is why the Liberal Party has long advocated a Second Chamber, and that doubtless is why the President made that a feature of his manifesto.

Unfortunately implementation of the President’s manifesto has been left to politicians who exercise power by virtue to the current Constitution. This perhaps is the reason they have not moved on the President’s more imaginative proposals. The position of the Executive Head of the country will not be affected by the reforms this country so urgently needs, but Parliamentarians might think a Second Chamber would take away from their authority – though in fact, as the assessment of the role of Parliamentarians by a former Secretary General makes clear, they have no authority at all any more as Parliamentarians.

Given this lack of a role as far as legislation is concerned, it is not surprising that they spend an excessive amount of time and energy on constituency issues. This is well and good, but unfortunately, unless the MP is sensitive, this can take away from the role of local government. That in turn may explain why there has been no attempt to move also on another idea the President has advanced, which is to revive local government, in particular through the idea of Gramya Raj, village empowerment.

Unfortunately, because no one in government has skills of conceptualization, it has not been pointed out that this is the most productive way of fulfilling the President’s commitment to what is termed 13 plus. He has recognized that the current system of devolution is inadequate, but obviously he would not want to increase the powers of regional politicians in a way that would threaten the hard won unity of the country.

Given the increasing demands made by regional politicians who wield authority – leading to efforts in India for instance of what the Minister of External Affairs described recently in Chandigarh as efforts to federalize foreign policy – it is clear that limits should be clear. While regional governments should be empowered in fields through which they can benefit people better than the Centre can, they should not set themselves up as alternatives to Central authority in fields which require uniform policy and practice.

At the same time it must be recognized that regional governments will necessarily be as ineffective as the Centre in dealing swiftly with problems that affect the day to day lives of people. That is why many countries have in recent years developed strong systems of local government. India for instance, which provided a blueprint for the 13th amendment, way back in 1987, subsequently introduced a Panchayat system, and this is something we should emulate.

South Africa, which has tried to assist us to move forward on reconciliation, though unfortunately no one in Sri Lanka seems interested in this, developed a very effective system of local government subsequent to the initial settlement worked out by the apartheid government and Nelson Mandela twenty years ago. The team sent from Sri Lanka should have studied that and come back with new ideas, but apart from the fact that ideas do not seem of interest to our politicians, one got the impression that they saw what should have been a learning experience as a bore.

The trip was to be postponed, until it was realized that leaving it till this year would serve no purpose. But after the visit there were other distractions, and we see no outcome at all, more than half a year later. Of course it is possible that, in emulation of Mandela, our team is working quietly and conscientiously to find a solution – but I suspect the impetus to a solution that strengthening local government would provide is not on the agenda, given our neglect over the years of local bodies.

This is a pity, because they can so easily do so much more. At present they have seven areas of responsibility, which include community services and health and sanitation. But these services have not been fleshed out over the years, to take account of modern needs. Thus education is still entrusted to the Centre and to the Province, whereas it is obvious that neither of those distant authorities can have a clear understanding of the local situation and local needs.

The President understood something of the sort, when in his last Budget Speech he noted that transport for schools – and for markets too, which also makes sense – would become a local responsibility. But I see no signs of that idea being implemented, just as there has been no attempt to implement his idea of the school based recruitment of teachers.

In short, hoping for reforms on the basis of administrative decisions will take us nowhere. Powers need to be specifically allocated, along with systems that will ensure accountability to the people. Thus, though in theory we have various methods of consultation, these are not mandatory, and we have not laid down systems of recording decisions and ensuring follow up.

This can be done easily, if we lay down in the job descriptions of Grama Niladharis a responsibility to conduct regular consultations, with a system of reporting on this to the local authority, either the Pradeshiya Sabha or the Divisional Secretariat, responsible for any field of action. Those authorities should in turn be required to take action and report back on this. If they cannot act, they should refer matters to the next level of government and also report back, with commitment to a response within a fixed period.

If such provisions were statutory, the people would get a better service, and reliance on empire building politicians, at whatever level, would be reduced.

Daily News 10 May 2013 – http://www.dailynews.lk/2013/05/10/fea04.asp

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