I was quite flattered recently when I was told by a former public servant, for whom I had the greatest regard, that I was probably the first politician since S W R D Bandaranaike to be so interested in Local Government. I am not sure that this is quite correct, not only because I am not really a politician, but also because I think President Premadasa did a lot of work in this field. But nevertheless it set me thinking on why the subject has not had the attention it deserves.

This is sad because other countries have moved forward significantly in this sphere. Indeed some of the hot air now being blown about with regard to India and its role in our introduction of the 13th Amendment would I think be dissipated if we looked at what India has actually done, since that Amendment was introduced, to bring government closer to the people.

The 13th Amendment came about quite simply because centralized government had been too distant from the people. While this was obviously the case with regard to the needs of minority communities, which also suffered because of exclusivist language policies, we should also remember that rural majority communities also suffered because of a majoritarianism that did not take the concerns of the marginalized into account. Hence indeed the two Southern youth insurrections.

In the eighties, when command structures still dominated thinking in the sub-continent, the only alternative available to excessive centralization was the empowerment of large subordinate units. India had the States and we had Provinces. The option of Districts, which seemed at the time also to make sense, had been destroyed by the bad faith with which the Jayewardene government held elections to District Development Councils and then stymied their work.

But since then India discovered the greater virtues of stronger Local Government. Unfortunately we have not thought of studying the Panchayat system that India introduced in the nineties, just about the time when President Premadasa increased the responsibilities of local government units through not only Pradeshiya Sabhas but also Divisional Secretariats.

Unfortunately his reforms did not also enhance accountability to the people, which is essential if local government does not become simply another tier for rent seeking politicians. That is why I hope very much that the current proposed reforms will entrench consultation mechanisms as well as reporting structures that ensure not just financial accountability but also accountability as to goals and objectives.

In this context I am sad too that we are not also studying South Africa, another country where the initially agreed Constitution has been radically revised through greater power to Local Government institutions. Mandela and de Klerk worked out a way of transmitting power smoothly at the Centre from a minority government to one that was democratically elected. But the ANC then instituted Local Government Reforms that ensured power in relevant areas would be exercised by the people themselves through units that were more readily responsive to needs.

I had hoped that the government delegation that visited South Africa would look into this, and perhaps this was the reason the President had initially wanted me to go, even though it was supposedly an SLFP delegation and I was not a member, as I told him, of the SLFP. But unfortunately in the end only SLFP members went, and sadly none of them seems concerned with such matters.

How has this happened to the party founded by Bandaranaike, who understood so well the importance of Local Government, and who made his name through innovative work in the field when he first held Ministerial Office in State Council days? The answer was suggested by the thinker who drew my attention to Bandaranaike’s early commitment, in noting that the creation of the Federal Party introduced a very different perspective. Instead of being a vehicle for increasing responsiveness to people’s needs, devolution became instead a method of enhancing the power of regional politicians who had set themselves in opposition to the Centre.

The situation is parallel to what has happened in the last quarter of a century with regard to the idea of Federalism. In the eighties, when I did not think the word of particular consequence, Federalism was a mechanism used in countries such as the United States and Brazil and India and Australia to bring together different units. In the nineties however, with the break up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, Federalism became a means of identifying units that would have a right of secession.

This does not need to be the case, but I fear that recent international practice by powerful players highlights the danger, just as the rhetoric employed in Sri Lanka, perhaps as long ago as the forties, suggested such problems. I can understand then that Bandaranaike’s early concern for strengthening Local Government mellowed.

The change in perceptions that has occurred highlights the distinction between those who proposed devolution on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity, and those who saw it as a means of entrenching the concept of a homeland. That is why the Liberal Party, whilst supporting devolution, has consistently been opposed to the merger of the North and East. The size and geographical extent of such a Unit would make nonsense of the idea that devolution would empower units distant from the Centre. On the contrary, it would facilitate the development of confrontational approaches.

Without the merger however, I see no reason to continue wary of Provincial Councils. Yet the principle of people’s empowerment would be immeasurably enhanced if we also at the same time looked at what other countries have done to enhance Local Government institutions. I can only hope this is done quickly, and with proper understanding of the needs that are best addressed through local consultation as well as decision making.

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