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All in the family: Growth and the IMF



By Gamini Seneviratne

(This article was first published in The Island in 2001. It is reproduced, today, given its relevance to the present situation.)

That heading should not be taken to refer to the political micro-families in this and other parts of the world, although within the IMF’s grand design, such ‘families’ do matter. ‘The IMF’ here refers to the entire complex of global predators which it orchestrates.

For those who can laugh at larceny on a grand scale, the growth of such post-regnal family-trees of a much lower order in South Asia is a bit of a joke. From the Bhuttos et al in the west, the Ranas in the north, the Zias et al in the east, the lesser Gandhis, from chemicals, dams, power plants, etc., in the centre, to cement, steel, airlines, ports, arms, peace deals and so on in the south, the tale of treason has many twists to it. The main strand of the rope that binds them all together is provided by the IMF and its relatively poor relative, the World Bank and, its associate banks which do some of the dirty work for it. What matters to us is that the rope is being used to throttle the people in our countries.

It is a pity that Dr. Kumari Jayawardena did not extend her researches to cover those who have become “somebodies” – ugly word – overnight in the past few years, because such an account could not fail to illustrate vividly what is being said here.

The following lines from an old Rugby Song encapsulate the nexus between the IMF/WB, MNCs, and the military power of the west. The money they roll in is from us, but it cannot be extracted without the help of corrupt Presidents, Prime Ministers, other, self-confessed military rulers and their henchmen.

My father manufactures

French Letters,

My sister makes holes with a pin.

My uncle arranges abortions,

My god, how the money rolls in,

rolls in,

My god how the money rolls in!

How does the IMF set about putting into force its programme for destabilising the socio-economic foundation of our people and their manner of living? Dr. Nadeem Ul Haque, the IMF boss in this country and the effective decision maker, (regardless of the World Bank man styling himself ‘Country Manager’), for the apology of a government that has foisted itself on us, has spelt it out in an address to the National Chamber of Exporters last week [The Island, 26th December, 2000].

I have reason to believe that Dr. Haque is a civilized person, and these comments are not directed personally at him. As a South Asian and a national of Pakistan, which we have long regarded as a friend, I have no doubt that he would be ready to be as accommodating towards us as Washington is prepared to permit him to be. It may be taken as read, though, that he has no such leeway. Willy-nilly he is part of the system of extraction globally.

In his talk, Dr. Haque has obviously been conscious that his audience had somewhat limited interests and he has addressed those as any good speaker should do. However, he has, en passant, touched on more vital matters. I comment on those.

They relate to “governance”, trade unions, and “smallness”. Also “imagination”, which is the distinguishing marker of such self-serving constructs as “economic efficiency” which the larger family of the imperial pillagers continues to present to our astonished gaze.

Let us take the matter of “smallness”. Dr. Haque had told our imaginative and hopeful exporters that it has to do with the size of a country or of its population. He has said that small countries must have small governments or government agencies. What he has not said is that they should have small cabinets of ministers: when he refers to the cost of ‘governance’ he has in mind the public services.

What he means is that governments should be put out of business, except in the matter of using its clout to remove “subsidies” on, say, public health, farming, education and the administration of the law and to deliver “incentives” to the oh so efficient! “private sector”.

What Dr. Haque has taken off on is the antipathy of would-be monopolists to “big government”, which means a system of regulation of economic activity in the public interest. The desired end of “reform” is that “big business” is favoured at the cost of the social responsibilities of the institutions that have been set up by the people to act in their behalf.

The IMF has no word at all about “big business” and what one might call, if one were in an especially benign mood this season, its inefficiencies. In fact, you’d have to be pretty sozzled and non compos mentis to buy that shoddy and very private ‘good’.

The cynical exploitation of the consumer by big business following the ‘privatization’, which the IMF has the temerity to come over here and advocate to us yakkos, has long been known in the USA and, more recently, in the UK.

How have those societies dealt with this abomination? In the USA, the remissness of any private centre for medical care or any primary or secondary educational institution [yes, parents do tend to lose interest after their ‘kids’ reach a certain age] could lead to demands for ‘compensation’ in often hefty monetary terms. Lawyers grow rich and enter the league of the ‘big businessman’. So is it with their public services, such as private transport. The internal airlines, all private, in the USA have the worst safety record anywhere in the world. Not to mention the inconvenience they subject their customers to, the baggage they ‘lose’ or the lousy food they serve. Such little things make for an increase in ‘profit’ which, after all, is all that private business is about.

In the UK, we have had quite recently, graphic examples of the outcome of Big Business taking over from Big Government. To give a current example, the common people of that country are crying out for the re-nationalisation of the rail system. Cost-cutting has resulted in the neglect of essential safety procedures and led to horrible accidents. ‘The IMF’ would no doubt point to ‘the bottom line’ on a ledger as proof of the efficiency of private management of that mode of public transport.

And it is not only in those countries, but everywhere, including ‘small’ Sri Lanka, that we have had mass resistance to GMO foods that are being peddled by MNCs, whom it is the IMF’s mandate to support.

And, predictably, we have here the IMF demanding that the government “sheds” itself of its responsibilities by the people. Dr. Haque [I am sorry that I have to keep on referring to him by name, but it is a relatively common name, such as is mine here, and am sure that his namesake, the late Dr. Mahbub Ul Haq, would not have taken offence], asserts that in most “advanced countries” [big] business would consider the need to conform to national laws “a waste”, presumably, of time – and profit. Sure, sure, in the most “advanced” of those countries, [big] business has all the necessary short-cuts to profit opened through ‘lobbyists’, most of them former senators, congressmen or other high officials in the aforementioned ‘big government’

We have Dr. Haque talking about a “labour aristocracy”. Maybe some such phenomenon exists in Australia. We do know however how the labour unions have been manipulated in the USA; for example, the lumber workers have been ‘employed’ to provide a rationale for the continued felling of the old growth forest of over a thousand years of age in Washington and Oregon. The identical motivation occurred when port workers in New York and New Orleans were paid to shove wheat that had been paid for into the sea rather than ship it to you-know-who. In the USA, when the term ‘labour aristocracy’ does acquire meaning, its members are being employed right now to shut out imports of manufactures from the third world. This is in the teeth of the agreements which the USA herself thrust down our throats via the WTO. If the IMF is looking for ‘governance’ it should look to such acts that promote ‘economic efficiency’.

The attempts to emasculate trade unions is a part of that ploy. Here we have the USA arguing strenuously against “low-cost labour” from Asia that compromises the livelihoods of its citizens. And here we have the IMF urging our governments to destroy a supposed “labour aristocracy”. Our organized working class has, largely through the dictates of the IMF, endorsed by servile governments compounded by the actions of an incompetent and utterly corrupt administration [which the IMF has done nothing to bring down – as they cannot until a suitably subservient alternative is found/built up], been compelled to survive a budget that has reduced their own to a shoe-string on one shoe. How would they respond? What, if any, more attacks on them does the IMF have to offer them?

Dr. Haque has also spoken about ‘pampering constituencies’. His, i.e. the IMF’s, gripe is about the ‘constituencies’ that are of no use to them, – in fact, those which get in the way of the larger and the lesser ‘families’ mentioned above. What the IMF has directed its ‘reforms’ towards is the pampering of big business. In South Asia, as elsewhere, the incumbent claimants to state power are the instrument through whom the IMF family operates. The less representative they are of the people, and the more securely armed against the people they are, the better.

The term “reform” should raise hackles, especially among South Asians. We have had so much of it. In this country we had the “Colebrook-Cameron Reforms” a hundred and sixty-seven years ago. They were designed to break down the traditional socio-economic foundations of this country and to use those elements in it which would give, not ‘cheap’ but costless labour for their marauders. The use of that term by the IMF has no connotations other than those of a century and a half ago. Except that the ‘stakes’, as in the betting game, are much higher now.

The primary question that Dr. Haque has raised is “Why has South Asia not grown?” He has also spoken of Singapore et al having looked to us for guidance on “agendas” that we in South Asia, Sri Lanka in particular, had initiated. His thesis is that the winner is the one who crosses the line, – not the one who’s fastest off the mark. It is not possible to countenance such convoluted logic. We have had loads of ‘theory’ on how various countries that were targeted by big business have responded to the ‘windows of opportunity’ that were advanced in the language of the camel seeking refuge. East Asia is held to have ‘developed’ on the rails of a ‘Confucian ethic’ [a matter that I was quizzed on at a ‘brown-bag’ seminar at Cornell ten years ago, long before I was aware of any family connection with that institution]. Does the IMF [or Dr. Haque] have a corresponding culture-based theory about India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka? – a Hindu / Islamic rate of growth, a Christian rate of profligacy, a Theravada level of tolerance and a Mahayana mode of mayhem together bringing about a Buddhist condition of stagnation?

And, finally, lest we forget, a South Asian scale of corruption?

Dr. Haque has spoken of the need to indoctrinate our children towards supporting the education ‘reforms’ that he advocates. Perhaps, he should take some time out to read “The Pearl of Great Price”, the Lalith Athulathmudali memorial oration delivered by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo, Prof. Savithri Goonesekera. The agenda that we set ourselves fifty years ago resulted in a relatively high growth in the life chances of our people. It was precisely the kind of growth that the great family that the IMF speaks for, cannot abide. And that is why those gains have been eroded through ‘market reforms’. The agenda for the control of resources globally is impeded by manifestations of self-sufficiency anywhere. The substance of Dr. Haque’s complaint is that South Asia has not “grown” in the directions desired by transnational capital. With the goals we set ourselves, the money cannot roll in.

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Export-led economy or import substitution?



Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis. Although successive governments may have contributed to this state of affairs, the present government stands directly accused of causing a total collapse of the economy. Three main reasons are given for this sudden downturn; the drastic tax reductions, the fertiliser ban and depletion of dollars due to artificial jacking up of the rupee causing a dollar and rupee crisis. These policies may have succeeded under different circumstances but not when the country is ravaged by a pandemic. However, the inability to foresee the unsuitability of such policies at this time is the failure of our leadership and their economic advisers. There are about 54 countries which are in debt crisis at present but none of them are as hopeless as Sri Lanka.

Historically, the reason for the weakening of the economy is the fact that the expenditure on imports has been higher than the income from exports under successive governments since 1977. In 2014, Sri Lanka spent USD 19 billion on imports while the export earnings have been just USD 11 billion. To meet the difference, we had to borrow and as a result got into debt which at present is about USD 50 billion. Worse, we have been borrowing to live high, pay back loans and even for vanity projects.

Most of the developing countries are deeply in debt and often the debt is much more than their total export earnings. This is a situation that countries with export-led economies have to cope with. Export-led growth attempts to promote the expansion of gross domestic product and per capita income with inflows from export earnings but this seldom happens.Sri Lanka’s earnings from exports was only 23% of the GDP in 2014 and it has been around that figure since 1977. If exports are to be increased to a significant level, we may have to borrow heavily to start export-oriented projects on a large scale which would take us deeper into debt, making repayment almost impossible.

Foreign direct investments and foreign funded industry are the other sources of foreign exchange. What attracts investors mainly is the cheap labour available in the developing countries. Thus, the governments of developing countries are forced to keep wages low to attract investors. The workers may be deprived of an improvement of their living standards that growth is supposed to bring. A good example is Sri Lankan estate workers.

People in countries with export-led economies must produce what people in another country want. The economy therefore depends on foreign demand, when the demand declines the economy suffers. For instance, when the Covid pandemic hit the rich countries the demand for garments dropped and the garment industry suffered. Another problem is access to foreign markets and the competition among producing countries. Further, the governments of the countries which import these items may control the quantities they import through taxes and sometimes through politically motivated sanctions. Thus, the export-led economies are at the mercy of the rich countries.

The global economic system controlled by the Western powers through the Bretton Wood Twins and Washington Consensus does not encourage developing countries to seek alternative means of growth. They give aid to those who follow their instructions which are geared for capital development at the expense of labour. Self-sufficiency is discouraged. Instead, they must remain as suppliers of few commodities and cheap labour to the global market. Sri Lanka supplies tea, garments and cheap labour to West Asia. We have not looked at alternative models. We have not attempted to produce our essential needs, such as food, medicine, building materials, etc. Though these can be locally produced, we import them using foreign exchange earned by exporting tea, garments and cheap labour. And when the demand for these falls, as it happened at the height of the pandemic, our economy becomes so weak that a bungling government could send it crashing.

In 2021, while its economy was struggling, Sri Lanka imported fruits and vegetables worth USD 380 million out of a total of USD 6 billion spent on non-essentials such as cheese, butter, ice-cream, bottled water. We need only USD 300 million to import chemical fertiliser. This was while the farmers were protesting and agriculturists were opposing the fertiliser ban. This, I see as a consequence of not having a well-developed national economy and an import-substitution programme. Self-sufficiency in food was not considered important, and catering to the super rich and tourists became a priority.

Now, the question is whether Sri Lanka will continue with export dependency. More importantly, are we going to spend more than we earn and live beyond our means? Are we going to borrow more and depend on foreign largesse? Don’t these loans and gifts come with strings attached? Will we have to cough up a few more ports or grant federalism?

What has happened has happened, there is no point in crying over spilt milk. The solution lies in our ability to learn to live within our means. We must never import more than we export, if we have no gas we must learn to find alternatives. The energy-efficient Anagi stove made of clay can be used even in Colombo flats. This could develop into an excellent cottage industry which could supply both the stove and firewood made of wood chips, sawdust or paddy husks compressed into cakes for easy storage and use in the stove. If instead the government, to pacify the protesters, import gas with borrowed dollars we will sink deeper in the debt mire. We must get along on a shoestring until we can stand on our own feet. Even IMF loans have their serious disadvantages and no country up to now has developed with IMF aid.In the long run, what Sri Lanka should do is to adopt a strategy to strike a balance between strengthening the domestic demand and export orientation. Import-substitution is a suitable policy for countries which want to come out of the debt trap. Heavy indebtedness, whether for an individual or a country, is a fetter that could restrict forward movement and freedom. It has made us part with ports, fuel storage facility, and sign agreements inimical to the national interest.

Sri Lanka, being predominantly an agricultural country, must give priority to the development of agriculture. Our aim should be to curtail our dependence on imported food items, which could be produced locally. More than 50% of export earnings go for import of food items, half of which could be locally produced. Everything required for agriculture––fertiliser, pesticides and weedicides, seeds and machines––should be locally produced. Big investors may not be interested, for they cannot expect high returns, as the local market is small. Yet, the small farmers could be made into small entrepreneurs and assured of reasonable returns on their investment if the exploitation by rice mill owners and middlemen could be eliminated by government intervention. By this means a quarter of the export bill could be reduced.Renewable energy policy should be fully implemented to reduce expenditure of fuel imports. CEB engineers are not very co-operative and their resistance has to be overcome. The capacity of the petroleum refinery also should be enlarged making use of facilities available at Sapugaskanda, Trincomalee and Hambantota which would further reduce the cost of fuel imports.

Small industries mainly for local needs such as electrical items, kitchen utensils, building materials, small electronic items, fabrics, could also be gradually developed with the aim at import substitution.Sri Lanka has to learn experience and decide whether to continue with the export-led economy, which, as shown above, is subject to external factors beyond our control and which has several disadvantages, including debt accumulation and the threat of sudden collapse. Time is opportune for use to think of import-substitution. The present crisis may offer a good opportunity to make virtue out of necessity and give priority to local production.

N. A. de S. Amaratunga

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Fixing the economic crisis will not stop GotaGoGama



By Jehan Perera

The economy is continuing to deteriorate with barely any dollars in the government’s possession even to pay for essentials such as fuel and medicine. The people will not be able to tolerate more weeks and months of shortages of essential supplies that force them to line up in queues for hours. There is anger seething in people who spend hours standing in queues and those who have seen their real incomes fall by more than a half as prices soar and the rupee sinks. Even though the present economic crisis has its roots in the political system and its weaknesses, the priority at the present time is to salvage the economy and get more dollars to pay for the import of essential commodities. The anger that is building up in society was seen on the fateful evening of May 9 in the attack by government affiliated goons on the GotaGoGama and MinaGoGama protest sites and in the retaliation that followed.

In this turbulent environment UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken up the premiership and the challenge of guiding the destinies of the country as Prime Minister at the time of its worst crisis ever. There is presently much public opposition to this, as the belief prevails that the new prime minister was handpicked to protect those guilty of corruption and mismanagement, in particular President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the rest of his clan.Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is also seen as a person who has been rejected by the people. He comes to the Prime Minister’s position having lost the last election as prime minister and seeing his party reduced from 105 seats to one. This is the sixth occasion on which Ranil Wickremesinghe has become prime minister.

He was first appointed Prime Minister after the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 but had to leave the position the following year when his party lost the general election. Subsequently, he was appointed as the Prime Minister from 2001 to 2004 during the presidency of President Chandrika Bandaranaike, who ended the term of his government prematurely. He was re-elected to be Prime Minister in 2015 only to have President Maithripala Sirisena dismissing him in October 2018. He was reappointed for the fifth time nearly two months later due to a court order. The past experience is that when the President and Prime Minister come from two different political parties the relationship sours and mistrust grows.


The possibility of a similar fate is present this time too. But it can also be different. The Prime Minister’s hope, and the country’s too, will be that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a changed man having learnt from bitter experience that he has been at the receiving end of self-seeking and irrational advice. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has shown his mettle in taking up the challenge of heading the government at this time. He has been appointed Prime Minister in a parliament in which he is the only parliamentarian from his own party. He is too intelligent not to know the odds that are stacked up against him. He has twice had the bitter experience of working with Presidents from rival political parties.

The ruling party members are likely to have their own ideas of what needs to be done and may not cooperate with the Prime Minister who comes from a political party that has been their traditional rival. Therefore, the role that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will need to play is crucial to the success of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. He will need to ensure that the ruling party members fall in line with the policies of austerity, sustainability and a respect for human rights that will be able to attract the necessary financial aid flows from the western countries and institutional lenders, such as the World Bank and IMF.In terms of the 20th Amendment that he has pledged to give up soon, the President has the power to decide on ministerial positions and even to dissolve Parliament after the passage of two years and six months from the date of its election. These are threats that the ruling party parliamentarians are likely to take seriously even if they do not like being in this situation.

The untrammeled powers of the presidency that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa currently holds can be used to create the space for the Prime minister to make his decisions and ensure that the rest of the government falls in line. The key need is to restore economic and political stability and the broken trust between the government and people. Parliamentary debates during the coming week will have to deal with two immediate issues – voting on the nomination of the Prime Minister and the election of the Deputy Speaker. Winning a majority vote by one side in Parliament will only lead to further polarisation within the house, which will do little to deal with economic issues facing the country. The President needs to make an appeal to achieve a consensus through consultations among political party leaders as the way forward in the larger interest of Sri Lanka.


In the meantime, the continuation of the Aragalaya (struggle) at Galle Face and elsewhere in the country can be the external check and balance on the government. The positive feature of this protest movement is that it has brought together the different ethnicities, religions, social classes and the older generations to be with the younger. The main target of the Aragalaya remains the president and the misuse of his presidential powers. Therefore, President Rajapaksa cannot continue to long use or misuse his presidential powers in a continuation of practices that have led to the present crisis. Even if the Prime Minister is able to ease the economic crisis, the political crisis will remain especially if the President does not engage in the political reform he has promised and which the people demand.The Aragala site on Vesak night was packed with people in the same way it was 37 days previously when the protests at Galle Face overlooking the Presidential Secretariat first commenced. As it was then, the main target of the protestors was the President as evinced by the name they gave the site GotaGoGama.

The undiminished commitment of a core group of activists has sustained the protests through scorching sun, rainstorms and, latterly, a government goon assault. Their commitment is reflective of a countrywide desire to cleanse politics of its corruption and abuse of power. Time has taken its toll and there are fewer tents than there were at the beginning stages of the protests. People have their jobs to keep and lives to lead. But there are still enough who come even irregularly to keep the torch alight. Some even bring their children so that the torch may last through the next generation.

The Aragalaya has achieved important outcomes in the past month and much more than could have been anticipated before it commenced. It forced the resignation of the most successful politician this country has ever seen, who lost his way due to the dismantling of the system of checks and balances that he contributed to in the biggest measure. It has led the President to accept the need to repeal the 20th Amendment and thereby reduce the powers of the presidency, to take steps to ensure an all-party interim government and to consider the abolition of the Executive Presidency. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, has said that the GotaGoGama should be institutionalised and the facilities available there enhanced. This will also help to ensure that the President and Prime minister keep to their promises.

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A way out of today’s constitutional impasse and the way forward



The citizens right to recall their elected representatives :

By Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan and SCC Elankovan

After 30 days of sustained peaceful agitation led by youth and supported by thousands of ordinary citizens all over the country Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa finally resigned after many weeks of turmoil and back and forth efforts to retain his position. The Cabinet of Ministers had resigned twice earlier. The resignation came close on the heels of a meeting at the Prime Minister’s residence where he addressed SLPP party supporters after which they descended on the un-armed and peaceful protestors, mercilessly attacking them, not sparing even the women and old people, burning and breaking everything they could get their hands on, while the security forces looked on. Despite the strong-arm tactics, curfew, emergency regulations and the threat of legal action, the protests continue calling for the resignation of the President who, on the strength of the 20th Amendment, has absolute power.The people of this country are asking for accountability. This, in effect, is an exercise of the Right of Recall by the Voters, the people exercising their Right to recall their representatives where they have acted against their interests, mismanaged and brought the country to a state of economic collapse after allegedly being involved in rampant corruption and nepotism.

This protest campaign is giving rise to debate and discussion not just among academics but on the streets and in homes, as to what are the citizens’ democratic rights where their elected representatives do not act in their interests but in an arbitrary and authoritarian way, causing loss and deprivation to the citizens even to the extent as happened recently of inciting violence causing injury to person and property. The other point at issue is how can the impasse be resolved where the citizens demand that the President and the government go and the President and government refuse to depart. It is in this context that we put forward the right of recall as a way to resolve the situation and as being one which the people themselves are voicing through their actions.

“Citizens right to recall the representatives they elected”.This right is premised on the principle of the peoples ‘sovereignty. The Constitution of Sri Lanka, Article 2 states ‘Sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable’.The Right of Recall is an instrument to enhance accountability among elected representatives and gives the electors a method of asserting their sovereignty without having to wait for the elapse of the period till the next election. It is argued that the representatives of the people, holding public office, are answerable to the people and expected to work for the people. If they act contrary to the peoples’ interests and continue in Office against the wishes of the people they could, on the basis of this principle, be recalled.The process of a Recall is a political one and different from the impeachment process which is legal and predicated on certain grounds being proven as well as the support of two-thirds of the members of Parliament for such resolution, (see Article 38 of the Constitution). As things stand, it is virtually impossible to impeach the President. As the majority of people in the Country wish to do away with this President and his government in whom they have lost confidence and the President refuses to step down there is a Constitutional impasse. Hence, we have to consider alternate methods for removing him and I would submit that in the present circumstances prevailing in the Country after the collapse of the economy and now governance, we should consider the Right of Recall as an option.

Sri Lanka, is one of the oldest democracies in South Asia. But today it is a travesty of democracy. The Government, headed by a President who wields unrestricted and wide ranging powers, has ruined and bankrupted the country, which is in the throes of an economic crisis where even the basic necessities are now in short supply and people have to queue up for food, fuel and even medicine, with electricity cuts affecting the output of factories and even small businesses and hence livelihoods. In spite of the non-violent demonstrations and agitation of citizens from every walk of life and every community and religion, and where the entire country has lost confidence in the President, extending even to the whole parliamentary system, the President refuses to step down because he maintains that he was elected by a majority of electors for a specific term. This is indeed a mockery of Democracy.

It must be noted that apart from the mismanagement, corruption and subversion of the judicial processes that marked this regime the autocratic methods of policy making and political culture of authoritarianism have contributed to the resulting economic down turn. This too requires systemic and structural changes. It is now being proposed by the BASL, and some political parties, that the solution lies in doing away with the 20th Amendment under which excessive powers were conferred upon the Executive Presidency under the fallacy that a strong presidency would guard the Country against the security lapses that happened during the Easter Sunday terrorist attack and drive quick economic development. The provisions of the 19th Amendment, under which checks and balances were provided, will be re-enacted as the draft 21st Amendment with some modification or changes where needed and could be passed by the present Parliament as the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. It is submitted that the citizens Right to Recall their Representatives should also be included in this enactment

Indian Experience

The Right of Recall has come to be accepted in India at a local government or municipal level. The Right of Recall has been a part of the political discourse in neighbouring India, and was even discussed at the Constituent Assembly during the Constitution drafting process 1946-1949. It was argued that it would help in the political education of the people and encourage voters to think, but on the other side it was contended that it would be improper to provide this right at the infancy of Indian democracy and could lead to political rivalry and render the Constitution a battle ground. For these reasons Dr. Ambedkar did not accept this amendment. Sardar Vallabai Patel also discussed this proposed amendment. In 1974 a constitutional amendment bill on voters’ right to recall elected representatives was brought in the Lok Sabha by CK Chandrappan and Atul Bihari Vajpayee the BJP leader had supported it, but the Bill did not pass. The former speaker of the Indian Parliament Somnath Chatterjee had also sought to introduce the Right to Recall to ensure accountability. However, the Election Commission of India was not in favour.

Most recently, in 2016, the Representation of the People Amendment Bill was introduced by Varun Gandhi in the Lok Sabha, to recall Members of Parliament and Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs), but was unsuccessful. However, it has been implemented at the panchayat level in the Grama Sabha and also at the municipal level in a number of states, including UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and in Punjab. In a country, such as India, with its large population introducing this principle at the level of the State legislative Assemblies and the Lok Sabha (Union Parliament) would pose many logistic and other problems, besides which the rural voters are not so politically educated and literacy levels, especially among older people, is still low. Hence it is not practicable to introduce this right at the higher levels.

In other countries

The right of recall has come to be accepted in many countries. We would like to draw attention to the UK (United Kingdom), Recall of MPS Act passed in March 2016. This Act makes provision for constituents to be able to recall their MP and call a by-election. Other countries like the US, Germany, Ecuador, Japan, Canada, etc., have this provision but generally at the local government or municipal level. A few state legislatures in the US have this provision, for example the State of Wisconsin. In Canada the only Province or territory with Recall election law currently in force is British Columbia. The law requires 40% of the voters to sign the petition and thereafter the petition has to be validated by the Election Commission. In Germany provisions for Recall of members of the State Parliaments of Germany, exist in five of the federal states. All these states allow for the recall of the entire legislature by triggering a new election. .

That this principle has been a matter of political discourse over a long period of time is shown in a letter by George Washington to his nephew in 1787, quoted in Edward Fallone’s book on this subject, which states as follows: “The power will always be in the people. It is entrusted for certain defined purposes and for a limited period to representatives of their own choosing, whenever it is executed contrary to their interest or not agreeable to their wishes their servants can and undoubtedly will be recalled”.

In Sri Lanka, with its small and politically educated population of 22 million and high literacy level, the right to recall principle could be introduced without much difficulty and would help to enhance the quality of Sri Lanka’s representative government as members of Parliament would be more mindful of their parliamentary duties when they know they can be “recalled”. The actions of citizens stepping in, recognising that the only way to save the country was for them to act and demand the resignation of the President and the government they elected is an example of the exercising of the right to recall. In fact, the electoral system in Sri Lanka permits the sitting member to be replaced by the next person on the list so it would not be necessary to go for an expensive election either. In the case of the President, if we were to follow this procedure where a certain percentage of the persons who voted for him submit a petition to the Election Commission to have him recalled, the question would arise as to who would take his place or what procedure should be followed in doing so. If it involves another election this may not be possible in the present conditions and the financial straits in which the country finds itself, but I trust this is a matter which can be studied and resolved satisfactorily through for example a Parliament being given the task of electing the new President.

The report of the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform 2016 noted that citizens throughout the country demanded that the right to recall and modalities for implementing the same be included in a new Constitution. Now, we could argue that our fellow citizens have demonstrated and actually made this “Right to Recall” functional in deposing the government and that it is therefore the moment for legislators to acknowledge the citizens’ action by including this right as part of the envisaged 21st Amendment.

We would caution that the right to recall is but one of the wide-ranging changes that should be made to introduce a system of governance to increase the level of accountability of public representatives. Further, changes which take cognizance of the principle of subsidiarity and give due place to local government and Provincial Councils are also equally important. This will make for a more participatory democracy in which the minority communities and other layers of society who remain structurally disempowered can share power, too. This could be incorporated into the 21st Amendment or be the subject of a separate Amendment, but brought in parallel. The abolition of the Executive Presidency per se, is also an urgent requirement but might also require a referendum.

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