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In defence of Provincial Councils

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By Dr. Nrmala Chandrahasan

The Provincial Councils, like the windmills in Cervante’s Don Quixote, are having brickbats thrown at, and cantankerous knights tilting at them. In this piece I would like to answer some of the criticisms made against the Provincial Councils. But before I do so I note that the Prime Minister has announced that the Provincial Council elections will be held once the ground situation is ready for it. This welcome statement puts paid to all the critics, it being generally acknowledged that the Prime Minister as an experienced and consummate politician would know the political climate in the country and act accordingly.

One of the frequent criticisms is that the Provincial Councils were imposed upon the Sri Lankan polity by the Government of India. To recapitulate the sequence of events, following upon the July 1983 pogrom (riots) against the Tamil citizens of the Country and the outbreak of civil unrest in Sri Lanka, the then Prime minister of India, Shrimathi Indhira Gandhi sent an envoy as part of a diplomatic initiative to find ways of bringing the country back to normalcy. A process of negotiations was begun between the Governments of India and Sri Lanka with India playing the role of an interlocutor bringing the Tamil parties and the Government of Sri Lanka to the negotiating table, in order to solve the ongoing insurgency by Tamil militants and the ethnic problem in the island through Constitutional proposals. The outcome of these negotiations were the India –Sri Lanka: Agreement to Establish Peace and Normalcy in Sri Lanka, i. e. the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord in July 1987, and the drawing up of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the Provincial Councils Act no: 42 of November 1987. By virtue of these two Acts Provincial Councils were set up. The opponents of the Provincial Councils argue that it is not a homegrown institution but one imposed by a foreign power. In this connection I would refer the readers to a very informative and well-researched article by Professor Gamini Keerawella in The Island newspaper of 16th September 2020 titled “Genealogy of Concept and Genesis of 13th Amendment”, in which he traces the genesis of Provincial Councils from the Donoughmore Commission Recommendations in 1931 ,through the Regional Councils of the Bandaranaike –Chelvanayakam pact 1956 , the Dudley Senanayake –Chelvanayakam agreement, and even the promised but not forthcoming Devolution proposals made by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government before the 1974 bye-elections in Kankesanthurai. This proves that the matter of devolution and provincial councils has been on the political anvil in this country for a long time and is not a foreign imposition but a home grown one.

In fact the 13th Amendment came out of extensive discussions between the J. R .Jayewardene government and the TULF the Tamil party led by Mr. Amithalingam, in July- August 1986. Secretary to the discussion was Felix Dias Abeysinghe retired Commissioner of Elections. The indo-Sri Lanka treaty was signed one year later in July 1987. The 13th Amendment and the Provincial Councils Act were passed in November 1987. One might say that the leverage for the passing of the 13th Amendment was the Treaty between India and Sri Lanka which provided for devolution. In the negotiations the TULF negotiating team were no match for the astute Mr. Jayewardene who outmanoeuvred them. It was only subsequently that they came to realise that the Bills as framed were below their expectations and they distanced themselves from the whole exercise. Mr Amirthalingam in a letter to Shri Rajiv Gandhi in October 1987, set out his disappointment with the two Bills, saying that contrary to the belief that the Chapter pertaining to Provincial Councils would confer on the Provinces a measure of credible autonomy,the present Bills enabled Parliament and the Central Executive to continue to exercise its authority even in respect of those powers conferred on the Province . In my view the problem lay with the Provincial Councils Act which negates many of the powers given under the 13th Amendment. This could have been, and can still be remedied by a few amendments to the Provincial Councils Act. I will return to this later.

Although the Provincial Councils and the devolution proposals were meant for the North East which were the Tamil speaking part of the country and intended to settle the ongoing armed conflict, the Jayewardene government extended the Provincial Council system to all the provinces of the country. Hence the present Provincial Council system is based not on any specific regional or ethnic criteria but is directed to all the people of the country and seeks to empower the people in their own localities be it in Jaffna or Matara. This system allows for decisions pertaining to the Provinces to be taken closer to the local people and communities and not only by politicians and bureaucrats in Colombo, i. e. the ‘Colombites’ to use a phrase coined by Gomin Dayasri. In hindsight this was a good move as it made it an all island system. Thus, we might say that the Indian intervention brought something that was beneficial to the country and to all the communities. However, foreign intervention may not always bring good results. A lesson to be learnt from this episode is that when you do not keep your house in order and there is dissension and disaffection, the neighbours and not so near neighbours will certainly want to look in, seeking to interfere and usually it is for their own benefit. If at the behest of a few people, i. e. ultranationalists and authoritarian oriented elements, we start to upset the existing political system and cause the minority communities to feel insecure and agitated it can once again lead to a situation where third parties intervene. The best policy is to keep the ship afloat, particularly in the context of the grim economic situation without destabilising the political structure by abolishing the Provincial Councils, as is being suggested in some quarters.

Another criticism made is that the province is not the appropriate unit of devolution. As a counter to this I would refer to the Majority Report of the Experts Committee appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006 to advise on the constitutional changes, and of which i was myself a member. I cite from the Report as follows, “Unit of Devolution. The group held extensive discussions on the various options and the different aspects of the options. We are of the view that a unit of devolution should as far as practicable consist of geographically contiguous territory, be conducive to balanced regional development and be designed to enhance administrative efficiency. Differences in endowments are to be expected among units. In this context, the group is of the view that the appropriate Unit of Devolution would be the Province”. I might mention that there were no members of any political party in the Experts panel which included lawyers, academics and experienced members of the judicial and administrative services and the discussions were based on factual and spatial considerations.

Another criticism made is that the Provincial Councils are like white elephants and have not been effective in delivering any services to the people while the State incurs additional expenses in keeping them running. This criticism has some substance to it and the reasons for its inability to deliver have to be examined while comparing it to similar bodies in other countries. In the United Kingdom which is a Unitary state similar powers have been devolved on the different ethnic regional units, i. e. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, (which is the Province of Ulster). All these units have their own legislative assemblies, and in the case of Scotland a Parliament while at the same time they are represented in the Parliament in West Minster. In India too which has a quasi-federal Constitution the States have a Governor and Legislative Assemblies exercising powers not very different from those set out in the 13th Amendment. In all the above instances devolution has worked efficiently and the regional/ provincial units have been able to work efficiently and deliver the required services to the people. So we have to see why Provincial Councils in Lanka have not worked so well.

To begin with in order to work efficiently adequate financial funding is required. Under the provisions of the Provincial Councils Act the Governor of the Province is given a controlling power over the finances of the province. The Provincial Council cannot pass any Statue imposing or abolishing any taxes without the consent of the Governor. Governors have not been cooperative in this regard. Hence the Councils have to depend largely on Central grants. The report of the Parliamentary Sub – Committee on Centre –Periphery Relations, November 2016, points out that in addition to the limited tax raising power vested in the Provinces are the limitations placed on obtaining loans and investments, and on seeking or at least administering projects financed by foreign aid and investments. The Committee concluded that “the corrosive effect of inadequate or unprincipled financing arrangements is that they impair Provincial and local service delivery, leading to an erosion of confidence in what are constitutionally established democratic institutions”.

The Provincial Councils Act gives the Governor control of the Provincial Public service and the provincial Public Service Commission. These are powers which even the President does not exercise over the National Public service. In Provinces where the ruling party at the Centre is also the party in control of a Provincial Council, Governors have been less assertive of their prerogatives and the Chief Ministers have been better able to operate efficiently. However, the Provincial Councils of the North and the East have had less leeway. In India on the other hand the Governors of the States act like constitutional heads and do not take over executive functions.

Another area which needs re-organization is the administrative service in the Province. The Majority Report of the Experts Committee 2006, recommended that for devolution of power to be effective it should be devoid of duality and hence there should be a restructuring of the administration in the Provincial. Another matter of concern is that of the allocation of subjects. Although the 13th Amendment sets out the allocation of subjects between the Province and the Centre in two lists and a third concurrent list, there are overlapping powers and the Provincial area of competence has come to be circumscribed. In order to function efficiently there has to be clarity in the allocation of subjects and this too is a matter which has to be looked into. I have outlined the shortcomings of the Provincial Council system which have impeded their efficient functioning. Most of these stem from the Provincial Councils Act . This Act can be amended by a simple majority in Parliament. The administrative changes and restructuring of the administrative services in the Province can be done by gazette notifications by the President as provided for in the 13th Amendment itself. This will not need any major constitutional changes.

Despite its shortcomings and the restrictions and encroachments by the Central Government, the Provincial Council system has taken root in the Country. It provides for people to enter into and engage in political activity at the Provincial level. Persons who have gained experience of political issues at the local level can thereafter gravitate to the national level. The minorities Tamil and Muslim are able to feel that they have some say in the management of their own affairs and within their localities. This is a safety valve which is necessary in any multi- ethnic state, as we see in the United Kingdom (UK) where the ethnic Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have devolution of powers in respect of their local areas. Without attempting to do away with the Provincial Council System it should be implemented in full while making the necessary changes through amendments and administrative action, so as to make them more efficient in the delivery of services to the people in their localities.

Provincial Councils have been part of the Sri Lankan Constitution for over 30 years. It is time the bureaucrats in Colombo and the government ministers stopped viewing them with suspicion or antipathy, and saw them as supportive institutions in the governance of the country, making for a more efficient administration and a more democratic form of governance for the whole country. The Tamil parties could, by working towards meaningful devolution and further empowered systems of Provincial Councils and Local Authorities, become engaged in a process that is in the national interest while promoting the aspirations and interests of the Tamil speaking people. It is to be hoped that the Provincial Council elections will be held early in the coming year and the continuity of the existing political system maintained.

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SLAF on hazardous wall, Sri Lanka Air Force has sent us the following statement……

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Sri Lanka Air Force has sent us the following statement in response to an article (That hazardous Ratmalana Wall) published on 21 Jan.

It is with regret that I would like to inform you that the newspaper article titled “That Hazardous Ratmalana Wall” published in The “Island” newspaper of 21 January 2021 contains false information which has not been clarified from the Air Force Director Media nor any other official channel of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF).

It should also be highlighted that the Sri Lanka Air Force does not wish to challenge the freedom of reporting information by journalists. However, news articles of this nature published with the use of unsubstantiated information tarnishes the image of Sri Lanka Air Force.

The newspaper article in concern has caught the attention of the Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force. As alleged in the article, the Commander has not declared on behalf of the SLAF that there is no objection for the removal of the wall and replacing it with a fence. On the contrary he had in fact stated that a collapsible wall could be put in place of the permanent wall which should have a solid finish obstructing the view from outside due to security reasons.

In addition, to date there has been no incident/accident reported at the Ratmalana Airfield related to the wall along the Galle Road. Further, vehicles such as passenger coach/container etc; travelling on the main road would be taller than the wall in concern and according to the article, the main road would also have to be closed each and every time when an aircraft approaching of taking off from that end of the runway. International runway due to limitations which is also can be considered as hazardous to flight safety, SLAF consider Flight Safety is a paramount important factor as an organization which operates different types of aircraft over the years from this airfield.

It is pertinent to mention the wall in concern was erected by the SLAF before year 2009 with the consent of the Airport and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL) to address the security concerns at that time and maintained to date. The outer perimeter security of the Colombo International Airport at Ratmalana is being provided by the SLAF free of charge over years. As a measure of gratitude, with the consent of AASL and the approval of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), SLAF authorized to erect hoardings along this wall and to utilize the funds generated for welfare measures of airmen.

Further, publishing of an article which has an author with a fictional name will have serious and adverse effects on the newspaper as well as the goodwill which prevails between SLAF and AASL. The goodwill which prevails between the SLAF and your esteemed Organization will also be adversely effected by articles of this nature. SLAF Directorate of Media always provide accurate and precise information to media institutions which has an impact on general public as well as to other organizations. Undersigned is contactable any time of the day through mobile (0772229270) to clarify ambiguities of SLAF related information.

In conclusion, I would like to express our displeasure regarding the newspaper article in concern and the damage which has been done to the good name of the Sri Lanka Air Force and in particular to the Commander of Air Force.

 

WADC WIJESINGHE

Group Captain

DIRECTOR MEDIA

for COMMANDER OF THE AIR FORCEs

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Dog-eat-dog culture

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By Rajitha Ratwatte

There is an old joke that goes around regularly about Sri Lankans’ in hell. How absolutely no guards are needed to keep Lankans in hell because they do a very good job of pulling each other down into hell when anyone even looks like they will escape. When you extrapolate that into real life in the Pearl, the examples are plenty. All of us have personal experiences of neighbours, peers, relations and even our bosses “cutting us” as the popular phrase goes. It is mostly those who either realise and watch out for these pitfalls or those who clearly identify a powerful figure to “bum suck” for want of a better word that display pure unadulterated sycophancy to, that “progress” to propagate these trends in the future. This I believe is something that is triggered by the basest of all human emotions, jealousy, and probably egged on by a sense of insecurity as well.

One would expect that in a nation of devout Buddhists such reprehensible behaviour would be addressed and controlled. Alas it is not to be and looks like it never will be.

It is rather disconcerting to observe that this behaviour is ‘going strong’ among the Lankan community in this the land of the “long White Cloud” as well. The more I live here and mix with the community, the more I hear about people who try to start new projects or give fruition to new and possibly brilliant schemes who have been stymied by fellow citizens born in the Pearl. They indulge in the anonymous letter method (that dates back from time immemorial) made even easier by using false identities, and “one-off” e mail addresses on the web. They inform all government authorities of what they believe are attempts to break the law of their adopted country. If there are bilateral trade agreements, they diligently contact the other parties and try to cast aspersions on the people concerned. They even inform the management of any company that these people with the new ideas may be working at, that their employee may be breaking a sub clause in his contract and thinking of doing some other business while working for them. All triggered by a wonderful sense of self-righteousness from people who don’t think twice about breaking the law when it concerns their own affairs!

As a result, those who have had a measure of success, guard their positions very carefully and a few who have tried to include other Lankans in their operations have learned hard lessons from those who stole their trade secrets and started rival businesses on their own. I daresay this happens in other communities too, but among the Chinese and Indian communities that form similar minorities in Aotearoa, there are official networks formed to help new immigrants. There are schemes and methods in place to help their people do business, especially in the field of imports, to try and reach some sort of equilibrium with regard to the balance of trade between Aotearoa and their home countries. Sri Lanka imports so much milk from New Zealand but almost nothing of our spices, gems and jewellery, tourism products or even our tea that used to have a much larger share of the market, are imported.

In these desperate economic times, shouldn’t the government be looking at ways to improve our export trade? There are so many pockets and communities of Lankans in so many different countries who are doing well enough to be able to afford some luxuries from their home countries but have to pay exorbitant prices or do without. A recent import of ‘sweet meats’ for Sinhala New Year saw such a massive offtake that great plans for expansion were disrupted by Covid-19, before the Lankan rivals could put paid to it. Although such plans were in place!

Something that is rather obvious to those observing the antics in the Pearl from outside is that there seems to be no plan. Innovative thinking, especially in the field of ‘non-traditional’ exports does not exist. We have all seen how fickle tourism is. Using our fertile soil and the artistic skills of our people to build a reputation for quality exports has been totally neglected in recent times. I daresay the relevant ministries and export bodies exist, but it is a well-known fact that they simply serve as JOBS for political catchers, who do nothing except enjoy a foreign junket or two every year on account of the taxpayer.

That brilliant marketing idea of the Ceylon Tea Centers was so far ahead of its time that no one really understood it. We had the best retail locations in some of the greatest cities in Europe and the UK and were building up a great reputation for serving quality tea and promoting our cuisine. It should have been expanded to handle handicraft products on the lines of Laksala and even spices. Of course, promoting our culture, hospitality and tourism would have followed. There are two ways to handle a crisis. We can either put up our shutters and slide deeper and deeper into the mire of debt and economic ruin, or take some bold steps, make innovative investments and take a gamble on products and ideas that are endemic to our country.

 

Even if the latter method fails the end result couldn’t be much worse! Go down fighting I say! Rather than ask expatriates to come back and try to work in a totally corrupt and politician dominated society, approach expatriates with ideas in other countries and back them to promote those ideas if they show real economic benefits to our land. Not everything will work but even a 5% success rate is better than nothing at all.

It is also acknowledged that RANIL has been reappointed as leader of the UNP. Now then, what does this mean? Is it that the Uncle-Nephew party has stuck to tradition or does it mean that at least some people have realized that an experienced politician with world recognition and a certain amount of credibility in the first world, is useful to have around? Search your minds all you critics who blamed absolutely everything on Ranil. Have a dispassionate look at the Muppets in parliament and think for yourself what sort of account they would give of themselves on the world stage. After you do this, place Ranil on the world stage next to those morons and realize for yourself the DIFFERENCE!

 

fromoutsidethepearl@gmail.com

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Lenin comes to town (again)

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By Gwynne Dyer

When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned to Moscow on Sunday after convalescing in Germany from an attempted poisoning by the FSB domestic spy agency, the regime-friendly media loyally failed to mention his arrival. With one striking exception: Vremya, the flagship news show of Russian state television.

Presumably, somebody there was hoping to win favour with the Kremlin, because they briefly mentioned Navalny three-quarters of the way through Sunday’s two-hour programme. In fact, they compared Navalny’s trip home to Vladimir Lenin’s famous return to Russia in 1917, and suggested that he was as great a danger to Russia as Lenin had been.

As every Russian knows, the Germans plucked Lenin from exile in Switzerland in the middle of the First World War. He was sent across Germany in a ‘sealed train’ (so he wouldn’t spread the infection of Communism there) to St. Petersburg, then in the throes of Russia’s first democratic revolution – and he did just what the Germans had hoped he would.

Lenin overthrew the fumbling democratic ‘Provisional Government’ in a military coup, took Russia out of the First World War – and launched a 73-year totalitarian Communist regime that cost at least 20 million Russian lives in purges, famines and lesser acts of repression. Is Navalny really that great a danger?

The ambitious presenter at Vremya probably won’t get the job he wanted, because President Vladimir Putin really won’t have liked seeing his noisiest critic compared in stature to Lenin, a genuine world-historical figure. Putin himself never mentions Navalny’s name at all.

Russians cannot even put a name to the system they live under, as the poor Vremya presenter’s confusion illustrates. It’s certainly not a democracy, although there are regular elections. It’s definitely not Communist, although most of the regime’s senior figures were Communists before they discovered a better route to power and wealth.

It’s not a monarchy, although Putin has been in power for twenty years and is surrounded by a court of extremely rich allies and cronies. And ‘kleptocracy’ is just a pejorative term used mostly by foreigners, although Navalny does habitually refer to Putin and his cronies as “crooks and thieves”.

In fact, Putin’s regime is not a system at all. Its only ideology is a traditional Russian nationalism that is lightweight compared to blood-and-soil religious and racist movements like Trump’s in the United States and Modi’s in India. It’s a purely personal regime, and it is very unlikely to survive his dethronement or demise.

Putin has been in power for twenty years, and he has just changed the constitution with a referendum that lets him stay in power until 2036. But that seems unlikely, partly because he is already 68 and partly because the younger generation of Russians is getting restless and bored.

Navalny is a brave man who has gone home voluntarily to face a spell in Putin’s jails. (He missed two parole appointments for a suspended sentence on trumped-up embezzlement charges because he was in Germany recovering from the FSB assassination attempt.) But his role in Russian politics so far had been more gadfly than revolutionary.

His supporters do their homework and make clever, witty videos detailing the scandalous financial abuses of the regime (the latest is a virtual tour of Putin’s new $1 billion seaside palace on the Black Sea near Novorossiysk), but he is probably not the man who will finally take Putin down. What he is doing to great effect is mobilising the tech-savvy young.

Since 2018 the average age of protesters at anti-Putin demos, mostly linked to Navalny one way or another, has dropped by a decade, and their boldness has risen in proportion. Moreover, their attitude to the regime now verges on contempt. Rightly so: consider, for example, the last two assassination attempts by regime operatives.

In 2018, the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, sent two agents to England to kill defector Sergei Skripov and his daughter Yulia. The agents made two trips to Salisbury because they couldn’t find the right house, they were tracked by CCTV every step of the way, and in the end, they left too little novichok (nerve poison) on the doorknob to kill the targets.

Equally crude and bumbling was the FSB’s attack on Navalny in Tomsk, where the novichok was put on his underpants. Once again, the target survived, and afterwards the investigative site Bellingcat was able to trace FSB agents tracking Navalny on forty flights over several years before the murder was attempted.

Neither agency is fit for 21st-century service, nor is the regime they both serve. Russians have put up with it for a long time because they were exhausted and shamed by the wild political banditry of the 1990s, but Putin’s credit for having put an end to that has been exhausted. He may still be in power for years, but this is a regime on the skids.

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