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Province unsuitable as a unit of governance



by Neville Ladduwahetty

The government is reportedly planning to hold the provincial council elections while an expert committee is actively engaged in the making of a new constitution. Holding elections before the drafting of a constitution imposes a constraint on the expert committee since it cannot afford to drift too far from existing arrangements if it is not to incur the ire of the elected members following an election. This means that the expert committee cannot take into account the prevailing antipathy towards Provincial Councils (PCs), for whatever reason, and propose a fresh approach to devolution

This would be the unfortunate outcome if elections to PCs are held prior to the promulgation of a new constitution. If elections are held after a new Constitution is in place, it will give the expert committee an opportunity to propose a fresh approach after taking into account the lessons of historical experiences Sri Lanka has had to endure. Therefore, the plea to the government is to give the country the opportunity to evolve a system of government that serves them best, free of constraints.



Having gained control of the whole of the island following the Kandyan Convention in 1815, the British attempted to administer the island as a single unit under a Governor. It did not take long for the British to realize that consolidation of power through an effective administration required the island to be sub-divided into smaller units as recommended by the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms of 1833. The process of sub-division that started out with five (5) Provinces ended up with nine (9) provinces in 1889. Throughout this process of sub-division each province was further divided into districts and even smaller units in order to better administer the province. Thus by 1889 the nine provinces ended up being divided into the 25 districts.

With the introduction of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1987, which created Provincial Councils, the lessons of history were ignored. Although the lesson of history was that smaller units are more effective as an administrative tool, the reversal to the larger unit of the province ignored the colonial guidelines of administration. The plea to the framers of the New Constitution is that these lessons of history are not ignored. What history has demonstrated clearly is that the province as a unit is ineffective as a unit of governance.

Although the administration of the island was based on the provinces under an all-powerful Government Agent for each province from 1833, his powers underwent significant derogation with the introduction of the Donoughmore Commission recommendations of 1931. Affirming this trend, the citation presented below states: “The status of the GA after the Donoughmore recommendations could be portrayed through the following note. ‘The division of government’s activities into ten ministries with a minister in charge of each activity, in place of general surveillance by the colonial secretary reduced enormously the power and responsibilities of the GA and led to the appointment of the departmental organizations responsible to the minister to manage many of the executives formerly entrusted to GA’. Thus the power and status of the GA, who was once an unquestioned authority in the district, underwent gradual erosion with the acquisition of his powers and authority of local administration by the departmental field agencies (Leitan p.41) Local administration for instance, under which Sanitary Boards and Village Committees were formerly supervised by the Kachchery organizations was now under the Department of Local Government. Education, Agriculture, Health and Public Works that were the subjects under the purview of the GA were the responsibilities of relevant departments under the executive committee system. (Ranasinghe R.A.W, “Role of Government Agent in Local Administration in Sri Lanka, International Journal of Education and Research, Vol. 2 No.2 February 2014).

Commenting on the process of division and sub-division during the colonial period where the powers of the provincial Government Agent become increasingly marginalized, Dr. Peiris in a characteristically scholarly article states: “Intra-provincial administrative adjustments were made at various times bringing the total number of Districts in the country from nineteen in 1889 to twenty-five at present. Government Agents of the provinces, holding executive power over their areas of authority, coordinated a range of government activities in their respective provinces. It is important to note, however, that in certain components of governance, while the related regional demarcations did not always coincide with provincial and district boundaries, the Government Agent had either only marginal involvement or no authority at all. This was particularly evident in fields such as the administration of justice, maintenance of law and order, and the provision of services in education and health care, in which there is large-scale daily interaction between the government and the people. (Dr. G.H. Peiris, Province-based Devolution in Sri Lanka: a Critique, December 17, 2020).

As Chairman of the Executive Committee responsible for Local Government it was Hon. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1940 who advocated the district as the most suitable unit from a Local Government perspective. His recommendation to the State Council was: “though the word ‘provincial’ is used here, I would point out that this body would be restricted to a revenue district, not necessarily to a province as we have it now, but to a revenue district. The Galle District, the Matara District, the Nuwara Eliya District and so on…” (Hansard {State Council}, 10 July 1940, pp. 1362-1371).

Thus, the lesson of history confirms the unsuitability of the province by itself as a unit of administration /governance. It is the sub-division of the province to districts that made administration effective during the colonial period. Furthermore, even though the population in the island in 1889 was only three million (Dr. G.H. Peiris), if the colonial powers deemed it appropriate to structure the island into nine provinces and twenty-five districts for reasons of administration, what kind of logic would justify reverting back to the larger unit of the province when the population is more than nearly six times what it was in 1889?

The reason for the reversal to the province was definitely NOT motivated by governance. The motivation for the reversal was clearly political. It was triggered by the need to find a solution to the Tamil national question based on claims of a traditional homeland involving the Northern and Eastern Provinces following the riots of 1983 and the intervention of India under the guise of the Indo-Lanka Accord. The history lesson that had come from colonial times to recognize the district and sub-divisions of the district, was ignored. What was introduced instead, was the province as the unit of governance in 1987, under the 13th Amendment. It is therefore understandable why the reversal to a province is as unworkable today as had been recognized by the colonial rulers.


No amount of additional powers and resources would make the provincial council system work, because the intention of the arrangement was for all power to be retained by the provincial councils. Such a centralized top down approach is inherently unworkable; a lesson the colonial administrators had eventually learnt. The only way to make it work was to devolve powers from the province to districts and to sub-divisions of districts such as pradeshiya sabhas and other local government units. This would derogate the powers currently exercised by the Chief Minister and the provincial council. Consequently, it would not be any different to the erosion of the powers of colonial Government Agents (GA) until the Donoughmore Commission recommendations were implemented and districts and its sub-units directly handled peripheral issues, thereby underscoring the irrelevance of the GA. Therefore, there is little or no prospect of PCs elected under current provisions devolving powers to districts and local governments within the province. Consequently, the current ineffective arrangements under the 13th Amendment would continue unless transformed rationally.

Although the province lost its relevance from an administration perspective, the British continued to identify the territory of the island in terms of provinces and districts. Even independent Ceylon and the Republic of Sri Lanka continued to identify the territory in terms of provinces and districts. However, it was only Article 5 of the 1978 Constitution that identified the territory of the Republic in terms of the district.

Notwithstanding the identification of the territory of the Republic of Sri Lanka in terms of the district, the reference to province resurfaced following the Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 that called for a separate state involving the Northern and Eastern Provinces. With this and the three-decade long armed conflict to create a separate state, the province has once more assumed importance to the point of not only becoming a threat to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, but also bequeathed an administrative nightmare that needs to be addressed without any further delay.

That nightmare is that every province in Sri Lanka functions under two parallel systems. One system administers functions relating to line ministries of the central government and a second system administers functions relating to the powers devolved to the provinces under the 13th Amendment. Reverting back to the decentralized system that existed prior to devolution is not a satisfactory arrangement either, because of the remoteness of the center from the priorities of the periphery. Devolving power to the provinces is akin to a centralized arrangement because it is as remote from the periphery. The problem with the current arrangement is not so much due to the two parallel systems, but primarily due to the choice of the unit to which power is devolved. Therefore, accepting that two parallel systems need to function concurrently because of its

in-built merit that power needs to be shared, one way to mitigate its negative aspects is to devolve appropriate power to districts and the local government entities in keeping with the concept of subsidiarity, instead of the provinces as exists today.


The choice for the Government is either to live with the current ineffective arrangement as per the 13th Amendment despite the denial of human rights of the overwhelming majority for improved governance, or actively promote a change to current arrangements notwithstanding a possible backlash from those who benefit from current arrangements.

One way to mitigate a possible backlash would be to absorb all the elected members in each PC into a District- based Council and divide the powers currently devolved under the 13th Amendment excluding powers relating to Law and Order, Land and Land Settlement and any others based on the concept of subsidiarity between such District-based Councils and the Local Governments. Such an arrangement would empower the districts with powers it did not have and enhance the powers currently assigned to Local Governments. In addition, it would give many more members currently elected to PCs an opportunity to directly engage in District-level activities than they are today.

For instance, under the current PC system, on an average, only the Chief Minister and four others form the Board of Ministers in each of the nine provinces. This means a total of forty-five are actively engaged in all the nine provinces with the majority of the Council members not having an opportunity to play a meaningful role. Consequently, the arrangement is undemocratic since the majority of elected members do not have the opportunity to contribute their views and express their concerns. If as proposed herein, a five-member Board of Minister is created in each district a total of one hundred and twenty-five Councilors in the twenty-five districts would be in a position to engage themselves meaningfully. According to a website as of 2017 there were 455 PC members. Accommodating all of them in the 25 districts would mean each district-based council would have an average of 18 to 19 members. On the other hand, if the district-based council is made up of a minimum of 2 from each of the nearly 260 Pradheshiya Sabahs (not including the 14MCs and 37UCs) the number in the 25 district council would be 520 i.e. more than from all the PCs. Therefore, whether the district council is formed from members of PCs or from members of local governments, the numbers involved would be similar. The only difference being the cost of conducting an election to elect the district-based council. Therefore, regardless of how the district based council is elected, it is imperative that if Sri Lanka is to prosper it has to transfer powers currently devolved to the provinces to district-based councils and local government entities.


The Province as a territorial unit is of relevance to the Tamil political leadership, while it is of no relevance to the overwhelming majority of citizens. To the Tamil leadership the province provides them the opportunity to merge the Northern and Eastern Provinces and carve out a single political unit on grounds of a dubious Tamil homeland claim despite the absence of any physical vestige of such a claim. To the average citizen the province with all power vested in it, is an impediment to improved governance that affects his/her well-being. Furthermore, the province is an ever present and a constant threat to Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity and national security as demonstrated by a three-decade long armed conflict followed by continuing threats by the Tamil leadership to go it alone.

Although colonial administrators started out to govern the island by creating five provinces in 1833 under Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms, they soon realized that effective administration was not possible without creating more provinces along with districts within each province. This process continued until 1889, when the territory of colonial Ceylon was divided into nine provinces and twenty-five districts. However, with the introduction of Donoughmore Commission reforms the relevance of the Government Agent of the province and the province as an administrative tool gradually faded and the smaller unit of the district became the more effective territorial unit for effective governance. This trend is quoted in the references cited above. The district as the unit of administration was also recognized by the State Council for purposes of Local Government even prior to independence in 1940.

These lessons of history were ignored when power was devolved to provinces under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1987. The true intent for resurrecting the province with political power was clearly political because it provided for the Northern and Eastern provinces to be merged into a single territorial unit to be governed by a single PC. For this to happen the province has to survive and its survival depends on how it delivers on governance. The fact that the province has failed as a viable devolved unit means that the province has lost its purpose and therefore the justification to exist.

If Sri Lanka is to prosper it is imperative that the province as a territorial and political entity is abolished for three vital reasons.

One – That powers devolved to the provinces under the 13th Amendments excluding Law and Order, Land and Land Settlement and any others based on the concept of subsidiarity, should be divided between the districts and related local governments with a view to facilitating greater economic development and for reasons of fostering enhanced democratic governance.

Two – That the province represents a clear and constant danger to Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity because its size tempts separatist aspirations.

Three – That because the province was created in order to meet political exigencies and not for reasons of good governance, the time and opportunity have come to abandon serving parochial political imaginings of a few and create a system that focuses on human development for the benefit of all citizens.

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Sinharaja world heritage



Conservation Outlook Assessment: Significant Concern

By Professor Emeritus Nimal Gunatilleke

Continued from Yesterday


Water diverted from Ampanagala reservoir to Muruthawela will be used to meet the irrigation deficit of Muruthawela and Kirama Oya systems and the balance will be transferred to Chandrika Wewa, through existing LB canal of Muruthawela scheme up to 13.8 km and a new canal of 17.0 km. After that, the water requirement of Hambantota harbour is to be transferred to Ridiyagama tank through the Walawe river and Liyangasthota anicuit. However, due to the extreme length of the diversion through the three-river basins of Nilwala, Kirama Ara and Urubokka Oya, it will lead to a massive conveyance losses of the diverted water while on the way to the Walawe basin. Furthermore, enormous costs associated with its construction, a failure to fully realise the intended outcomes due to a shortage of water budget will simply be a burden that Sri Lanka cannot afford with her current economic condition, according to Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi. It may be worth recording that the water ingress into the grouted tunnel of the Uma Oya near Ella has still not been fully repaired, even though the Uma Oya project is nearing completion. An expensive lesson to be learnt on the nature of the weathered geological structure, lineaments and implementing its unexpected and costly mitigatory measures which will eventually to be paid back by this and future generations of tax payers of this country.

According to the Irrigation Department web site postings, Mahaweli Consultancy Bureau has initiated the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), but due to the unavailability of concurrence of the Forest Department, revised TOR has not been issued by the CEA. Therefore, due to the unavailability of updated TOR, the EIA study has been delayed.

Environmentally, the most contentious issue highlighted in the news media is the proposed construction of a RCC dam at Madugeta to build a reservoir for which around 79 ha of forested (and some agricultural) lands in Sinharaja and a portion of prisine riverine forest in Dellawa would be inundated. On the Sinharaja side of the proposed Madugeta reservoir (right abutment) at present there are home gardens and small-scale tea plantations in addition to good riverine forests. In contrast however, proportionately a larger area of luxuriant forest of Dellawa, which is a part of the new ‘Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex’ would go under the chain saw for this reservoir construction (left abutment). The Geo-engineering report of May 2019 on GNDP has revised the siting of the dam to a more favourable location with supposedly reduced impacts but they forewarn that the three core-drilling along the proposed dam axis that had to be temporarily abandoned due to protests made by the villagers, need to be completed to confirm the geological suitability for the dam site.


Are there any Environment-Friendly Alternative Options?

As an alternative site for a dam on Gin Ganga, Eng. Nandasoma Atukorale (Specialist Engineer [Hydropower]) has proposed a location at the confluence of Mahadola with Gin Ganga at the village of Mederipitiya, way back in 2006. According to him, the riverbed at this site is 261 masl and have a catchment area of 132 km2. He proposes the construction of a 35 m high concrete gravity type dam that would form a reservoir with a storage capacity of 65 million cu.m and a potential discharge of 320 million cu.m of water annually which could divert 293 million cu. m of water to the SE Dry Zone. Most importantly, this region passes through a relatively narrow section of the river which is ideally suited for a dam according to him. However, geological suitability and socio-economic impacts of local communities need to be investigated, beforehand.

Quite interestingly, Eng. Athukorale claims that ‘although it is not economically very attractive, another 200 million cu.m of water could be diverted to the Nilwala basin by constructing a dam across Gin Ganga at the downstream of the confluence with Dellawa Dola at the village of Madugeta, with an 8000 m long tunnel which could be considered at a later stage provided further water shortages are experienced in the area’.


Now that the proposed Madugeta reservoir is receiving heavy criticisms from the environmental front, wonder whether Mederipitiya option proposed by Eng. Athukorale could be revisited for the diversion of Gin-Nilwala river water to the SE Dry Zone.

In a research paper titled ‘Comparison of Alternative Proposals for Domestic and Industrial Water Supply for Hambantota Industrial Development Zone’ Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi makes a comparison among three irrigation projects Kukule Ganga, Gin-Nilwala and Wey Ganga to convey water from the SW wet zone to SE dry zone.

She proposes yet another option that is probably still on the drawing boards to be considered which is the Wey Ganga diversion in Ratnapura District. According to her, this could meet the industrial and drinking water requirement (154 MCM + drinking water) of Hambantota metropolitan area at a significantly lower cost and with less damage to the environment. Further, there is a possibility of augmenting this scheme by diverting a part of Kalu Ganga catchment at a later stage.

Eng. Hettiarachchi further states that ‘by comparing the workload, it could be estimated to be nearly one third that of the Gin-Nilwala diversion. The Wey Ganga diversion can be carried out at a significantly lower cost by local agencies. That can also address the water scarcity of Hambantota metropolitan area including the requirements of international harbour and proposed industrial development zone with the relatively less environmental damage which is a major issue with respect to large scale projects. Construction period will also be less since the workload is less and can be carried out by the local agencies’.

What I have strived to show with this detailed irrigation engineering information available on public domain in the form of research publications, is that the Madugeta reservoir option is not the only one available for taking water from the wet zone rivers to the SE Dry Zone which is indeed a legitimate requirement for agricultural and industrial development of that region.

Pre-feasibility studies have been conducted on these options since 1968 and a considerable wealth of technical information is already available with the Irrigation Department. Apparently, according to knowledgeable irrigation engineers, there are more environmentally friendly, and cost-effective options with greater assurance of water conveyance to the SE Dry Zone available for consideration. It is often the case that during pre-feasibility studies of these large engineering projects, environmental concerns are given the least priority. Steady supply of water during extreme drought events which are becoming more frequent depends very much on the nature of the vegetation cover of the watershed area. These environmental aspects need to be critically evaluated before such costly projects are designed. As an example, although, the major engineering work of the Uma Oya project has been almost completed, its cost-effectiveness is yet to be seen with a denuded watershed, a potential of heavy soil erosion on top of the unexpected heavy expenditure on tunnel boring and other engineering works.

Biologically speaking, the Dellawa Forest Reserve is an integral part of Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex representing the pristine climax forest vegetation of SE wet lowlands and provide a vital connectivity link to adjoining Diyadawa forest of equal significance via the remains of Dombagoda forest. Therefore, clearing a riverine strip of this forest for the construction of Madugeta Reservoir would lead to an irreparable and irreplaceable damage to its characteristic riverine/flood plain forest vegetation.

On the other hand, pledging a reforestation initiative of a much larger area with Hevea rubber as a compensatory measure proposed by the political administration is totally unacceptable. Preserving intact forests in protected areas has no substitutes or replacements. Furthermore, the Natural Heritage Wilderness Area act and the binding articles of the UNESCO Convention on Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, clearly state that causing direct or indirect damage to a natural heritage is legally not permissible.

In summary, the Sinharaja World Heritage Site is already in a state whose biological values are threatened and/or are showing signs of deterioration and significant additional conservation measures have been recommended to restore these values over the medium and long term. Adding more threats like the construction of reservoirs inside protected areas at this stage would inevitably downgrade the values further to a ‘critical conservation outlook’ which is not what the citizenry of Sri Lanka and the world at large would acknowledge as ‘sustainable development’.

The author of this article is a member of the National Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka and he thanks Dr Jagath Gunathilaka of Peradeniya University for providing the geotechnical information described herein. The author can be contacted at .)


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US seeking way out of Afghan killing field



As the Biden administration makes its initial moves to extricate the US’ remaining security forces personnel from Afghanistan, it would do well to ponder on former US President John F. Kennedy’s insightful comment on foreign policy: ‘Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.’ This is a rare nugget on the nature of foreign policy.

Considering the high costs, human and economic, a country could incur as a result of blundering on its foreign policy front, Kennedy could be said to have spoken for all countries. However, there is no denying that the comment is particularly applicable to expansionist powers or ‘hegemonic’ states.

Sensible opinion is likely to be of the view that the US decision on quitting Afghanistan should have come very much earlier; may be a couple of years after its bloody misadventure in the conflict and war-ridden country. Considering the terribly high human costs in particular the US’ 20 long years in Afghanistan have incurred, the US could be said to have committed one of its worst foreign policy blunders, overshadowing in severity the blood-letting incurred by the super power in Vietnam. However, in both theatres, the consequences for the US have been of unbearable magnitude.

The US death toll speaks for itself. At the time of writing more than 2,300 US security forces personnel have been killed and over 20,000 injured in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that over 450 Britons have died in the same quagmire along with hundreds of similar personnel from numerous other nationalities. Apparently, it took an exceptionally long period of time for the US to realize that Afghanistan for it was a lost cause.

The lesson that the US and other expansionist powers ought to come to grips with is that it would not be an ‘easy ride’ for them in the complex conflict and war zones of the South. The ground realities in these theatres are of mind-boggling complexity and Afghanistan drives this point home with notable harshness. Power projection in South-west Asia and persistence with its ‘war on terror’ were among the apparent prime objectives of the US in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq but what the US did not evidently take into consideration before these military involvements were the internal political realities of these countries that are not at all amenable to simplistic analyses and policy prescriptions.

The Soviets ought to have come to grips with some features of the treacherous political terrain presented by Afghanistan in the late eighties but their principal preoccupations were related more to the compulsions of the Cold War. Simply put, the Soviets were bent on preserving the ‘satellite’ status of Afghanistan and their war effort was aimed at this in the main. Preparing Afghanistan for democracy was not even least among the Soviet Union’s concerns, of course.

However, the same does not apply to the US. The latter helped the Mujaheddin in the task of getting rid of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan but its aim was also to have a US-friendly regime in Kabul that would be a veritable bridgehead of US power and influence in the region on a continuous basis. In other words, the US expected the regime which replaced the Soviets to be pro-Western and essentially democracy-friendly. The US did not in any way bargain to have in Afghanistan Islamic fundamentalist regimes whose political philosophies were the anti-thesis of democracy as perceived in the US and practised by it.

However, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime which eventually came to power in the mid-nineties in Afghanistan, once the Soviets withdrew, defied all Western expectations. As is known, the Taliban was not only repressive and undemocratic but was staunchly opposed to everything Western. There were no hopes of the Taliban working towards Western interests. Besides, the US did not expect to see in Afghanistan a country dangerously divided on ethnic, tribal and religious lines. The problems of Afghanistan have been compounded over the years by the coming together of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and these groups have world wide Islamic fundamentalist links.

It has been the aim of the US to have in Kabul religiously moderate, pro-democratic regimes but as developments have proved over the past few decades these administrations have not been in a position to hold out against the Taliban. In fact, it is the Taliban that is veritably at the helm of power in Afghanistan currently and years of futile attempts at trying to contain the Taliban have brought home to the US and its allies that they have no choice but to talk to the Taliban in order to secure some respite to effect ‘an honourable exit’ from the bloodied land. This is where matters stand at present.

However, as pointed out by commentators, it is the Afghan civilian population that has suffered most in the decades-long blood-letting in the country. Conservative estimates put the number of Afghan security forces personnel killed in Afghanistan at around 60,000 to date and the number of civilians killed at double that figure.

Accordingly, the Afghan people would be left to face an uncertain and highly risk-riddled future when the last of the US security forces personnel and their allies leave Afghanistan in September this year. The country would be left to its own devices and considering that the Taliban will likely be the dominant formation in the country and not its legitimate government, the lot of Afghan civilians is bound to be heart-rending.

There is plenty to ponder on for the US and other democratic countries in the agonies of Afghanistan. One lesson that offers itself is that not all countries of the South are ‘ready for democracy’. This applies to very many countries of the South that already claim to be democracies in the Western sense. Southern ‘democratic’ polities defy easy analysis and categorization in consideration of the multitude of identity markers they present along with the legitimacy that they have achieved in the eyes of their states and populations. What we have are dangerously volatile states riddled with contradictions. Relating to them will prove to be highly problematic for the rest of the world.

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The Soul



The Soul (also known as Ji hun) is based on the sci-fi novel ‘Soul Transfer’, written by Jiang Bo in 2012. The novel was widely popular and inspired director Cheng Wei-Hao to adapt the tale into a movie. The story is about a married couple who are determined to uncover the truth behind strange activities in their community. According to the official synopsis for the film from Netflix, while investigating the death of a businessman, a prosecutor and his wife uncover occult secrets as they face their own life-and-death dilemma. The film stars Chang Chen, Janine Chang and Christopher Lee among others.

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