Another province. Art from the Colombo Art Biennale
There’s been a lot of hullabaloo about the 13th Amendment, that which appendaged on lame provincial councils to the Sri Lankan body politic. It’s supposed to devolve power to the provinces, but hasn’t really worked. And yet it’s held to be something really important to the country and democracy in general. I’ve actually got my best insights on this from some Kandy schoolboys.
A few weeks ago I was a (largely unqualified) judge on the MTV Sports show The Debater. The two teams debating were St. Sylvester’s College and Kingswood College (both from Kandy). The topic was whether the Provincial Councils were an effective means of devolving power. Kingswood College won, arguing that they were not.
A debate isn’t necessarily won by the team with the ‘right’ answer, but in that case you could really see how weak the argument for the provincial councils actually is. Now, I know that may be controversial since devolution is something of a revered idea among Sri Lankan liberals, and it kinda was for me. I mean, it seems logical, give power to the provinces, give people more control over their lives. However, the terms of that debate set its contradictions in sharp relief.
The side arguing for PCs essentially had to say, the system is good, but the people and implementation have been bad. That forced them into a corner of saying to give the implementation time, though it’s been over 20 years. On the other side, they simply had to say that the system (as in operation) simply doesn’t work, citing examples where the PC is simply overruled by the center, or where it just becomes a cesspit of political patronage.
Is It A Good System If It Doesn’t Work?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but the essential argument for PCs is this, that they’re a good idea which hasn’t worked out well. But I don’t think that idea holds up, and it certainly didn’t in that debate. A system is its implementation. Institutions don’t exist in the abstract, they are what they do and how they function as much as how they’re planned or legislation.
Regarding the goal of devolving power, the Provincial Councils haven’t worked.
The Central Status Quo
Power remains strongly in the center, which is not necessarily a bad thing, for now. The fact is that introducing a system to devolve power during a war that made the very territorial integrity of Sri Lanka insecure was not the best idea. When the center is insecure it’s not going to devolve power. Second, saying the devolution is a solution to civil rights issues (especially for Tamil areas) is absconding a responsibility that should be national. The fact that many Sri Lankan citizens still don’t have equal language or other rights (in practice, not law) is a national question that requires change from both the bottom and top.
The argument for devolution is that states/provinces can innovate, as per US states legalizing gay marriage and marijuana, slowly. The flipside is that states can also preserve discrimination or weirdness longer than usual, like states explicitly banning gay marriage or places like Kotte in Sri Lanka moving to ban alcohol sales.
The argument, however, is moot if Provinces/States don’t have much power to innovate at all. However good the idea and possibilities are, if it doesn’t work after 20 years it probably just doesn’t work, not in its current form.
So what else? You can’t take away local government positions now, they’ve become sanctified fiefdoms for too many gangsters and rapists. There are of course many good people serving in local government as well. The question, however, is how much local government devolution is suited for Sri Lanka, as it really is.
Seriously, try getting anything done in the private or public sector with/without knowing the owner/boss. It’s not that things don’t happen if you’re not connected, but the definitely do happen when you happen to know the person in charge. And with style. In government terms that tends to be the center, notably the ruling family. Other people are given enough favors to dole out that they preserve face, but over two-thirds of the budget and basically all of the power are in the rulers hands, whatever the Constitution or legislation says.
Hence, under a lame Parliament we’ve added another level of lame Provincial Councils. A lot of these guys are pure rent-seekers, simply obstructing stuff for money or power. Good intentions aside, you have to question whether this best way to allocate power, by pretending to allocate power and instead just creating more posts of patronage.
But anyways, what alternatives? One is to elect Parliament members more directly by ward (like under the new election system for local government) and have them actually serve those areas (instead of having to campaign nationally or over whole districts). And, of course, abolishing the Executive Presidency, which would have the most effect, but won’t happen.
Another alternative is to let the 13th Amendment go (as the government is violating it everyday, making a farce of the Constitution in general) and just having power concentrated in the center, both legally and factually. That’s not really a good thing, but at least then the law and facts are connected and you can get back to the practice of making laws that people actually follow, instead of ones you wish they would.
Personally, I think the 13th Amendment was stillborn and is at best a zombie today. Just let it die. Sometimes you just need to throw out the old computer and try again.