Colombo Despatch | International

The other debate on Constitution

Sri Lanka has been witnessing a season of protests.

Sri Lanka has been witnessing a season of protests.   | Photo Credit: AP

Sri Lanka is inching ahead in its attempt to draft a new Constitution. Political actors are busy debating whether it should abolish the executive presidency, give the foremost place to Buddhism, practised by most Sinhalese, and sanction major electoral reforms. Meanwhile, another point of conflict has emerged within Colombo’s civil society, with a section strongly opposing the idea of including economic, social and cultural rights in the new Constitution.

Even as the debate persists in some circles, Sri Lanka has been witnessing a season of protests. While the resilient Tamils of the north have been agitating, demanding the release of military-occupied land or answers to their long-pending queries on missing relatives, contractual labourers in the south went on strike, seeking permanent employment. University students organised large-scale protests, opposing privatisation of education, and upcountry Tamils put up a brave fight, demanding a reasonable minimum wage.

A Public Representations Committee, appointed by the Prime Minister, has made recommendations in favour of constitutionalising economic, social and cultural rights

Quite evidently, all these were intimately linked to resources. It was about the right to land, to livelihood, to housing, to education and to a fair wage. Even those families who spoke of enforced disappearances underscored what it meant to lose a breadwinner. Against this emerging background, the resistance to making economic, social and cultural rights justiciable has raised eyebrows. Their argument broadly ranges from fears over such a Constitution centralising power to undermining democratic politics to stalling the market’s wealth-generating engine.

On the opposite camp are those who argue that while a Constitution that guarantees economic rights is no panacea for social inequalities, it is a necessary, if not sufficient, channel for a citizen to assert many of her crucial rights. Sri Lanka has a history of good public health and education, setting high standards not only for its big neighbour but also south Asia. Forty years since the island liberalised its economy, the picture is not quite the same for citizens. The gaps in the existing system of public schooling and healthcare, coupled with the State’s push for privatisation, have only ensured the systematic exclusion of some regions and margins of society, as is evident in the ongoing protests.

Lingering dispute

However, the dispute over economic, social and cultural rights making it to the new Constitution or any other debate on likely aspects of the new Constitution, has only been confined to a few circles — Colombo-based influential classes, or political circles, the Buddhist clergy, the media and the intelligentsia.

Based on wide consultations with people across the country, a Public Representations Committee, appointed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, made elaborate recommendations in favour of constitutionalising economic, social and cultural rights. The committee, comprising senior academicians and activists, recommended the judicial protection of these rights.

Perhaps preoccupied with their own political challenges in a government with many disparate voices, no senior politician has publicly commented on economic rights vis-à-vis the Constitution yet. It would not be easy. Or, they possibly see the practical implication of telling their constituency that their concerns over education, health, housing or livelihoods are not valid enough to be addressed in the new Constitution. Even if they take a position, every Sri Lankan will hopefully have the right to accept or reject the new Constitution, if the government holds a referendum as promised. And that is another contested matter for the political class.

Meera Srinivasan writes for The Hindu and is based in Colombo.

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 1:06:24 PM |

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