OPINION

Devolution proposal in Sri Lanka



B. Muralidhar Reddy

Multi-ethnic edperts panel for the province as unit of devolution.

THE "majority report" of the Sri Lankan Government's multi-ethnic experts panel has recommended maximum devolution of power with the province as the unit of devolution, and provision for the appointment of two Vice-Presidents from communities other than that of the country's President.

The report, a copy of which is available with The Hindu , was submitted to the Secretariat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Wednesday. Of the 17 members of the experts panel, 11 six Sinhalese, four Tamils, and the lone Muslim member endorsed the report.

The minority report is by H.L. de Silva (Government representative in Geneva and lawyer for the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in the de-merger case), Gomin Dayasiri (another lawyer for the JVP in the de-merger case), Manohara de Silva (Jatika Hela Urumaya lawyer) and Professor G.H. Peiris.

In addition, there were two dissenting reports by the panel chairman and former civil servant, M.D.D. Pieris, and K.H.J. Wijayadasa, former Secretary to President Premadasa.

The 37-page majority report said though the country was multi-ethnic and multi-religious, the crisis had arisen because the numerically smaller ethnic groups had not had their due share of state power. "This has resulted in the minorities being sidelined and becoming alienated from the Sri Lankan state, as initial efforts to redeem this situation by a power-sharing mechanism failed."

"The approach of this group has been to evolve, to the maximum extent possible, a form of genuine power-sharing between the different ethnic/religious communities, which is not predicated on any particular model, but which suits our own needs."

The group recommended that the name of the state be "The Republic of Sri Lanka." It recommended that in the Constitution it be termed "one, free, sovereign and independent State," and the use of distinctive expressions, such as unitary, federal, union of regions/provinces, among others, be avoided. Instead reference could be made to the state as consisting of "institutions of the Centre and of the provinces, which shall exercise power in the manner provided for in the Constitution."

The Constitution should speak of "the constituent peoples of Sri Lanka." The right of every constituent people to develop their own language and culture, and preserve their history and the right to their due share of state power, including representation in institutions of government, would be recognised without weakening the common Sri Lankan identity.

The report said there should be in-built mechanisms to discourage secessionist tendencies and to preserve the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of the state. It provides for emergency powers for the Centre to intervene in the provinces if there is "clear and present" danger to the unity, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of the state, and when the provincial authorities request intervention.

It recommended that at any given time, one of the Vice-Presidents be the Chairman (non-voting) of the Second Chamber, while the other be the Chairman of the High Posts Commission. The Chairmanship shall be on the basis of rotation between the two bodies. Their term of office is to be three years.

A Second Chamber, comprising representatives from the provinces, would engender in the provinces a strong feeling that they too have a distinct role to play in the national legislature. "The Second Chamber would also function as a mechanism to rectify possible imbalances of representation in the Lower House. This institution could also facilitate consensus building amongst interest groups."

On merger

The report said any proposed merger of two or three provinces other than the North and the East would not pose any problem if done through referenda under the 1978 Constitution and the Provincial Councils Act, no. 42 of 1987.

The Group identified the concerns of communities in the North and East. These include a feeling of exclusion from political power, including issues/matters affecting Tamils, access to state land, and a general feeling of insecurity.

The concerns of Muslims of the North and the East have been listed as fear of ethnic cleansing and the consequent loss of private property, security, and access to state land. The concerns of the Sinhalese are security and apprehension of possible loss of livelihood opportunities resulting from devolution.

The group recommended a single North-East province with two internally autonomous units to address the concerns of the Muslim and Sinhalese populations. "In such an arrangement, the Muslim-majority unit will comprise Kalmunai, Sammanthurai and the Pottuvil polling divisions as the base together with non-contiguous Muslim-majority Divisional Secretary's Divisions in the North-East. The Sinhala-majority unit will comprise Ampara polling division together with non-contiguous Sinhala-majority Divisional Secretary's Divisions in the North-East."

The report recommended that the Northern and Eastern provinces be merged for 10 years, and the wishes of the people of the East on continuation of the merger be ascertained through a referendum at the end of the period.

"For devolution to be meaningful, it is recommended that the majority of the subjects and functions be categorised as belonging to the national sphere or the provincial sphere, with a provision for a Concurrent List consisting of a minimum of subjects and functions."

The group recommended that subjects such as defence, national security, foreign affairs, immigration/citizenship, communication, national transportation, international commerce/trade, maritime zones, and shipping and navigation, be reserved for the Centre.

It recommended an Autonomous Zone Council to address the concerns of the Tamils of Indian origin.