After Three Decades: Provincial Councils and ownership

By Jayasri Priyalal

On the 25th July 2017, Sri Lanka marked the 30th anniversary of the infamous Indo-Lanka accord which paved the way for setting up provincial councils in Sri Lanka. Although there was no legitimate request then, from any citizen either in Northern or Southern Sri Lanka, policy makers believed in the devolution model imposed under the accord, as a solution to the racial dis-harmony that prevailed in the country.

The irony is, the Provincial Councils do not have the authority to impose taxes, yet they are free to spend the money provided by the government.

Hence non-of the politicians demonstrate ownership to their political constituencies; as they are not accountable neither to the tax payer nor to the electorate. Yet, the government appoints ministers to steer the developments in the respective provinces. There are Ministers appointed by Yahapalana administration for Central, Sabaragamuwa, Southern, Uva and Western – Megapolis.

The latest irresponsible and unaccountable political move in the country is the endorsement of Rajapaksa administration’s proposal, to double the number of local government representatives in the country. In politics the adage goes: There are no permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interests. The Yahapalana government’s actions confirm this position well. The fact remains pot of the political economy is larger than the real economy in the country.

The question before a socially conscious citizen of Sri Lanka at a time the state is grappling with an acute financial deficit should be whether the current parallel administration system packed with provincial councils contributing to a colossal waste of tax payers money should continue. Under the British administration in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) the districts were divided into the areas where the plantations were operating with a view to collecting the revenues for the state. Each district was headed by a District Revenue Officer (DRO). It is reported that the boundaries of each district were marked counting on the distance the government agent could ride on horseback from his bungalow during the daylight. So, in hilly areas covering tea plantations in Ceylon the area of the district is comparatively smaller than the areas in the dry zone, where there were fewer plantations. The new provincial administration of the island nation introduced in 1987 follows the same boundary lines set by the colonial masters. The difference is there are Provincial Chief Ministers elected by the people not for increasing state revenue, but for spending the money allotted by the government.


Therefore it is clear, that provincial councils drawn on colonial geographic boundaries are not the viable units to devolve political power. As the sovereignty is vested in the citizens of the republic, the criteria to decide the devolution unit should be based on the population, irrespective of the ethnic religious background, in order to cultivate the spirit of ownership amongst the policy makers and citizens.


Liberal conservative democracy has been evolving by mobilising public opinions on new ideas and gaining support for policy formulations to resolve human problems. Historically, the process was set in motion to find options and alternative solutions, for political, social and economic issues in the communities.


In the absence of new ideas and innovative thinking, bankrupt politicians –amature and veteran- are often being taken for a ride by few crooks and criminals who rally around them as expert advisors, in many mature democracies including Sri Lanka.


In the current era of acceleration, where short messages, snap chats and tweets dominate the social dialogues, policymakers increasingly caught up in narrower points of view, limit their scope for innovative and creative thinking. They are confining themselves to a box. It appears that many of them still believe that the success in the past is going to repeat in the same form in the future. Unfortunately not, in the dawn of the 4th Industrial Revolution, where many traditional historical political structures, institutions will not survive, as digitalization through Internet of Things delivered free and fast through the SMART phone. These mobile, digital tools will become an institution by itself championing the participative democratic principles effectively, vis-a-vis the outdated representative democratic institutions. The new technology is heading towards – Re-Centralization, as such efforts to decentralise political power through delegating authority based on 1st Industrial Revolution era models will not hold good. Federal political structures are standing in line for extinction.


The 3D man-made problems, Deplorable Debt, Degraded Environment and Depleted Natural Resources, demands urgent solutions for shared future prosperity, ensuring sustainable development for all. The challenge for many is coping with the fast changing technologies and making use of the technology, which is free, fast and commonly available at anywhere for anyone to find best solutions for problems confronting all living beings.


Acute financial deficiencies compounded with deplorable debt levels in Sri Lanka do not appear to have received much attention of policy makers. There is a distinctive mismatch between savings and investments and meagre tax revenue and bloated public expenditure. Politicians are harping on getting their privileges at the expense of sandwiched classes, on whom all hardships are imposed resulting from indirect taxes levied. Yet, the privileged class enjoys all tax-free (duty free) concessions without any guilt. There is an encouraging initiative from the newly appointed Finance Minister to rebalance the proportion of the direct and indirect tax formulas to ease the burden on marginalized. However, the largest pool of indirect tax collected from the public comes in the form of lotteries, still vested with the former Finance Minister, who is given the external affairs portfolio.


There is a worrying trend leading to uncertainties, losing public confidence on the representative democracies across the regions. In many democracies it is observed the corrective measures to root out unethical profit engineering culture which led to the global economic meltdown is getting reversed; shattering hopes of many for shared future prosperity for all living beings. Many who contributed heavily to the ongoing global economic crisis resulting from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis [GFC], are now rallying behind politicians in many democracies in the world, with the belief that their short term successes in the past can be cloned perpetually into the future; they are all on a wrong track, be it in Sri Lanka, the UK or the US. These crooks and criminals are able to smell profits from far, and cash on the ignorance of the politicians for their own benefits.


Sri Lankans can benefits enormously by switching on to the new technology driven digital platforms to offer public services, including administrations provided the right priorities are set to improve the quality of life of the poor and destitute in the sandwiched classes. In other words, technology needs to be used to ease economic burdens, target the deserving groups and channel social welfare to uplift standard of living, primarily through eliminating inequalities in education and health care services. Policy makers need to keep the common man, at the centre and introduce digital platforms enabling average citizen to derive benefits of technology.

All technological advancements should be used to improve efficiencies and cut down bureaucracies, especially unsustainable parallel administrative structures set up in the name of the delegation of political authority. In the island, the density of people’s representatives in a square mile is higher than the number of endangered mammals in their natural habitats. But, let the policymakers be warned and reminded that they cannot fool all the people all the time. As witnessed in western democracies political parties those unable to adapt to the changes in the era of acceleration will be thrown out by the electorate soon. Those who are unable to cope with changes will never be able to initiate change.

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