More devolution or more integration?

By S. Navaratne

It is curious how obsessed the political class is today on how best to handle the long standing Ceylon Tamil issue. The facts indicate that the Ceylon Tamil population, currently a tad over 11% of the total population in the country, has declined, is declining and will continue to decline as a proportion of the total population.

All the anecdotal evidence suggests that the youth of Jaffna wish to get “the hell out of the country” to white-ruled countries where a critical mass of Ceylon Tamils reside; and that Jaffna youth and their parents do not look for spouses for their children in Jaffna but with those with residence permits in Western countries so to enable them to move to those countries legitimately.

Yet the National Question relating to the Ceylon Tamils with diminishing numbers in the country is considered widely as the over-riding priority to be dealt with in the country.

Still more puzzling and incomprehensible is the attempt to solve the so-called National Question through a rigid, almost unchangeable, Constitution that provides, for practical purposes, almost irreversible devolution of power to all nine provinces of the country.

First, there is no demand, let alone clamour, for such extensive devolution envisaged by the framers of the Constitution from the Sinhala or Muslim or Indian Tamil communities in the country. The Prime Minister`s appointees are trying to ram down, partly by stealth, partly by obfuscation, extensive devolution to the Provinces purely to satisfy the Tamil bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka and abroad and Western countries.

Second, and equally telling, is that more Ceylon Tamils live outside the Northern Province (55% of Ceylon Tamil population). Extensive devolution to the Northern Province would not benefit them directly. Indeed they would be left high and dry under the proposed Constitution to fend for themselves as minorities in the other eight Provinces in the country.

Third, extensive devolution to the Northern Province is a time-bomb. Sooner or later extremists may well take power through the ballot in the Province and demand independence. It will be argued if Catalonia could do so, why not Jaffna?

The Constitution envisaged in the body of Steering Committee Report makes dealing with separatist activities of Tamil leaders in the Northern Province, and elsewhere, extremely difficult for the State and its security apparatus at the Centre to curb and control. Restriction of the powers of the Government and Parliament at the Centre envisaged to deal with separatist activities goes far beyond what prevails elsewhere, particularly India. There is a risk that irresponsible devolution of power and authority to a minority of Ceylon Tamils in the North could lead to unintended consequences destabilizing the country.

Is there an alternative to the grandiose scheme for redesigning the Constitution, largely if not wholly, to fulfill the demands of the Tamil bourgeoisie and their foreign backers as the only way of reconciling the Tamil population to the Sri Lankan State? Is it too late for a U-turn to kick the can of constitutional reforms (except at the fringes) to the long grass?

The alternative is for the Government to deliver the things that are directly under its control to promote reconciliation and integration of the communities instead of proposing a new Constitution that will be mired in politics and divisiveness.

The Prime Minister of all people with his in-depth reading and knowledge of British political history, should recognize that wisdom at this juncture demands the adoption of a Walpolian policy of “letting sleeping dogs lie” when it comes to constitutional changes. The 13th Amendment is functioning. Tweak it by all means from time to time consensually in Parliament to provide incremental authority and powers to Provincial Councils (as well as Districts and Pradeshiya Sabhas) to better manage their own affairs. Leave well alone other Provincial Councils that make no such demands. That is a practical way of asymmetric devolution that the Prime Minister once talked.

If the Prime Minister hauls down his colours on the Constitution there will be no dishonor. The facts have changed relating to the Sri Lankan Tamil problem since 2009. He could insist that he has been guided by the changes in the political reality in the country today.

An alternative approach to the problems faced by the minorities should have fairness and altruism of the majority community towards the minorities at its heart.

What are the measures that could be taken without legislation? Taking account of the fact that the Tamil and Muslim minorities account for 25% of the population, the Government could announce something it should have announced nearly three years ago when it came to office instead of the tortuous route it took in framing a new Constitution.

1. 25% of Cabinet (and other ministerial posts) posts would be reserved for the minorities. Additionally, by convention, 25% of the candidates of national political parties at Parliamentary elections should be from the minorities.

2. For a start 25% of all the categories of the public service recruitment and appointments should be from the brightest and best applicants from the minorities based on merit. That would extend from the grade relating to secretaries to ministries, diplomats, judges, senior army and police officers down the scale right down to the category of unskilled labourers.

Such pro-active measures would lead towards correcting the gross under-representation of the minorities at all levels of the public service (now numbering 1.4 million and rising). Once minority representation in the public services reaches the target of being proportionate to their numbers in the population (say in 5-7 years or so) all public service appointments should be made on merit, albeit bearing in mind proportionality.

3. Planning by the State should take centre stage in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the North and the East. Plans should be developed by local and foreign experts for tackling the major concerns of Tamils in war-torn areas. These would include separate plans for relief and rehabilitation of war widows, full funding of orphans, crop subsidies for cultivation of foodstuffs at remunerative levels, reconstruction of damaged infrastructure (housing, schools, road and rail networks), setting up technical schools and technological institutes, cottage hospitals and English language schools).

The finance required for these separate plans would be substantial. Government should fund a major part of each of the plans. The balance should be sort from Western powers and financial institutions. This is the more productive way for the West to help the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka than the manner they have pursued since the end of the separatist war. So far their actions have fanned animosity between the majority community and the Tamils rather than bringing them closer.

4. English should be made the link language between the communities. Substantial financial inducements should be provided to officers of the higher rungs of the public service who are tri-lingual.

Would an approach such as suggested satisfy the Sri Lankan Tamils and their local and foreign backers? Absolutely not! Doing the right thing to bring communities closer to each other is what matters. If that means calling the bluff of those (local and foreign) who advocate extensive devolution or else predict dire consequences, so be it.

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