The Geneva Talks:
The Elephant in the room
By Rajan Philips
Although the two negotiating teams are avoiding it for now,
the elephant in the room is the question of devolution. Like
D.H. Lawrence's Elephant in the Kandy perahara, the
devolution elephant is now "passive with patience', but can
turn into "rage" without much warning.
Ceasefire and humanitarian issues deserve the utmost
priority, but the two sides will have to deal with the beast
sometime in the future, assuming that the talks will
purposefully continue towards some finality. Even if the
current rounds of talks were to break down, the devolution
issue will be the central issue in any further attempt to find a
political solution to Sri Lanka's national question.
Much of the so called discourse on devolution in the recent
past has been influenced by the 'grand language' of
sovereignty and self-determination. Grand language by its
very nature shuts out the nuts and bolts, or the anatomy, of
devolution. There is a need to address the practical
questions about the status of the existing legislative and
administrative institutions and the changes required to
implement a program of devolution. There will be
implications for judicial institutions as well, but they will not
be critical to implementing a program of devolution.
Put another way, the experience of the Provincial Councils,
the Administrative Districts now mostly under Central control
and the plethora of Local Government bodies will have to be
assessed and their future roles defined in a new devolution
A brief discussion along these lines took place last
September, in Colombo, when some friends of Rev. Paul
Caspersz, the Jesuit of Kandy whose half-a-century of
priestly vocation has been a suffusion of the spiritual and
the secular, usurped the occasion of his eightieth birthday
for some secular political brainstorming. One of the ideas
that came up was about the recent devolutionary changes in
the British polity and their applicability to Sri Lanka.
This was before the presidential election. After the election,
and perhaps trying to reconcile his agreement with the
JVP/JHU and the inevitability of devolution, President
Rajapakse has alluded to the possibility of using the British
model to implement maximum devolution within a unitary
state. The cynic will say, 'What's in a name? That which is
unitary could by some other name be as devolved as
federal!' Be that as it may. Let us look at Britain, the colonial
source of all our political institutions but not all our political
The British model
Within the last decade Britain has created three devolved
units in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, each shaped
by its own specific historical circumstances as well as
political, social and economic priorities. First came the 1998
Good Friday Agreement for Northern Ireland, followed by
the Scotland Act of the same year and the election of the
Scottish Parliament in 1999, and finally the creation of the
Welsh National Assembly also in 1999. Northern Ireland and
Scotland have full legislative and executive powers over
most domestic political and policy issues, while Wales has
secondary legislative and full executive power over a smaller
range of subjects.
Remarkably, the 'English nation' along with the central
institutions of the British state has been left alone. Little has
changed since devolution in either the government
machinery in Whitehall or in the mother of all parliaments at
Westminster. There has been no political devolution within
England but a layer of 'regional governments' has been
introduced over England's well established local government
base. The 'Greater London Authority' is England's first
regional government. Tony Blair's Labour government has
also established eight Regional Development Agencies
(RDAs) without elected assemblies for the purpose of
addressing persistent regional inequality.
The government's plan to create elected assemblies in
these regions was soundly rebuffed by the voters in the
November 2004 referendums held in three (North-East,
North-West and Merseyside and Yorkshire/Humberside)
regions where support for elected assemblies seemed most
favourable. The government has indefinitely postponed the
idea of elected regional assemblies. So the RDAs will
continue with their 12-member boards drawn from local
councils and private businesses, and 100-member staff
complements drawn from existing government functionaries.
The money allocated to RDAs will thus be spent on new
programs rather than new payrolls.
Sri Lankan possibilities
What is in all of this for Sri Lanka? First, the British model
indicates some possibilities for the Sinhala nation in the
South. Anecdotally it is known that one of J. R.
Jayewardene's reasons for creating Provincial Councils in
the South was to dispel criticisms that special institutions
were being created only in the North and East. However,
there has been no great public enthusiasm for the Provincial
Councils in the South. On the contrary, there is a great deal
of public cynicism about the Provincial Councils that they
are all new outlets for more waste, corruption and
expenditure without any benefit in return.
The political parties use the Provincial Councils for
periodical arm wrestling, but do little between elections to
enhance their image and powers. The People's Alliance
used the Southern Provincial Council and then the Western
Provincial Council as its launching pads to dislodge the UNP
out of its 17-year hold on power, but once in power the PA
did nothing to improve the PC system.
Both the Kumaratunga and the Wickremesinghe
governments had their knuckles rapped by the Supreme
Court for encroaching on Provincial jurisdiction. And this
was while they were dialoguing even greater devolution with
the LTTE. So it is pertinent to ask the question, are
Provincial Councils needed in the South?
The government and political parties in the South should
address this question independent of their discussions with
the LTTE and other Tamil and Muslim organizations
regarding devolution in the North and East. The British
model shows that unit or units of devolution can be created
in the North and East only and leave the South alone. The
British model also shows what can be done in the South
through administrative decentralization to address the
persistent and growing economic disparities between the
Western Provinces and the other five provinces in the South.
Sri Lanka can also learn a lot from the British local
government system, which is comparable to the Lander
system in Federal Germany even though the British state, at
least in constitutional theory, is generally viewed as unitary
and highly centralized.
Whitehall, for instance, has no field offices or department
branches in most policy areas but heavily relies on local
government, quasi NGOs ('quangos'), interest groups and
professional bodies to implement central programs.
What a positive difference, one might ask, such a system
would have made to the tsunami relief and reconstruction
efforts in Sri Lanka? Sri Lanka has local bodies but they are
left powerless and ineffective by the central government
departments who are everywhere.
In addition, Colombo's stifling growth and mounting
challenges, in housing, transport, garbage and other
services, call for a separate metropolitan administration to
deal with them.
I would suggest that the Greater London Authority provides
a useful model for a new metropolitan administration in
Colombo. Colombo would also do well to have a Mayor like
the mercurial London Mayor 'red' Ken (Livingstone)!
The British experience also offers possibilities for the
creation of devolved units in the North and East, but I will
limit myself only to a few broad comments here. One cannot
fail to note the remarkable absence of opposition from the
English nation to the creation of the devolved units.
The English are more concerned about being subsumed in
a European union than about ceding control to a Scottish
Parliament over a third of the British territory with only a
tenth of its population.
The main and perhaps the only opposition is the Ulster's
Protestant minority who, according to Tom Nairn, happen to
be the last repository of " the most backward looking core of
Britishism - Monarchy, imperial sovereignty and a kind of
spiritual racism". But their opposition could not stop the
Good Friday Agreement from laying the foundation for a
British-Irish Council of the Isles, yet again an instance of the
British state ceding part of its own sovereignty by allowing
the Irish Republic a say in Northern Ireland.
Even though Northern Ireland remains the singularly
dispiriting part of the British experience of devolution, there
is no question that stability in Northern Ireland cannot be
realized except by moving forward the agenda of devolution.
Lastly, democracy was not shut out at the creation of any of
the three devolved units in Britain. Democracy was present
at the creation of all of them, and so it should be if and when
devolved units come into being in Sri Lanka's North and