The government media gave headline prominence to the fact that Sri Lanka has made an impressive jump of 10 places to 52nd from 62nd in the rankings of the latest Global Competitiveness Report (2011-2012) issued by the World Economic Forum (WEF). This is a further improvement from the 2009-2010 report which ranked the country at 79th position while last year’s report placed Sri Lanka in the 62nd spot. Sri Lanka shows improvements on 80% of indicators - 80-90 of the 110 indicators - both in terms of scores as well as rank. Sri Lanka made the greatest improvements in scores, year-on-year, in the pillars of macroeconomic stability, infrastructure and security, which the WEF noted was remarkable, and attributed it to the improved climate following the end of the war.
On the other hand, one of the major disappointments of Sri Lanka’s post-war progress is that these impressive economic achievements have not been accompanied by similar success in achieving reconciliation. Ethnic polarization and hard feelings across the party political divide continue to take centre stage, and put the brakes on what could be outstanding success. The government’s position is that a united and prosperous Sri Lankan nation can be built through the inspired leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his close associates whose abundant talent no one can deny. One manifestation of this position was the 18th Amendment passed earlier this year which centralized power further in the already too powerful presidency.
In conformity with its centralizing of power, powerful government decision makers have declared that no further constitutional change is necessary to increase the devolution of power. This has been a cause of controversy and polarization. There has been an equivalent reaction from the opposition Tamil political parties, and also sections of the international community, that the government’s war time promise of further devolution of power needs to be delivered. During the height of the war, President Rajapaksa made numerous promises regarding the government’s post-war intentions with regard to the devolution of power. The most famous of these was his declaration that he would implement a political solution that would be the 13th Amendment plus one.
This enigmatic statement of the President was taken to mean that he would ensure the full implementation of the 13th Amendment that had led to the establishment of the system of devolution based on the provincial councils. At the least it was taken to mean the devolution of powers that are contained in the 13th Amendment, but which had never been devolved, specifically land and police powers. A more hopeful reading included the apportioning of subjects in the concurrent list entirely to the provinces, rather than continuing to share them between both the centre and provinces with the central government monopolizing them. This would have gone at least part of the way to meeting the TNA’s demands regarding the enhanced devolution of power as a solution to the ethnic conflict.
While the government is now saying that no land or police powers can be granted, the TNA is demanding them and also calling for the re-merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces. The gulf that exists between the positions of the government and TNA can become paralyzing, which is what appears to be the current situation. There is no movement forward that is bringing the parties together. On repeated occasions the government has shown its political strength with the ethnic majority by winning elections in a convincing manner in most parts of the country. But it has been failing to do that in the Tamil-majority parts of the Northern and Eastern provinces where the TNA has won.
There can be no forward movement in terms of ethnic reconciliation without these two parties reaching agreement. The government’s latest proposal for forward movement is to establish a Parliamentary Select Committee that would enable all parties in Parliament to discuss the issue of a political solution that would strengthen the unity of the country. However, the TNA sees in this an insincere effort of the government to delay negotiations with it regarding a political solution, even though the government has agreed to a time frame of six months. It has so far not agreed to join in the deliberation of the Parliamentary Select Committee.
There are some confidence building actions that the two sides can be urged to take on by those with an intention of fostering a meeting of minds. The government has recently demonstrated its willingness to engage in confidence building by lifting the State of Emergency. The fact that the government ended rule by emergency regulations in the run-up to the meetings of the Human Rights Council in Geneva suggests that the government is sensitive to the demands emanating from a section of the international community with regard to normalization after the end of the war. Most of the countries that are putting pressure on Sri Lanka had a tacit understanding with the Sri Lankan government that the war’s end would bring normalization and a political solution.
A confidence building measure that the government could take with respect to moving forward in the political process would be to announce the date for the conduct of provincial council elections for the Northern Province. So far it is only the people of the Northern Province who have been deprived of the benefits of provincial level devolution. They need to enjoy the same rights and privileges in respect of devolution of power that the people in the rest of the country enjoy. The establishment of a Northern Provincial Council would also enable the people there to experience the workings of the devolved system and clarify their priorities. It would permit the future Chief Minister of the Northern Province to sit with colleagues from the other provinces in the Chief Ministers Conference and provide them with partnership, insight and leadership.
There will be a very important and unique contribution that a future Northern Provincial Council can make to the entire scheme of devolution of power in Sri Lanka. At the present time all the provincial councils are controlled by the government. This includes the Eastern Provincial Council which is headed by the TMVP, which is a coalition ally of the government. There is hardly any impetus for reform coming from the present leadership of the provincial councils as none of them would wish to displease the government. However, in the event of a Northern Provincial Council being established, it will most likely be headed by the TNA. This would give the TNA an opportunity to provide leadership in regard to improving the system of devolution of powers for all provinces.
A key area of devolution of power where a future Northern Provincial Council could give leadership would be fiscal devolution. At the present time, the proportion of the national budget that goes towards the functioning of the provincial councils is too small to enable them to do anything much more than pay salaries and maintain the infrastructure they already have. This is why teachers and parents of schools that are on the provincial list are glad when the central government takes them over as national schools. They believe that they will get more resources through the central government than through the provincial council. This imbalance needs to be changed for the devolution of power to become effective.
Unfortunately, instead of empowering the provincial councils by providing them with more resources, the government has been debilitating them. The last budget saw the internal fund-raising capacity of the provincial councils further weakened when the Business Turnover Tax was removed from their purview. This taxing power was transferred to the central government. There is a need for leadership from within the provincial councils themselves to demand more fiscal devolution. This can be the confidence building task of a future Northern Provincial Council, if and when it is established. There is the possibility of getting across-the-board support from all provincial councils for fiscal devolution which will be good for national unity and for the effective functioning of devolved government.