The SLFP devolution model has been unveiled at last. It proposes devolution at the district level based on what it terms an indigenous model inspired by the idea of Gram Rajaya. The SLFP proposes that the country revert to a parliamentary system of government with a bicameral legislature. The executive presidency, it says, should be abolished but in the absence of a national consensus for that purpose, it will continue with amendments.
What is most interesting about the SLFP proposals is that the term `unitary` has been conveniently dropped. The SLFP only says: Sri Lanka is a State, which is sovereign and independent.` The SLFP appears to have omitted the term to sell it to the world community and probably to leave room for federalism, which it is under pressure from the aid donors to adopt as the solution. The reference to a `Central` government` is also of import. Has the government betrayed any `federal intentions` through the use of the term, `Central Government`, which is usually used in the context of a federal set-up?
Similarly, the SLFP has dropped the Provincial Councils, perhaps in a bid to make the package attractive to its constituency opposed to the province as the devolution unit, because in their view, federalism is only a hop, skip and jump from that point. Although the district is proposed as the unit of devolution, the provision for the amalgamation of two districts as one contiguous unit leaves room for the creation of something similar to a province in that some of the existing provinces consist only of two districts. However, the implementation of the amalgamation is to be effected in consultation with the people in the relevant districts. How the people are going to be consulted is not mentioned; no mention is made of a referendum.
The proposed power sharing at the centre is a radical departure from the existing system of devolution. The SLFP advocates the appointment of the district Chief Ministers to the Upper House or the Senate consisting of 75 members. Out of them, 25 will be appointed after a general election by the political parties based on the aggregates polled and the rest of the members will be appointed by the President. Every bill passed by Parliament should be submitted to the Senate for scrutiny and consideration prior to enactment. The Senate will have power to delay legislation by a period of three months (except money bills and matters affecting national security and emergency powers) or resubmit it to the lower house for reconsideration with or without suitable suggestions. The power of the Senate to do so will be restricted to one or two occasions. Here, the problem is that if the President were to lose power in Parliament but retain control over the District Councils, he or she, by virtue of having the majority of Senators on his or her side, would be able to harass the party controlling Parliament. (From 2001 to 2004, there was a somewhat similar situation in the country with the President and the Prime Minister engaged in a political tug-of-war).
Why the SLFP wants to create Grama Sabhas, while retaining the existing Pradeshiya Sabhas defies comprehension. For, the elections to Pradeshiya Sabhas (PSs) will be scrapped and Chairmen of the Grama Sabhas will constitute the PSs.
Power is to be divided into three lists, the reserved, the district and the local. If one goes by the powers on the reserved list as spelt out in the proposals, which advocate the supremacy of Parliament (the Executive Powers and the Judiciary), one may wonder if the districts and the Grama Sabhas will be left with any powers at all in the end! Besides the LTTE`s intransigence, a factor that led to the failure of the Provincial Councils, it may be recalled, was the Concurrent List, whose powers the government usurped with gay abandon. What guarantee is there that the District Councils wouldn`t get into a similar situation, if they were ever set up?
As for the language policy, there is virtually nothing new in the proposals in question. The SLFP promises to adhere to the existing constitutional provisions in that regard. It stresses the need for both languages to be taught in schools. But, it is silent on how to clear the hurdles such as the dearth of qualified teachers.
It is ironical that the SLFP, which did away with the competitive examinations in the early 1970s and introduced the `chit system` in public sector recruitment, has proposed that selections be made on merit to all state institutions. Better late than never!
The creation of a District Ethnic Ombudsman to settle disputes due to ethnic differences looks a step in the right direction. But, the problem is that the public has already lost faith in the existing institution of Ombudsman, due to its sheer inefficiency and tardiness.
The biggest problem as regards the SLFP proposals is, however, none of the aforementioned. It is whether their essence?devolution at the district level?would be acceptable to the LTTE, which has already spurned devolution at the district level (District Development Councils), the provincial level (Provincial Councils), the regional level (Chandrika`s Regional Councils) and the national level (Oslo Declaration, which envisages federalism as a solution).
He, who pursues the stag, it is said, regards not the hare! The Tigers are striving for a separate state and claim to have taken `a light aircraft ride to statehood`!
The SLFP has, we reckon, sought to put those carnivores on a soya meat diet!