19 February 2016

The eviction of reason

Thotalanga: dispensable!
Not too long ago, when in the name of development, the economic prosperity of Colombo and city beautification, slums and shanties as well as other areas described as ‘urban blight’ were bulldozed, there were howls of protest.  The howlers mostly wrote in English.  

 They deconstructed ‘development’.  They talked of high-handedness.  They spoke of illegality, the violation of human rights and decried the uncivilized, arrogant and violent nation of both the act and the thinking behind the act.  There were photo-essays and video productions recording testimonies of the victims and covering histories of the relevant places.  The lives, livelihoods and neighbourhoods were captured in word and image in what was a conscious and righteous but ultimately futile exercise to show that these were “far removed from the popular imagination of slums and shanties”. 

Moving. 


Moving on, we come to ‘Thotalanga’.  It’s not the Slave Island of “rich history” made of “colourful lives,” right?  But wait, aren’t all places historical and aren’t all people colourful?  Or is it about who is being evicted, why the eviction and who is doing the eviction?  Is it like, for example, the difference between the reactions to the JVP and the LTTE, and the different treatment of the various regimes that took them on (or pacified, as in the case of the LTTE)?  Is it about the right (or wrong) kind of victims (“they deserved it!”) and the wrong (right) kind of victors or doers of the dirty (“they had to!”)?  Is it about “it’s ok if our guys do it but dead wrong if their guys do it”?

Slave Island: Precious! 

We see the same kinds of justifying narratives in this eviction business, but we see a deafening silence from the aforementioned howlers in this instance.  Perhaps it is because it appears (for now) to be a one-off affair.  Perhaps it is because the illegality is better defended in this instance.  But we can safely conclude that for all the egalitarian ethos spewed about ‘people’, people are different.  Victors and victims are applauded or decried, defended or attacked, based on political affiliations and preferred outcomes. 


We can dismiss the circus cynically thus: “are the Thotalanga squatters lesser citizens than those who are happily squatting in and around Wilpattu?  Are their lives and the places they peopled less removed from the popular perceptions of slums and shanties, never mind the relevant legalities or otherwise, than those in Slave Island?”   



It is still early days in the Megapolis Drama, so let us see how the story unfolds and who, how and why it gets recorded (or ignored as the case may be).  Let us instead talk of a different kind of squatting, that of the Parliamentary kind.


No, we are not going to go into the National List and the refuge this has been for the politically displaced.  It is about the whole lot, the entire Parliament and in particular the Cabinet.  And it’s about squatting. Courtesy the 19th Amendment. 



The 19th Amendment allows for a maximum of 30 Cabinet Ministers.  Forty more comprising of Deputy Ministers and State Ministers can be appointed.  If a single party/coalition obtains the minimum 113 seats for a majority, at least 42 will be just ordinary members (assuming that the 43rd would be the Speaker).  This means that these 42 (or 43, say in situations like 2004 when W.J.M. Lokubandara, from the Opposition, was elected Speaker) would be ordinary MPs.  They would be unhappy and discontent being a political bomb that can wreck Parliamentary Arithmetic, the architects of the 19th Amendment obviously had to find a way to diffuse it.  This is perhaps why they inserted the caveat of a ‘national government’.   



Article 46(4) of the 19th Amendment 46(4) allows Parliament to approve a number beyond the ’30’ legislated under 46(1)a and 46(1)b.  This is an instrument that can make both winners and losers happy or relatively less upset, given that no party has secured 113 or more seats.  The winners and losers can now come together, call it a ‘national government’ and discontent immediately erased through the offer of portfolios.  That’s what happened in August 2015.



There is a problem in the wording which we are compelled to conclude was deliberate.  The problem is the lack of clarity. 



This is how Article 46 (5) defines ‘National Government’: “A Government formed by the recognized political party or the independent group which obtains the highest number of seats in Parliament together with the other recognized political parties or the independent groups”.  Had the wording been ‘any other,’ it would have allowed for a then a cabinet larger than 30 legitimate.  The (deliberate) ‘out’ is the fact that it does not say ‘all other’ (parties), which of course would have made the current cabinet illegitimate.  The wording is vague and shows carelessness and incompetence.  At best. At worst, it is antithetical to all the rhetoric spewed out by the winners of the 2015 January Presidential Election and the 2015 August General Election.



What this means is that the architects of the 19th Amendment deliberately made room (courtesy interpretive looseness) for the subversion of the limiting clause pertaining to how large the cabinet could be.  As things stand, there are more than 30 members in the cabinet and this means that the overall number minus 30 is the number of “portforlioed” squatters we are saddled with.  As things stand, we have a half-way legal (at best) set of ministers and deputy ministers. 



The question is, who is going to evict them?  The question is, if anyone does seek eviction, who will object and why? 



Now this is something that those who object to eviction on principles drawn from human rights narratives and those who approve eviction on the basis of development prerogatives can think about.  Those other evictions follow the obtaining of approval by a cabinet that is partly made of squatters!  Is this funny or is this tragic?  Perhaps the lovely people who loved Slave Island so much, were blind to Thotalanga and Wilpattu, can say some lovely things about this state of affairs?  

This article was published in the Daily Mirror (February 19, 2016)

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com 
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