20 October 2016

First, get the lines straightened out Jayampathy

Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne,  who is described as someone playing a pivotal role in the constitution-making process in his capacity as a member of the steering committee on the subject, has offered some thoughts on the progress of the initiative in an interview with the Daily Mirror.  He has offered a nutshell version in the following terms:

“There is some agreement on electoral reforms - a mixed member proportional system.  On the executive, the President’s position is clear that it has to be abolished. The President has to make a public statement. Then, we should look at how the present executive should be replaced with. The principles of devolution are under discussion by us. Things like the nature of State and the place for religion have not even been touched.”

In essence, therefore, the Committee hasn’t really moved beyond recommendations made by the committee headed by Dinesh Gunawardena on the matter of electoral reform.  In April 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena addressing a sizable rally of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) at Vihara Maha Devi Park vowed to see the 20th Amendment (on ‘Electoral Reform’) through.  It was after all an election promise which he made and which the United National Party (UNP) endorsed by supporting his candidacy for the presidency in January 2015.  In fact, according to his manifesto, it was to be done and dusted within 100 days of him assuming office, but in the 18 months since that last we-will-do-it assertion it’s been all quiet on the electoral reform front.

It’s pretty much the same on the matter of abolishing the executive presidency: chest-beating before the election, sporadic affirmation of intent (as at the funeral of the late Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero) since watered down to ‘agreement in principle’ and now Dr Wickramaratne saying that the President wants abolition but hasn’t made a public statement.  That’s strange since there’s nothing more ‘public’ than an election manifesto!  Little or no progress, then.

The nature of the state and the place for (of?) religion are untouched, he says.  Tough issues no doubt, and we should not forget that the committee has a tough overall brief, but that said, ‘no progress’ is a legitimate conclusion.  

This leaves us with ‘devolution’.  It appears then that the Committee has expended efforts on this issue to the exclusion of all else, which of course is not exactly an indefensible privileging. 

So what of devolution as per the deliberations of this Committee?   Wickramaratne has dwelled at length on the division of powers between the ‘centre’ and the provinces, assuring strong safeguards against division of the country as well as mechanisms to ensure that the centre’s power to intervene in ‘provincial matters’ is not abused.  

He elaborates on the latter, lamenting ‘centre-intervention’ on subjects such as agriculture which he claims produced negative results while arguing that greater sway for provincial councils is the reason for better performance at the Grade 5 Scholarship Examination by children from schools outside the Western Province.  These are weak and selective examples which indicates sloth on the part of the Committee in engaging in a comprehensive review of the 13th Amendment.  It also indicates (dangerously) that the process has boiled down to one of constructing a case for a preferred outcome as opposed to a sober consideration of all factors and letting their true value determine direction and outcome.  

He says nothing of the gross wastage of budgetary allocations to the provincial councils, with large chunks going for up-keep and paltry amounts being set aside for development.  He says nothing of resource anomalies across the provinces, a fact that calls for centralized allocation (which can be constitutionally guaranteed, just as the kind of ‘strong safeguards’ regarding abuse of intervening power and separatist tendencies he believes are necessary).  There are no doubt many spheres/activities where greater sway by regional entities make more sense than centre-heavy policy-making processes, but there’s nothing to say that only devolution will produce such happy outcomes.  

Dr Wickramaratne clearly believes or wants us to believe that the Committee is taking its work seriously.  The facade of sobriety, however, crumbles on one crucial point: boundaries.  

Constitutional reform is not only about democratization.  We were told that it is also about ‘reconciliation’.  Reconciliation has been reduced to devolution of power and this itself demonstrates the poverty of the process, the intellectual arrogance and the political chicanery of the overseers.  Over and above the fixation of devolution is the glaring error of not revisiting the logic of the boundaries to which power is sought to be devolved by these worthies.  

If this is a serious process (and we are willing to make allowances for the long deliberations on account of the seriousness), then the Government should do a comprehensive audit of the entire system including all elements that have been created for political expedience (as was the case with the 18th Amendment, duly and happily overturned albeit with some flaws), thrust down undemocratically and illegally down the throats of all citizens (the 13th Amendment) as well as ad hoc decision that have (in retrospect) given a tangible foothold to myth-mongering and land-grabbing chauvinists.  The last, in short, is about cartography; the matter of provincial boundaries which President Sirisena correctly pointed out were drawn by a colonial power and which have no basis in any science pertaining to map-making including ‘history’ but which, since then, the Eelamists have used as the basis for a tall story about homelands!

Why is the Committee not (re)considering provincial boundaries? Why is not demanding (of itself, of politicians and relevant experts) a review of these arbitrarily drawn lines?  

Constitutions should ideally be robust.  If they can be amended willy nilly according to the whims and fancies of a few then they are not worth the paper they are written on.  It requires integrity (hard to expect such from politicians, but let’s keep that aside as a ‘what-can-we-do?’ thing) and seriousness.  If random interventions (like map-drawing) are concretized and legitimated in a context where these lines have been used to construct a separatist narrative, then the constitution-making process is a farce.  

As things stand and as stated at the beginning of this essay, the Committee is clearly not making much progress.  It is fixated on devolution with a few qualifiers to allay concerns about a constitution that essentially creates better ground conditions for separatists to operate on.  The Committee is absolutely silent on the most glaring ‘anomaly’ on the ground, that of random, unscientific, ahistorical lines demarcating the key unit that is being deliberated, namely the province.  How on earth can anyone take the Committee seriously, therefore?

Dr Wickramaratne has his work cut out for him.  Get the lines straight, Jayampathy.  If it’s a serious effort, then this serious error has to be rectified, however long it may take.  Anything less is dodgy and demands an F Grade.  You start at the very beginning.  The ABC, if you will.  And the ABC of devolution begins with boundary lines.  Get them right.  


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Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who contributes a weekly column for the Daily Mirror titled 'Subterranean Transcripts'.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene

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