A Fresh Aproach To Devolution

By Neville Ladduwahetty

The Island of August 11, 2018 reports an attempt by State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Wasantha Senanayake, “to overcome (the) devolution impasse”. The main thrust of his approach is to repeal the 13th Amendment and devolve power to District Councils. The State Minister’s “Proposal for Devolution” states: “… those for whom devolution seemed most vital now grant that Provincial Councils, as they exist today, do not significantly bring about devolution as intended”.

The fact that devolution as intended is not working from the stand point of serving the People is an accepted fact by the overwhelming majority of all communities except for the political leadership involved in the operation of Provincial Councils. Therefore, while the State Minister should be commended for the bold and courageous step taken by him to initiate a fresh approach to devolution, he has concluded that the primary reason why devolution is not working is because the unit of devolution is the Province. This has led him to recommend the District as the unit of devolution.

According to the State Minister the reason why smaller Districts are disadvantaged over larger and more dominant Districts is “…made worse by the existing system of election to Provincial Councils, since members are elected not by the province they are supposed to represent but by the district. They work therefore for the district to increase their popularity so they can be re-elected, and this reinforces a situation where the larger/dominant district gets exaggerated importance over the smaller and less dominant”. In addition to the members to Provincial Councils being elected by District, even the operation of Provincial functions are undertaken by the Districts. Therefore, the Province as the unit of devolution does not make any sense whatsoever.

Notwithstanding all of the above reasons, the most compelling reason is that the District assures greater territorial integrity whereas the Province is a real threat to the Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity, particularly with the provision for the merger of two or more adjoining Provinces in the Draft Constitution to the Steering Committee, because the proposed constitutional safeguards such as the State being “undivided and indivisible” is a “thin reed to lean on”.

Sri Lanka’s experience with devolution is with the Province as the peripheral unit. However, it needs to be appreciated that the current system functions under a dual system where Line Ministry functions and Provincial functions operate concurrently through the District to the level of the Divisional Secretary. If such an arrangement is to continue with the District as the unit, the dual arrangement that currently exists would also continue. And if the existence of a dual system is the primary cause as to why devolution is not working as intended, changing the size of the unit from Province to a District may turn out to be as ineffective as the existing Provincial system. Therefore, there is an urgent need to select a suitable unit of devolution within a structural arrangement that eliminates the dual system which currently exists, and facilitate Line Ministry and devolved functions to be extended to the People.


Devolution is the transfer of political power from the center to the periphery. Such transfers are justified on the basis that since peripheries are more familiar with their needs and priorities than the center, the structure of the State should be so organized as to facilitate the realization of the needs determined by the peripheries. When transferred powers are subordinate to the center, meaning that the center could exercise its authority over the periphery, the structure of the State is described as being Unitary. On the other hand, if the powers devolved are independent and free of the center meaning that peripheries are sovereign within their respective spheres of influence the State is described as being Federal.

Powers transferred to Provinces under the 13th Amendment are supposed to be subordinate to the Center. This fact is attributed as the primary reason why devolution is not working as intended. This flawed reasoning has caused the Draft Constitution to the Steering Committee to transform Sri Lanka into a de-facto Federal State thereby making the Provinces independent of the Center within their spheres of influence to the greatest extent possible. The resistance to such attempts is because of the inherent opposition to Federalism as a system of government, because it makes the state vulnerable in regard to its territorial integrity. Therefore, in the particular context of Sri Lanka, the nonnegotiable facts are that the structural framework of Sri Lanka has to be Unitary which means whatever powers are devolved must necessarily be subordinate to the authority of the Center or the devolved unit should be sufficiently small (as for instance the District), to guarantee that territorial integrity remains inviolate.

The reason why devolution in its current form does not work in Sri Lanka is because powers of Line Ministries act concurrently with powers devolved to the peripheries, whether it is the Province or the District. The primary reason for the influence of Line ministries at the periphery is because of the financial dependence of the periphery on the Center, because whether it is the Province or the District neither is financially independent of the Center. A further reason for this dependence is the shortage of human resources by way of skills and expertise available to the peripheries. This dependence invariably results in the Center making its presence felt at the periphery; a fact that makes the existence of two parallel systems for the exercise of devolved powers inevitable. Since this is a reality one has to live with, the transfer of power should be to units small enough such as Local government units wherein powers are assigned by the Center to Local Government entities such as Pradeshiya Sabhas (PS), Municipal Councils, Urban Councils etc., while the District continues to administer Line Ministry functions since it is best equipped to do so by way of finances, skills and expertise. Under such an arrangement, the Local government activities could be coordinated by the Districts and the peripheral units would be free of the Center to carry out their assigned functions, thus minimizing the negative impact of two parallel systems operating concurrently.


The primary objective of a fresh approach should be to minimize consequences arising from two parallel systems being associated with providing goods and services to the People. Such an approach would make Center/periphery relations healthy without getting in each other’s way as it is with current arrangements. The primary structures in the periphery should be the District and the Pradeshiya Sabhas. Since there are 25 Districts and nearly 250 PSs, each District would be coordinating activities of an average of 10 PSs.

This approach would make the District the operating unit for Line Ministry functions with the District Secretary responsible for coordinating Line Ministry activities in the Districts. Funds for each District would be allocated by the Finance Commission to the District Secretary as the Chief Accounting Officer for distribution to the Divisional Secretaries in each PS. The District Secretary would also be monitoring and coordinating functions and activities assigned to Local Governments within each District. The Local Governments would be exercising its assigned powers within the budgetary provisions allocated from the Central Government to each PS. The Divisional Secretary would be the Chief Accounting Officer in each PS.

The District Council would be made up of the Chairman and the Leader of the Opposition of each PS being appointed as ex-officio members of the District Council along with the Members of Parliament associated with each respective District.

Activities of the District Council would be coordinated by the District Secretary. Each PS would make its determinations relating to the assigned subjects with the Divisional Secretary as the Chief Accounting Officer responsible for implementing the determinations made by the PS.

The above proposed arrangement would result in enormous savings since it would totally eliminate the cost of maintain Provincial Councils with all its attendant overheads. In addition, it would also eliminate the cost of conducting Provincial Council Elections or District Council elections. Furthermore, since the structure at the District level would only be that needed by the District Secretary, the proposed arrangement would save the cost of maintaining 25 District Councils with all its attendant overheads.


The State Minister for Foreign Wasantha Senanayake in his proposal to the Steering Committee for Constitutional reform has submitted a fresh approach to the question of devolution by way of repealing the 13th Amendment and reviving the concept of District Councils to overcome the “devolution impasse”. In the background of the inevitability of having to live with Provincial Councils despite awareness that they do not work as intended, for the State Minister to take this bold and courageous initiative is indeed a glimmer of hope in these dark days.

Despite the many benefits of District Councils over Provincial Councils, a word of caution is needed if power is devolved to District on lines similar to Provincial Councils, because it would only continue to perpetuate two parallel systems, one operating Line Ministry functions and the other fulfilling devolved functions. The need for Line Ministries to be involved in the Districts is not only because of their financial dependence on the Center, but also because of shortages in human resources by way of skills and expertise at the peripheries, whether it is the Province or the District. This dependence would continue even if the structure is de-facto Federal as proposed in the Draft Constitution before the Steering Committee.

Under these particularities, that are unique to Sri Lanka what is proposed herein is to make the District Council the hub to coordinate Line Ministry functions and Local Government functions, and in particular, the Pradeshiya Sabhas. The District Council should NOT be another elected body. Instead, it should be created by the elected Chairman and Leader of the Opposition of the PSs being ex-officio members of the District Council along with Members of Parliament associated with the District. Thus, the only elections would be to Parliament and to Local Governments. The activities of the District Council would be coordinated by the District Secretary as the Chief Accounting Officer, and the activities of the PSs would be coordinated by each Divisional Secretary as its Chief Accounting Officer.

The cost benefit of eliminating a third tier election would be considerable. In addition, since the District Council would be made up of ex-officio members, the savings arising from not having to bear the cost of maintaining a body of elected members at the District level would be considerable too. Above all, devolution under the scheme proposed would be meaningful. Therefore, it is imperative that what is proposed is given serious consideration.

Notwithstanding the decided merits of what is proposed by State Minister Wasantha Senanayake, or what is proposed herein, at the end of the day the political ambitions of the leaderships in all communities is what would override all other considerations such as the human development of the People. As long as that culture remains, devolution would continue to be at an impasse.

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