‘Unit of Devolution: District or Province?’ – a response

By Neville Ladduwahetty

Dr. Dayan Jayetilleka (Dr. DJ), in his article titled “Unit of devolution: District or Province?”(The Island, Sept. 20, 2017), has missed the essence of the difference between what I stated and what he claims as the “Sinhala nationalist’s preference for Districts to Provinces” as the primary unit of devolution.


I agree with Dr. DJ that devolving to the district, instead of the province, and ignoring the rest of what I had stated, is a non-starter. I went beyond, and it is what he missed out that makes all the difference.


The essence of what I stated was that while the district would be the best unit of devolution, in order to ensure territorial integrity, the legislative and executive powers should be shared at the center so that the sovereignty of the People could be exercised by the three major communities of Sri Lanka. What needs to be developed are the specific mechanisms of sharing power, at the centre, so that the communities are involved in the processes of governance.


The ongoing constitutional reform process is exploring all possible means to grant greater autonomy to the provinces. If, as Dr. DJ states: “It is true (that) a measure of autonomous power to a unit as large as a province does constitute a temptation to secede”, what imaginative formula does Dr. DJ suggest to prevent secession and sustain stability? It cannot be by constitutional safeguards alone because, as Dr. Colvin R. de Silva said in another context, it would be “a thin reed to lean on”. It is evident from the developments in Spain, and now Iraqi Kurdistan, both of which are moving towards independence and self-determination, despite their actions being declared illegal. The question is: What safeguards are there to ensure the sustainability of the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka with province as the unit of devolution? With all due respect, the provisions of constitutional amendment 13A within a unitary state, as advocated by Dr. DJ certainly cannot be the answer after 30 years of war and thousands dead, because that was the arrangement when the war started; if it was not acceptable then, how is it acceptable now?


If as Dr. DJ states that the solution is the right balance between “The two extremes of laissez-faire…and suffocating overprotection…similar to that of child-rearing”, it is very clear from all the evidence available that the Sri Lankan state has not been successful at “child-rearing”, and there is no guarantee that they would be any better in the future. Depending on such skills is also in my opinion too risky because as most parents know, despite all the care and nurturing given, no parent is in a position to guarantee how children would finally turn out. Could the territorial integrity be risked to such uncertainties? Therefore, we need to find a more durable arrangement to ensure territorial integrity while acknowledging the vulnerability of the province to separatism.


In the background of repeated claims of “Tamil nationhood with the right of self-determination” that have echoed over decades, a unit as large as the province would not stop only at tempting secession it would lead to secession. This is only one elephant in the room. The other is the destabilizing effect on India through separatist tendencies in Tamil Nadu. India may not be too concerned with possible threats to its territorial integrity because of assurances given by its military. Regardless of the capabilities of India’s military, secession in Sri Lanka would reverberate in Tamil Nadu with inevitable consequences on India’s stability and India would not want that to happen.


Therefore, as far as India is concerned, their one and only concern is stability in Sri Lanka. My opinion is that India is not too concerned how it is achieved as long as it is acceptable to the communities in Sri Lanka. The need therefore is for the leadership of the major communities to discuss what arrangements at the center would meet their aspirations while ensuring territorial integrity, bearing in mind that whatever the arrangements at the center, devolution has to be to a unit that guarantees territorial integrity because it is not only in Sri Lanka’s interest, but also in the interest of India. If Sri Lanka breaks up, India will unravel too.


In my article of September 19, I had suggested an arrangement for the center to share legislative and executive power. Such an arrangement could be supplemented by three Deputy Prime Ministers representing the three communities assigned to specific areas to assist the Prime Minister. This is simply the imaginations of one person. The need is for a workshop to explore as many options as possible to be presented to the leadership for them to arrive at an acceptable arrangement. Perhaps Dr. DJ could head such an exercise.


The fact that absolutely no attempt has been made thus far to explore an imaginative approach other than the hackneyed refrain of devolution to provinces, is disappointing.





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