PM challenges Tamil leaders on devolution
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s four-day visit to the North last week seemed to have been aimed at the forthcoming Presidential and Parliamentary Elections, in the light of the plethora of large-scale development projects he announced during the tour.
He announced the upgrading of Palali Airport as the third international airport of the country, development of the Kankesanthurai Harbour, construction of a highway connecting Trincomalee, Vavuniya and Mannar and resuming the ferry service to India that was suspended in 1987 with the escalation of ethnic strife.
The reactions of the Tamil politicians, especially those against the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and thereby the Government to the Prime Minister’s promises are not yet clear.
Their response is important as they sometimes express bizarre views on the development of the North.
Even the moderate R. Sampanthan, the leader of the TNA, during its 14th convention of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) in Batticaloa in 2012 said:
“We must not fall into the trap of the so-called development being brought about by the Sri Lankan Government. It is a devious trap to undermine the very existence of the Tamil people as a community. It is a death trap.”
Recently another northern Tamil politician had protested against water from Mahaweli projects in the North Central Province being brought to Iranaimadhu Tank in order to supply water to Jaffna from that tank.
He argued that once the Iranaimadhu Tank was connected to Mahaweli projects the tank would be a part of an inter-Provincial water supply project and could thereby come under the Central Government.
Some politicians in Vanni protest against water from the Iranaimadhu Tank being supplied to Jaffna Peninsula on the grounds that it would cause water scarcity in the Vanni during dry seasons.
And they are also against water from Mahaweli Projects being brought to Iranaimadhu Tank and then to be pumped to Jaffna Peninsula on the grounds that the tank would come under the Central Government.
All large-scale projects announced by the Prime Minister in the North last week would come under the Central Government and they would pave the way for the Central Government to enhance its influence in the Northern Province.
While announcing such projects Mr. Wickremesinghe had also expressed his views on the devolution of power and the war-time human rights issues, which could have been highly controversial, especially in the North.
However, only one out of the two issues – The human rights issue- has opened a can of worms among the Tamil politicians and Tamil media. Reminding the South African reconciliation initiative, the Prime Minister told in Kilinochchi, the one-time administrative Capital of the LTTE, that all concerned should forgive and forget the past. Though he did not specifically mention the human rights issue, which is haunting Sri Lanka since 2012 when the UN Human Rights Council regular sessions were convened in Geneva, what he wanted to forgive and forget was obvious.
"One could even interpret his remarks on devolution as his aversion towards devolving more powers to the periphery, the Provincial Councils."
Thus, the Tamil leaders including those of the TNA are criticizing him now.
However, in spite of the Premier’s remarks on the devolution having run counter to the common stance of the Tamil leaders, nobody seems to have taken it seriously.
He said there was no point in devolving more powers if the powers already devolved were unused.
He has expressed this view at a time when the Tamil leaders had been demanding more powers for the past three decades.
One could even interpret his remarks on devolution as his aversion towards devolving more powers to the periphery, the provincial councils.
In fact, in the light of the 31-year history of Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka Mr Wickremesinghe’s stand on devolution seems to be pertinent.
Though the new building complex for the Western Provincial Council in Battaramulla has cost the public coffers a staggering Rs. 17 billion, one cannot pinpoint a single worthwhile development project implemented by the said council or any of the other eight councils.
All nine Provincial Councils meet twice a month, but those two days are in most cases wasted as most members use those two days for mud slinging and attempt to gain brownie points from their leaders.
There are days when the council sessions end abruptly for want of quorum.
Yet, the Provincial Councils are the result of a difficult political process which had claimed hundreds of lives.
However, ironically those politicians who fought against the introduction of Provincial Councils, paving the way for those deaths are also now demanding elections for those councils.
Devolution was a concept that had been mooted by the politicians such as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike as far back as 1920, but interestingly Tamil leaders had opposed the concept then.
It was in the late 1940s, towards the end of the direct British rule in Sri Lanka, that the Tamils had taken up the struggle for devolution and they started the Federal Party (Now known as ITAK) for that very purpose.
"Hundreds of LTTE cadres, as well as around 1,700 Indian soldiers, were killed in the process while hundreds of southern youth also perished in their struggle against the Provincial Council system."
Then the Sinhalese were against it.
Nevertheless, Bandaranaike as one of the pioneers of the Federal concept in Sri Lanka was amenable with the Tamil demand and signed the famous Banda-Chelva Pact with Federal Party leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagam in 1957.
But he was forced to tear it off by the Buddhist monks.
Thirteen years later, with the Tamil leaders losing their bargaining power when the United Front led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike swept two-thirds of Parliamentary seats at the 1970 General Elections, they wanted an even aggressive demand in order to convey the message to the Government that they are a force that has to be reckoned with.
Thus the Tamil Eelam theory was mooted and an armed struggle was started by many Tamil groups.
After giving support to these groups initially for strategic reasons, India brought all Tamil armed groups except the LTTE, to a point where they had to satisfy with a package of devolution called Provincial Council system.
Hundreds of LTTE cadres, as well as around 1,700 Indian soldiers, were killed in the process while hundreds of southern youth also perished in their struggle against the Provincial Council system.
Hence, it is a system for which thousands of people have paid a heavy price with their blood and soul.
Yet, needless to say, the Provincial Councils have become white elephants.
They are nothing more than political talk shops and a platform for the politicians to groom their sons and daughters to take up the baton from them.
It is the southern politicians who use the devolved powers but not that of the northern politicians, who fought for devolution of powers.
The complaint by the Northern politicians that the Provincial Councils are powerless is just an excuse to cover up their lack of interest in using the existing powers.
Provincial councils are given powers through the Provincial Councils List and the Concurrent List of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution under which the Provincial councils were instituted.
They include power pertaining to education, local Government, housing, social service, rehabilitation, agriculture, health, irrigation, co-operatives, transport.
To what extent has the Northern Provincial Council used these powers to solve the day-to-day problems of its people who bore the brunt of the 30-year long war?
In fact, PCs were to be created initially only in the north and east.
That means only the Tamil dominated provinces needed such a mechanism under the power devolution.
But now even the Northern Provincial Council does not seem to have understood it. The NPC is now being accused of being over-politicized. The Sunday Times reported last July that the NPC had adopted 415 resolutions during its five-year tenure, seven resolutions a day it had met, but many resolutions adopted had been related to issues mostly that did not come within the purview of the NPC.
Then, are not the Prime Minister’s remarks in Kilinochchi on power devolution valid?