The Government’s intention has been sensed by the advocates of the 13th Amendment
which was incorporated consequently to the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his policy statement to Parliament, announced that a new Constitution would be evolved in keeping with the ‘One Country, One Law’ principle. The Government which secured a two-thirds majority in Parliament intends to bring about constitutional changes in two stages. The re-modification of the 19th Amendment will be done as early as possible, and the draft proposals to be incorporated into the present Constitution in the form of the 20th Amendment will be presented to the House next month.
Afterwards, the Government is heading for the evolution of a fully-fledged Constitution in place of the present 1978 Constitution under the second phase. The ball is already rolling in this respect, and many an eyebrow has been raised as to whether the government will scrap the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which provides for the establishment of Provincial Councils. Almost all the political parties representing the minorities, particularly Tamils, insist on it as the basis of power devolution to the periphery. However, the efficacy of elected Provincial Councils which have been in operation since 1989 is questioned, and in fact, the system is interpreted by its critics as nothing but a white elephant gorging on public money and delivering little.
That the new administration is eager to have a relook at the viability of the Provincial Council system became apparent when Provincial Council and Local Government State Minister Sarath Weerasekara instructed his officials on Tuesday to submit him a progress review report of it as early as possible.
Minister Weerasekara is someone ideologically opposed to power devolution or power sharing. He is a strong believer of the unitary character of the Constitution with central control. He is also someone with a hardline approach in this respect. The handpicking of him to handle the Provincial Council system speaks for itself as a result. Undoubtedly, the government is bracing for a fresh look at the Provincial Councils which has remained defunct since 2017 due to the inability to conduct elections over a technical issue in the law.
The Government’s intention has been sensed by the advocates of the 13th Amendment which was incorporated consequently to the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord. It is a bilateral treaty. As such the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), in its meeting with new Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay, discussed about it recently after the general elections.
In this exercise, India did not put out a statement after the meeting, but tweeted that the High Commissioner reiterated India’s longstanding position on peace and reconciliation and full implementation of the 13th Amendment. India has articulated its position every time the matter cropped up. However, the 13th Amendment has never been implemented in full. Land and police powers are envisaged as powers devolved to the Provincial Councils established after mediation efforts by India at that time. However, the Provincial Councils have never been able to exercise these powers. They remain only in the statutory books. Also, the Provincial Councils have even failed to make use of whatever power devolved to them by delivering to people. The Northern Provincial Council, once headed by MP C.V. Wigneswaran, is a classic example in this regard. The allegation against him at that time was that he did not fully utilize funds made available to the Council during his term. Unutilized allocations were returned at the end of the financial year concerned to the general treasury.
The Provincial Councils were introduced as a means of finding a solution to the Tamil political question at the time. Since then, the ground political realities have changed in the country, and it is reflected in the results of the August 5 general election. The merger of the North and East is no longer a viable option, particularly due to opposition to it from the Muslim minority in the Eastern Province and the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulihal (TMVP) which made significant gains at this election. Tamil politics has always been dominated by the parties based in the North. For the first time, the TMVP has emerged as a party particular about its Eastern identity. It stands for the Provincial Council system, but is opposed to a merger with the North.
Also, for the last three years, the Provincial Councils have remained defunct since the elections could not be conducted due to a technical issue in the new Act enacted in 2017 to change the electoral system. The provincial administration is done under the nine governors appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in terms of powers vested under the Constitution.
The then government secured two-thirds approval to enact that piece of legislation to change the electoral system only because of the support of the TNA which had 16 seats in the House. In that sense, the TNA is also responsible in a way for the present defunct Provincial Councils. Now, it will have a moral issue in agitating for the reactivation of the Provincial Councils since they were rendered defunct under a move backed by it as well. Minister Weerasekara is poised to analyse the viability of the system in terms of their performance over the years. Once the report is worked out, it will be referred to the Cabinet to be considered in bringing about the new Constitution.
India cannot openly say yes to any move to jettison the 13th Amendment since it is part of the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord. If it does, it will be a total deviation of its long standing policy. However, India’s priorities have changed as far as bilateral relations with Sri Lanka are concerned. Instead of dwelling more on the political question here, India focuses more on its cooperation with Sri Lanka on strategic security concerns, counter terrorism and economic affairs.
It won’t be that difficult for the Government in that sense to engage India for a modification of the 13th Amendment to make it more implementable and practical in line with the policy of the new government. The government which enjoys a two-thirds majority in the House does not believe in extensive power sharing, though. Instead, it talks about the economic empowerment of people in the north and the east. It advocates development instead of devolution. Only the time will prove whether it will work since people become more conscious of their identity when people scale up the social ladder in terms of their economic strength.