Time for action on 13A | Sunday Observer

Time for action on 13A

13 August, 2023

The 13th Amendment was enacted in 1987 as part of the Indo-Lanka Accord under somewhat controversial circumstances.

The Provincial Councils (PCs) were created as a result of the 13th Amendment. Devolution of power through the PCs was rightly seen as an answer to the conflict, because many felt that the Northern and Eastern Provinces were alienated from the rest of the country as far as development, opportunities and welfare were concerned. Unfortunately, the LTTE leadership and even many moderate politicians in the North failed to grasp this opportunity to achieve lasting peace.

There is no doubt that devolution works. Our nearest neighbour India is a fine example and so are Canada, Australia, Germany and UK, among many others. It is a fallacy that devolution is not needed or does not work in smaller countries – Switzerland, at 41,285 Sq Km is smaller than Sri Lanka (65,610 Sq Km), but is divided into 26 Cantons or provinces. Incidentally, it is also one of the few countries still practising direct democracy, where all eligible adults vote on important matters, not just those in Parliament.

It is also wrong to assume that devolution automatically leads to separation or secession. There are in-built safeguards to prevent such an occurrence, even if a province or region wants to break away by force.

And even when referendums have been held to gauge the desire of various provinces to break away, the final decision in most cases was to stick to the original union, as seen in Quebec (1980 and 1995) and Scotland (Indyref 2014). In any case, separation from a time-tested union can be extremely harmful, as the UK learned from its self-inflicted Brexit (2016) wound.

The 13th Amendment or 13A as it is commonly called, is now an inherent and integral part of the Constitution. No one can pretend that it does not exist or wish it away. The debate is actually on how and to what extent it should be implemented.

This is where President Ranil Wickremesinghe came in, with an impassioned plea to Parliament last week to reach a consensus on implementing it to serve all Sri Lankans, not just those living in the North and the East.

Many Sri Lankan leaders have pledged to implement it and one even assured that he was ready to grant 13+ - which would even go beyond the limits of 13A, only to renege on that promise.

But President Wickremesinghe’s conviction of purpose on this issue cannot be doubted, as he has always stood for the devolution of power to the provinces and other levels.

In the light of President Wickremesinghe’s earnest appeal, all political parties within and outside Parliament must work together to reach an agreement on implementing the 13A effectively. It is a good sign that even rabid nationalists have given up total opposition to 13A and are mostly ready to concede even land powers, which was previously unthinkable on their part. Thus Police powers remain the sole contentious issue, with some quarters saying that this would essentially lead to federalism. This issue can be debated and thrashed out in Parliament, an All-Party Conference (APC), media and public forums to arrive at a compromise solution.

Since PCs are here to stay, Police powers or not, there should be a way to justify the massive Rs.550 billion annual expenditure on the PCs. As the President said, some call the PCs a “white elephant”, without really considering the role they play in devolved subjects such as health and education.

They must be truly empowered to serve the provinces, sans intrusive action from the Central Government. The involvement of professionals and qualified persons from the grassroots level, especially women, will make them more effective. This is why all parties must support the President’s proposal to increase women’s representation in PCs to 25 percent from the next election cycle. We hope that this will eventually be extended to Parliament as well.

The President made another pertinent observation in his speech. “The division of power and authority between the PCs, Central Government, and Local Government (LG) bodies lacks clarity. Consequently, subjects overlap between PCs, LG bodies and the Central Government, resulting in duplication of efforts and delayed actions.

Instead of resolving people’s issues, problems are escalating due to these inefficiencies,” he told Parliament. This is indeed a moot point that deserves more attention as it is the public purse that gets lighter due to the lack of coherence and coordination of these institutions.

Clearly, there should be a wider debate in society about devolution, not just PCs. Devolution is the best form of democratisation – in countries such as India, it goes all the way down to Panchyats or Village Councils, which gives almost everyone a voice in governance. A similar level of engagement should be introduced here too, with LG bodies and PCs taking the lead. The PCs must be empowered and nurtured as part of the Government’s Vision 2048 to become proud partners of the development drive.