Councils a White Elephant?
The Provincial Councils were introduced as an
instrument for devolution of power under the
Indo-Lanka Peace Accord signed by Indian Prime
Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J R
Jayewardene in July 1987.
The PC system became a legal entity in the Sri
Lankan polity following the passage of 13th
Amendment to the Constitution on November 14, 1987.
Although the new Amendment required that a
Provincial Council be established for each province,
the North and East were merged as one province when
the PCs were established initially. The North and
East were de-merged later following a ruling given
by the Supreme Court and there is a separate PC for
the Eastern Province functioning now.
To devolve power to N&E
The Provincial Councils, 22 years old now, have been
described as a white elephant by opponents of the
system from the very inception. The main purpose of
the PC system was to devolve power to the North and
East, but ironically, the system had been in
operation only in the South.
Many an academic has expressed the view that the PC
system has not served the purpose for which it was
established, for a number of reasons. The failure to
carry out the devolved functions systematically and
effectively, lack of adequate financial provisions,
interference and taking over of certain devolved
functions by the central government are among the
reasons adduced by these critics.
A study on the working of Provincial Councils in Sri
Lanka was conducted recently by the senior
researchers of Institute for Constitutional Studies
(ICS). Professor Ranjith Amarasinghe, Professor
(Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science of
the Peradeniya University, Asoka S Gunawardena, a
former Chairman of the Financial Commission and a
senior officer of the Sri Lanka Administrative
Service, Dr Jayampathi Wickremaratne PC,
Constitutional expert and Prof A M Navaratne
Bandara, Head of the Department of Political Science
of the Peradeniya University. They have in a
collective effort brought out a book based on the
results of ICS study titled An evaluation of the
working of the Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka.
A conference titled ‘National Symposium on
Devolution’ inspired by this analytical work was
held at the Hotel Amaya Lake in Kandalama last week.
Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, Uva Governor Nanda
Mathew, Former North-East Chief Minister Vartharajah
Perumal, TNA Parliamentarian M A Sumanthiran, PC
Ministers, opposition leaders, members and Chief
Secretaries from the eight Provincial Councils
participated in this conference. The symposium
proceedings followed the brief talks delivered by
the four co-editors of the analytical work, An
evaluation of the Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka.
The keynote address was delivered by Director,
India’s Institute of Public Administration Dr Rakesh
Powers of Governor
The main topic that figured at the discussions was
the powers of the Governor of a Provincial Council.
Governors being appointees of the Executive
President would naturally play the role of
representatives of the President and the central
government. A governor is in a position to execute
his executive powers directly or through the Board
of Ministers or the officials. He is empowered to
exercise his discretion in the discharge of any
function and the Governor’s decision is final. And
his decision cannot be challenged in a court of law.
Despite being armed with such executive powers, most
Governors in carrying out their duties fall in line
with the views of the Board of Ministers headed by
the Chief Minister. As a result, clashes between
them are reported to be minimal. However, Education
Minister of the Eastern Provincial Council
Wimalaweera Dissanayake complained that their
Governor has become a stumbling block to the smooth
functioning of the Provincial Ministries including
his. He charged that the Governor did not allow him
to recruit teachers or even transfer a teacher
despite his being the Minister of Education. If he
had no power even to affect the transfer of a
sanitary labourer, what is the purpose of his being
a Minister, he asked. A former military officer, the
Governor is trying to run the Provincial Council too
in the military style, the Provincial Minister
Chief Secretary Western Provincial Council Lalith
Kannangara, Opposition Leader Kithsiri Kahatapitiya
and PC member Mahesh Almeida said that their
Governor Alavi Mowlana, despite being a politician
himself does not interfere in the administrative
affairs of the Council. PC members and officials
from the UVA PC also said that their Governor Nanda
Mathew too was non-interfering.
Another topic that took centre-stage at the
deliberations was the drafting of statutes.
Laws are necessary for running of a PC. These laws
are called ‘statutes.’ However, these statutes are a
far cry from the laws enacted by the Parliament. The
PCs are empowered to enact statutes in respect of
the subjects delegated to them and those containing
in the concurrent list. The PCs cannot enact
statutes in respect of subjects on the Reserved
List, which do not fall under their jurisdiction. A
PC planning to enact a statute pertaining to a
subject appearing on the Concurrent List has to
obtain the prior approval of Parliament.
President’s Counsel Dr Jayampathi Wickremaratne said
there is a sharp decline in the number of statutes
being adopted by PCs.
Prof Ranjith Amarasinghe pointed out that the main
reason for this situation is the shortage of
officials possessing the professional expertise to
draft statutes. He said that many statutes drafted
by incompetent officials with flaws like being
incompatible with the Constitution, imperfect and
replete with technical defects have been rejected.
Many officials tasked with drafting statutes have
made it a practice to submit them to the Attorney
General to in a bid to ensure their legality. The
President himself has issued a directive that all
draft statutes be referred to the Attorney General
for his sanction.
Lack of expertise
It transpired during the deliberations that a large
number of draft statutes referred to the Attorney
General had been gathering dust at his department
for months. “Some draft statutes had lain unattended
at the Attorney General’s department for over six
months and some drafts had awaited disposal for more
than three years. And there had been occasions where
the Council had been dissolved by the time approval
had come from the AG’s Department.
A former Legal Draftswoman now in retirement Ms
Sriyangani Fernando said that the PCs should have
their own legal Draftsmen.
DBs at PCs expense
The subject of allocation of funds to PCs too came
under lengthy deliberations. The Financial
Commission has to advise the President on allocation
of funds to PCs. But there is none to represent the
interests of the PCs on the Commission. The PCs are
dependent on the central government in regard to
financial provisions, said Asoka S. Gunawardena.
The PCs are not empowered to levy Customs duties
and Income Taxes which are good sources of income.
The PCs once were collecting the Turnover Tax. This
power too was withdrawn through the last Budget. The
PCs have now been directed to utilise all the taxes
they collect to meet the commitment of paying
salaries and pensions of PC employees. As a result,
the PCs are compelled to depend on government
funding for implementing development projects which
they initiate. It is in this context, the
participants pointed out, that the PCs have come to
be seen as a white elephant.
The central government virtually takes back part
of the budgetary apportionment made for the PCs in
order to distribute it as the decentralised budget
allocations to 225 MPs at the rate of Rs.5 million
for one MP. Some participants pointed out that that
it is unfair to make decentralised budget
allocations to MPs from the monies voted for PCs
when it is the responsibility of the PCs to carry
out development in their respective provinces. They
pointed out that if the PCs are given the Rs.1,125
million now being distributed among the MPs, they
(PCs) could channel the monies into well-planned
development projects in their respective areas.
Powers & Privileges Act
Yet another topic that figured prominently at the
deliberations was the powers and privileges of PCs.
Number of PC members pointed out the need to have an
Act similar to the Parliamentary Powers and
Privileges Act passed in Parliament.
A deplorable situation where it is difficult to for
a PC to summon a high government official to a
committee appointed by it has arisen due to PCs not
having any powers and privileges vested in them.
Though some officials from low ranks attend such
committees high officials like District Secretaries
very often ignore the invitations to attend them. A
certain Divisional Secretary from the Central
Province while refusing to attend a PC-convened
committee had said that he was answerable only to
the Auditor General. He had finally attended the
committee in question following persuasion by the
Chief Minister and the Governor. Therefore, it is
quite clear there should be an Act vesting powers
and privileges in PCs too, among other things,
secure the participation of high government
officials in PC committees.
The PC members also stressed the need of legal
recognition of PC positions such as the Leader of
the House, Opposition leader, Government Whip and
Taking over of certain powers and functions of PCs
by the governments in power came in for flak from
many participants. Taking over of hospitals and
schools run by the PCs by the government has become
a routine feature today, they said. A PC member who
spoke on this matter recalled that former President
Chandrika Kumaratunga as the Chief Minister of the
Western Province was very vocal about securing
Police and several other powers. But once becoming
the President she lost interest in this cause she
Many participants said that most PC members look on
their position as a stepping stone to enter
Parliament and once they realise their aim, they
conveniently forget the imperatives for making PCs a
success. The PCs have fallen into the sorry state it
is in today due to this attitude.
The Provincial Councils, which the people never
asked for, have nevertheless become part and parcel
of the country’s Constitution today. Therefore, the
PCs should be geared to the country’s development by
delegating to all powers specified in the Provincial
Councils Act. This was the conclusion reached at