By Dinidu De
Following are the excerpts:
Q: How have you observed the creation of the 13th
I have watched it from the inception and the way it
has operated. I find the intention of those who
framed the 13th Amendment, which was based on what
was happening around, has not been fulfilled.
In a way what we have is a kind of a distortion of
the whole process and the whole intention of what
If you go back to the reasons for the 13th Amendment
and the fact that it was to do with the ethnic
crisis at the time, and the fact that India had come
in as a mediator to try and see a way out, one of
their solutions was devolution of power.
Devolution of power had to be in such a way, there
had to be – for an area – that in the province there
would be some kind of power given to local area
representatives to handle their affairs, whatever
those affairs were going to be.
But it meant radical change from an earlier position
of a highly centralised state that Sri Lanka was. It
was an event of major significance that was going to
change the whole way in which power was to be
Q: How did the devolution of power play into
the issues that were prevalent in the North and East
at the time?
There were going to be central powers and there were
also going to be devolved powers. Devolved powers
were going to be on the basis of the area which was
the province. They talked about the district, they
talked about the provinces and finally it was the
And in the case of the North and the East, there was
the option for any two provinces that felt like
doing so could get together to form a larger unit.
So they were thinking of the larger unit, not the
The subsidiary principal was also being taken into
account, that things are better closer to the
ground. But over and above that, was the feeling
that this would in some way satisfy the aspirations
of an ethnic community who had felt that they needed
some additional machinery to run their affairs in
certain areas different from the central government.
So it was a direct concession to that ethnic request
for power sharing. Not power sharing at the top but
power sharing at a territorial level. That was the
intention, no doubt about it.
Q: Was it perceived as a complete solution for the
issue at the time?
All those who saw it at that time and all those who
felt about it at that time, believed the 13th
Amendment as one of the solutions. And it was one of
the ways in which the aspirations or fears or claims
of the Tamil people in areas which they regarded as
theirs in a sense historically Tamil habitation
going on the demographic reality, could be
What really happened with the 13th Amendment was a
way in which the Jayawardena government was trying
to address this problem. But soon after it was
conceived, it was also felt that there will be a
major difficulty for the unitary state, which by
that time had assumed a certain momentum of its own
where all power was really centralised in the
central government and whatever other powers that
were being given were local government powers.
Municipality, Urban Council, Town Council, and
Village Council, which were kinds of power, again on
the principle of subsidiarity, were able to do some
things but not the major areas like education,
culture, land use and things like that.
There was a compromise right from the beginning in
the 13th Amendment on how do you compromise between
need for devolution of power and the giving of some
power to an area and the principle of central
control or central direction.
And it has happened right through the devolutions
like with Dudley Senanayake. All of them had the
question of how do you preserve central power. And
the way they seemed to have achieved that when the
act went into play was to build this contradiction
into the legislation.
That itself made many people feel that the
legislation itself was fundamentally flawed in the
fact that the two principles were contradicting, in
the institutional forms that were set up.That became
Q: How would you see the concurrent list and
the sharing of powers work?
Having powers for the devolved area and having
powers for the centre, and you had powers that could
be exercised by either body: there was this
vagueness about it to preserve the unitary state.
And we had in the Constitution that particular
entrenched clause that said Sri Lanka shall be a
unitary state. So there was a legal problem of how
you were going to get over that by having something
subsidiary, which had almost equal power – it had
subsidiary powers but not equal powers.
It’s a very difficult contradiction.
This was brilliantly said by none other than Prof.
G. L. Pieris who then was not in Parliament at all,
who described it as being fundamentally flawed.
“Fundamentally flawed” at that time stuck in my mind
as being a very cogent way of explaining that. The
problems that might later come up and how to resolve
In fact it did straightaway, because what they
attempted to do in one hand they were giving to the
central power. And that was done through the
mechanism of the concurrent powers – a list of
powers which could be shared. And very often the
government became the one which took back the power,
or parts of it were taken away.
If you take education the major schools were taken
back. They took the health out and took the major
hospitals back into the central government. So the
whole thing became a give and take. Give from one
hand and take from the other.
That was one, the other was the whole provision
about national policy. Wherever in the interest of
national policy, the power needs to be held by the
center and can be not taken by the devolved power.
The third most important thing I think is the
financial provisions. One of the objectives of
devolving power has always been that the devolved
power must have the means to implement that things
that it has to do. What this means is the power of
controlling the taxation. That taxation cannot be
income tax, but some kind of tax so the provincial
government can do its own things.
But in that too, there was a big block. As far as
the finances were controlled by the state which had
decided that there would be allocation but these
were very limited, and there was no basis on the
allocation. There was for example, no set allocation
from the central budget. It didn’t say anything like
“30% would be allocated among the provinces” – it
didn’t say anything like that. There was no specific
allocation and it depended on whether the treasury
could give or not – it was quite arbitrary.
It was possible for the center to limit the amount
of power through the amount of finances that were
Those three were very important – concurrent powers,
national policy and power over finances.
Q: What were the repercussions of the
restrictions and the emphasis on the centre?
Now the history of it was also very interesting that
where the devolution principle was going to be most
needed – most important to resolve the ethnic
aspirations, it didn’t work as far as the provincial
councils were concerned in the North and Eastern
In the North and the East under the Varadharajah
government – which was the first provincial
government that took place under the 13th Amendment
– they found it so difficult to handle the lack of
authority that it even went to the extent of saying
it was going to unilaterally secede.
It became an indication of the frustration and the
impossibility of a mechanism – which had been given
but had not been fully implemented. And the
justification on the side of government at the time
was simply “Well, we don’t trust you to give you
power. We don’t know what might happen. You might
move further from devolution into separation.”
The separation issue was there, and the Indian
interventions were also there, and people were
saying all kinds of things. And these were sending
signals to the Sri Lanka government at that time to
say “That’s all and nothing more.”
Amendments were made which allowed the government to
dissolve the provincial councils. Earlier the
provincial councils could only be dissolved through
the actual majority in that provincial council after
the chief minister of the provincial council made a
request for dissolution.