Tamils’ Devolution Proposals Will Put Sri Lankan President In A Fix – Analysis


The majority Sinhalese community sees any further devolution to the Provinces as a pathway to the revival of Tamil separatism

As part of measures to make devolution of power under the 13th. Amendment of the Sri Lankan constitution meaningful, the Tamils have suggested that the powers now vested with Provincial Governors be pruned, and more powers granted to the Provincial Boards of Ministers. But the majority Sinhalese community sees the Tamils’ demand for further devolution or any more dilution of the Center’s powers, as a pathway to the revival of Tamil separatism. 

This puts President Ranil Wickremesinghe in a fix.  On the one hand, under pressure from India and Western countries, and eying the Tamil vote in the 2024 Presidential election, he has declared that he will find a solution to the ethnic question by 2024, the 75 th. anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence. But on the other hand, devolution to the Provinces is a very controversial issue among the Sinhalese community which accounts for over 75% of the Sri Lankan population.     

In a list of proposals submitted to President  Wickremesinghe, the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) MP from Jaffna district, M.A. Sumanthiran, has proposed a number of steps, chief among them is the pruning of the powers of the Provincial Governor by requiring him to act “on the advice of the Chief Minister” except in specific cases where he has discretionary power.

Sumanthiran’s other suggestions are: (1) appoint a National Land Commission and formulate a comprehensive land policy; (2) set up Provincial Police Forces as envisaged in the constitution; (3) make necessary amendments to the following Acts: (a) the Provincial Councils Act; (b) the Provincial Councils (Constitutional Provisions) Act; and (c) the Transfer of Powers (Divisional Secretaries) Act; (4) amend all those Central enactments (such as the National Transport Act, Agrarian Services Act and the Divineguma Act) that had taken away powers given to the  Provincial Councils under the 13A; and (5) abolish the concept of National Schools and revert to the Provinces all schools and hospitals that now come under the Central government.  

The Tamil MP has suggested a number of other amendments too. These relate to the following sections of the Provincial Councils Act of 1987: 

Section 15 says that the Governor shall make rules for the allocation of business among Ministers. But the Tamils want this to be done “on the advice of the Chief Minister.” Sec. 16 refers to “contracts entered into in the exercise of the executive power of the Governor of the Province.” The Tamils say that this should be reworded as “contracts entered into by the Provincial Council,” replacing “the executive power of the Governor.”

As per Sec.31, the President “shall appoint the Chief Secretary of the Province with the concurrence of the Chief Minister.” But this should be changed to: “The Chief Minister shall appoint the Chief Secretary with the concurrence of the Governor.”  

Sect. 32 (1) says “Subject to the provisions of any other law, the appointment, transfer, dismissal and disciplinary control of officers of the provincial public service of such Province are hereby vested in the Governor of that Province.” But the Tamils want this power to be exercised by the Governor “on the advice of the Board of Ministers of the Province.” 

Sec. 32 (2) says that the Governor of a Province may, from time to time, delegate his powers of appointment, transfer, dismissal, and disciplinary control of officers of the provincial public service to the Provincial Public Service Commission of that Province. The Tamils want the Governor to act “on the advice of the Board of Ministers” in these matters.

Sec 32 (3) also says: “The Governor shall provide for and determine all matters relating to officers of the provincial public service, including the formulation of schemes of recruitment and codes of conduct for such officers, the principle to be followed in making promotions and transfers, and the procedure for the exercise and the delegation of the powers of appointment, transfer, dismissal and disciplinary control of such officers.” The Tamils say the Governor should exercise this power “on the advice of the Board of Ministers.” 

Sec 33 (1) says: “There shall be a Provincial Public Service Commission for each Province which shall consist of not less than three persons appointed by the Governor of that Province. The Governor shall nominate one of the members of the Commission to be the Chairman.” The Tamils submit that this should be done “on the advice of the Board of Ministers” and that the Governor shall “on the advice of the Board of Ministers” nominate one of the members of the Commission to be the Chairman, and not unilaterally.

Sec 33 (3) says that the Governor of the Province can remove a member of the Provincial Public Service Commission. But the Tamil submit that this should be done “on the advice of the Board of Ministers.” Also, any temporary vacancy should be filled only on the advice of the Board of Ministers.

Government’s Response    

In his policy statement made in parliament recently, President Wickremesinghe said that amendments will be introduced to some relevant Acts such as the Transfer of Powers (Divisional Secretaries) Act, No. 58 of 1992, the Provincial Councils (Consequential Provisions) Act, No. 12 of 1989 and Provincial Councils (Amendment) Act No. 28 of 1990 to regularize and streamline delegation.

He further said: “It is alleged that due to certain practices of the Central Government, the powers of the Provincial Councils have been reduced in the fields of education and health. Therefore, we envision bringing new laws regarding the implementation of powers of the Provincial Councils in these fields.”

However, the President made it clear that there will be no change in police powers, thereby saying that police powers will not be devolved, though, as per 13A, they should be.

While the Tamils will welcome the promises of the President. Support is not at all guaranteed on the Sinhalese side. Political parties of the majority Sinhala community are either non-committal or are totally opposed to it. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, on whose support the Wickremesinghe government survives, is silent on the issue, though in the past, its founder-leader Mahinda Rajapaksa had promised “13A Plus” with powers over land, if not the police. Already alienated from the people for mismanaging the economy since 2010 and causing widespread distress, the SLPP is unlikely to touch 13A even with a barge pole.  

The main opposition party, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) is sitting on the fence. It  would like the Tamils’ support without alienating the majority Sinhalese. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’s General Secretary Tilvin Silva, on the other hand, is more explicit. He has said that the debate on 13A would arouse communal feelings and divide the people.The JVP is a Sinhalese party to the core.  

More importantly, Sri Lanka’s most influential constituency, the Buddhist clergy, is against the 13A being implemented in full or expanded. According to Jaffna MP C.V.Wigneswaran, the Mahanayake Theros had stated in a letter, that if Land and Police powers together with the right to administer archaeological sites and places of religious worship were granted to the Provincial Councils, Tamil separatism would raise its head again. 

The communal divide that is evident calls for fresh discussions involving all stakeholders, followed by widespread lobbying for the contemplated changes in the 13A.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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