Saturday, April 28, 2007

The fancy with the Indian 'Panchayat Raj' and our own 'Grama Raj'

This is an excerpt of an assignment that i wrote on the topic "Should Local Government be recognized as a third tier of government?", as part of the evaluation process for my Bachelor of Laws Year II examinations. There is a lot more that can be said on the topic but as i had limited space and time to do my assignment i couldn't be as detailed as i would have loved to. But most of the basics i hope are covered in the excerpt. The topic becomes even more relevant as the SLFP proposals to the APRC due on the 1st of May are said to propose nothing else but the setting up of 'Grama Sabhas' and Districts Councils as its suggestions for a political settlement!! Footnote 1 and 3 provide additional information.

Fashioning the strengthening of local government as a solution to the ethnic conflict: A mockery of the minorities’ claim for devolution of powers

The setting up of an All Party Representatives Conference and the appointment of an Experts Panel to guide the APRC in formulating a constitutional proposal to find a political settlement to the ethnic conflict by President Mahinda Rajapaksha has yet again revived the discussion on the appropriate state structure to manage ethnic relations in the country. One of the interesting things that came out of this process was the fancy that some sections of the government including the President and a section of the Expert Panel took to the idea of the Panchayat Raj system in India as an appropriate model (subject to certain variations) to devolve powers to. In September 2006 the Union (central) Minister in charge of the subject of Panchayat Raj in India Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar was invited to speak to the APRC and the experts panel. During this meeting the minister is said to have noted that “the Indian experiment on devolution of powers through Panchayat Raj model could be useful for Sri Lanka in dealing with its ethnic strife”[1]. On the invitation of the Indian Minister some of the Expert Panel members also undertook a study tour of India specifically looking at the workings of the Panchayat Raj system. President Rajapaksha also during his visit to India for the New Delhi Summit of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation in March 2006 met with Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar at which the possibility of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict through the Panchayat Raj system was discussed.

Both the Expert Panel’s committee ‘A’ Interim report and the Committee ‘B’ Interim report[2] refer to the Panchayat Raj system. The Expert Committee ‘B’ in its report provides a lot of space to the subject of Local Government and Panchayat Raj. The substance of these reports relation to Local Government will be referred to in some detail in the next section but a comparison of attitudes is attempted with regards to both the reports handling of the question of devolution of powers and to illustrate how the genuine demand for devolution of powers can be sidelined, circumvented and be a made a mockery of in the name of strengthening local government.

A cursory assessment of committee ‘A’ report will indicate that the report makes fair inroads in identifying a viable mode for devolution of powers. Inter alia, the report suggests for the elimination of the concurrent list, strengthens the provincial list, providing for substantial powers for the second tier of government and suggests for innovative and progressive provisions in handling controversial subjects such as land and the question of merger of the North and East provinces. It also contains some salutary provisions for shared rule at the centre and deals progressively with the problems of the Muslim community and the Up Country Tamils. Hence there is nothing to ‘suspect’ when the Committee report states that they have no problems in introducing a system comparable to the Panchayat raj system or providing constitutional status to and enhancing powers of the Local Government. The committee report ‘B’ on the other hand is unambiguous in its drafter’s intention that they do not believe in devolution as a viable tool for conflict resolution. (In a section titled end notes which contain two sub-sections titled “relevant considerations” and “relevant principles” the drafters of the report place arguments as to why substantial devolution of powers would be unsuitable for Sri Lanka. While unashamedly denying that the minority communities have been denied their due share of state power, the report with regard to the unit of devolution states that “the case for establishing a mosaic of small units of devolution is persuasive and further states “a sub national tier of units of government coterminous with the present electoral districts has more comparative advantages than any other”. It recognizes provinces as the primary unit of devolution of power only for the reason that “it has been existence over most parts of the country for almost twenty years”. It appears that along with the concept of capital territories the call for strengthening of the local government, allocating a fourth list titled ‘local list’ and projecting local government as an ‘adequate protection for provincial minorities’ is primarily put forward to discredit any ‘decent’ devolution to the provinces[3]. (the issue of protection for provincial minorities in the report has been used as an excuse for central government domination within a weak scheme of devolution of powers). In fact a study of the powers recommended for the provincial councils in the ‘B’ report would reveal that it is less than what has been offered to the provinces under the 13th amendment.

It should be noted that this is not the first time that local government structures have been fancied as appropriate units for ‘devolution’ (?) of power. The District Development Councils initiative of President J.R. Jayawardena in the early 1980s and the proposal of devolving the powers assigned to the provincial councils to the Pradeshiya Sabhas and the establishing of divisional secretariats during President Premadasa’s regime may be cited as examples. Kethesh Loganathan in an article that he wrote in 1992[4] crisply criticizes this approach with words couched in anger and frustration:

“The haste in which Divisional Secretariats are being established by the Presidential Secretariat and open declarations that the powers of the provincial councils shall be further devolved to the Pradeshiya Sabhas, is not only an act of deceit, but makes a mockery of devolution. As a matter of fact, the Government has ceased even thinking about devolution – the populist rhetoric now is “taking the Government to the people”. But we wish to emphasize that devolution as a solution to the Tamil question should not be confused with decentralization. What our people (ie the Ealam Tamils) seek is not the proximity of the Central Government through administrative decentralization, but provincial or regional autonomy that would ensure to them security, identity and social progress. Decentralization of administration is a matter that each provincial government will have to decide, depending on its need and compulsions.”

The central issues relating to the minorities in this country that Loganathan indicates - security, identity and social progress - especially security and law and order cannot be provided through a local government structure. Hence it will not be healthy to approach local governments as the base for devolution of powers for conflict management. Strengthening local governments is an act of decentralization and not of devolution of powers.

[1] Muralidhar Reddy. B, “Panchayat Raj useful to Sri Lanka: Aiyar”, The Hindu, International page, September 29 2006. Kuldip Nayar, a Senior Indian Journalist writing in the April 4th edition of the Asian Age (a newspaper published in India) wrote as follows regarding Mani Shankar’s involvement with the APRC: In fact, India’s Minister for Panchayati Raj, Mani Shankar Aiyar has been so voluminous in his praise for the Panchayat system that the Sri Lankan government seriously believes it has found an answer to its plans for the devolution of power. Most Lankan ministers I have talked to, including Opposition leaders, are sold to the Panchayat raj system which they say will evolve into a federal structure. This, in a way, indicates that Sri Lanka does not want to part with real power. But the much-vaunted provincial councils cannot even have any legislation passed. It is for Parliament to do so. Something as trivial as a culvert or an electricity pole is decided by the minister in charge because every such thing is announced to the humiliation of the provincial council members”.

[2] There was a split in the expert panel on the basis of ideology. The committee ‘A’ report consisted of 11 members of the panel who took a pro-devolution stand. Committee ‘B’ consisted of four of the panelists who took an anti-devolution stand. Two other members wrote separate reports.

[3] Comparative experiences in countries which have a strong centralized system of federalism narrate similar attempts by those in the Central Government to provide for more powers to the Local Government to under cut the provinces. In South Africa because of the historical hostility that the ruling African National Congress had towards Federalism they disliked the idea of devolving more powers to the provinces but instead were happy to delegate more powers to the Local Government institutions. Simeon and Murray see these developments as foreshadowing an "hourglass" system in which the national and local spheres become the dynamic elements, and the role of provincial governments is reduced, if not eliminated. See, Richard Simeon and Christina Murray, “Multiple Sphere Governance in South Africa: An interim assessment’, Publius, Vol.31, No.4 (Autumn 2001) p. 88. In India when the Rajiv Gandhi Government tried to bring in a constitutional amendment to vest more powers in the Panchayat systems it was widely seen as a move to under cut the states most of which were controlled by the oppositions parties. The attempt failed and the effort to constitutionalise the panchayat system materialized three years later in the Narasimha Rao administration. For a detailed discussion see, Krishna K. Tummala, ‘India’s Federalism under stress’, Asian Survey, Vol.32, No. 6, (June 1992) pp. 550, 551. The Indian experience with Panchayat raj generally speaks of state government's reluctance to give panchayats more power as they themselves have very few powers within the quasi- federal system which they do not want to 'lose' to the panchayats.

[4] Kethesh Loganathan in ‘Provincial Councils and Local Government: Their role in Strengthening Liberal Democracy’ ed by Rohan Edrisinha, The Council for Liberal Democracy (1992)