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Sinhalese Politicians Oppose Devolution For Fear of Losing Power and Control

by Raja Senanayake

The official language refers to the language in which records are maintained in official records. British colonial rulers used English as the Official Language, and Court proceedings were recorded in English even when witnesses spoke in Sinhala and Tamil.

Lawyers too spoke in English. It was the same in government offices – both at headquarters and in district and field offices. Government employees knew English and were able to record their views in the form of minutes.

The minutes of interviews were submitted to the higher officers who gave written orders that were recorded. Letters to the government offices were written in English and the public understood that official correspondence would be in English.

The British realized that it was necessary to educate a sufficient number of locals in the English language to man the public service. They depended on the English medium schools run by the missionaries to man the public service. Since the American missionaries were not welcome in the South they opened schools in the North and provided good English education to the people of the North.

The Tamils obtained a disproportionate number of jobs in the public service. This roused the envy of the Sinhalese lower middle class consisting of Sinhalese teachers, and provided the base for the anti-Tamil sentiments among the Sinhalese which the Sinhalese politicians were quick to capitalize on.

The solution to the problem, they thought, was to replace English with Sinhala as the official language in order to obtain more government jobs exclusively for them.

It was based on what economists call the zero sum game – the Tamils must lose job opportunities if the Sinhalese were to get more employment in the public service. So SWRD introduced the Sinhala Only Act which required Sinhala to be the official language, in 24 hours.

Tamil public servants who did not know Sinhala were given time to get proficient in Sinhala. They were also offered retirement terms under which some Sinhalese public servants too retired.

But how could 30% of the people who are Tamil speaking and who cannot read or write Sinhala deal with a government which is conducting business only in Sinhala? SWRD realized that this was not only unjust but also not workable in the North and East for it would require government employees who could speak both Sinhala and Tamil.

It was necessary to make the Sinhalese public servants able to converse in Tamil while recording their minutes in Sinhala.

The Courts would need judges who knew both Sinhala and Tamil and Tamil judges would have to record proceedings in Sinhala. This was not a feasible or practical situation and SWRD having realized it, wanted to make Tamil the language of administration in the North and East and provide for the reasonable use of Tamil elsewhere in the country.

The B-C Pact was of course discarded.

But this could still be done under a centralized system of governance through the kachcheris and the divisional revenue officers, and the village headmen as the British did. The Sinhala language would then have to be forced down the throats of the Tamil people just as the British did with English. (Hence Colvin’s quip about one language.)

But there was a new problem which emerged after 1956. The new type of SLFP politician wanted to exercise power at district level. They were not interested in being pure legislators, a role for which they lacked a modern education. So in the Sinhalese areas the governing party members of Parliament (MP) began giving orders and instructions to the government agents and the department heads.

They interfered with the issue of water for cultivation from the irrigation tanks and channels. They decided on who should get land permits under the land laws. They interfered with the police and the Forest Department officials. All such acts of intervention were not covered by law and hence their exercise of power was without responsibility or accountability.

The officials were still legally accountable but then how can the departments headquartered in Colombo hold the officials accountable when they were subject to orders from the local MPs? Nor could the central government minister take the side of the local officials against the local MP. The minister is a politician and he cannot side with his officials against a MP.

Tamil MPs too would like to exercise power at district level and they too want to be re-elected. To do so, they must please their supporters. But they were not members of the ruling party. If they are allowed to function in the same way as the Sinhalese MPs how would the differences between the Tamil MPs and the district level government agent be resolved? Whose side would the Central Government minister take in the event of a difference of opinion between the local Tamil MP and the minister?

I had sacked a grama sevaka when I was the government agent in Vavuniya in 1965 and the grama sevaka happened to be the MP’s loyal supporter. I was summoned to meet W. Dahanayake, the Minister of Home Affairs. The secretary to the minister, H.C. Goonewardene, was also present when the minister asked me why I had sacked the grama sevaka. I had to tell him that he was involved in fraud of public funds.

The minister gave me a lecture on why I should make it a point to get along with the MP for he represented the people, etc. Fortunately, the secretary backed me; otherwise I would have been transferred to the pool.

This conflict between the local MP and the district administration was sought to be pre-empted by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government by appointing the local MP as the district political authority. But there are several MPs in a district and this scheme also broke down for it was not based on law but by executive fiat.

SWRD however had realized the need for devolution of power within a democratic framework. In 1957 he proposed Regional Councils in the B-C Pact. Since then much has happened and we have today the Provincial Councils and the 13th Amendment. These councils are unable to function since they have no funds. They cannot tax or borrow, and hence are totally dependent on the Central Government for funds.

The funds released by the Central Government are only sufficient to pay salaries of the members and the staff. We have failed to draw up a scheme of fiscal devolution and the Provincial Councils are unable to carry out the activities earmarked for them.

The public consider these councils white elephants. Meanwhile, the government is taking over activities which should strictly be left to the Provincial Councils and the Pradeshiya Sabhas. Schools and hospitals in the districts were taken over by the Central Government and designated as national schools. Nobody knows what ‘national’ means.

Now there is a Divineguma Bill which seeks to centralize activities that should be done at the local level and funds earmarked for them should be allocated to the Provincial Councils and the local bodies.

The government might be tempted to cripple the Provincial Councils and the Pradeshiya Sabhas by starving them of funds while also denying them the power to tax and to borrow.

The government must accept the need for decentralization, at least, if not devolution of power. A measure of decentralization is indispensable for a system of active popular rule. Simply put, “power to the people and equal opportunities for all” is the way of narrowing the widening gap between expected performance and actual performance in public service delivery.

The argument is that without the opportunity to exercise local influence, citizens become estranged from one another, and from the public organs that governs them. Do we want to estrange the Tamil people from the organs of the State? Isn’t this what is happening now?

We have decentralization through the kachcheris and the divisional secretaries. But these units functioning in the North and East will have to give ear to the local people and hence to the local MPs. But the MPs should not be allowed to exercise power without responsibility. Nor are national level MPs expected to be involved in Executive decision-making at the grassroots level.

So empowering the people requires a locally elected representative to represent a smaller unit of government. The smaller the unit the easier it is for people to hold their elected representatives accountable to them.

There must be political space for the representatives of the Tamil people to get involved in the governance in the same way as the Sinhalese MPs are involved in their areas. The government is reluctant to devolve power.

It stems from the Sinhalese politicians fear of losing their inherent power and control system which makes them oppose devolution of power provided for in the 13th Amendment.

The Sinhalese political class knows that when devolution of power to the North and East starts working there will be similar demands in the Sinhalese areas and their own power would be seriously curtailed by the Central Government level. So they rouse fears of secession.

(The writer was formerly of the Ceylon Civil Service who served as Government Agent in Vavuniya in the 1960s having earlier served as a Cadet in Jaffna Kachcheri in the 1950s. He studied Public Administration in the University of Pittsburgh, Graduate School of Public Affairs as Dag Hammaksjoeld scholar and holds a Masters degree.)