A Story of Southern Sinhala Recalcitrance: How the Devolution Gestures of 1981-83 moved NOWHERE

S. Sivathasan in the Sunday Leader,13 May 2013

When the Jaffna Development Council started functioning a Minister who made frequent official visits to Jaffna was Hon. Gamini Dissanayake. His known closeness to the President lent some significance to the discussions he had with Mr. Nadarajah the Chairman of the Council. A warm rapport developed between the two. To the Chairman it opened a two-way communication connecting the District with the Centre. The Minister perhaps was not unaware of the political fall-out for the government, if things turned out well.

JR-LALITH-gAMINIQuite a few meetings with the Minister were held in Colombo. The Chairman, the Government Agent Dr. Nesiah and the writer participated in these meetings. What were emphasized from the Council’s side were substantially larger funding and more devolved powers to utilize the finances effectively. The proposition struck a sensitive chord with the Minister and he took the initiative in arranging for a meeting with President J.R. Jayawardene one evening at his residence. It was in the latter part of 1982. The five of us took part in the discussions for over an hour. Development priorities with central funding were outlined by us. The Jaffna Lagoon Scheme and bridging the Mahadeva Causeway were among them. There was responsive interaction.

In mid-1982, to mark the first anniversary of the Development Council a special sitting was organized. Policy and programme set out in a document of fifty pages was read out by the Chairman at this ceremonial sitting. It became the base for discussions in Colombo. In a subsequent document, another exercise was undertaken to define objective principles for block grants to Development Councils. The capital votes were taken together and after setting apart a certain percentage for central government works, the balance was to be given to the districts. Distribution based on the criteria of population and area of each district will compose a share and the remaining amount will be apportioned according to a district’s state of growth, development needs and other relevant criteria.

This proposition with figures extracted from the Printed Estimates and worked out with a district perspective was sent to the powers that be in Colombo. To continuous correspondence and personal contact, there was a response from the President. Three from the Development Council, Chairman, GA and the writer were invited for a discussion on a day of a Cabinet meeting. After the conclusion of the meeting, President retained a handful of Ministers including Lalith Athulathmudali and Cyril Mathew and called on the Chairman to address them. The strategy appeared to be to expose them to the suffocation suffered by a Development Council for want of finances and of authority. The Chairman a former Senator had the respect of the President for his outspokenness. He explained the proposition urging the need for meaningful financial devolution and for increased funding. Lalith showed interest and even appeared impressed with the proposition.

The above meeting was about January 1983, after the conclusion of the referendum and the general election in 1982. About two weeks subsequently, I was summoned by the President for a discussion on budgetary support. Those present included Lalith, Dr. Ranjit Attapattu from the deep South and the DST. Issues related to making the Councils effective were discussed. In passing even the creation of a District based Public Service from among serving officers was touched on. An important decision taken was to appoint a Committee of Secretaries – about six – to suggest ways for greater financial support.

Lalith was to be Chairman and Mr. Bradman Weerakoon Secretary. Mr. Felix Dias Abeysinghe though retired was in the committee for his Local Government background. I was appointed Assistant Secretary, so that as a wearer of the shoe in the Jaffna District, I could explain where it pinched and how hard. After deliberations spread over a few weeks, an Interim Report was submitted in May 1983. The highlight of it was a recommendation for an allocation to all Development Councils of a sum equivalent to the allocation for the Decentralized Budget (DCB). It meant a doubling of Rs. 420 million to 840 million for direct spending by the districts.

This was far from satisfying. The North South dialogue with the President from October 1982 to September 1983 achieved precious little. No meeting ground came about. Each side was reinforced in its own position and policy stance on the scope of devolution. Political power residing in the South prevailed over the North. There was not even a thought of sharing. The failed attempt at building bridges alienated the Tamils still further. They saw the effort and the minimal financial support through the prism of a Tamil saying – show the moon to distract the child that pesters. The simmering Tamil problem only festered. The Tamil side was neither distracted nor convinced nor satisfied. To those who pegged their vision on a federal arrangement, the Development Council with proven impotence was a far cry.

The Chairman did not wish to continue with a position that offered little prospects for meaningful engagement. He relinquished his post and informed the President accordingly, about the 12th July 1983. The next week the Ex-Chairman and I were invited for a discussion on devolution at the President’s residence. At this point of time we had come to the position that a Province and not a District should be the unit of devolution. We wanted to put forward this point of view. At the conference seated on one side were about five others including Lalith and facing them were both of us. President’s opening sentence was “Chairman, if you are thinking of any scheme outside the Development Council set up, WE PART”. So the discussion was limited to refining the existing scheme.

The next day July 22nd, we travelled back to Jaffna by car with the GA. Explosions that midnight changed the political scene. In late September I was called for a one to one discussion on the Development Council and Devolution. In a fortnight I was summoned again. At this discussion senior officials too participated. I said “Sir, if we can take up the most sensitive issue of land and make some progress, it will clear the way to success in other subjects”. Devolution of all powers relating to land was put across. After some deliberations on land Mr. G. V. P. Samarasinghe said, “You can’t override the Minister”. After some more discussions the meeting ended. It marked the end of a year’s effort. India’s involvement grew thereafter eclipsing any local initiative.

20--1983 Borella rioters - burning++After the riots many of the MPs were in self-exile. The Development Council lingered on for a few more months making little impact on economic life. When it was born, there were no comets seen. At its demise there was not a whimper. Having lived up to the objective of the President it derived neither power nor finances. It just withered away. There was no devolution and little development. Even the meager expectations of some Tamils were completely belied. In the words of a Tamil recluse, uttered 1,000 years ago, “everything receded as a phantasm, an old tale and a dream”. The Council merged in the Kachcheri, losing its brief authority and identity. The district had to wait for the next five years for the North-East Provincial Council.


Filed under accountability, communal relations, democratic measures, historical interpretation, life stories, politIcal discourse, power politics, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society

4 responses to “A Story of Southern Sinhala Recalcitrance: How the Devolution Gestures of 1981-83 moved NOWHERE

  1. chandre DW

    This story shows that there were well-meaning administrators in the North who were looking for peaceful solutions. However, the cannons had already been loaded in Vauddkkoddai (old Batakotte) in 1976, or indeed even before, at Maradana in 1949 with the cry of Arasu. There would have been well-meaning administrative people in the South as well, but by 1983 the politicians had firmed up and drawn their battle lines. The southern politicians worked under the suspicion that the North will ask for more and more power (provincial devolution and then separation instead of DDCs), and this suspicion was voiced at the last meeting where JR said “WE PART”. In effect, by 1983 things had moved to an incendiary situation where suspicion was too high. Even today, the TNA has not done much to alley the fires of suspicion that exist in the south. Mr. Sampanthn’s speech in Batti (Madakalapuwa) last September, and statements made by them at the GTF, Geneva, India and other fora have not helped at all.

    The belief that any devolution (e.g, 13th amendment) is just the thin end of the wedge of separatism is strongly entrenched in the south today. It will take a generation (no matter in what society) after a civil war to alley such suspicions. So I believe that the best approach to `reconciliation’ is to start by NOT asking for contentious powers like police powers and power over land registration; and ask merely for administrative decentralization during the first 5 years. That would be good for every PC and not just for the north! The increased power of provincial politicians has been a direct source of increased lawlessness in the country. The north can make a surprise concession by saying, we can even give up some constitutional provisions contained in the 13th amendment if some other administrative powers (e.g., finance) are devolved. There has to be a spirit of give and take for reconciliation to happen, and such healing needs about 15 years of stagnation after any war, in any society

    How ever, what if JR had conceded, and given wider powers to the Northern DDC? The Militant nationalists of Yalpanam who even opposed the Banda-Chelvanayagam pact had by then morphed into uncompromising Eelamists. The `boys’ of the TULF had already killed many Tamils who were trying to find a solution of co-existence rather than separation, labeling them as `traitors thurohi ‘. By then JR, Athulathmudali, et al had already developed a siege mentality. Even if they had sensed the feelings of the North at that moment and conceded to some of the proposals coming from the North, there would have been little change in the turn of events. In fact, the budding LTTE would have declared the executives of the DDC as traitors who forged a compromise with JR and hunted them out – a few more good men who had not read the poetry of Kasi Ananthan would have been put to death.

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