Serving citizens through effective delimitation of geographical boundaries in Sri Lanka

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Countries delimit in different ways. Sometimes these are drawn based on traditional boundaries, sometimes based on the physical characteristics of the region and sometimes based on the social, political and cultural contexts of the area. Sri Lanka needs a system that suits her social, cultural and geographical diversity – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara 

This article attempts to explain delimitation and how it can benefit all citizens. It is written in response to recent exposure to people’s perceptions across Sri Lanka about delimitation and related issues. Those experiences suggested that general awareness among people, including those engaged in politics, was limited and fraught with misconceptions. The article is based on the study of past delimitation work in Sri Lanka and recent work on delimitation and related issues. It is hoped that this, and other articles to follow, will encourage understanding, public discussion and debate on these issues towards serving the country better. 


What is delimitation?

Delimitation is the method of demarcating geographical boundaries for specific purposes. These could be within a neighbourhood, a country or a region. 

For example, our own residential property and those of our immediate neighbours are separated by geographical boundaries such as roads, streams, fences or walls. This ensures that each of us can take decisions about our properties (whether to paint our house, build a kitchen, grow vegetables or flowers, plant a tree, etc.) as we wish. Similarly, countries have geographical boundaries to determine their area of authority. The boundary could be the ocean, as in Sri Lanka, rivers, mountain ranges or barbed wire fences, as on the Indo-Pakistan border. A land-locked country such as Nepal needs physically identifiable boundaries to distinguish her area of authority from that of her neighbour, India. 

In all these examples, boundaries are needed to define areas of authority for specific purposes. The purpose of delimitation within a country is usually to determine the most relevant and appropriate way to demarcate geographical areas for purposes such as 1) collecting demographic or land information, 2) public administration, 3) providing education, health, public safety and other services to citizens or 4) creating electorates to enable people to vote for representatives at local, provincial or national government level. 


Why do we need delimitation?

Let us believe that every nation strives to improve the well-being of its citizens (people) and to safeguard its natural resources (environment). In order to achieve these two objectives, people need services, such as education, health, public safety and justice, and the environment needs resources to protect its land, water bodies and surrounding seas. For example, protection against flooding, landslides and sea erosion need resources and action plans in vulnerable areas. 

Furthermore, in any democratic country, the people are entitled to select their representatives to address their needs at different levels of government (local, provincial and national) through a democratic voting system. Also, regular, up-to-date demographic and geographical information has to be collected across the country for the effective and efficient use of resources and provision of services, including the conduct of elections. For example, data on the age distribution of the population is required to allocate resources required for primary, secondary and tertiary education as well as for child, adult and geriatric health care. 

Similarly, data on land under forestry and different crops is required to allocate agricultural services and water for irrigation. Efficient and cost-effective provision of resources and services also needs an effective, disaggregated administration system. This requires the country to be broken down into smaller, more manageable geographical units, whether to collect disaggregated information, to administer a population, to provide services and resources or to elect people’s representatives. 

Delimitation does the task of creating such smaller geographical units, by taking account of all necessary factors that distinguish one part of the country from another, whether in relation to people or land area and terrain, to ensure equitable access to administration, services or political representation for people in all parts of the country. As the population expands and becomes increasingly urbanised, the demography of the country, as well as the physical environment, is constantly changing over time. 

Therefore these boundaries also require review and revision from time to time. Hence, any country needs an equitable and effective delimitation process, which is based on a uniform framework underpinned by a well-established set of principles that considers all these factors. 


Current political, administrative and service delivery structures in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has nine Provinces, which are divided into 25 Administrative Districts (Districts). For purposes of public administration, Sri Lanka’s largest administrative units are Districts. In turn, the 25 Districts are divided into 331 Divisional Secretariats (DSs), which again divide into 14,022 Grama Niladari Divisions (GNDs). GNDs are the smallest administrative units in the country. 

In parallel, for purposes of elected representation, the Parliamentary Government system has 22 electoral divisions, the Provincial Government system provides for 437 elected representatives in 9 Provincial Councils, while the Local Government system provides for 8,325 elected representatives in 336 Local Government Authorities. For service delivery in key areas, there are 340 Medical Officer of Health (MOH) areas, 311 Educational Divisions and 439 Police areas in the country, to mention a few.

Provinces and Administrative Districts and their boundary limits are clearly stated in the Constitution of Sri Lanka and/or the relevant Acts. The boundaries of an Administrative District or a Province may be altered/amended only by a resolution passed by Parliament and/or amendments to the Constitution.

Since 1946, Delimitation Commissions have been appointed under the Constitution from time to time for the purpose of delimiting electoral boundaries for parliamentary elections. If the necessity arises to change or alter the boundaries of Provinces or Administrative Districts, there is a procedure to appoint a Delimitation Committee (not Commission) to undertake boundary delimitation with the approval of Parliament. Similarly, revisions to DS and GND administrative boundaries, as well as provincial and local government electoral boundaries have been assigned in the past to different Delimitation Committees appointed by different authorities for such specific tasks from time to time. Delimitation of geographical boundaries for any service delivery (e.g. education, health, etc.) is undertaken by the relevant service authority. 

While the objectives of equitable access for the people and safeguarding of the land would be the same in all these cases, as specified above, until now, the delimitation procedures have been ad hoc. Against this background, Sri Lanka needs to review her several delimitation processes and come up with a single system that would optimise on existing resources to provide for equitable, efficient and effective delimitation for electoral representation, administration and service delivery in the country.


Basis for a framework

The reliability of the delimitation process depends on whether it is perceived to accommodate the needs and aspirations of different communities among the population, whether by income level, economic activity, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation or any other differentiating factor, in an equitable manner. Any attempt to delimit boundaries in a discriminatory manner or give advantage to a particular sub-population is called gerrymandering and leads to loss of credibility of the delimitation process. Gerrymandering should be avoided at all costs.

The delimitation process cannot only be based on broad population numbers and land areas, but should also recognise differentiating factors within and between communities, in particular, the needs of minority groups (whether by income level, economic activity, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation or any other differentiating factor), whose voices are less easily heard than those of the majority, and the variations in geographical and physical features of each part of a country that would affect access to its people and land. 

Countries delimit in different ways. Sometimes these are drawn based on traditional boundaries, sometimes based on the physical characteristics of the region and sometimes based on the social, political and cultural contexts of the area. Sri Lanka needs a system that suits her social, cultural and geographical diversity. 


General principles for the boundary delimitation process

Independence: The delimitation process should be independent and equitable.

Consideration of two key factors: 

  • Total population within boundaries, recognising the needs of all citizens and
  • Total land within boundaries, recognising differences in area, terrain and the need to safeguard, land, water and forest resources

Inclusiveness and representativeness: Delimitation should address the well-being of each individual and the safeguarding of each unit of land equitably.

Unbiasedness: The delimitation process should not be biased towards any sub-population or any land area. It should recognise the plurality and multi-cultural diversity of people living in the country. The needs of these diverse groups should be achieved to the best extent possible, without compromising on any other aspects of equitable representation.

Transparency: The process of delimitation and its outcomes should be accessible to each citizen.

Legality: The delimitation process should adhere to the spirit of and be in accordance with the relevant laws

It is to be hoped that citizens recognise the need for reform in this area, discuss and debate on the issues at hand and lobby for a single, independent delimitation process for all three purposes discussed above, namely, administration, service delivery and political representation.

(Since November 2015, the author, Ph.D., has been a member of the three-member Delimitation Commission, one of nine Independent Commissions appointed by the President under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. She was also a member of the Delimitation Committee for Provincial Council Elections appointed by the President in October 2017, which completed its task in February 2018, within its four-month mandate. She retired as Assistant Governor from the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in 2007.)