President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has directed all Provincial Councils and Local Authorities to suspend the imposition of any extra levy or raising any existing rates or taxes and have been asked to streamline payments so that the entire system is simplified in the next 30 days. This is an important step in improving services given to people and to ensure that Provincial Councils actually meet the contribution they must make to the country’s overall development.
Many are the critics of the provincial council system. Born of the contentious Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th Amendment its usefulness have been questioned time and again. Detractors have pointed out that the existence of Provincial Councils is a wastage of resources as it only services to duplicate central Government activities and pile on a futile layer of bureaucracy.
In many instances of essential social services, including transport, education and health, this argument holds true on many fronts. But the architects of the 13th Amendment had other intentions as well, that is to provide decentralisation and allow people of that province to make policies and decisions that are best suited to them. To elect the people to govern in the way they wish to be governed.
In other countries such as India this has proved to be beneficial for all those involved. A province is allowed a certain amount of autonomy and in doing so they can craft their own future, especially economically. In other countries that practice the Provincial Council system, the ruling party, especially the Chief Minister, vie for investment opportunities. They encourage local entrepreneurship, employment and are in competition with other provinces to win economic growth.
Gujarat is a fantastic example of this and on the strength of his performance in one province voters decided to hand over the second most populous nation on earth into the hands of its former Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Could the same be said for any of Sri Lanka’s chief ministers? Ironically, far from competing for growth, Sri Lanka’s chief ministers do the exact opposite. They turn their province into a fiefdom of sorts and rule with an iron fist.
In such an environment, economic stagnation and corruption is the eventual result. Chief ministers and provincial councillors who are imprudent enough to forget their voters do sometimes get voted out, but only after an intense battle – usually involving bloodshed and destruction of property.
The data bears this out. For years on about 38%- 40% of Sri Lanka’s GDP is contributed by the Western Province. While this as a percentage has been reduced slightly in recent years there is still a significant lag in the provinces.
This also spills over to other issues such as the desire for public sector jobs because good employment opportunities are not generated by private sector investment. While services are showing some improvement in most provinces, industrial and manufacturing capacity has remained largely stagnant and this situation needs to change to bridge the economic disparity between the Western Province and the rest of the country.
Chief ministers and their fellow members need to bring good governance, transparency and equitable development back to their provinces. They need to compete for investment and develop their regions. They have to ensure infrastructure into the region is used for industries, especially when resources for tourism development exist abundantly. Only if these steps are taken will Provincial Councils really matter at an economic level.