How did the Provincial Councils become white elephants?
Tuesday, 25 June 2013 00:00
By R.M.B Senanayake
Lalith Weeratunga, the Secretary to the President, has said on Twitter that the Provincial Councils system is a white elephant. Yes indeed, for reasons that lie fairly and squarely at the door of the Central Government.
President J.R. Jayewardene passed the 13th Amendment and the Provincial Councils Law. But these laws had to be given effect to by the subsequent President Premadasa, who had little understanding of the principles of public administration.
When there is a wide devolution of power, there have to be changes in the existing administrative structures to give effect to such devolution. If power is devolved to the provincial councils, then there should be shrinkage of power of the Central Government. But our political leadership was not willing to do so. So we have duplication of administrative structures and entities which is the primary reason why the Provincial Councils have become white elephants, for the work of the Central Government has not shrunk as devolution of power both logically and otherwise should mean.
Such shrinkage of the activities of the Central Government was essential if the costs of government were not to go up. But our politicians did not agree to such shrinkage of power and functions of the Central Government continue and they add on to the concurrent list or usurp the powers of the Provincial Councils.
Let me illustrate. The district administration was pivoted on the kachcheri, which among other functions like enforcing the general laws and collecting revenue, also served as the provider of the general administrative services or the so-called housekeeping services such as providing space for the different departments or branch offices of the Central Government departments, providing centralised filing and record-keeping, centralised communications, etc. The Government Agent was the head of the kachcheri and he was empowered in many laws and legislative enactments as the person in whom power is vested in the district for the implementation of these laws.
But when the functions of the Central Government were devolved to the Provincial Councils, the kachcheri continued to be under the Central Government although the Government Agent was designated as the District Secretary. He should really serve as the Secretary to the Provincial Council. But instead of doing so and bringing the kachcheri under the Provincial Council, the government of the day set up new institutions to function under the Provincial Council. So there is duplication of the costs of the administrative establishment.
Who is to be blamed? The Central Government must bear the responsibility for this duplication of administrative overheads which have rendered the provincial councils white elephants from a national point of view.
The Government should have brought the kachcheri under the Provincial Council for the devolution involved the transfer of general administration to the Provincial Council. Had this been done the Central Government could have confined its activities to those specialised functions which remained with the Central Government. It was also open to the Central Government to make the provincial council its agent in carrying out some of the functions which continued to remain with the Central Government.
Consider education for example. The administration and supervision of the majority of the schools in the province was transferred to the Provincial Council. But a few so-called national schools continued under the Central Government.
Is this necessary? Even if it is necessary, the supervision of these few schools could have been carried out from the centre and the former education office of the district or province could have been transferred to the Provincial Council (PC).
The same consideration applies to the so-called teaching hospitals which were brought under the Central Government. But the Central Government duplicated these offices by setting up separate offices for the Provincial Councils in addition to the Central Government offices. So there has been much duplication of administrative institutions together with the accommodation and other housekeeping facilities duplicated and causing a burden on the nation’s coffers.
Integration of services at the field level recognises the principle of economy. The institutional integration of all local activities is the method of bringing this about in provincial or local affairs.
Our power hungry political leadership does not like to dilute their power which they project as the wish of the Sinhala Buddhist majority. Devolution however is for all communities and the PCs have become white elephants only because President Premadasa did not rationalise and restructure the administrative structures consequent to the devolution of power provided for under the 13th Amendment. Instead two parallel authorities were created in the districts/provinces and this has not only made the PCs white elephants, it has made the costs of running the State unnecessarily high.
The Government should even at this stage draw up a more economical system of administration for the country. This will involve joint study co-opting the officials of the Provincial Councils as well.