A response to the current national crisis: A way forward

Friday, 22 April 2022 00:26 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Sri Lanka is at a crossroad. Debate and discussion abound on how to address the current multiple crises that Sri Lanka faces, as well as the present impasse of an unwanted Executive with all powers and an inadequate Legislature with little powers.  

The current peaceful, united call of the people for real change requires a clear vision and framework on which to base a sustainable development plan for Sri Lanka and assign responsibility to its Executive, Legislature and Public Service to implement that plan. This analysis tries to provide a structured way for the country to move forward based on three national priorities, as detailed below.


A. National priorities – 1. Improving the wellbeing of all citizens, 2. Safeguarding the environment and 3. Rebuilding key institutions

While civil and political rights of citizens are entrenched in the present Constitution, economic, social and cultural rights are less so. Instead, protecting these three rights in relation to human wellbeing and safeguarding Sri Lanka’s biodiversity and environment, for sustained human survival and wellbeing, has taken place in the context of civil and political rights enshrined in the Fundamental Rights chapter of the Constitution. 

The importance of economic, social and cultural rights, in relation to human wellbeing and safeguarding Sri Lanka’s environment, must be recognised by incorporation of these rights in the Constitution, based on the premise that human rights and environmental rights are indivisible. 

Equally important, is rebuilding Sri Lanka’s key institutions for realisation of the first 2 priorities.  


1. Improving the wellbeing of all citizens – Material, Intellectual and Emotional

What’s wrong? – The Executive and Legislature have lost sight of this underlying goal. Instead, national development plans have targeted the means to the goal (e.g. GDP growth, FDI, export growth), sometimes at a cost to the goal itself, of improving citizens’ wellbeing. 


Immediate priorities

1.1 Foreign exchange, foreign debt, inflation, fiscal and economic crisis – reverse ad-hoc detrimental policies, especially on taxes, immediately; detrimental exchange and interest rate policies have already been reversed. Prepare a sustainable plan to raise confidence, restructure debt, obtain immediate bridge financing for essential imports (food, medicines, fuel, gas, intermediate goods) to regenerate economy and foreign earnings; raise taxes to improve revenue; curtail wasteful expenditure; service restructured debt.

1.2 Constitutional crisis – Successive governments have stalled the process of constitutional reform and abolition of an over-powerful executive presidency. The GoGotaGo Movement is not mere manifestation of a cry for a President to resign, but also a cry for reform of a constitution that over-centralises power, with no effective checks and balances. Establish a new constitution with input from the public, using information and ideas given in previous reports emanating out of public consultations and reports compiled during previous governments’ reform processes. 

1.3 Law and order crisis – Restore confidence of citizenry in the domestic security and justice systems. The application of the law is viewed as partisan and the withdrawal of cases against those with political connections is perceived as an unequal application of the law. The independent stand of the Bar Association and the filing of cases questioning state action or inaction is viewed positively. The Supreme Court order allowing leave to proceed in cases filed challenging the declaration of emergency curfew and suppression of social media networks are positive signals. On the negative side are cases like the Hejaaz Hizbullah case, where he was released on bail 22 months after being charged under the PTA without credible evidence, and the Shani Abeysekere case, where a senior police officer, who was investigating high profile cases, stands charged with suppressing evidence in a case against a senior DIG.

1.4 COVID-related health, welfare and economic crisis – Sri Lanka needed, but did not have, an emergency vaccination plan, food distribution plan, phased people movement and transport and economic activities plan in place during the pandemic. Review COVID-related issues, how handled and the positives and negatives, in order to plan for any recurrence.

1.5 Raise public awareness on issues identified above, especially on the constitution, the economy, the law, citizens’ rights and the need for reform – With Sri Lanka currently facing multiple crises, this is finally happening now. 


Long-term priorities (Universal rights to improve human wellbeing)

1.6 Right to representation – Electoral Reforms for meaningful representation at national, provincial and local government levels, including criteria for eligibility of candidates. Look at proportional, first past the post and other forms of representation and means by which there is greater representation of women and minorities. Look in depth at the role of Provincial Councils and whether they have indeed fulfilled such a role 

1.7 Right to justice – Judicial Reforms to bring about an independent, accountable judiciary and restoration of confidence in the office of the Attorney General. Introduce sustained law reform through a systematic review process of existing laws and procedures which currently hamper delivery of justice. 

1.8 Right to social and cultural freedom of expression and security (individual, neighbourhood and community) – Safeguard religious and cultural activities to ensure zero tolerance of discrimination on racial, religious, gender or any other differentiating factor. Police and legal reforms related to family law (marriage, divorce, children’s rights), domestic violence, etc. to ensure freedom of expression and protection of minority races and religions, women and children vulnerable to abuse, disabled, etc. Build official trilingual capacity to ensure access to language rights and official communication in all three languages.

1.9 Right to health – Policy reforms and bigger budgets for state preventive and curative health service delivery. Review private health service delivery and strengthen regulatory measures to ensure cost-effective service delivery to citizens.

1.10 Right to nutrition – Policy consistency across agriculture, fertiliser use, irrigation, trade taxes, etc. to ensure food security and increase value addition in agricultural exports.

1.11 Right to social safety net – Access to related information, policy consistency, welfare and social security reforms to ensure adequate safety net for vulnerable and retirement benefits for all citizens

1.12 Right to housing – Policy reforms to ensure access to housing markets across all income levels

1.13 Right to education – Education reforms in curricula, teacher training, infrastructure, to meet current needs. Regulation of private institutions to supplement State educational institutions 

1.14 Right to gainful employment – Reverse people drain (200-300,000/year). Labour Market and related legal reforms to recognise and regulate new forms of atypical employment; establish liveable minimum wages policy; establish decent working conditions; allow employers more hiring flexibility, while protecting worker rights

1.15 Right to a clean, sustainable natural environment – Legal and other reforms and action plans to reverse environmental destruction. Sustained law reforms through a review process of existing laws and procedures which currently hamper safeguarding of Sri Lanka’s resources, with strict penalties under such laws.

1.16 Right to information – Transparent methodology and access to public data. Address inadequate budgets, supply-side constraints and need for capacity building in key data agencies.

1.17 Right of access to essential utilities and government services – National administrative system reform with a clear demarcation of what services are to be delivered at national, provincial and local government level. Rationalisation of multi-tiered services, to eliminate people having to seek multiple levels of authorisation for simple acts.

1.18 Right to stability of financial system and responsible fiscal management – Reform of CBSL to ensure independence and accountability and of GT to improve fiscal management and accountability.

1.19 Right to conduct business in an ethical, transparent environment in an equal playing field – Institutional and legal reforms to rationalise and simplify access, procedures, approvals, licences, etc. and to eradicate bribery, corruption and rent-seeking.

1.20 Right to national security – Clarify role of Tri-Forces. Foreign policy reform to include rationale for geopolitical relationships with global and regional powers that ensures safety against international threats – physical, social or economic.


2. Safeguarding the environment for sustainable development

What’s wrong? Without consistent plans, guidelines and adequate checks and balances to safeguard our biodiversity, ad-hoc “development” has taken place at a severe cost to our environment, thereby jeopardising the wellbeing of future generations. 


Immediate priorities

2.1 Maritime environmental crisis – Review and gather information on the progress or lack of progress on the recent case and put in processes to prevent other such occurrences in the future.

2.2 Plastic and toxic chemical pollution of land and waterbodies – Immediate ban on single use plastic, plastic bottles, etc. with monitoring and punishment of violations to reverse adverse impact on land and marine wildlife.

2.3 Ad hoc construction detrimental to biodiversity – Establish clear guidelines to monitor and regulate all infrastructure and construction in all environmentally sensitive (see 2.6 below) areas – High rises, hotels, roads, other infrastructure.

2.4 Ad hoc decisions detrimental to biodiversity – Establish clear guidelines with respect to landfills, garbage disposal, inland fisheries and tourism projects in environmentally sensitive areas.

2.5 Proper management and safeguarding of state lands in terms of the existing legal framework.


Long term priorities

2.6 Strengthen regulations with severe penalties to protect –

  •  inland and coastal resort areas 

  •  wild life sanctuaries 

  •  mangroves, coasts and reefs 

  •  rain, montane and dry-zone forests, wetlands and water sources 

2.7 Establish and implement regulations to reverse – 

  •  encroachment, invasive plant and water plant invasion in the above natural habitats

  •  detrimental landfills, plastic, fuel and other pollution within the above habitats

3. Rebuilding key institutions to ensure independence, professionalism and accountability

What’s wrong? – A complete breakdown of independence, professionalism, accountability, channel-of-command and decision-making processes in key institutions critically hinders national systems from delivering services to achieve 1 and 2. There are currently over 30,000 entities attached to 1,300 government institutions with 1.5 million employees. Some have overlapping functions, which is both inefficient and costly. 

3.1 Decision-making – need professionals with acumen in key places, with guidelines for recruitment and reconsideration of all categories of presidential appointees

3.2 Public sector contraction and reforms – Re-introduce responsibility, delegation of authority, co-ordination, channel-of-command and accountability. Cull ineffective institutions/posts. 

3.3 Corruption – Enforce strict penalties against any form of bribery or corruption in public service. 

3.4 Constitution – Constitutional and electoral reforms to address over-centralisation of power in the Executive, with no checks and balances. Expand rights, as outlined in Section A above. Assign all electoral delimitation to one independent authority, revisit the “watch dogs” (CC and independent commissions) and review their responsibilities. 

3.5 Justice – Bring back professionalism, acumen and independence of judges in all courts 

3.6 Domestic security – Reform Police Dept. and Police Training schools and their training programs for content and delivery to ensure non-partisan protection of all citizens without the illegal use of force. Strengthen role of religious and cultural authorities to ensure zero tolerance of any form of discrimination.

3.7 Health authority – Strengthen SLMC, DoH, primary healthcare system, curative hospital system, etc.

3.8 Food security, agriculture and irrigation authorities – Review and rethink performance and coordination among DoA, CARP, DoAD, crop research organisations, etc. to ensure transfer of knowledge to the agriculture and plantation community.

3.9 Trade authorities – Review and coordinate performance of Commerce Dept, SLC, etc. to ensure policy consistency across agriculture and trade.

3.10 Welfare authorities – Review, rethink and reform all welfare benefits and the Samurdhi Authority to better target and provide realistic benefits to the deserving.

3.11 Housing authorities – Review the role of UDA, MCs, UCs and PSs, and address lacunas and duplication in building guidelines and approvals in the context of environmental sustainability.

3.12 Education authority – Review and strengthen DoE, UGC, etc. to meet modern education needs. Rethink the all-encompassing control of the UGC and foster autonomy in State universities. 

3.13 Labour authorities – Review the role of the Labour Dept., Employer’s Federation, EPF, ETF in terms of workers’ rights and remuneration and employers’ rights and responsibilities.

3.14 Environmental and construction authorities – Review the overlapping roles of EPA, MEPA, DCC, DWLC, NARA, etc. and UDA, RDA, MCs, UCs, PSs, etc. in safeguarding the environment.

3.15 National statistical agency – Build capacity, consistency and timeliness of official statistics

3.16 National communication and media authorities – De-politicise mainstream media (Newspapers, radio, TV). Transparently regulate telecommunication services in the citizens’ best interests.

3.17 Religious and cultural authorities – Strengthen laws relating to social and cultural rights and responsibilities of citizens. 

3.18 National administration system – Rationalise GND and DS system within districts. Assign to a single independent Delimitation Authority

3.19 National transport authorities – Rationalise, modernise and ensure legal enactments in place for efficient and cost-effective services of SLTB, SLR, Ports Authority, Airport and Aviation Authority. 

3.20 Utilities (Power, water, gas) – Regulate CPC, IOC, CEB, NWSDB, TRCSL, Litro and LAUGHS gas, etc. for optimum efficient uninterrupted service to citizens.

3.21 Monetary authority, economic stability and financial system stability authority, financial regulator – Ensure independence and relevance of CBSL

3.22 Fiscal management authority – Ensure responsibility and accountability of PDD, General Treasury.

3.23 Business facilitation authorities – Reform and rationalise BOI, EDB, licensing authorities, etc. for optimum service delivery to businesses for both goods and services.

3.24 International relations authority – Establish clear priorities and policy regime in all government institutions involved in Foreign Relations with respect to global, regional, bilateral and multilateral relations

3.25 National security authority – Define role of the Armed Forces and all other Government institutions involved in national security.


B. Way forward

Immediate priorities

1. Reduce the powers of the Executive and bring in checks and balances, by introducing a 21st Amendment to the Constitution that repeals the 20th Amendment and re-introduces the 19th Amendment with relevant changes.

2. Select professionals with knowledge, experience and acumen to key positions – CC, Independent Commissions, CBSL Governor, Chief Justice, IGP, Auditor General, Attorney General, Legal Draftsman, DG/DCS, etc. 

3. Define broad areas of responsibility and policy based on the Universal Rights identified from 1.1-1.20 above and taken from items 3.4-3.25 above.

4. Government Cabinet is to consist of, at most, 20 Ministries, by grouping Items 3.4 to 3.25 appropriately for maximum efficiency. There are to be no other State or Deputy Ministers. Opposition parties to co-operate among themselves and establish a shadow cabinet for oversight purposes.

5. Assign each Government institution to the relevant Ministry identified at 4 above.

6. Review all Government institutions with a view to eradicating duplication of responsibility and accountability by retaining/combining/closing each institution, as deemed relevant to 3 above.

7. Reassign staff to those that remain, accordingly.

8. Appoint experienced and capable professionals, giving due recognition to the SLAS, as Secretaries to all Ministries. Establish chains of command, responsibility and accountability within, and co-ordination between, ministries. Hold Secretaries responsible for smooth functioning of their ministries and all government institutions under their respective ministries. Monitor performance and implement stiff penalties and fines under the law for any Government official found guilty of bribery or corruption.

9. Close all loopholes that allow for political patronage. Ministers will be responsible only for policy-making and legislating in their areas of responsibility, not day-to-day running of institutions.

10. Reduce wasteful government expenditure, including excess security and unnecessary “perks” currently provided to Cabinet Ministers and other MPs.

11. Establish codes of conduct to ensure all non-Cabinet MPs attend to their responsibilities in their electorates and on parliamentary oversight committees to which they have been appointed to serve. Hold Party Leaders responsible for monitoring adherence to such regulations.


Long-term priorities

12. Prepare a framework for a sustainable development for Sri Lanka based on the three national priorities discussed in Section A. All else must flow from that framework.

13. Identify specific Universal Rights of citizens (Economic, Social and Cultural) to be enshrined in a new Constitution using 1.1 to 1.20 above.

14. Prepare a separate code of ethics and guidelines or incorporate checks and balances into the new Constitution, to address the issues raised in 3.1-3.3 above. 

15. Prepare a new Constitution based on the above framework for sustainable development, which prioritises the wellbeing of the people and the safeguarding of the environment.


Explanatory notes: 

1. The numbering and sub-numbering used in this article do not signify any order of importance. They have been used for ease of reference and to facilitate discussion and debate.

2. Sections 3.1 to 3.3 are applicable to all Public Sector institutions. Sections 3.5 to 3.25 correspond to 15 Universal Rights identified in Sections 1.6-1.20. 

3. List of 18 suggested ministries based on 3.5 to 3.25:1. Finance & Plan Implementation, 2. International Relations, 3. Defence, 4. Environment, 5. Justice, 6. Public Administration & Security, 7. Health, 8. Education, 9. Housing, Utilities & Welfare, 10. Food Security, Agriculture. Irrigation & Trade, 11. Transportation & Communication, 12. Infrastructure, 13. Information & Media, 14. Labour Relations, 15. Business Facilitation, 16. Cultural & Religious Affairs

4. Acronyms used: GDP – Gross Domestic Product, FDI – Foreign Direct Investment, PTA – Prevention of Terrorism Act, DIG – Deputy Inspector General of Police, CBSL – Central Bank of Sri Lanka, ST – Secretary to the Treasury, CC – Constitutional Council, SLMC – Sri Lanka Medical Council, DoH – Dept. of Health, DoA – Dept. of Agriculture, CARP – Council for Agricultural Research Policy, DoAD Dept. of Agrarian Development, SLC – Sri Lanka Customs, UDA – Urban Development Authority, MC – Municipal Council, UC – Urban Council, PS –Pradeshiya Sabha, DoE – Dept. of Education, UGC – University Grants Commission, EPA – Environmental Protection Authority MEPA – Marine Environmental Protection Authority, DCC – Dept. of Coast Conservation, DWLC – Dept. of Wildlife Conservation, NARA – National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency, RDA – Road Development Authority, GND – Grama Niladhari Division, DS – Divisional Secretariat, SLTB – Sri Lanka Transport Board, SLR – Sri Lanka Railways, CPC – Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, IOC – Indian Oil Company, CEB – Ceylon Electricity Board, NWSDB – National Water Supply and Drainage Board, TRCSL – Telecommunication Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka, PDD – Public Debt Dept., CBSL, BOI – Board of Investment, EDB – Export Development Board, IGP – Inspector General of Police, DG/DCS – Director General/Dept. of Census and Statistics

(Sharya Scharenguivel, MLitt., is Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Colombo, and Anila Dias Bandaranaike, Ph.D., is a former Assistant Governor and Director of Statistics, Central Bank of Sri Lanka.)


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