The main argument of those who oppose the conferment of land and police powers appears to be that that Provincial Councils could use them to pursue their separatist and racist agendas while the same is not said against the central government legislature or its members. It is pertinent to ask for why precisely the Provincial Councils and their members are considered unsuited to exercise land and police powers. Is it their level of education, religion, caste or ethnicity? None of the critics has been specific. Let us be open. Is it not the thinking of the anti-devolution protagonists that only Sinhalese can be trusted with the Land and Police powers and not the Tamils and Muslims? If the answer is in the affirmative, what motivates them is absolute racism and not a rational argument. lf that is the mindset of the Government and its vociferous supporters we are in for a very bleak future including another bloodbath.
The constitutional experts have explained that the existing constitutional provisions provide enough safeguards; secession will be a non-starter as it happened with Varatharajah Perumal’s futile attempt. If the constitutional provisions fail, the armed forces which serve as a backup will do the needful. A paranoid argument is that devolution is a pro LTTE concept and the even the current Tamil leaders are contaminated with LTTE thinking and will if they wield power use them to work towards secession. But this argument has been effectively refuted by the Government! The Government has worked even with veteran LTTE leaders such as KP, Karuna, Pillayan and Daya Master. By doing so can it be said that the Government has been infected with or influenced by the LTTE thinking?
For arguments sake if it is conceded that these powers ‘are not to be exercised by the PCs, the only other option is to continue to leave them with the Central Government. But unfortunately, the record of performance of Central Government in these areas is to say the least appalling.
In the exercise of land powers by the Central Government reports of valuable state land being surreptiously transferred to favoured individuals in corrupt deals or to friends and relations or to political hangers-on in gross violation of the procedures of land alienation. For example it is common knowledge that some lands from which the original owners were displaced in the North during the war are being allocated to outsiders including army men for residential purposes or for tourist facilities or agriculture or to run shops and tea kiosks. Instances of mass scale land encroachments, illegal sand excavations, illicit felling of timber on state land, illicit gemming which go on with impunity are legion. That is a record of how the Central Government is handling the land function.
On the exercise of the Police powers, the record of the Central Government is even worse. The Police -could not arrest a pro-Government Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman on a charge of severe assault in Embilipitiya for over a week in spite of his roaming in the area openly giving media interviews boasting of his closeness to the President and Defence Secretary. So was the inordinate delay in apprehending the pro Government Tangalle Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman who is now charged with murder and rape of foreign tourists. The tardy action here is snow balling into an international scandal. A few months back there was the case of the Police dragging their feet over the arrest of suspects in the murder of a mother and daughter at Kotakethana, Kahawatta. It was consequent to public agitation that the Police moved to make the arrests. Similar was the delay in arresting the murder suspects who happened to be pro – Government politicos in Mulleriyawa and Kelaniya. The Police stood as passive observers when marauding crowds including Buddhist monks attacked private property at Papiliyana and when Mervyn Silva tied a public officer to a tree. All this happened while the land and police powers were well and truly under the Central Government. Could any other arrangement be worse?
In the final analysis, it is the local sensitivities which should have an influence on the authorities on local issues. The Provincial Councils being closer to the people would find it difficult to desist from taking legitimate action. Unlike the Provincial authorities (who according to politicians’ jargon can feel the pulse of the people!), the Central Government authorities who are comfortably ensconced in ivory towers in faraway Colombo tend to be insensitive to public anger and frustration in the periphery.
The politicians at the Centre are engaged in a do-or-die struggle to retain the land and police powers functions under them as against the Provincial Councils. To my mind, the following are the real reasons why they do so. They have not based on the relative suitability and efficiency of the Centre and the PCs;
a. State land is a lucrative asset which can be exploited for personal advantage and to help the kinsman and loyalists. There can be huge kickbacks when land is sold or leased out to big time investors at low prices.
b. The subject of land includes soil and mineral resources. The right to grant permits for the exploitation of these resources or to condone illicit exploitation brings kick backs.
c. Powers over the Police is indispensable to those in authority for their personal security. It can be used to intimidate, harass, cause physical harm and even abduct those who are ‘not with us’.
d. Land and Police powers give prestige and a boost to the ego.It is a norm of democratic government that the Governors should not to be too far away from the people whom they govern.
In fact, Provincial Councils are the second tier of government and being closer to the people than the Central Government, they would understand the needs and aspirations of the people better. There is nothing in the Police and Land powers that makes the Provincial administrators unsuitable or incompetent to handle. After all patriotism is not an exclusive attribute of the Central Government politicians. The truth may well be the converse. Because of proximity and the constant gaze of the local people, the Provincial politicians will tend to be less corrupt and more responsive to the people.
In the last resort, the people driven to the wall by corruption and inaction should have a pressure release valve to give vent to their feelings. They may have to gheraothe offending politicians and administrators. The people would find it easier to do so to a Provincial Council administration in a city close to them than to the Central Government Authorities who are ensconced behind bullet proof glass, water cannon, T56 rifles and tear gas in faraway Colombo.