We Sri Lankans have always been ‘talking big’ instead of ‘doing big.’ Long time ago in early ‘70s, there was this big talk of commissioning Asia’s biggest condensed milk factory in Polonnaruwa. A new brand of condensed milk was introduced as ‘Perakum’ after the importation of ‘Milkmaid’ was stopped. The rest is history. Mahaweli Development in early ‘80s was promoted as South Asia’s most sophisticated integrated development model. The talk was, we would ‘export’ hydropower to India. We virtually ended up importing electricity from India. Now the ‘big’ talk is that we would be the South Asian ‘Cultural Hub’ and Asia’s ‘Logistic Hub’ for naval and maritime affairs. Struggling with a crumbling free market economy that leads to breeding a new ‘filthy rich’ urban elite, we had the biggest bond scam in post-independent history.
In February, we will vote for a LG system turned obese. The irony is that the educated, urban professionals and the academia do not engage with this ‘big political talk’ to ground them in reality. These urban professionals and the academia simply swap intellectual responsibility with competition for super-luxury living. They go climbing on piles of money, looking for the sordid luxury of the filthy rich, and then lament the society is fast-losing its once noble culture and social values. But refuse to accept they contribute as well to the agonising death of all the good life this society once lived with.
This heavily corrupt ‘Yahapalanaya’ has thus taken the chance to dump on this society a mega third tier in a tadpole like governance structure that hardly serves the people. Their wisdom in creating a bloated LG system that increased representation from 4,116 to a staggering 8,365 councillors goes without questioning. People now have to bear a cost of four billion plus rupees to hold LG elections this February to spend more than double the massive sum of nine billion rupees thereafter, we are told was the cost of maintaining less than half the new number of elected councillors. Some urban ‘pundits’ say, democracy comes at a cost.
Yes, democracy does come with a cost. But democracy cannot be without public utility. Democracy cannot waste people’s hard-earned money in a country where 80 per cent is indirect tax. Democracy is not about establishing institutions that serve as appendages of political party hierarchies either. Democracy is not holding elections every five years. Democracy is a process where people’s participation decides their fate positively. The reason LG bodies go without any acceptance in this society is because they are denied of people’s participation and are packed with social nonentities by political parties. Also, LG administration can deliver on most basics without elected councils the people are satisfied with, as we experienced over the past two years.
Against this backdrop, why should we agree to double the number of councillors for LG bodies, when we also elect provincial councillors and top them up with a nonsensical parliament of 225 members? At all three levels in this country, we are awfully over-represented for no purpose and at a huge cost. And there were idiotic proposals a year or two ago to even increase the numbers for parliamentary representation. How many do we need to represent us at every level, when there are LG bodies, provincial councils and a parliament? Don’t they supplement each other in elected representative governance?
It is worth therefore to visit the Indian structure of governance with the second largest population in the world counting 1.35 billion people end 2016. They have a massive network of elected local government bodies starting with ‘Panchayats’ that include ‘Zilla,’ ‘Mandal’ (Taluk) and ‘Gram’ Panchayats with about three million representatives, 50 per cent being women. That works out to one representative each for about 300 rural people. India also has ‘Nagar’ Panchayats, municipal councils and municipal corporations for the urban polity that is about 30 per cent of the 1.35 billion people.
At the next level is their State Assemblies. Indian State Assemblies are devolved provincial assemblies with more powers than what we have devolved to provincial councils. At national level, they have a bi-cameral parliament, the model we had under the Soulbury Constitution; the Lok Sabha with a Rajya Sabha. At national elections, the Indians elect 545 Lok Sabha members (MPs). With two tiers of governance below, India believes 545 members in Lok Sabha represent the 1.35 billion Indian people reasonably well and adequately. That works out to one Lok Sabha member for 2.8 million Indians. This in contrast to one MP for 93,333 people in Sri Lanka that also has LG and PCs as elected representative bodies.
On democratic representation, a worthy comparison would be between the State of Haryana and Sri Lanka. Haryana presently has a population of 25 million as against 21 million here in Sri Lanka. It has six administrative divisions, while we have 24 administrative districts. Population wise, Haryana is roughly four times that of our Western Province populated by 5.8 million people.
The Indian electoral system takes account of electoral representation at every level of representation, as they are serious about sharing of power between the Centre in New Delhi and their State Assemblies. The State Assemblies also pay attention to lower tier of local bodies with elected representation. Thus, Haryana people elect 90 MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) to govern the Haryana State. That roughly means they elect one MLA for every 277,777 people in Haryana. Contrast that with our Western Provincial Council. We elect 104 provincial councillors for 5.8 million people in the WP. If Haryana State can administer and govern themselves with 90 MLAs, we should be able to do with 26 provincial councillors for Western Province. Mind you, our PCs don’t have the powers that Indian States are vested with. In reality therefore, WPC doesn’t even need 26 councillors. Yet, we have a four times exaggerated representation in WP.
With 90 MLAs elected to the State Assembly held responsible for administration, governance and development of Haryana, the need for Lok Sabha representation is only for Indian socio-political and economic necessities in having a stake in national policy, legislation and in responsibilities that is constitutionally left with the Central Government. For which Haryana people elect just 10 members to the Lok Sabha and five to the Rajya Sabha elected by their 90 MLAs.
What is also important is that in India, with a population of 0.36 billion in 1951, the Lok Sabha was constituted with 489 elected members at the first Lok Sabha election in 1952. Since then, despite an increase of almost one billion in population, they increased parliamentary representation to 545 MPs only.
What was our progress from Ceylon to Sri Lanka? Our first parliament was a bi-cameral parliament with an elected assembly of 101 MPs with 95 elected by the people and a Senate with 30 members appointed and indirectly elected. In 1972, the first Republican Constitution did away with the Senate and the elected parliament is now the supreme governing body. The SL parliament now has 225 MPs with a population increase of about 15 million since 1947. For a billion increase, India added an extra 56 MPs, while we added 124 MPs more for a 15 million increase. We are certainly growing bigger in numbers, in unwanted places.
India settled for 489 MPs at their first Lok Sabha elections in 1952, as they already had a devolved State with State Assemblies established in 1951. Therefore, they did not want a bulky parliament to deliberate and decide on issues of national and international importance. We did not sit with such wisdom when in 1987 after the July Indo-Lanka Accord we had to devolve power to the provinces under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. With the 13th Amendment we removed a fair share of the provincial responsibilities the 225 member parliament was held responsible for till then. That responsibility was vested with the newly-established Provincial Councils with elected representation. Thereafter, we did not require as large a parliament as there was to take responsibility of national interests only. Yet, the parliament which adopted the 13th Amendment to establish elected PCs never wanted to even discuss the issue of reducing numbers in parliament. Reasons are obvious.
Who should actually decide people’s representation? It should be the people who should decide how their sovereignty should be represented in an elected assembly. Similarly, the numbers in PCs and in LG bodies too. Parliament members should not be allowed to decide fundamentals of democratic representation on their own for their very selfish, vested interests.
Miserably unfortunate this society is, the urban professionals and the academia are not interested in collective good of this country, nor are funded organisations that have chosen very comfortable themes like ‘free and fair elections.’ When they do engage in electoral reforms, they are extremely careful they don’t go outside the parameters set by the ruling political authority. Therefore, they would propose increasing numbers but not reducing them to reasonable and adequate numbers for democratic representation.
But with this unbelievable increase in LG representation and a possible repeat with PCs, it is time the public take this responsibility into their hands in 2018, at least.