The reaction to the Government’s effort to address several controversial issues has not been encouraging. Of the issues, the most controversial are the Megapolis Project and the Constitution. With regard to the Mega City Project, the question posed by many is – what is the compulsion to transform the Western Province into a Megapolis on the lines of Singapore, Dubai or Mumbai? As for a New or Revised Constitution, while such compulsion is understandable, the commitment to the People was to abolish the Executive Presidency.
MEGA CITY PROJECT
The Cabinet of Ministers is "charged with the direction and control of Government of the Republic". Therefore, the hope of the country is that the entire Cabinet of Ministers has carefully deliberated the pros and cons of the Megapolis Project to the country as a whole instead of it being a project to satisfy the fanciful egos of a select few. Assuming the Cabinet of Ministers as a whole deliberated with due diligence the advantages to the country by creating a Mega City they should be in a position to demonstrate to the country how creating a Megapolis in the Western Province would improve the Human Development Index of the People of Sri Lanka as a whole, because what matters is human development and not statistics such as GDP etc..
There is no doubt that a Mega City would accelerate urbanization in the Western Province. While some see such a development as positive, others have different views on the matter. Each perspective is dependent on which segment of society is to be benefitted. For instance, in the course of an interview reported in the Sunday Times 2 of January 24, 2016, Selim Jahan, Director of UNDP’s Human Development Report Office in New York stated: "When you have a mega city, in many cases it has been found that most services and economic activities are concentrated there. As a result, decentralized services or decentralized activities that should be the case in the country are not there".
Continuing he stated: "If services and economic activities are centralized, everybody will have to come to the cities to access them. At the same time, it may so happen that you are depriving the economic potential of places outside of these mega cities. That is unbalanced development" (Ibid). There is no denying that Mega Cities create disparities both within and without. Such disparities often result in slums; a fact witnessed in every city including Colombo which is not a mega city it being a Mega City. Therefore, while a Mega City could be a catalyst for development and attract high rollers and spenders, there is also a downside that is inevitable. In the balance, such lopsided development gives rise to social disparities followed by social unrest (as occurred in 1971 and 1988/1989) due to disparities in opportunity and income both within and without the Mega City.
Therefore, the government has to get its fundamentals right. Is it to develop pockets of economic development, or engage in policies that contribute to the well being of the nation as a whole? For instance, lessons from past policies demonstrate that focusing on the wellbeing of the country as a whole particularly in regard to state intervention in education and health has enabled Sri Lanka to become "the only country in South Asia in the high human development category according to Dr. Jahan while India and Bangladesh are in the medium human development category; and other countries in South Asia are in the low development index.
Therefore, before embarking on a Mega City Project the government has to demonstrate that the project has been evaluated on the basis of concepts such as "Triple Bottom Line", i.e., taking into account its impact on Profit, Social impact and impact on the Environment. Such a basis should consider not only the social and environmental impact within the Mega City but also its impact on those regions outside such a City resulting from excessive demands of urbanization and the ensuing depletion of the vitality of the rural regions. Therefore, when considering the economic benefits of a Mega City it is vital that its impact on the rural sector is also factored in, because it is they who ensure food security to the whole of Sri Lanka by rejecting urbanization as a way of life.
Countries go to great lengths to display their power and strength through symbols such as Mega Cities or their military hardware. India recently displayed its relatively modest military might by docking a warship in Colombo. Despite this military display, the Indian State cannot offer security to its people nor is it in a position to exercise its writ throughout India considering that nearly 40% of the districts of India are outside the writ of State or Union Governments. In the meantime, several millions in India are without basic needs such as toilets. Therefore, can India say that it has got its fundamentals right? This applies to Sri Lanka and many other countries. Therefore, there is an urgent need for a national dialogue as to what these fundamentals should be without leaving it to a handful of individuals to decide how the rest should live. This is how democracy is supposed to function. What we have now is an oligarchy.
A report in The Island of January 25, 2016 states that a Public Representative Committee (PRC) made up of 20 members has been appointed by the Cabinet "to ascertain views from the public for drafting a new constitution". According to the report the Committee has already concluded obtaining proposals in Colombo and hopes to continue the process throughout the country. They are supposed to have received 400 proposals in Colombo. If the average for all the 25 districts is 300 proposals it would amount to 7000 to 7500 proposals. At the end of such an exercise the Committee is expected to synthesize all the material gathered into one package. How realistic would such a process be, leave alone the credibility of the final synthesis?
According to The Island report the Committee hopes to ascertain proposals for a "new" Constitution. Since the government is now reported to have agreed to delete "new" from the Resolution, how meaningful would the findings of the Committee be in view of the fact that it is seeking proposals presumably for a ‘New Constitution’?
In the meantime if Parliament agrees to resolve itself into a Committee as per Standing Order 86 (1), and determines that instead of a new Constitution there would be several Amendments, how relevant would be the exercise conducted by the PRC? Under the circumstances, it would be far more productive for Parliament as a first step to reach consensus on fundamentals that eventually would serve as the foundation of a future Constitution.
The following could be possible fundamentals:
1. Is it to be a new Constitution, or amending of the existing Constitution?
2. Is the executive presidential system to be abolished and replaced with an Executive of a Cabinet of Ministers responsible to Parliament as per the 100 day programme, or is it to be a variation incorporating the best features of both?
3. The most contentious issue is the national question. While the overwhelming majority is opposed to devolution per se, most would be prepared to accept the 13th Amendment without any upward revisions, but with revisions downwards with respect to Police powers in order ensure security and to retain the unitary character of the State. On the other hand, the Tamil leadership is for devolution amounting to constitutionally mandated federalism, even though not by that name. How to bridge this gap is the all important question.
The process of Constitution making would be productive if there is consensus on these fundamental issues prior to drafting Constitutions. Parliament is the best institution to develop the much needed consensus on fundamentals on which Constitutional making should be based since 2/3 of Parliament has finally to approve it. If the fundamentals are not first established the energy and capital expended not to mention expectations, could lead to a cause for acrimony. It is only after reaching consensus on fundamentals that a draft constitution should be developed for debate and final acceptance by 2/3 of the Parliament.
The government is currently juggling with several controversial issues all of which have given rise to serious comment and demonstrated dissent. Of these the two most controversial issues that would have a serious impact on the lives of the People for decades to come are the Megapolis Project and the Constitution. The seriousness of these two issues require that the entire Parliament debates the issue of the Mega City project and resolve itself into a Committee as per Standing Order 86 (1) to develop a Constitution. However, as a prudent and first step it is recommended that Parliament debates and establishes the fundamentals associated with both issues.
As for Constitution-making, the approach should be for Parliament to first reach consensus on fundamentals as to whether it is to be a New Constitution or an Amended version, and what the structure of the State should be: Presidential, Parliamentary or a hybrid, as well as on the issue of devolution, before proceeding to develop draft Constitutions.
This is not to diminish the impact of other controversial issues such as the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement with India and the proposed bridge and tunnel link to India. Attempts to bypass Constitutional provisions in order to implement them should be resisted through Judicial intervention, because Article 157 of the Constitution requires 2/3 approval of Parliament for all Treaties and Agreements as a minimum, and if such Agreements impact on national security no such treaty or agreement is permitted at all.
Article 157 states: "Where Parliament by resolution passed by not less than two-third of the whole number of Members of Parliament (including those not present) voting in its favour, approves as being essential for the development of the economy, any Treaty or Agreement between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Government of any foreign State, its nations, or of corporations, companies and other associations incorporated or constituted under its laws, such Treaty or Agreement shall have the force of law in Sri Lanka and otherwise than in the interests of national security no written law shall be enacted or made, and no executive or administrative action shall be taken, in contravention of the provisions of such Treaty or Agreement".
The issues addressed above are only a few of the controversial ones before the government. Another is the issue of accountability. The others are as controversial and contentious. In the meantime the government also has to contend with the impact on Sri Lanka as a result of the global economic down turn. These issues are compounded by political uncertainties lurking in the background making it difficult for the government to address these challenges with fortitude.