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Need of the Hour is an enlightened Central Govt and an efficient elected municipal administration

by Eran Wickramaratne M.P

In March 2011 there was a government announcement that another layer of government was to be created, namely, the Colombo Metropolitan City Corporation by bringing together the Colombo Municipal Council, Dehiwela-Mt. Lavinia Municipal Council, Sri Jaywardenepura-Kotte Municipal Council, Kolonnawa Urban Council, and Kotikawatte-Mulleriyawa Pradeshiya Sabha.

The new council was to streamline the administration and build capacity and capabilities of the local councils. Little else is known about the composition, powers and functions of the new Metropolitan Council.

There is a practice of passing important legislation with little or no public debate. An attempt to introduce a new Constitution a decade ago and the abolition of the 17th Amendment and the introduction of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in September 2010 are some of the startling examples of the government changing the character of the Sri Lankan State within days if not hours.

The practice of sneaking urgent Bills through Parliament based on an approval from the Supreme Court that the Bill is not inconsistent with the Constitution, may satisfy the legal requirement but is unashamedly anti-democratic. Legislators, leave alone the public have had no opportunity to study, discuss and debate the laws before they are rushed through Parliament. Resorting to urgent legislative procedure is driven by a fear that public debate and discussion could run counter to government’s dictatorial tendency. We can foresee another attempt to introduce urgent legislation to create a new Colombo Metropolitan City Corporation.

There is a case for coordinating the services provided to its citizens by the geographically adjacent local councils. The collection and disposal of garbage and the inner city transport are clear examples where cooperation between local bodies will provide the necessary economies of scale and consequent benefits to citizens.

Such cooperation can be achieved through contractual means or by creating a Greater Colombo Council. But the effectiveness of such organizational changes could only be determined by weighing the pros and cons of such structures. We Sri Lankans are tired of increasing the levels of government, namely the Executive Presidency, jumbo Cabinets, Parliament, Provincial Councils, Local Government Authorities and now a new Metropolitan City Council.

An honest reflection shows that the overlapping levels of government have only increased bureaucracy, and added to confusion and costs. If more coordination among government bodies is required to increase efficiency and reduce costs then the elimination of some levels of government, or the coordination between existing levels of government need to be improved rather than adding new layers of administration.

For example, joint proposals for garbage disposal or a common metropolitan transport system could be designed and approved by each of the councils for mutual benefit. If any of the councils was to oppose such a joint proposal, its freedom to dissent must be respected. Democracy is not uniformity but an ongoing attempt to build a consensus.

If a new Metropolitan City Corporation is created and a Chief Executive Officer is installed by the President, it will be another extension of Presidential Power over the sovereignty of the people through its elected local government representatives.

Are the elected Mayors to be subordinate to unelected Presidential appointees? If Presidential power is to be extended indirectly in the administration of the local government why have local government elections at all? The tendency to prize seeming efficiency over the people’s sovereignty is dangerous as sovereignty surrendered cannot normally be taken back, apart from a people’s uprising.

We have just concluded elections to Municipal Councils. The voters of Colombo have spoken loud and clear. The Central Government and the Municipalities have to work to deliver better services to its citizens. That objective will be best achieved by co-operation and allowing local authorities to discharge their responsibilities in line with the programmes they presented to the electorate.

Local government models vary from country to country. In Australia there was Municipal Amalgamation into a Metropolitan Corporation. There is little evidence to show that larger corporation improved operational efficiency or financial viability. The Greater London Authority provides London-wide government on selected services including the Police service. Even though the GLA is a metropolitan body the Mayor and Assembly are elected, holding them accountable to the public.

It has been pointed out that the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation (GMMC) has been successful even though executive powers vests principally in the Commissioner. The Commissioner is appointed by the State Government. It must be pointed out that the State Government has much devolved power unlike the Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka. So a comparison with the GMMC will be misleading.

Effective local government is where meaningful power has been devolved to the smallest local authority to resolve the problem of citizens rather than any top down centralized approach.

I quote extracts from an article written by Tisaranee Gunasekara on “Their Colombo Plan. “ She states “This is how the Rajapaksas pursue absolute power – not by abolishing existing constitutional arrangements or institutions but by hollowing them out rendering them impotent and void. Sri Lanka will have regular elections for powerless entities; Sri Lankans will vote regularly to elect powerless representatives under the new system, local authorities will exist without administrative decentralization and provincial councils will exist without devolution of power Rajapaksas have a grand developmental plan for Colombo – selling innumerable acres of prime real estate to foreign companies for uncountable dollars.

Unfortunately, much of this land is occupied by Lankan citizens, who must be forcibly evicted from their homes, before land can be occupied, ‘developed’ and sold. This mass eviction would become easier, if the Rajapaksas (not the UNP) control the CMC….”

Building capacity of the Municipalities is sighted as a reason for creating a Super Council. It is necessary to improve the management and technical capacity of the existing councils.

The permanent cadre of municipal workers and management require a continuous upgrading of skills which necessitates long term investments in human resources. It is a reallocation of resources that is required not additional levels of government. Elected representatives must be continuously responsible to their voters.

The views and expertise of the public can be utilized through Advisory Committees as evidenced by the period when Karu Jayasuriya was Mayor of Colombo. There was a renaissance in both the poor and fashionable areas of the city not experienced since then.

The city of Colombo received many international awards during this period including the Best City in the SAARC Region, the Best Managed City in Asia, and the Most Innovative Mayor in Asia. What Colombo needs is not more government but better government inclusive development with equity and justice for all. An enlightened Central Government and an efficient Municipal Administration is the need of the hour. A recognition of each other’s role will make Colombo the envy of South Asia

One Comment

  1. SriLankan says:

    Colombo Municipality in the past was a dynamic institution where many of the countries leaders commenced their political careers. However ever since the Central Govt started interfereing in its affairs and admistration it has fallen into the doldrums. Especially since Rajapakse manipulated the elections to appoint a three wheel driver to be mayor and appointed stooges as commissioners there has been no progress.
    The people of Colombo are educated and talented enough to run their own affairs without importing knowhow from Beliatta and Seven Eleven in the states. Kindly allow people to manage their own affairs with available institutions and resources without poking the presidiential nose into every nook and corner. Ministry of Defence should keep its hands off real estate in Colombo.

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