Sri Lanka’s Constitution – Strides in the Right Direction

The 19th Amendment (19A) to the Constitution of Sri Lanka was passed by the 225-member Sri Lankan Parliament with 215 voting in favor. It is the most revolutionary reform ever applied to the Constitution of Sri Lanka since JR Jayawardene became the first Executive President of Sri Lanka in 1978.

What happens next?

Sri Lanka’s Constitution – Strides in the Right Direction

What is the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, and why is it contentious?

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not Much

Mains level : Sri Lankan constitutional issues

After the Rajapaksas’ win in the November 2019 presidential polls and the August 2020 general election, the spotlight has fallen on two key legislations in Sri Lanka’s Constitution.

Sri Lankan amendments in news

  • One, the 19th Amendment was passed in 2015 to curb powers of the Executive President, while strengthening Parliament and independent commissions.
  • The Rajapaksa government has already drafted and gazetted the 20th Amendment.
  • The other legislation under sharp focus is the 13th Amendment passed in 1987, which mandates a measure of power devolution to the provincial councils established to govern the island’s nine provinces.

What is the 13th Amendment?

  • It is an outcome of the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987, signed by the then PM Rajiv Gandhi and President J.R. Jayawardene, in an attempt to resolve the ethnic conflict and civil war.
  • The 13th Amendment, which led to the creation of Provincial Councils, assured a power-sharing arrangement to enable all nine provinces in the country, including Sinhala majority areas, to self-govern.
  • Subjects such as education, health, agriculture, housing, land and police are devolved to the provincial administrations.
  • But because of restrictions on financial powers and overriding powers given to the President, the provincial administrations have not made much headway.
  • In particular, the provisions relating to police and land have never been implemented.

Why is it contentious?

  • The 13th Amendment carries considerable baggage from the country’s civil war years. It was opposed vociferously by both Sinhala nationalist parties and the LTTE.
  • The opposition within Sri Lanka saw the Accord and the consequent legislation as an imprint of Indian intervention.
  • It was widely perceived as an imposition by a neighbour wielding hegemonic influence.
  • The Tamil polity, especially its dominant nationalist strain, does not find the 13th Amendment sufficient in its ambit or substance. However, some find it as an important starting point, something to build upon.

Why is it significant?

  • Till date, the Amendment represents the only constitutional provision on the settlement of the long-pending Tamil question.
  • In addition to assuring a measure of devolution, it is considered part of the few significant gains since the 1980s, in the face of growing Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism.

Its criticism

  • Critics argue that in a small country, the provinces could be effectively controlled by the Centre.
  • The opposition camp also includes those fundamentally opposed to sharing any political power with the Tamil minority.
  • All the same, all political camps that vehemently oppose the system have themselves contested in provincial council elections.
  • The councils have over time also helped national parties strengthen their grassroots presence and organisational structures.
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