The Establishment of District Development Councils

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 13 2021
Columns The Establishment of District Development Councils

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

Though JR took a long time to deal with Tamil problems, perhaps hoping that they would go away if he won enough Tamil politicians over, the situation could still have been relieved when, albeit over two years after the 1977 election, the Commission on Devolution which Wilson and Tiruchelvam had sat on produced its report. That recommended the establishment of District Development Councils, while Wilson and Tiruchelvam also submitted a minority report with additional recommendations, some of which were incorporated in the bill brought before Parliament in 1980. However, the Councils were not to be endowed with very much real authority and, to add insult to injury, making a mockery of the whole principle of decentralisation, all Members of Parliament from a particular district were to serve on the District Council together with those elected for the purpose. 

In the East, given the crossovers that had been permitted, this would have made the various councils lopsided in terms of reflecting the popular will. And this was significant since, in putting forward the demand for a separate State, the Tamils were especially concerned about the East too being accepted as part of a traditional Tamil homeland.

Apart from this, District Ministers too, were to serve on the District Councils and to function as their chairmen. The office was one that had been created a couple of years previously in an early attempt to satisfy the demand for devolution, but it did nothing of the sort, for District Ministers were appointed entirely at the whim of the President so that he could, and indeed did, including for Jaffna, choose Members of Parliament from wholly different areas. 

The result of all this was that from the start the TULF looked on the District Development Councils simply as stepping stones to something more. On the other hand, within the Government itself there were those such as Cyril Mathew who were of the view that the present Bill was already excessive and that certainly nothing more should be conceded. And Mathew, who had been expelled from the party over a decade previously for opposing Senanayake’s earlier District Councils Bill, was now Minister of Industries as well as President of the large and powerful government trade union, the National Workers’ Congress (JSS), and generally seen as JR’s strongman in the Government.

Elections boycotted

The Sinhalese Opposition, except for the JVP, which had now emerged as a respectable political party, boycotted the elections that were finally held in May 1981, alleging that the Councils were unnecessary and as they had been constituted quite useless. This made things even more embarrassing for the TULF, since it helped to create the impression that the whole exercise had been designed merely to mollify them, whereas from their point of view it was thoroughly inadequate. Still they entered the fray with great goodwill, resisting those in their own ranks as well as militants outside who had urged a boycott on their part too. 

Some of the militants at this stage turned to disruption, and in early May they shot dead two Policemen, one Sinhalese and one Tamil, at a UNP campaign rally. Still, despite the tension this generated, it seemed that all the political parties involved (though Ponnambalam’s former deputy was now the President of the Tamil United Liberation Front, his son had resurrected the Tamil Congress and had also put up a slate) were determined to continue with their campaigns. So, at the end of May the general feeling was that the election could be satisfactorily concluded.

But then JR destroyed the compromise he had engineered, for shortly before the election, to general astonishment, Cyril Mathew was sent up to Jaffna for the last stages of the government campaign. It was obvious that he went with Jayewardene’s blessing, for, apart from their own close association over the years, he took with him in his entourage Gamini Dissanayake and, according to accounts at the time, Ranil Wickremesinghe, son of his old confidante Esmond, who had been elevated the previous year to the position of Minister of Education.

After they arrived in Jaffna together with their followers it was reported that Armed Forces had run amok, that the Jaffna Public Library had been burnt along with the Central Market, and that the house of the Member of Parliament for Jaffna, one of the most radical of the TULF Parliamentarians, had been attacked and gutted, while he himself had only just managed to get away by scrambling over the back wall.

UNP did not win any representation

The election was held a couple of days later as scheduled, under conditions previously unknown in the history of Sri Lankan politics. Officials detailed to supervise the election were replaced by men handpicked by Mathew and taken up to Jaffna in his entourage; a number of ballot boxes disappeared, and twelve in fact were never counted or even found; others produced more ballot papers inside than there were eligible voters in the area. Despite all this, it was found at the final count that the UNP had failed in the district as a whole to achieve twelve and a half per cent of the vote. This meant that it did not win any representation, for that was the minimum to be obtained by any party to warrant representation. And the TULF was the only Party to cross the cut-off point in the Jaffna District, so that only its candidates were declared to be elected. The TC subsequently alleged that this was why its own attempts to prevent the declaration of the results on the grounds of malpractices were forestalled, and that the TULF had joined with the UNP to stop this.

Unfortunately what happened was not thoroughly investigated, for it was clear that the Government, in trying to obtain under the system of proportional representation that was being used for the first time in the country at least some representation in the North, had used strong-arm tactics that it would then replicate elsewhere. And indeed it did this at the Presidential Election and even more so at the referendum the following year. 

But one cannot blame the Tamil parties for this. For when they tried to express outrage, they were subject to more abuse. And this was now par for the course, for other opposition too had been treated with gross violence, most flagrantly a year earlier. On that occasion, a general strike called in July 1980, when it was clear the Government’s economic miracle was running into problems, was brutally broken up, with many strikers being summarily dismissed. 

Apart from the institutionalisation of violence that occurred then, the episode is of consequence also because of the reasons for the strike, for that takes up another theme addressed earlier in this analysis of JR, his ignorance of economics, so that he only followed formulae without understanding of the human consequences.

Introducing privatisation

The changes JR had brought in 1977, introducing privatisation and reducing the footprint of the State, had been generally welcomed, for under the SLFP the economy had been moribund. In fairness to that government, its policies had suffered from sudden changes in the world market, the increase in the price of oil when OPEC began to flex its muscles, and also the decline in the price of tea following increased production in Kenya and British support for this following the nationalisation of their plantations in Sri Lanka. But in general the economy had suffered from the lethargy of State institutions, as was happening elsewhere in the world, so it made sense that JR should have moved towards a more open dispensation. 

But after initial success, the new government too began to suffer from external changes including again a rise in the price of oil following the crises in Iran. But in this case too there was mismanagement, and corruption had increased in leaps and bounds with all the new opportunities that had been opened up. Characteristically JR, when warned of what generally came with the policies he pushed, had declared, “Let the robber barons come.” He subscribed blindly to the notion of a trickle-down effect, and simply assumed that the whole country would benefit from the initiatives, proper and improper, of those encouraged to make money.

But in fact he skewed that too up because of the rent-seeking he permitted to his Parliamentarians, so that very little was left to benefit the country at large once his creatures productive or otherwise, had taken their share. Tellingly, the Secretary-General of Parliament, the shrewdest observer in those days of JR’s antics, once told him with regard to the indulgence he showed his Parliamentarians, that he had not only welcomed the robber barons, but “Now you are trying to make barons out of robbers.”


By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 13 2021

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