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Sri Lanka’ 21st Constitutional Amendment and the Future | Gautam Sen

Friday 1 July 2022

by Gautam Sen

Sri Lanka still remains in the throws of political and economic turmoil. The 21st Amendment to the state’s Constitution has been approved by the presidential cabinet on 20th June this year for presenting to its Parliament. The Amendment will annul of the 20th Amendment which instituted the executive presidency after the last presidential elections of 2019, and reduce the power of the executive president. But, a consensus among the political parties including a section of the dominant Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), is that the Amendment alone will not solve the present national economic crisis.

Furthermore, the Amendment to be purposeful at this juncture and effective, should have been in a context where, the prime minister and his cabinet are able to invoke the enhanced powers devolved on parliament from the executive presidency. This is not the context now because, Prime Minister Ranil Wikremasinghe, is not parliamentarily backed up by a single party majority or even a coalition based majority. Premier Wikremasinghe will therefore be under some sort of a dualism with a parliament of morphous political hue and at the same time, susceptible of manoeuvrings and threats of different political combines and even the president of the Rajapaksa family. It needs to be noted that president Gottabaya Rajapaksa, whose policies are at the root of the present malaise, has steadfastly refused to step down from the presidency, despite persistent public demands uniformly across the country to reliqish office and order new elections for president and parliament.

While the political power decentralisation is being undertaken, the economic crisis looms all pervasively, over the country. The agricultural scenario is a matter of serious concern. The after effects of a poor agricultural output - deliberately brought about by the misguided policies of recently-deposed premier Mahinda Rajapaksa of switching over to nutrients and ingredients, organic fertiliser, etc, not tried out before, remains. The hydel power systems are functionally inefficiently and thermal generating stations without operating fuel. . Fuel shortage is still at a critical level, with ’ work from home ’ for Sri Lankans introduced in the government and private sectors to avoid fuel consumption on motorised and public transport. The pumps for agri needs, cannot run but minimally, inowing to diesel shortage. The operating of refineries like at Sapugaskanda and Kolonawa of Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, are also affected because of scarcity of fuel. Premier Wikremasinghe will have to use all his tact and experience to import a bare minimum level of fuel continuously, for the power plants, transport and agricultural pumps, preferably on concessionally credit terms.

It may not be possible for the premier to take advantage of the 21st Amendment because of his political weakness and the prevailíng circumstances. However, his inter se position vis-a-vis the president will be strengthened. Premier Wikremasinghe ’s political skills in making the best of the 21st Amendment, will be essence. The political inclination of the premier as per past experience is that, he is Western and free-market oriented. He is banking heavily on a substantial IMF bailout package to bring in much needed liquidity in the economy. India has already provided a significant line of credit of more than a billion dollars to enable procurement of fuel, medicines and a few other essentials which the premier has gratefully acknowledged.

The present crisis will take some time to subside, provided the basic nature of Sri Lanka’s economy is not distorted. Infusing foreign capital artificially in pockets of Sri Lanka with the economic activities by the foreign capital left in dominant foreign hands like in the Colombo port city, will spell doom for the economy, pauperise the local people, pass on interventionist control to foreign investors and create an unmangeable debt burden for Colombo. This is what has actually happened with the huge Chinese investments which has created an unviable economic burden for SriLanka. IMF credit should also be utilised for essential public goods purchases, strenghening the country’s agricultural sector - water supply, irrigation facilities and high yielding seeds and above all more remuneration for its agriculturists. Conditionalities of IMF for restructuring of the Sri Lankan economy, should also not be leading to perpetual debt, difficulties in debt servicing, Another critical area is the strenghening of the free trade zones and providing assistance for the country’s garment and lead to a fiscal regime unmanageable by the traditional country’s economy, export earnings, and the major foreign exchange earners for Sri Lanka. IMF and bilateral imports and technical support for augmentation of the refining capacity of Sri Lanka is also needed. Revamping of infratrucure in the entire country including the Northern province, Central highlands’ tea estates, should have due priority.

The bilateral arrangements under which Sri Lanka has given the management and development of 14 oil tank farms in Trincomalee to Lanka Indian Oil Corporation of India for operating for 50 years in January this year, is a very positive measure. Sri Lanka has retained 24 farms for development and operation by Ceylon Petroleum Corporation ( CPC), and will operated the remaining 61 tanks as a joint venture with CPC. This gives the correct impression of India being a partner in Sri Lanka’s progress and not trying to dominate its economy. It is possible that, Lanka IOC may be entrusted with a few more oil tank farms in future depending on its performance in respect of 14 farms already under its operation. Both India and Sri Lanka should also explore developing refining capacities in the vicinity of Trincomalee.

The Sri Lankan crisis cannot be resolved without an internal political consensus. The consensus has to necessarily encompass economic management also, A positive attribute of the 21st Amendment is the strenghening of the autonomy of the independent commissions including the audit infrastructure. This is a welcome development provided the Sri Lankan political parties and major politicians accept promote the new institutional changes in true spirit A lacuna in the 21st Amendment is that, in times when say, the president resigns, or parliament is not able to function or is not able to develop a political consensus behind a leader, there should some arrangement for a functionary like the speaker of parliament or the head of a constitutional commission to take charge for a defined period and order the holding of presidential or parliamentary elections compulsorily. This will avert a constitutional crisis and engenger public confidence in the state.

(The author Gautam Sen, a senior Civil Service officer, who has served as First Secretary in Indian High Commission at Colombo)

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