The reports that have emanated from Colombo that it proposes to review the key issues related to the devolution of powers to the provinces are distressing and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has done right to voice India’s concern. The 13th amendment to the constitution is a key instrument in Sri Lanka’s efforts to redress the social and political grievances of the Tamils. This transfer of powers is of fundamental importance in sustaining peace in this country and is intended to prevent its disintegration. The 13th amendment was enacted in September 1987 and was introduced in consultation with India as a result of the India-Sri Lanka agreement signed by Rajiv Gandhi and JR Jayewardena on July 29th 1987. As per the 13th Amendment, Colombo agreed to devolve some powers to the provinces. This agreement draws on the Indian federal set-up and has three lists which detail power sharing between Colombo and the provinces. Broadly, it has provided for the merger of the Northern and the Eastern provinces, and for certain financial provisions for the provinces. These will get an elected council, and a chief minister and ministers. However, in the recent past, the Rajapaksa regime has been contemplating a new 19th Constitutional amendment that could have far reaching consequences for the substantial powers and unit of devolution with regard to the provincial councils.
Sri Lanka’s external affairs minister, GL Peiris, has presented two cabinet papers seeking to make changes to the 13th Amendment and related laws. It is against this backdrop of contemplated changes that New Delhi has issued a demarche, which advises Sri Lanka not to engage in any hasty moves to make changes that would affect areas relating to the 13th Amendment and structures set up under it. New Delhi has advised Colombo to refrain from any such changes until the elections to the Northern Province Council are held in September as announced by President Rajapaksa. President Rajapaksa’s motive for introducing these changes seems to represent purely the Sinhala point of view. Political forces in Sri Lanka hold a wide spectrum of views from the Tamils who feel that the 13th amendment is totally inadequate to those who feel that it is unsatisfactory but workable. Yet it has to be grasped by all political forces that the 13th amendment is the best that can be achieved so as to preserve the unity of the country.