Peace for the World

Peace for the World
First democratic leader of Justice the Godfather of the Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle: Honourable Samuel James Veluppillai Chelvanayakam

Monday, April 24, 2017

Garbage politics and bigger political issues

The government is reportedly considering bringing garbage disposal under a centralized authority and to legislate a law on garbage recycling. In the meantime, untended rubbish is piling up by the road side. Garbage is not funny business. A year or so back when rubbish piles heaped up in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon in the midst of a grinding power struggle that left the government rudderless, it was viewed as the most conspicuous sign of the state failure. Perception is sometimes far more powerful than reality. We hope our government would manage to clear up the mess before people, perhaps prematurely, take it for a failure and react accordingly.   
Successive governments in this country have been reactive, rather than been proactive. It comes as no surprise thatthe incumbent has chosen to act only after the disaster struck. However, there is another point. Had it not been the tragedy on the new year’s eve, it would not have been easier for even a simple decision on a central authority for garbage to be mooted; there would have been a lot of protests from various interested parties. That is not an exaggeration. Take for example the opposition to a proposed law to streamline power generation to avert a looming power crisis.   

The proposed Energy Supply (Temporary Provisions) Bill seeks to vest in the National Policy and Economic Affairs Minister wide powers in respect of “generation, transmission and distribution of an adequate supply of electrical energy, petroleum and other alternative energy requirements to meet the national demand for the next decade on emergency basis.” Industry insiders fear without adequate action, Sri Lanka would face crippling power cuts. However the bill has been opposed by the two line ministers who allege that they would be powerless if a proposed energy committee mooted under the bill is set up. That may have a grain of truth. However, a potential power crisis is definitely worse than pricking the egos of the two ministers. However, in our political culture and political institutions, any national plan has also bargain with minor details such as the above.  

We tend to blame the politician for policy paralysis in the country. However, politicians are a reflection of the political institutions of the country and vice versa. Both are also a reflection of a wider political culture and societal development levels. Those institutions have their advantages as well as handicaps. For instance, while Sri Lanka’s political institutions and the culture might have prevented an Idi Amin highjacking the state power and declaring himself as a president for life, they have also prevented anyone doing a Lee Kuan Yew and harnessing state power to develop the country. Thus the restraints exercised by various agencies at various levels on the affairs of government though had their positive impact, also had their unintended negative consequences.   
The recent history of international political economy would reveal that development of political institutions and economic modernization are not necessarily interlinked. In fact the countries, such as those in East Asia that were successful in economic modernization, followed an authoritarian path of modernization. Their representative political institutions developed only after they reached a certain point of economic prosperity.   

"Whereas countries like ours, which inherited colonial, quasi-representative political institutions-which were further empowered down the line -- were later beset by often overly feuding, competitive dynamic among those various institutions"

Whereas countries like ours, which inherited colonial, quasi-representative political institutions-which were further empowered down the line -- were later beset by often overly feuding, competitive dynamic among those various institutions.  A constitutional state is restrained not just by the checks and balances among the executive, legislature and judiciary. Those checks and balances run both horizontally and vertically, across all state agencies. Sometimes too many restraints on the government cause policy paralysis, which, while advanced democracies can afford, are ill-affordable for countries like ours that have an urgency for faster economic growth. Economic impact of some of those restrictive legislations was not felt much during the early decades of the independence mainly because we followed the flawed Statist economic policies, which were anyway bound to fail. However when the government now tries to harness the economic opportunities, constraining influence on the government capability exercised by those antiquated institutions is felt. The government’s efforts to reform them are also confronted by predictable resistance. For instance, provincial councils shoot down the proposed bill for a Super Ministry that was intended to coordinate development activities.   
There is another point. In our euphoria for constitutional reforms and devolution, we disregard the implications on economic development by the potential fragmentation of state power. It is now grudgingly accepted that the provincial councils themselves cannot even manage the garbage produced within their precincts. Under a system of devolution of power, how they handle more intricate economic matters is a case for serious concern. It is convenient to argue that with more power devolved to the periphery, the provinces would manage their own business. However evolving efficient institutions and pooling competent people and resources to achieve those tasks is far more difficult than devolving power through legislations.   

This however should not be misconstrued as opposing devolution of power to the North and East. Since the Tamil political elites have persistently demanded for self- determination at varying degrees over the decades and created enough trouble for the rest of the country, it would be in the long term interest to accede to at least some of those demands, though whether those constitutional provisions would help development needs in the North is a totally different story.   
The bigger problem however would be instituting that potential political stalemate in the other seven provinces as well, since an asymmetric devolution of power would be resisted by the Sinhalese majority, who would fear that it would over time lead to a separate state. However, our provincial councils are white elephants. They are so not because they lack enough power, but because they do not have competent people who can build and run efficient institutions. Nor can Sri Lanka comprising of a largely rural and vernacular educated population fill that vacuum easily.   
What Sri Lanka needs right now is centralized state institutions that can pool its limited competent human and other resources in a hierarchical structure that reaches out from the Centre to the provincial/ district levels. However, our political imperatives have yet again overridden our developmental imperatives. Yet, there will always be room for a balancing act. The stench of uncollected garbage in Colombo should now remind the policymakers and public alike about the need to strike that compromise between two competing imperatives.  

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