The Northern Provincial Council led by its Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran has passed a resolution for the government to take up in the constitutional reform process. The main feature of the resolution is to merge the Northern and Eastern provinces into a single federal unit. This has been the long standing position of the Tamil polity which came into national prominence in the aftermath of the passage of the “Sinhala only” law in 1956 by which English was replaced by Sinhala as the sole official language of the country. The language law was a measure that was resisted by the entirety of the Tamil-speaking polity which numbered about 30 percent of the country’s population at that time and wished that Tamil too should be an official language. As the Sinhala population was numerically dominant, the Sinhala only law won easy passage in parliament.
The rationale for federalism in the context of Sinhala-Tamil conflict is that the Tamil people, being a regional majority in the Northern and Eastern provinces, will also be the political majority in those two provinces. They can therefore make their own decisions in the regional unity, without being subordinate to the Sinhala majority in the country taken as a whole. The attractiveness of federalism as a political solution to those who are a numerical minority in the country as a whole but are also a regional majority is that it guarantees that the central authorities cannot arbitrarily and unilaterally impose their decisions of the regional authorities or overrule them. This does not mean that the regional authorities can do anything they want, but it does mean that the powers given to them by the constitution cannot be unilaterally taken away by the central authorities.
The problem of the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces is, however, compounded by the fact that Muslims who are the largest community in parts of the east, are not in favour of becoming a minority to the Tamils in a merged north-east region. On the other hand, both the issues of federalism and the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces have been opposed for an equally long period of time by the Sinhala polity as being a precursor to the division of the country and the undermining of national sovereignty. Their apprehension is that federalism will be the first constitutional step towards ultimate secession in the same way that the federal states of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and several African countries have ended up becoming two or more countries. Except for some of the ideologically leftist parties and liberal groups whose vote banks are not large, the rest of the Sinhala-dominated political parties have not been prepared to take a stance in favour of a federal solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict.
The only exception to the anti federalism sentiment in the Sinhala polity was in 2002 during the ceasefire when the government and LTTE agreed to explore a federal solution in the peace talks. The willingness of the government to be open minded on the issue was due to the protracted nature of the war, and the stalemate situation that had arisen. There was willingness to compromise for the sake of peace on the part of the government and the political wing of the LTTE, but this proposal does not seem to have been taken up seriously by the dominant military leadership of the LTTE. However, with the military victory that was obtained by the government in 2009, this willingness to compromise for the sake of peace became less necessary to the Sinhala polity. However, the Northern Provincial Council’s proposal to the constitutional assembly shows is that the vision of a federal state continues to live in Tamil politics.
It is also a historical fact that the Tamil position in favour of federalism has grown stronger every time there has been an issue on which the wishes of the Tamil polity, and their sense of justice, has been ignored or violated by the government. The initial boost to federalism came with the passage of the Sinhala only law by the Sinhala majority in parliament. Thereafter the Tamil polity found itself outvoted whenever there was an issue on which Sinhala and Tamil perceptions differed, such as the issue of university admissions, where quota systems came into operation that caused Tamil admissions to plunge sharply. Likewise the proposals made by the Tamil parties to the drafters of the new constitutions in both 1972 and 1978 were disregarded. Much to their dismay the Tamil people began to see that whenever it came to a Sinhala-Tamil issue, they would invariably be on the losing side as they were a numerical minority, even if justice was on their side.
With this background, it is most ironic that once again, when the Northern Provincial Council has presented its proposal for a federal solution, another issue is arising in which the Tamil polity in the north and east is at loggerheads with the government. The disagreement has arisen on the issue of the government providing houses for people in the north and east who lost their homes in the course of the three decades long war. The government has pledged to build 65,000 new houses in the next four years. This would supplement the 70,000 houses that have been built in the past four years with the assistance of foreign donors, most specially the Indian government, but also by the EU, Australia and Switzerland. It is indeed very tragic and unnecessary that the building of new houses for those who lost their homes and lives, and which is a form of reparation by the government to them, should become a matter on which government-Tamil relations should be tested.
The problem with the government’s housing plan is that it is a novel one of building prefabricated metal houses and is being done without the participation of the political representatives of the Tamil people in the north and east. Both the Northern Provincial Council and its Chief Minister, and also the entirety of the TNA parliamentary group from the north and east, have together voiced their opposition to the government’s proposal to build steel houses for the war affected people who live in some of the hottest parts of the country. It is not surprising that the steel houses should be viewed with disfavor and as being inappropriate to the warm climate of the north and east, especially in these days when the impact of global warming is being sorely felt all over the country. It is a pity that one of the government’s biggest acts of economic reparation to the war affected people of the north and east should become such a matter of controversy.
The technical criticisms of the housing project have been confirmed by a team of senior professors from the Moratuwa University, which is Sri Lanka’s leading engineering university. The team of experts have said that “The steel houses suffer from the following drawbacks compared to block wall houses: inadequate foundations, insufficient roof support, risk of corrosion despite the coatings provided, poor ventilation, absence of hearth and chimney, poor or non-existent capacity for extension or repair, much shorter lifespan, unlikely to create a sense of ownership, very unlikely to foster the local economy and generate employment, at least double the cost.” (A comparison of the proposed “Steel houses” with constructed block wall houses in the Jaffna peninsula: Preliminary Findings by Prof. Priyan Dias, Dr Rangika Halwatura and Architect Varuna de Silva, April 2016)
So far the main argument of the government is that the financing for this mega project is available through a commercial arrangement. Each steel house that is built will cost Rs. 2.1 million,as against Rs 550,000 to 600,000 for the houses financed by donors, including the Indian housing, but the argument is also made that the houses will be fully furnished with a computer, wireless, and other add-ons, but which will certainly be only a small fraction of this large cost. Thus, the government will incur a foreign debt of about USD 1 billion for the 65,000 houses, to be paid back over a 10-year period. This is like some of the loan-based projects of the previous government, which came in for much criticism for being overpriced and white elephants, but for which financing was plentifully available so long as the country paid it back.
TNA leader R. Sampanthan, who is also the leader of the opposition in parliament, has written to both President Maithripala Sirisena and to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe raising his concerns on a number of issues in relation to the housing project. First is with regard to the tender process which was flawed, and where it appears that the company that got the contract was given it before the tender was called. Second is that prefabricated metal houses will not have a long life span and will start to corrode. Third is the unsuitability of metal as housing material in comparison to traditional brick and mortar. Fourth is the cost of houses which are two to three times that of comparable houses of which 70,000 have already been built. Ignoring the viewpoint of the Northern Provincial Council and the TNA on this matter will serve to further justify the demand for federalism.
The metal housing project is a decision of the central authorities that is being imposed on the people of the north and east, despite being inefficient, arbitrary and unilateral, and which is one of the failures of centralized governance that federalism is meant to prevent.