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(Pic courtesy upload.wikimedia.org)

A new buzz-phrase is buzzing through federalist halls in Sri Lanka:  ‘The Swiss Model’.  The argument goes that Switzerland is a federal republic and that therefore Sri Lanka should be one, too. Unfortunately, the advocates of the Swiss solution do not appear to have studied the Swiss system, beyond that magnificent ‘F’ word.

The problem with federalists is that they do not perceive the progression of democratic bodies as part of a historical process. Switzerland evolved as a confederation of autonomous cantons and communes, so these bodies were organic to the political process. The state is knit together by a number of official and unofficial institutions. The most important of these is the Swiss Army, which conscripts almost the entire male population for a good part of their lives, integrating the entire nation.

The minimum unit of federal devolution being considered in Sri Lanka appears to be the ‘region’–an ill-defined term in itself. Rajavarothiam Sampanthan wants ‘three to five’ regions. The unit of devolution under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was the Province. In Sri Lanka, the Province was a creation of the British Colonialists, whose aim was to divide and conquer. At least the districts were created on the basis of the union of counties – for example, Kalutara District is composed of the old Raigam Korale and Pasdun Rata.

The Swiss Confederation is made up of 26 cantons, not of four regions for the four main ethnicities, as one would assume by listening to Sri Lankan advocates of the Swiss Model. The basis of the Swiss Model is geography, not ethnicity.The average size of a canton is less than 1,600 square kilometres (about the same as Kalutara District), the average population less than 320,000 people (fewer than Trincomalee District). The largest canton, sparsely-populated Graubünden, is smaller than Anuradhapura District. The most populous, Zürich has fewer people than Kurunegala District.

So, at the first approximation, the largest size of a Sri Lankan “region” according to the Swiss Model would have to be the same as a District. Unfortunately, federalists would reject that decision out of hand. A District, they would argue, is too small a unit of devolution.

However, if we go deeper into the Swiss Model, we find that power is devolved even lower than the Canton. The Swiss Confederation is divided into 2,596 communes, the powers of which vary from canton to canton. However, it is the building block of the nation, the basis of its citizenship: if one were to be naturalised Swiss, one would need not only the concurrence of the Federal Government, but also the permission of one of the communes to live there.  The smallest commune, Corippo in Ticino Canton, had only 12 people in 2012; the largest Zürich has half the population of the Colombo Municipality.

On the basis of the Swiss Model, of course, the Sri Lankan District-sized ‘regions’ would have to devolve their power to Municipalities, Urban Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas, at the very minimum.  It actually provides a strong argument for the revival of Village and Town Councils, abolished by the JR Jayawardene regime.  The tenor of Sri Lankan administrative reform up to the JR Era was downwards – from Province to District, from District to Village Council, and From Village Council to Janatha (neighbourhood) Committee.

This, of course, is anathema to the federalists. They see devolution only as a measure intended to favour this or that  ethnic elite. The devolution of power downwards to the village level goes contrary to elite interests – Good Lord! It gives power to the Gamey Bayiyas.