Lanka defers approving contentious provincial powers bill

Colombo: Sri Lanka's cabinet on Thursday deferred its plan to introduce a controversial bill aimed at diluting powers of provincial councils including in the Tamil-dominated north, a move that has raised concerns in India.
"Parties have been given a week's time to present their concerns", Keheliya Rambukwella, the minister of information and government spokesman said.
Sources said the main Muslim party leader Rauff Hakeem and a leftist ally of the ruling coalition – both Cabinet ministers wanted more time to study the bill which is expected to be tabled in parliament as an urgent bill later this month.
The final draft of the amendments to the thirteenth amendment (13A) of the constitution would be approved at next week's cabinet meeting.
Rambukwella said under the proposed amendments the President's power to proclaim the merger of two provinces would be stripped while the second amendment would do away with the need to have two-thirds parliamentary majority to amend subjects devolved to the nine provinces.
The 13A and the provincial councils entered Sri Lanka's statutes in 1987 as part of the India-Sri Lanka Peace Accord which envisaged devolution of powers to the island's provinces in an effort to resolve the Sri Lankan Tamil ethnic conflict involving the LTTE and government forces.
Rambukwella said the northern provincial council election would be held as planned in September.
On the vexed question of land and police powers, Rambukwella said the government was open for ideas from political parties and the issue would be discussed at a parliamentary select committee (PSC).
Holding the northern election has been seen by the international community as imperative to achieve reconciliation with the island's Tamil minority.
But, Sinhala nationalist allies of the government have warned that police and land powers to the north if not diluted would be used by the main Tamil party, TNA to pursue its separatist goal.
Concerned over reports of Sri Lanka considering removal of land and police powers prior to the elections in the Northern Province, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid had spoken to his Sri Lankan counterpart G L Peiris last month and underlined the need to leave the 13A untinkered.
He urged Sri Lanka not to take any step in the light of its own commitments relating to the 13A.