Because Sri Lanka is a unitary rather than a federal state, local government institutions have had a very limited role in the political process. The country traditionally has been divided into nine provinces, which had played an important administrative role during the British colonial era. The principal local government subdivisions since the early 1980s have been the twenty-four administrative districts. Before 1981 each district contained administrative offices representing most national-level ministries and known collectively as kachcheri (government offices). Two officers of major significance at the district level were the government agent and the district minister. Government agents, appointed by the central government, traced their origins to the colonial era, but the office of district minister, which was filled by individuals concurrently serving as members of Parliament, was created after 1978. Because of the district ministers' access to central government funds for patronage purposes, they tended to diminish the power and influence of the government agents.
In 1981 the kachcheri system and the subdistrict system of elective village and town councils were replaced by district development councils and subdistrict-level units known as pradeshiya mandalaya (divisional council) and gramodaya mandalaya (village council). The councils were created largely to satisfy minority aspirations for local self-government and were designed to exercise a significant measure of autonomy, especially--as the name implies--in the area of economic planning and development. Although the district development councils served in the late 1980s as conduits for central government funds, they also had been granted the authority to collect taxes and manage their own budgets and were given responsibility for educational and cultural activities within their spheres of jurisdiction. Each district council consisted of some members appointed by the central government and others elected by local constituents for four-year terms on the basis of proportional representation. Their deliberations were presided over by the district ministers who were, as mentioned, members of Parliament (they did not in all cases represent in Parliament the district in which they exercised this function); government agents served as council secretaries.
The subdistrict-level mandalaya, or councils, were designed to promote village-level democracy and provide support for district development council programs. The changes implemented in 1981 affected the 75 percent of the population living in rural areas. Twelve municipal and thirty-eight urban councils continued to function in urban areas in the late 1980s.
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