By S. Sivathasan –
The election of R. Premadasa as President of Sri Lanka was needed to give life to the North East Provincial Council (NEPC), and to get it moving. No sooner was he elected President, Varadaraja Perumal, the Chief Minister in waiting called on HE R. Premadasa the newly elected President. What is happening in the NEPC? inquired the President. Sir, nothing is moving and to make the Council work, I don’t have officers. When the President gave kinetic energy to the Council ‘Premadasa Style’, it got started immediately and changed to top gear.
The sequence of events was as follows. On 19th November was the NEPC election. On 30th November Lieutenant General Nalin Seneviratne was appointed Governor. On 19th December was the Presidential election. The CM’s meeting was about 23rd December 1988. By this time the CM had only two officials. Dr.Wigneswaran, Secretary to the CM and Mr. V.N. Sivarajah, Chief Secretary (CS). Finances available to the Council were nil. Take any officer you want from the Public Service and the letter of release will follow, was his directive. An allocation of Rs. 5 million was also made for spending within a week and it was spent usefully. With these two decisions the Council got going and established the Secretariat in Trincomalee.
Taking off was a challenge. At the outset many were reluctant to join the NEPC. It was Wigneswaran’s idea and was endorsed by the CM, that to be Chief Secretary, the senior most officer in the SLAS alone can command the allegiance of the officialdom. He approached the most senior but he declined. He then requested the next, he too declined. The third Mr. Sivarajah accepted. The choice was excellent. Besides varied experience he was senior even to quite a few Secretaries in central Ministries. His cast of mind was well suited for the challenges ahead. The news inspired confidence among other public servants to join the NEPC.
The Board of Ministers comprised five – three Tamils, one Sinhalese and one Muslim. In view of the merger of two Provinces, ten Ministries were allowed with each one handling two portfolios. The same number of Secretaries was also allowed. Selections were made on seniority and merit and letters were issued from the NEPC Secretariat. Four of us received letters in Jaffna about 1st January 1989. IPKF helicopter took us to Trincomalee. A few more Secretaries joined us in close succession to compose the full complement of ten.
Till permanent accommodation was arranged in two months, most of us stayed together in the Irrigation Department circuit bungalow. For the CS, the day dawned at 3.30 am and with his humming of thevarams (Hindu religious songs ) we were up at 4. From 4.30 to 6 am discussions and writing and then all at office between 7 and 7.30. All were in a single large room of the CM. A single conference table served the table needs for all. In a few weeks the secretariat was furnished and well equipped. For most senior officers the day ended at 6 or 6.30 and not later because of the curfew at 7pm. With time and energy fruitfully spent, a vertical takeoff was possible.
The first duty of the Secretaries was to set up the departments, staff them and to equip them. All these were done from scratch from Head of Department downwards. After the Council got stabilised getting the staff from established departments became easy. Trincomalee ceased to be a bogey and the EPRLF government became respectable. It drew the attention of Colombo and earned the respect of those in North East.
For all the success, the leadership of the Chief Minister buttressed by the invaluable contribution of Mr. Sivarajah and sagacity of Dr. Wigneswaran mattered. The CM had a knack for taking swift and pragmatic decisions. His mind was not weighed down by any ideological baggage. Nor was it assailed by doubts or diffidence. In the NE he navigated in hostile waters since Tigers were on the prowl. Merged NEPC was twice the size of the other ones. He wanted to demonstrate that granted the opportunity Tamils could administer. Making a success of it was a passion and he made it so.
As the offices got streamlined, priority shifted to development effort. It had to be placed on a sure footing with a sound policy frame. Policy certainly had to take its bearings from national parameters, though much leeway was available for Provincial initiative. The process of devolution itself demanded dialogue for expanding the scope and to quicken speed.
The first Central Minister to invite the CM and the relevant officials to the Ministry on his own initiative was Hon. S. Thondaman. This was in early January. I was present since I handled the subject of Livestock Development. The fullest authority to make this subject effective was devolved by the Minister. At an in house meeting in the Ministry, when an officer expressed fears at the extent of devolution the Minister quipped “nobody will go to courts on that score”. Throughout my tenure, I had maximum support from the Ministry and proactive cooperation from the parent Department. The Department of Agriculture too was among the earliest to devolve with authority, finances and staff. The personality of the Director Dr. Irwin, made a difference since he had a good grasp of devolution. Ministers too visited Trincomallee and had discussions with CM, Ministers and officials. Hon. Ranil Wickremasinghe had the twin subjects of Education as well as Youth Affairs and came more often.
Since I was Secretary for the subject of Agriculture in the Province, I attended quarterly conferences at the national level in Colombo chaired by Hon. Lalith Athulathmudali, Central Minister of Agriculture. He extended his fullest cooperation for the devolution process. Our initiatives coupled to his pragmatic approaches made for success. The Secretary Mr. MDD Pieris, a blessing for the Minister was a blessing for us too. He was among the most stand out and his decisions in our support were proactive and bold.
The first Governor of NEPC was Lt. Gen. Nalin Seneviratne. He held office for the full term from Nov. 1988 to Nov. 1993. He was exemplary. He was one among the first batch of six multi ethnic selectees, to proceed to Sandhurst in 1952. Selections were made by a Board chaired by Sir Kandiah Vaithianathan the then Secretary Defence. Once the Governor told me that this was the way Vaithianathan strove to maintain an ethnic balance. He retired from the army as its Commander.
He assumed office with the benefit of experience, but dispensed with his command antecedents. He had the most exact conception of a Constitutional Head of the Province yielding the fullest space to the elected Council, the Chief Minister, the Board of Ministers and officials. He entertained no thought of deflecting or overriding devolved authority with Central directive or control. With all the personnel he had a warm rapport. In Parallel he maintained a delicate balance with the Centre. Provincial governance moved smoothly on.
Besides Ministries and Departments, two important institutions were created: the Provincial Public Service Commission and the Auditor General’s Department. Both were manned by competent personnel who did credit to those institutions. For new appointments which were many, in various grades, procedures were laid down and selections made accordingly. Full documentation was made and appointments were duly approved by the PPSC. Adherence to propriety insulated all appointees from any future problem. In all this the Chief Secretary brought his mature experience to bear. With high pressure work it was tempting for some of us to neglect them.
Till April New Year, governance was smooth sailing. Circumstances demanded it. President was sworn in on 2nd January 1989. General elections were scheduled for February. Whatever the spread of the IPKF, the militants made their presence felt in the North East. Turmoil in the South seemed difficult to contain. The economy was in the doldrums. The President’s concern was to consolidate his position. Perhaps cordiality with India seemed advisable and it was extended to the CM and the Provincial government.
In the latter part of 1989, the budgetary exercise was initiated by the Ministry of Finance of NEPC, with a Budget Call providing realistic parameters. The Draft Estimates prepared by individual Ministries were further reviewed with the Ministry Secretary by a committee of three Secretaries before being sent to the Provincial Treasury. The ‘Printed Estimates’ brought out after laborious effort and submitted with the Budget Speech was an impressive 300 page volume in Programme Budget format. It was to the credit of the Secretary Finance Mr.S. Dharmalingam who was both SLAS and an Accountant. In several ways the NEPC demonstrated that it had come into its own with consummate skill.
Turn of the Tide
A few days preceding New Year an explosion near the Trinco clock tower – always a sensitive area – signalled a break down in relations between the Centre and the Province. For the powers that be at Trinco and perhaps with IPKF intelligence, certain surmises were possible. For all the cordiality and help some quid pro quo or reciprocity was anticipated by Colombo politically. It was not forthcoming from the CM who had his Provincial constituency and interests to safeguard and foster. He stood steadfast. The breakdown did not hinder the work programme that was set in motion. However the talks that the government had with the LTTE and the growing rapport between the two, had their inevitable impact in the Province. This was from mid-1989 onwards.
The next major event to have significant political consequences was the General Election in India in November 1989. The Congress and Rajiv Gandhi were defeated and VP Singh was elected Prime Minister. The latter’s compulsion was to correct a wrong. The decision to invade wastaken without circumspection. A wasteful war with heavy casualties to India, was being prosecuted due to miscalculation of enemy strength. These factors were compounded by the hostility of Premadasa Government. The changed political equation was unfavourable to the NE Provincial government. This was fully realized after the CM’s meeting with the PM in early January 1990.
On his return he called all the Secretaries and apprised us of the adverse turn in political circumstances. He told us very candidly that his mission had failed. “IF I say I can give you protection it is a lie. Therefore you have to safeguard yourselves. Photo copiers and typewriters we can buy, but Secretaries (ie like you) we cannot get. So you have to remain safe”. He added “By 15th March the Provincial Council will wither away. By the 15th June war will break out between the government and the LTTE”. On the dot both happened. This was not advance knowledge of a diabolical plot. It was intuitive political judgment. The Secretaries being targets were constrained to move out after mid-February.
Unilateral Declaration of Independence
UDI is serious business and a matter of life and death. Even after thirty years of a non-violent mass movement Nehru did not declare a UDI. Pirapakaran did not issue a declaration even after 26 years of violent struggle. Varadaraja Perumal’s declaration was treated as issued with levity. It was a respectable smoke screen, as a prelude to flight. On February 4th evening 1957, the writer was present at a public meeting of the Tamil Congress, in the premises of the Jaffna Town Hall. G.G. Ponnambalam the leader announced “On this day the 4th of February 1957, I Declare an Independent TAMIL NAD”. This was less than in levity. ‘Tamil Nad’ was delivered with perfect anglicized accent and impeccable intonation. In India it was Madras State then and Thamil Eelam had not come into vogue in Ceylon.
Following an unremitting independence struggle, a rebel group that has grown over time and is powerful enough to defend territory, considers such a declaration. Preceding it is also serious preparation for recognition. None of it happened before this UDI. What is surprising is, it is commented upon to this day. It is also said that President Premadasa reacting angrily to UDI dissolved the Council. After decapitation was it necessary? No doubt a death certificate was needed. In March 1990, The Provincial Council presided over its own liquidation. Regrettably enough we were witness to its premature end. Mr. Sivarajah lamented quoting the words of Bharathi – “Paathi thinkintra pothilae thaddi parippaan”. Hardly had I eaten half, than he snatched it away.
(This article is a tribute to the late Mr.V.N.Sivarajah whose services were unparalleled. It was a persistent request of his to place on record, our work and achievement in the NEPC and in the Ministries.)