Colombo Telegraph

NPC: Festive Start, Rocky Road

By Dharisha Bastians

Dharisha Bastians

At the Northern Provincial Council’s inaugural session, the new Chief Minister sets the assembly up as a platform for Tamil rights with a pledge to build a meritocracy.  But the unseasoned politician and his 29 councillors will grapple with funding concerns, navigating relations with civil administrative officials and managing rifts within the TNA as they step it steps into the business of governance

On the historic morning of 25 October, 72 year old G. Kriushnamurthiy, a veteran civil servant is a very busy man. As Secretary of the first ever Northern Provincial Council Kriushnamurthiy has his work cut out for him hours ahead of the Council’s first session. But the septuagenarian is an old hand, having served as Chief Secretary of the North East Provincial Council 25 years ago.  Amidst the flurry of activity, the affable gentleman remembers to make sure only classical sitar music is played in the hall before proceedings.

“Our Chief Minister is a master sitarist after all,” he notes, with all the pride and excitement of a much younger officer.

Kriushnamurthiy is full of respect for the new Chief Minister, a retired judge of the Supreme Court. “Mr. Wigneswaran is like a rajarishi,” he says, using the Tamil word for chief sage, pointing to the still empty Chief Minister’s chair in the Council chamber.  Across the aisle, the placard is set for K. Kamaleindran, the Opposition Leader in the 38-seat council in which the main opposition UPFA – has seven seats. “He has promised to cooperate,” the Council Secretary notes, “he has only asked that his members not be provoked during sittings.”

The Administrative Service Officer was pulled out of 10 year retirement to assume this new role at the NPC. As Chief Secretary of the North East Council, Kriushnamurthiy recalls that not much got done in that first provincial assembly. “No statutes were passed, nothing much really happened,” he says. As the new Council prepares to grapple with fund sourcing, militarisation and land issues in the region, Kriushnamurthiy has very different, yet crucial procedural matters to contend with. Building a Tamil legislative vocabulary he says, will be a challenge. Never having operated a legislative council, the veteran public servant believes he and his staff will have to study the assembly Hansards and gazetting language in Tamil Nadu state and absorb the technical jargon.

The Northern Council set off on a tenuous journey at its new premises in Kaithady, Jaffna last week, a partially complete building. Construction of a complex for the country’s ninth Provincial Council had begun only three months earlier. But on the auspicious Friday (25), construction work to build a second storey had been put on hold.  Coloured flags, traditional Tamil dancers and kolam – art using dyed rice or coconut to decorate the entrance to the building lent a festive air to the historic events that were to unfold that day. The 38 elected Councillors filed in at 9 a.m. to sit in a red-carpeted, contemporary chamber smelling of new leather and fresh paint.

Political uncertainties surrounding the September election in the former conflict zone had made preparations difficult and little thought had been given to establishing the infrastructure for Council operations.

Northern Chief Minister Justice C.V. Wigneswaran was to allude to this haphazardness in his maiden speech before the Council soon after proceedings commenced. “So far, even the infrastructure has not been completed to conduct this session. Financial and Human Resources disbursement is yet to happen. But still, we have decided to start work,” he said, standing in the new chamber.

For the Chief Minister’s team, policy priorities are troop withdrawal in the north and ensuring Tamil land rights are protected. De-militaritisation will be a keystone issue for the TNA. “Every time Mr. Wigneswaran came on stage he told the people, ‘vote for me and I will send the military home’,” a Party strongman says. And so having hoisted the provincial flag with the Northern Governor, G.A. Chandrasiri earlier that morning, Wigneswaran fired a salvo at the retired major general, saying a military governor would hamper the work of a civilian administration.

Delivering a strong maiden speech, Wigneswaran passionately cemented his commitment to securing Tamil rights before the provincial assembly he leads. Tamils, the Chief Minister said, were proud citizens of Sri Lanka, not as people on lease but as co-owners of the land.

But while these broad brush policy statements remain crucial to its mandate in the September poll, more fundamental, senior Tamil politicians say, will be the bread and butter issues.

For the TNA, with 30 seats in the 38 member Council, the fundamental question will be how and when funds will be disbursed from the Government in Colombo and if this will be adequate to meet the needs of the Province.

Dharmalingam Sithdharthan, the mild-mannered leader of PLOTE, a TNA constituent party, said Friday’s session had been momentous, but remained cautious about the future. “The real question is what kind of financial devolution there will be from the Government in Colombo,” he warns. “Without that, there is no work to be done and we cannot meet the people’s expectations.”

The Government has allocated Rs. 17 Billion for the NPC in its estimated expenditure statement for 2014. But only Rs. 5 billion of that allocation is intended for capital – or new – expenditure. Rs. 12 billion will be recurrent, largely going towards maintaining the provincial bureaucracy.

For a new Council, Sithdharthan explains, Rs. 5 billion is virtually nothing. “The Council itself has to be set up, vehicles have to be purchased, infrastructure put in place,” he explains. There will be little left for tangible development work, even if Colombo actually disburses the full allocation.

Funding concerns, rarely an issue for other provincial councils that are run by the ruling party, with resources of the central Government at their disposal, will be critical for the NPC. As the only provincial council in the country run by an opposition party the NPC administration harbours legitimate fear of having its wings clipped financially if the Government decides to withdraw support for the Council.

The Wigneswaran administration’s success will also depend on if it can convince civil servants in the Province to share its vision for the North.

In the 25 years since the 1988 North East Provincial Council was dissolved by President Ranasinghe Premadasa, the provincial bureaucracy has remained in place. Administrative officers attached to the Province have run their own show, functioning under the Provincial Governor’s Secretariat in the absence of an elected council. Navigating the bureaucratic maze becomes a crucial factor in how much the provincial administration will be able to achieve, older party hands say. The TNA believes that for the moment, the bureaucracy has been instructed to work with the Chief Minister. “But this could alter at any moment, perhaps if the relationship shifts between the President and the Council after the March sessions in Geneva,” explains one Councillor who wished to remain unnamed.

In a hopeful sign, the new Chief Minister also pledged to take a hard line on corruption and warned Councillors would be subject to periodic performance reviews. The sentiment – rarely heard from a ruling party even in Parliament, coupled with Wigneswaran’s appointment of professionals to handle subjects like education and health and the decision to award one of the TNA’s two bonus seats to a Muslim who also represents the Peoples Movement for Good Governance – an election ally – sends a strong signal that he is striving to build a meritocracy at the NPC.

But with the TNA’s constituent parties still bitter about the battle for ministerial portfolios, the Chief Minister will have to govern inclusively to keep his coalition together and maintain his two thirds plus majority at the Council. A perception is building in the TNA that the triumvirate at the helm of party affairs – its Leader R. Sampanthan, the Chief Minister and TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran –underestimate the ex-militant constituent parties, PLOTE, TELO and EPRLF as lacking experience in democratic governance. Yet together with ITAK General Secretary Marvai Senathirajah, these constituents command public support and possess unparalleled experience about the region’s inner workings. As a freshman politician and a stranger to Northern politics, Wigneswaran will have to keep his allies close in order to carry the people of the region with him.

But despite quibbling within the alliance, even some TNA constituent members admit the goals Wigneswaran is setting are commendable. First impressions are that the Wigneswaran led NPC will strive to restore the image of the Tamil political leadership as astute, learned and skillful representatives of its people, engaged in a struggle to win their rights.

“May God help us all,” the new Chief Minister was to appeal to the heavens, in his speech last Friday, a poignant reminder of the monumental tasks that lie ahead for the Tamil managed Council.

For the NPC, neither its path to election nor inauguration has been easy. Protracted dispute over a political solution, conflicting positions on the 13th Amendment and manufactured controversies over the TNA election manifesto have already coloured relations between Colombo and the NPC. Trust-building will not be easy and pettiness is certain to threaten the fragile relationship.

Officers like Kriushnamurthiy are old and wise enough to recognise potential conflagrations from miles away and will prove invaluable at this stage.

He has staved off controversy on the language of the National Anthem by rejecting both the Sinhalese and the Tamil versions and choosing to play the melody alone during the flag-raising ceremony.

“Our people quarrel about the silliest things. The instrumental is the most powerful version anyway,” says the Council Secretary dismissively. “What’s important is to get on with business.”

Courtesy Daily FT

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