5 December, 2020

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The SAARC Cultural Centre Takes A Long Break

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

 Darshanie Ratnawalli

Darshanie Ratnawalli

The SAARC Cultural Centre takes a long break: Some clues to inertia under Wasantha Kotuwella

In January 2016, just over a year since acceding to power, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe publicly disparaged the SAARC Cultural Centre (SCC), Colombo. “We talk about the SAARC Cultural Centre in Colombo. However, in comparison to what you have done for the promotion of literature, they have done nothing. I spoke to the SAARC officials there. They have hardly done anything for culture or literature. However the SAARC Cultural Centre should be for the people, not for the official,” the PM said comparing SCC unfavourably with the Galle Literary Festival organizers.

In the audience, listening with pleasant faced interest to the PM’s remarks was the SCC Director, the dashing and popular actor Wasantha Kotuwella. At that time, just seven months since his June 2015 appointment by the PM’s Office, Kotuwella could afford to be pleasant faced. The PM couldn’t possibly be including his seven month term in the ‘do nothing’ period. That could only belong to G.L.W. Samarasinghe, who had held the sinecure (salaried around Rs 150,000 according to sources) from 2010 to 2015 as the SCC founding Director.

Sounding Defensive

Stung to the quick, Samarasinghe, a retired senior officer of the SL Administrative Service wrote an article to Colombo Telegraph, detailing all he had done to justify SCC’s raison d’être of promoting South Asian culture and literature. However, it was not an entirely satisfactory article. To some it may have sounded defensive and weak. Samarasinghe’s list did not contain anything that matched up even remotely to the hotness of the GLF. While one knew that the latter owed a great deal to lucrative commercial sponsorships and partnerships, whereas the SCC had to manage with funding from the SAARC States, some of whom hadn’t even paid their membership fees in years- one nevertheless couldn’t help hoping for some hot stuff from Wasantha Kotuwella viz-a-viz G.L.W. Samarasinghe.

Now at the end of 2016, the hot stuff hasn’t been delivered. Compared to Samarasinghe’s annual lists of programmes, Kotuwella’s list for 2016, the first full year he has spent in office, looks unusually lean.

A lean time

Sounding quite proud, G.L.W. Samarasinghe had written in his article, “An annual research programme under a designated theme has been conducted by the SAARC Cultural Centre since 2011 and eight research proposals were selected every year from among SAARC Member States and research grants awarded to South Asian researchers and scholars to carry out a project. By the end of 2015, 21 research projects and their reports have been completed and received by the SAARC Cultural Centre. Steps have been taken to publish these research reports and eight research reports are currently in print”.

Kotuwella hasn’t been able to continue this. Under his watch, 2016 stands out as .the only year to be bereft since 2011 of some gravitas producing topic of South Asian relevance such as ‘Diminishing cultures in South Asia’ (SCC Research Project-2011), ‘Diasporic Cultures of South Asia’ (SCC Research Project-2012), ‘Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Cultural Expressions in South Asia’ (SCC Research Project-2013/14), ‘Cultural Heritage Tourism and Sustainable Development’ (SCC Research Project 2014/15).

Nor has Kotuwella been able to organize a single research conference or seminar in 2016 or during his half of 2015. During his watch, 2016 remains the only year since inception that SCC has failed to become a player in the vibrant scholastic dialogues of South Asia. The last display of such academic dynamism – SAARC Seminar on Cultural Dynamics in National Harmony – was given by the SCC in May 2015, just before Kotuwella’s appointment. It seems a pity to break SCC’s habit of acting as a SAARC think tank by bringing scholarly minds of the region to bear on topical cultural issues of South Asia. Even in their inaugural year-2010, the infant SCC had organized ‘Seminar on Rituals, Ethics and Social Stability in the SAARC Region’. In 2011 there had been two symposia, ‘Shared Heritage of Sculpture and Decorative Arts in South Asia’ and ‘Folk Dances in South Asia’ held in Colombo and Bangladesh respectively. 2012 had featured the SAARC International Conference on ‘Archaeology of Buddhism: Recent Discoveries in South Asia’. In August 2013 they had held the SAARC Workshop on World Heritage Sites, followed by the SAARC International Conference on Development of Archives in South Asia in December. In 2014, the SCC had organized SAARC Capacity Building Workshop on preparation of proposals of new sites for inclusion in the UNESCO’s World Heritage list as well as the Conference on Development of South Asian Museums.

Under Kotuwella, SCC’s publication output for 2016 is a lone newsletter. This presents an odd contrast to the SCC output during the Samarasinghe years. According to the SCC website, 2014- Samarasinghe’s last full year in office – produced two books of abstracts, one book of contemporary poems from the SAARC region, one book of contemporary short stories from the SAARC region, one research paper, Volume 5 of the SCC annual academic journal and three newsletters.

In 2013, the SCC output comprised two books of abstracts, one book of contemporary short stories from the SAARC region, one book of contemporary poems from the region, Volume 4 of the SCC annual journal and four newsletters. In 2012, SCC has produced one book of abstracts, one book of contemporary short stories, one book of poems, one research conference report, Volume 3 of the annual academic journal and four newsletters. In 2011 one symposium report, one conference report, Volume 2 of the annual journal and four newsletters represented the publication output, while during 2010, the new SCC had produced one seminar report and the maiden volume of the annual academic journal. During his last half year in office, 2015, the Samarasinghe contribution to the SCC publications toll has been one book of abstracts and one research paper.

Crippled Research

Concurring with this writer’s summing up of the lack of meat in SCC’s 2016 fare, the SCC Director says it’s due to the fact that he has been running a shop without a functioning research division. The main reason for its non-functionality is lack of professional research staff. “ We have just one person in the research division,” Kotuwella says, adding that once the staff is recruited, they would once more be active. However the staff should have been recruited a year ago. Why it wasn’t is a story which smacks of sabotage at worst or incompetence at best.

When Kotuwella came into SCC in June 2015 all the professional category positions in its research division (Deputy Director of Research and Research Officer) had fallen vacant due to term expirations. But everything was in order and the recruitment process was well underway. Kotuwella continued this process, until on 21 September 2015, the final interviews were held and a selection committee comprising himself, the Chairman of the SCC Governing Board and one M. H.M. Nimal Bandara, representing the SAARC Secretariat, submitted their selections recommendations in a report to the SAARC Secretary General for final approval.

It seemed then that in a matter of weeks, if not days, SCC would be firmly on its way to having a fully staffed research division. This was not to be. The whole tale smacking of system manipulation by vested interests at the expense of SCC’s performance and resources can be read in official communications to, from and around the SCC.

A letter sent by Rohana Ambagolla, Director SAARC at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs- Sri Lanka to Wasantha Kotuwella, dated 13 Nov 2015 has the heading ‘SAARC Secretariat’s Decision to call off the interview results to recruit Deputy Director (Research) and Research Officer at the SAARC Cultural Centre, Colombo’.

The joint audit report for SCC for 2015, signed by the Director of the Office of the Auditor General of Nepal and the Director General of the Office of the Auditor General of Pakistan points out under the heading ‘Wasteful Expenditure on recruitment of Professionals’,

“Scrutiny of Note 10 of the Receipt and Expenditure statement revealed that an expenditure of $3,122.70 was made on the process of recruitment of professionals including per diem and air fare paid to the candidates appearing for interviews. However the recruitment process was stopped after interviewing and no final selection of candidates was made. This latter information transpired in the scrutiny of Note 13 which showed nil expenditure against ‘Archeology, Architecture and Archives’ and ‘The Development of Cultural Industries’. The targets in these two areas could not be achieved because of absence of relevant professional staff. It was the same staff that was required to be recruited through the process mentioned above. So the abandoning of process of recruitment halfway not only resulted in the wastage of amount spent on per diem and air fare of candidates but also it caused non-achievement of some programs for which budget was already provided.

“We recommend better planning and a coordinated strategy for recruitment of both professional and general staff for SCC in the future.”

Recruitment Sabotage

The reason for cancelling an almost completed recruitment process is given in SAARC/ESC/RC.SCC/Appointment/2015- a communication dated 28 October 2015, from M.H.M. Nimal Bandara of the SAARC Secretariat to the SCC Director Kotuwella, “In connection with the post of ‘Research Officer’, this is to inform that this post is under Professional Category, but from the designation it appears that the post is under General Services Staff Category.

“Therefore, it is advised that the post may re-designate as Culture Specialist in line with the Professional categories as mentioned in Annex-A (page 16) of the ‘Harmonized Provisions relating to the Financial and Administrative Matters of the SAARC Regional Centres’ and place the same to the Governing Board for approval by the SAARC higher body.

“Competent Authority did not approve the appointment of ‘Research Officer’ (Professional Category). You are requested to re-advertise the post after approval of the re-designation of the post.”

The letter is puzzling for the following reasons.

For seven years, the SAARC Secretariat has known that there was a designation called Research Officer among SCC professional staff. The designation was recommended as part of the SCC professional staff at the inaugural meeting of SCC Governing Board held on 6-7 April 2009. It was formally approved by the SAARC Secretariat on 4 May 2010 by a communication headed ‘Approval of the Report of the First Governing Board Meeting of SCC’.

For seven years, the SAARC Secretariat has been responsible and accountable for the designation ‘Research Officer. For example, letter No. SAARC/CC/Prof Recru/19 is a vacancies announcement for four professional category posts including Research Officer that the SAARC Secretariat received from the SCC on 16 November 2009 and passed on to member States.

SAARC/ESC/SCC/Admin/2015, dated 12 January 2015 is the second professional vacancy announcement for Research Officer to be received and circulated by the SAARC Secretariat. At the time of this communication, the present SAARC Secretary General was in office.

In letter No: SAARC /HTS/Cultural Centre, dated 12 July 2010, the SAARC Secretariat approved (among others) the appointment of a Ms. Nirekha De Silva for the post of ‘Research Officer’,

The terminology of an established designation of seven years standing cannot serve as the basis for setting aside a nearly completed recruitment process. In attempting such a thing in the above letter, the SAARC Secretariat through Nimal Bandara appears irrational and lacking in good faith.

The reason given by the SAARC Secretariat- that Research Officer “is under Professional Category, but from the designation it appears that the post is under General Services Staff Category” – is so whimsical as to sound trumped up. It probably means that the SAARC Cultural Centre general services staff designations such as Administrative Officer, Finance Officer, Documentation Officer, share the common handle-officer with the professional category designation Research Officer. Hence, a misconception may arise that Research Officer was on a par with officers of the general services staff. However designations belong to their categories by reason of deliberate assigning and not on the basis of common handles like ‘officer’, which has the widest range of status connotations, depending on context.

Asked for his comment on the situation, Wasantha Kotuwella registered amazement at the antiquity of the issue. “2015? So long ago?” he asked and directed me to inquire from the SAARC Secretariat, which he said is responsible for posts and designations. Detailed emails soliciting comment from Nimal Bandara at the SAARC Secretariat, from the SAARC Division of SL Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, remain unanswered.

Perhaps it’s best to chalk it up as an illustration of how international associations can be scuttled by local manipulation when the regional or global collective is not strong enough.

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