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NPC Festive Start, Rocky Road

NPC Festive Start, Rocky Road

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Published by Thavam

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Published by: Thavam on Oct 28, 2013
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10/28/2013

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By Dharisha Bastians in Jaffna-
 
October 28, 2013
* At the Northern Provincial Council’s inaugural session, the new Chief Minister setsthe assembly up as a platform for Tamil rights with a pledge to build a meritocracy. Butthe unseasoned politician and his 29 councillors will grapple with funding concerns,navigating relations with civil administrative officials and managing rifts within the TNAas they step into the business of governance* Dharmalingam Sithdharthan, the mild-mannered leader of PLOTE, a TNA constituentparty, said Friday’s session had been momentous, but remained cautious about thefuture. “The real question is what kind of financial devolution there will be from theGovernment in Colombo,” he warns. “Without that, there is no work to be done and wecannot meet the people’s expectations.”On the historic morning of 25 October, 72-year-old G. Kriushnamurthiy, a veteran civilservant, 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 firstsession.But the septuagenarian is an old hand, having served as Chief Secretary of the NorthEast Provincial Council 25 years ago. Amidst the flurry of activity, the affablegentleman remembers to make sure only classical sitar music is played in the hallbefore proceedings.“Our Chief Minister is a master sitarist after all,” he notes, with all the pride andexcitement of a much younger officer.Kriushnamurthiy is full of respect for the new Chief Minister, a retired judge of theSupreme Court. “Mr. Wigneswaran is like a Rajarishi,” he says, using the Tamil wordfor 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 the38-seat council in which the main opposition UPFA – has seven seats. “He haspromised to cooperate,” the Council Secretary notes, “he has only asked that hismembers not be provoked during sittings”.The Administrative Service Officer was pulled out of 10-year retirement to assume thisnew 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 werepassed, nothing much really happened,” he says. As the new Council prepares to grapple with fund sourcing, militarisation and landissues in the region, Kriushnamurthiy has very different, yet crucial procedural mattersto 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 andhis staff will have to study the assembly Hansards and gazetting language in TamilNadu state and absorb the technical jargon.Tenuous journeyThe 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 thecountry’s ninth Provincial Council had begun only three months earlier. But on theauspicious Friday (25), construction work to build a second storey had been put onhold.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 thatwere 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 zonehad made preparations difficult and little thought had been given to establishing theinfrastructure for Council operations.Northern Chief Minister Justice C.V. Wigneswaran was to allude to this haphazardnessin his maiden speech before the Council soon after proceedings commenced. “So far,even the infrastructure has not been completed to conduct this session. Financial andhuman resources disbursement is yet to happen. But still, we have decided to startwork,” he said, standing in the new chamber.Policy prioritiesFor the Chief Minister’s team, policy priorities are troop withdrawal in the north andensuring 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 meand I will send the military home’,” a Party strongman says. And so having hoisted theprovincial 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 hiscommitment 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 asco-owners of the land.But while these broad brush policy statements remain crucial to its mandate in theSeptember poll, more fundamental, senior Tamil politicians say, will be the bread andbutter issues.For the TNA, with 30 seats in the 38 member Council, the fundamental question will behow and when funds will be disbursed from the Government in Colombo and if this willbe adequate to meet the needs of the Province.Dharmalingam Sithdharthan, the mild-mannered leader of PLOTE, a TNA constituentparty, said Friday’s session had been momentous, but remained cautious about thefuture. “The real question is what kind of financial devolution there will be from theGovernment in Colombo,” he warns. “Without that, there is no work to be done and wecannot meet the people’s expectations.”FundingThe Government has allocated Rs. 17 billion for the NPC in its estimated expenditurestatement 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 maintainingthe provincial bureaucracy.For a new Council, Sithdharthan explains, Rs. 5 billion is virtually nothing. “TheCouncil itself has to be set up, vehicles have to be purchased, infrastructure put inplace,” 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 theruling party, with resources of the central Government at their disposal, will be criticalfor the NPC. As the only provincial council in the country run by an opposition party theNPC 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 civilservants in the Province to share its vision for the north.Provincial bureaucracyIn the 25 years since the 1988 North East Provincial Council was dissolved byPresident Ranasinghe Premadasa, the provincial bureaucracy has remained in place. Administrative officers attached to the Province have run their own show, functioningunder the Provincial Governor’s Secretariat in the absence of an elected council.

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