Nearly two years after its construction, the India-funded Jaffna Cultural Centre in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province awaits inauguration, amid persisting uncertainty over who will run the facility.
The structure , with 11 floors and facilities, including an auditorium that can seat 600 persons, a conference hall, an amphitheatre and a digital library, was completed in early 2020.
Built with an Indian grant of $11 million, the centre was envisaged as a public space to “promote, preserve and foster the cultural heritage of Jaffna”, and serve as “a hub of cultural activities” in Sri Lanka. “We hope to open it soon,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a rally in Chennai in February 2021, referring to the Jaffna Cultural Centre. But there has been little movement since, despite India’s subsequent offer to Sri Lanka, to absorb the administrative costs of the centre for five years.
As per the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Governments of India and Sri Lanka in 2014 — during Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term as President — the Government of India was to hand over the facility to the Government of Sri Lanka that would, in turn, hand it over to the Jaffna Municipal Council, which was given the responsibility of managing its recurring expenses and maintenance. In effect, it was envisioned as a facility in Jaffna, that would be managed by the local municipal authority, and not the Central Government in Colombo. Now, amid questions about the Municipal Council’s ability to spare funds to run the centre, its future looks uncertain.
Local media had also reported on “attempts” to hand over the administration to the Army, which manages the ‘Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre’ in Colombo, sparking concern among locals.
“While we have old auditoriums and public spaces in Jaffna, we do not have a modern facility and that is why such a centre, for the use of our people, is welcome,” said S. Raghuram, head of the Department of Media Studies at the University of Jaffna. Observing that the northern people have wanted a stronger Provincial Government to have a greater say in development activities, he said: “The cultural centre ought to be managed by either the Provincial Government, or the local municipal authority for it to function as a people’s asset. There are fears that the Central Government might gobble up this facility too.”
Meanwhile, the Mayor of Jaffna said he is “100 % sure” of being able to manage the facility. “I have written to the Indian High Commission, and the offices of the President and Prime Minister, asking for the building to be handed over to us. We have estimated an annual cost of LKR 34 million for that, and I have even made a budgetary allocation from the council’s total budget of LKR 1,466 million for 2022,” Mayor V. Manivannan told The Hindu .
He is especially optimistic after India pledged further financial assistance for the centre’s administration. Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla made the announcement in Jaffna last month, during his four-day visit to the island nation. “India supporting the centre for five years gives us time to stabilise, use the facility, and make some revenue from it,” Mr. Manivannan added.
Even India’s offer to absorb administrative costs for five years came as a “pre-emptive measure” to deter any Army involvement, well-placed sources told The Hindu, requesting anonymity.
For now, the cultural centre, located next to the iconic Jaffna Public Library, stands as the tallest building in Jaffna town, waiting to be used by the people it was intended for. Expressing confidence that the facility would be launched “very soon”, Jeevan Thiyagarajah, the recently appointed Governor of the Northern Province said he would like to see the centre grow to become “a Santiniketan”.
All nine provincial councils in Sri Lanka, including the Northern Provincial Council, are currently under their respective Governors’ rule, after their terms expired in 2018 and 2019. “We are keen to see the cultural centre evolve as a hub, where the arts are taught, shared and performed. It might even be possible to beam down the Chennai December music festival in Jaffna in future,” he said.