War and neglect destroy Jaffna kachcheri

By: S. Somitharan - A Feature Article

The disintegrating buildings of the old Jaffna kachcheri (district secretariat) from a demolition job that was begun by the war and is now taken over by the elements perturb not only administrators but antiquarians as well.

A structure that dates as early as the mid-19th Century though no one was able to confirm the exact date of its construction, it is now used as a cycle park, much to the consternation of aesthetes who believe that it is one of the few surviving buildings of the British colonial administration in the north, which should be a museum rather than fall pray to the torrential rains and the blistering heat that Jaffna is known for.

“Now that the Fort is in the process of going, the only prominent colonial era building that remains in Jaffna town is the kachcheri,” quipped an academic referring to Jaffna’s Dutch Fort, expected to be taken over as an army garrison.

The rehabilitation of the kachcheri faces two principal snags: no one knows whether the existing structures are good enough to be rehabilitated, and even if they are, who is to finance the operation. Before that however, a more fundamental task has to be accomplished. The kachcheri and its environs have to be de-mined.

Despite the armed hostilities that began in earnest in 1983, the kachcheri continued to function till 1990. It was in that year the government agent’s office with a history of over 100 years was to be used for the first time for purposes other than what it was originally intended. It became the headquarters of the LTTE police.

“The mines around the kachcheri are mostly due to the Tigers’ police headquarters functioning from there,” said a Jaffna resident.

The de-mining programme however cannot be confined strictly to the kachcheri building. Behind it is Old Park where the Residency or the official quarters of the government agent is situated. De-mining Old Park requires special skills, as de-miners fear the park’s trees have grown over the mines. Therefore, special equipment to uproot trees is needed before any systematic de-mining of the area is undertaken.

The year 1995 heard the death knell of the old kachcheri building sounded with the exodus of the Jaffna population before the Sri Lanka army arrived with Operation Riviresa. With the LTTE and civilians withdrawing what little maintenance of the building that was undertaken in the past was also abandoned. What is more, certain important records that were in the kachcheri’s record room were also transferred to the University of Jaffna and to other offices in Colombo.

Despite the return of the civilian population no attempt was made to rehabilitate the old kachcheri. Government functioned through the new kachcheri that is adjacent to the old one. The old building itself fell victim to neglect. The final assault on the aging piece of architecture came in 2000 when its crumbling walls and disintegrating roof took round after round of artillery shelling and aerial bombardment in the crossfire when the LTTE advanced up to the gates of Jaffna in Ariyalai during its thrust northwards after overrunning Elephant Pass camp in April that year.

Today the roof has blown off, or whatever remains, lies rotting in the elements. The exposure has almost completely worn off the mortar on the walls and is now attacking the brickwork. White stones that were used as a façade are mostly destroyed, though some of them have been preserved by the kachcheri and may be used later. Most of what was once a spacious garden is overgrown with weeds and scrub, which de-miners feel could also conceal mines. Part of the old kachcheri has been de-mined, but not all, which practically prevents any reconstruction.

“Everything hinges on whether the present structure can support a new roof. I have asked the Chief Engineer, Buildings, to give a report,” said S. Pathmanathan, government agent, Jaffna. But the Chief Engineer in turn is hampered due to delays in the de-mining.

Custodian of the kachcheri and Old Park, the government agent administers a fund for their upkeep. “But there is no money in that now. Even if we had I wonder whether the first priority should be reconstruction of the kachcheri buildings, or fulfilling the basic needs of the population,” Pathmanthan said.

He hopes there might be funding in the assistance earmarked for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Jaffna, promised by international donors. Or he hopes monies could be disbursed through the district development funds controlled by members of parliament.

Today, the habitable part of the old kachcheri’s yard is used for parking bicycles. The government agent claims the portion that has been cleared was done under the supervision of the kachcheri’s staff, though others claim that despite lofty speeches, it were only the de-miners who did whatever clearing that has been done.

Crucial however is whether the walls of already dilapidated building can await the de-mining and arrival of the funds, a fact that also bothers aesthetes and historians, mostly at Jaffna University. They believe that with the Dutch Fort about to pass on into the hands of the army and with most of its old buildings in ruins, there are very few monuments in Jaffna of the colonial era (let alone the pre-colonial) except for a few Portuguese and Dutch structures on the Islands off Jaffna.

How the buildings of the old kachcheri will be utilised in the future, assuming the de-mining is done and renovation and reconstruction are possible will also depend on the value society and the political authorities ruling Jaffna ascribe to the colonial era and justify the preservation of its symbols.

Please Click here to login / register to post your comments.