Land battles

Monday, 11 March 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Loss of land and scaling back of land rights are among the biggest development problems in the world. Until recently, this was not evident in Sri Lanka as people had the freedom to appeal to the law to protect them. If people were asked to move, they responded by filing a case and demanding that proper compensation and transparency were allowed.  While it was seen by many as causing delays, it also fulfilled the necessary edicts to assure land rights and protected the poor from having their land grabbed unfairly. Disturbingly, this is now changing with thousands of acres being taken over by various Government departments under the guise of ‘development’, infringing on people’s rights and livelihoods.

It was reported over the weekend that the Government is taking over hundreds of acres of land in all parts of Sri Lanka. Statistics from the Land Ministry’s Acquisition Division show that there were 397 requests for acquisitions in 2012. This year, there have already been 97 within two months, indicating that there will be reams more before December. Typically, each of these requests represents many hundreds of acres of land and the families that own or live on them. The vast majority of acquisitions are carried out for road widening, water supply and irrigation projects. Smaller parcels are taken over for schools, playgrounds or sports grounds. The Urban Development Authority (UDA), under the Ministry of Defence, is separately snagging large extents of land within cities.

The Land Ministry says that, in 2012, the Government acquired around 3,382 acres of land. The Irrigation Ministry grabbed nearly 2,330 acres of this. The Ministry of Highways was second with 372 acres. The Forest Department acquired 263 acres, while the Ministry of Defence took 243 acres. Environmental groups say these figures are much higher.

The Ministry of Finance’s 2011 annual report shows that significant sums of money have been spent on acquiring land—Rs. 3.8 billion in 2011. It was Rs. 3.6 billion in 2010.

Midway through each acquisition process, a gazette is published, stating that the Land Ministry has decided a particular property is to be acquired. A cursory glance at the extraordinary gazettes page of the Government Printer’s website reveals notice after notice of land being procured.

At the last count on Saturday morning, there were 20 such gazettes—in just nine days. They pertained to properties in the districts of Hambantota, Colombo, Anuradhapura, Ratnapura, Ambalantota, Matara, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Kurunegala, Kegalle, Badulla, Matale, Kalpitiya, Puttalam and Galle. One of the most worrying aspects of ongoing land grabs, the report points out, is the loss of agricultural land to development projects. The Sri Lanka Nature Group and the People’s Alliance for Right to Land conducted a study of 25 projects, the results of which were released in June 2012.

It found that throughout Sri Lanka, a total of 36,611 hectares have been acquired through “illegal means”. “About 26,561 hectares have been seized by Government institutions, while 10,050 hectares have been rewarded to the private sector,” it states. Moneragala district was the most affected. These statistics don’t always tally with official figures. However, it does underline the very serious problems that people are undergoing, especially farmer communities. In addition, the environmental impact, particularly to elephants and water resources, is crippling but little attention is being paid to these concerns. Surely it is time that action was taken before all of Sri Lanka is parcelled off in the name of development projects that provide no immediate relief or improve the standard of living for the common man.