Land rights

Tuesday, 3 April 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

President Maithripala Sirisena during a recent visit to Polonnaruwa had emphasised the need to have equitable land rights that empower people and fast track development but had also lamented the lack of progressive and cohesive policy in this area. Successive governments have sought to improve land rights in Sri Lanka by parcelling out State land or handing out deeds to already possessed land, usually close to an election, but have paid scant attention to establishing progressive policy and updating relevant legislative frameworks.    

Governments are usually tasked with the power to acquire, manage, maintain, and repurpose vacant, abandoned, and foreclosed properties – the worst abandoned houses, forgotten buildings, and empty lots. At least that is their task in other countries. The intention is to manage existing land and limit expansion into forested or environmentally sensitive areas and improve the productivity of existing State and private land. Governments also have wide powers to decide on farm and forest land, what to allocate as reservations or protected areas and their management.  

The public –for good reason – is often suspicious of any Government role in the real estate market or land in general. In the case of abandoned properties on State land the Government can reclaim ownership. Still, it is critical that the operation of land rights be fair and predictable. To build public confidence in land rights, the adoption of well-considered policies and priorities that govern to whom –and for what purpose – properties are sold or transferred. Terms and pricing policy must be clear and uniform, to get public confidence. 

The land held by a government is typically scattered among neighbourhoods throughout the community, or in this case, the country. The most successful governments engage with stakeholders on the policies and practices that determine the outcomes for those areas. Public acceptance of the hard choices that will inevitably need to be made regarding property held by government is much more likely when those stakeholders have a voice – a formal voice – in policy and operations. By formalising that process, through regular engagement, and in some cases with the formation of a Community Advisory Council or expert committees, governments get public input on terms that make that input more meaningful than if that input comes in the form of uninvited anger or frustration with land use decisions.

Even if there has been a change of policy land rights are best assured when governments do not work alone, but rather develop strategic partnerships with non-profits, community organisations, lenders, and local governments – all in an effort to leverage the resources available to deal with the most distressed land in the community. 

In an environment where funding is scarce, land could be valuable collateral. At a fundamental level governments need to keep clear policies and targets to genuinely serve its people. Policy making, always Sri Lanka’s Achilles Heel, has been ad hoc and difficult in many instances. Land allocation for investment, for example, has been a challenging path at best with many questionable deals along the way.  

Striking a balance between development and natural resource management is important. An increasing population, urbanisation and development of infrastructure will demand more forest lands to be cleared. If there’s a lack of clear allocation of ownership, clearance of forest lands for development will be driven by political influence and bribes. All these are additional reasons for the Government to get its act together on land rights.