LACK of transparency and fairness in land acquisition is a deep problem in Sri Lanka, but it hides in the shadows and appears only in the tears of the dispossessed. The latest casualties appear to be the traditional washer families, who are to be evicted from a plot of land in Colombo. The settlement is located at Perahera Mawatha near Gangarama Temple in Colombo 2. The families say they have lived there since 1928, when British colonial rulers allocated them the land.
Now, they will be shifted en masse under the UDA’s ‘Relocation of Traditional Economic Activities’ project. UDA officials said the new site will be equipped with all necessary facilities. But the washer community opposes the move. One reason is because they will not receive alternative homes for the ones they are losing.
The UDA has demanded a “connection fee” of Rs. 50,000 that most of the 15 odd families living in cramped rooms are unable to pay. In addition a Rs. 5,000 fee will be charged every month as rental. These are large amounts of money for these people who eke out a hand-to-mouth existence and pay Rs. 11.50 per room. Several families live in the sparse shacks.
Expecting such impoverished people to pay such large amounts of money is completely unrealistic. But the UDA with the backing of the Defence Ministry knows that there will be little protest when these people are removed. Where they will go and how they will continue their trade seems to be irrelevant to the UDA, which is more interested in plonking a car park where these people have lived for generations.
Another incident that has grabbed headlines is the eviction of slum dwellers in Slave Island to make way for a massive apartment and hotel by TATA. Residents had turned to the Supreme Court in desperation when the UDA had attempted to remove them. Chief among the concerns is that the alternative accommodations provided by the UDA are inadequate with rent money not meeting market prices. Moreover, the compensation afforded to them is minimal. Also the responsibility of providing new houses have been given to the company with residents having no knowledge of the standard of housing they will be given.
Nor is this limited to Colombo. 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. Monaragala District was the most affected.
These statistics don’t always tally with official figures. However, they do 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.