The National Land Commission is proposed to be activated and all the country’s land issues will be brought under a national land policy according to a proposal included in the proposed new Constitution.

As Sri Lanka is a small island its land mass holds greater value. About 75-80 % of the country’s lands still belong to the government, but there is heavy criticism as to how the government has utilised these lands for the welfare of the people. The main reason for this is the lack of a proper national policy related to lands.

Based on the open economy lands have been given to multinational companies and local companies on lease. However, it has now been turned into some sort of land theft as these lands are being given to those with political connections and friends and relatives of those in power. One such district that has been subjected to this sort of land theft is the Puttalam district.

With the influx of tourism lands in the Puttalam district especially Kalpitiya area has shot up in price rapidly and there is great competition for lands in this region. Yet those who benefit the most are the businessmen with political affiliations and backing. Those who have suffered the most are the people in the area without lands.

One person who has been constantly bringing up the land issue faced by the people is Bandiwewa Diyasena Thera of Kalpitiya Samudrasanna Viharaya. This is what he had to say regarding the land issues faced by the people.

“During the past regime politicians sold off lands to the tune of forty to sixty acres and some residents are now struggling in court to prove their land ownership. Some forge alliances with certain politicians and then through them obtain these lands through the Land Commission. As politicians are involved the rightful owners are unable to do anything and watch helplessly. It is those residents who have lost their lands who should receive these state lands. Yet while they suffer, outsiders are brought in and given lands simply due to their political connections.”

The land dispute that erupted in the Kalpitiya, Redbarna area has now reached the Courts.

“Land Reform Commission lands are those that had previous owners. If there was a Raja Maha Viharaya somewhere then there certainly would have been manorial sections allotted. Hence these are the manorial lands. However there are no owners for these lands as people have destroyed these deeds and made false deeds and occupied these lands,” the Thera pointed out.

These lands are indicated in the master plan as ක ද අ ව ම බ ට කැ and these lands belong to the national land commission.

Currently there is a case in Court against a Puttalam Opposition party politician’s brother for drafting false documentation and deeds and selling a land of 50 acres in Kandakulama to a foreigner.

Diyasena Thera pointed out that the initial plans for these lands have been destroyed and false deeds have been made.

“In this manner some people have acquired 5, 10, 15 acres of lands fraudulently. There is no policy or proper mechanism to prevent this happening. Hence those in power show their might and do what they want. Even the Samurdhi officer and another person in the area had acquired five acres each in this fraudulent manner. There are so many such lands that have been acquired using such fraudulently constructed documents,” he said.

“Later on the government has given lands to their supporters with the aim of winning them over and gaining votes. Yet these lands cannot be mortgaged and has no proper value as these lands have forged documents and eventually they have no commercial value and can only be occupied. But these are given to the people titled under ‘Jaya Boomi’ Swarna boomi’ etc. These are just mental bribes to the people for their votes but the lands are of no use,” the Thera said.

No legal ownership

Reiterating Bandiwewa Diyasena Thera’s sentiments, a land occupant M. Swarnalatha said although she had been given this land by the government many years ago, she has still not received legal ownership to this land.

“There is no purpose in us having received these lands as we cannot even mortgage the land in the event of an emergency. The banks won’t accept these deeds. If we had a land of our own, we would not be in this predicament,” she lamented.

Similarly Anton Soysa is also in the same predicament. “There is a large population in the Puttalam district without lands. In addition there are also many who have occupied lands using false or forged deeds. They conduct various businesses without any issue. However, the innocent people who have no such political backing are helpless. Whatever we need to do on the lands that we own, we have to get the approval of the Provincial Secretary. This government too promised to give lands to the people but so far nothing has happened. They are all liars and only cheat us with false promises,” he said.

Last year the number of applications received by the Kalpitiya divisional secretariat seeking lands was 318 which is an indicator of the gravity of the land issue in the area. However Kalpitiya Divisional Secretary Chathuraka Jayasinghe said that all these applications are not from those who do not have lands and added that moreover, there were only few lands that can be distributed to the people in the area.

No lands for cultivation

“We will be distributing lands to those who really do not have lands through the Kachcheri. Yet those who do not have lands are very few. But, when we say we are giving lands, there are many who apply for them but we have found that not all of those who apply really deserve to be given lands. The lands that we give to the people are not the best of lands but there is only a few of the lands that can be given to the people. Hence, we can only give them small lands of around 20 perches each but there are no lands to give them for cultivation,” he said.

The extent of lands given to the people in Kalpitiya is around 2,683 acres. The 13 islands including Kalpitiya, Bathalangunduwa and Palliyawatte is owned by the government. Accordingly the government lands stands at 860.3032 hectares. The government had given 18 long term land lease permits amounting to 398 acres. 363 acres have been leased to the salt industry, 139 permits for prawn cultivation and 49 permits and 235 acres for cultivation purposes.

The Kalpitiya Divisional Secretary said 13 permits have been allocated for the tourism industry, adding that a further 200 acres are proposed to be leased to the Tourism sector in the future, he said.

Lands are given on long term and annual lease for business. The annual lease should be renewed every year and the long term lease should be renewed every 30 years. However no matter what the lease are every year the divisional secretariat has to be paid which is determined on the value of the land and the purpose for which the land is used.

However, the government does not receive the proper estimated payments from these lands and the estimated Rs. 7.5 million annual fees the government receives is only a fraction of what they should be receiving.

The government charges Rs 10,000 for an annual ‘Madal’ permit. For salt or prawn cultivation the annual estimated amount is Rs. 5,000 per acre. However, considering the income that is made from these ventures, this annual fees is nothing. Hence these lands are like gold mines to them, which have prompted the politicians in the area to lease these lands to their relatives or close associates.

Although the government has these lands under their management, those truly deserving have not got lands and even the few who have got lands have no legitimate deeds to prove their absolute ownership of the lands. The government has also failed to make the maximum from the privately leased out lands and all this is merely because the government has no proper land policy.

According to Law and Social Trust operations Director, Attorney Sandun Thudugala, Sri Lanka urgently needs a land policy.

“From the past, large scale private entities have used these government lands for their benefit. By that the poor people in the area have suffered.”

In some investments people received a certain portion of jobs but in the case of Pelawatte Sugar Company to Kanthale Dole Company, they earned the maximum and went without even paying the village people their wages. In many of these places what is left now is waste land.

This not only happens in Sri Lanka but world over. The best example is the estate sector. Although tea is being sold for high prices world over, the most amount of malnourishment is reported from the estate sector as food is not produced in the proper manner. In a country like Sri Lanka lands are not just commercial objects people’s livelihoods and lives are interconnected with the lands.

When analysing the recent floods and landslides, it was evident that the improper use of lands had led to this disaster. This too boils down to the fact that the government does not have a proper land policy. Therefore, it is very evident that Sri Lanka needs a proper land policy and it must be done fast,” he added.

This article was originally published in the Sunday Leader newspaper on the 25th of June 2017