By Muhammed Fazl –
“You can never reach the Promised Land. You can march towards it” – James Callaghan
Be it Palestine or a prime State land at Colombo Sri Lanka, impossible it should be made to claim ownership for criminals when lands are acquired illegally. Conducting investigations in to the disputed block of land at Bank of Ceylon Mawatha (right opposite WTC), many instances of meticulously planned and illegally occupied State and private lands have come to light and that which resulted in political henchmen and criminals raking in billions in the last 30 years. While I intend exposing famous personalities for obtaining land and property illegally and by using fraudulent documents in the near future, it did come as a surprise when a prominent and supposedly a ‘conscientious’ media empire happened to be involved possibly in one of the biggest illegal land grabs in the recent history of Sri Lanka.
Elusive and highly manipulative, though establishing himself as a successful businessman, it is indeed pathetic of Mr. Kili Maharaja (KM) and his company, Capital Maharaja Organization Limited (CMOL) to ‘move mountains’ in staking a claim for a prime State property at #19, Bank of Ceylon Mawatha, Fort Colombo, and over which I have reasonable grounds to believe that it should be vested back with the Urban Development Authority (UDA) as rightful owners.
Having met with stiff resistance when in search of information on the land in question valued at over Rs. 10,000,000/- per perch, the five million Dollar question is how was it possible for a prime State land to end up in the hands of a politically powerful figure (KM) after it was given to a little-known Sri Jaya Hotels Limited (SJHL) 26 years ago?
When this matter surfaced a month and half ago when officials from CMOL attempted to fence the property in question, watching news on TV at home, my attention to this matter was drawn only when UDA officials sprang to action within 24 hours in defending CMOL’s right of ownership. In my eyes, this was quite unusual for a lethargic government department in Sri Lanka, especially when the value of the land is about half a billion Rupees. The following describes the turn of events;
1 – Visited the MTV Head Office on March 31, 2015 and met Mr. Shameer Rasoolden who asked me to email him a formal request along with my credentials. Other than my GCE O/L qualifications and not having any other significant paper qualifications as such, I e-mailed him links to my Colombo Telegraph online articles and the links to two interviews I have done with Mr. Sumal Perera of Access International and with DIG Ravi Waidyalankara, Director FCID along with the formal request.
2 – Mr. Chevaan Daniel, the highly respected Group Director of CMOL that he is, responds on April 6, 2015 mentioning his willingness to furnish the following documents but NOT the copy of the deed,
- The non-vesting certificate issued by the Colombo Municipal Council.
- The Certificate of Registration of Ownership, issued by the Colombo Municipal Council.
3 – On the same day, I reply e-mail Mr. Daniel requesting answers to the following questions for which I am yet to receive a reply 30 days later,
I. If the land at #19, Bank of Ceylon Mawatha belongs to SJHL as you claim,
a) When did SJHL acquire it?
b) Who was the seller of the property?
c) When did SJHL become a subsidiary of the CMOL?
d) Who were the original directors of SJHL at the time of acquiring the property?
e) What was the nature of business of SJHL at the time of acquiring the Property?
II. If the Property was obtained from the Urban Development Authority (UDA),
a) When was it obtained?
b) On what terms/basis did SJH obtain the property?
c) At what price was the property obtained (if some kind of payment was made that is)?
d) Was the property obtained for a strategic development? If so, can you describe the project in brief?
III. Believing the Property was not developed for over TWO DECADES and assuming UDA under Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) took over the said property and developed it in to what it is today,
a) What was the reason behind SJHL not resisting efforts of the UDA in claiming ownership in the same fashion as was seen a week ago on National Television and that too for well over TWO DECADES?
b) Was there ever an official correspondence with the UDA in this regard since SJHL acquired the Property?
c) How was it possible for UDA to deny the claim of ownership of the Property by CMOL one day last week and for the same officials at UDA to retract the statement the very next day by establishing CMOL as the rightful owner of the Property?
d) Was there an official correspondence between UDA and CMOL soon after the matter surfaced last week? And if so, were there any copies of the Land Deed or any other documentation submitted to UDA in favor of establishing ownership the property?
4 – Having confronted obstructive officials such as the Mr. Dayananda (Director – Lands, UDA) and Mr. Mawilmada who happens to be the new politically appointed Director General at UDA under Yaha Palanaya (Good Governance), I phoned the Chairman of UDA MR. Ranjith Fernando and the following extracts are from the conversation I had with him on April 23, 2015 over the phone and for the concerned to take note,
a) UDA lands are NOT necessarily given for a strategic purpose.
b) When GR led UDA flattened the land, CMOL did not come forward out of fear since GR was ‘riding rough’ at that time. And it is now that CMOL has found the liberty to claim ownership.
c) We (UDA) has gone through the deeds and we (UDA) found that CMOL are the rightful owners.
d) Absence of a basis when the land was given to SJHL.
e) Contradicting the earlier statement, Mr. Fernando says hundreds of lands were given for different purposes or development for hundreds of people. And when questioned about the purpose of giving the Echelon Square land to SJHL, he says it was given IN LIEU ANOTHER LAND.
f) Claims the land in question was NOT a prime one 26 years ago and that it was a NEGLECTED land.
g) Expects me to take his word since he is the Chairman of UDA and mentions of an investigation done in this regard by the UDA on the matter and that which had ascertained the present ownership supposedly.
f) Refuses to show any documents.
5 – Further into investigations, it was revealed that the ownership of this plot of land was ‘transferred’ to SJHL in two phases, in July 1988 and in December 1989. While ownership was supposed to have been ‘transferred’ along with the plan to construct a 10 storied hotel, the original plan seems to have been shelved along the way and CMOL had drawn up plans to construct the Head Office of the Capital Maharaja Organization Limited instead.
Having met the Deputy Minister of Urban Development, Water Supply and Drainage, Mr. Dunesh Gankanda in this regard and who promised to assist me in my investigations, it was indeed regretful to note the existence of the ‘old guard’ loyal to Rajapaksas who seems to be hell-bent on scuttling the good intentions and actions of the Deputy Minister and of the present government.
Interestingly, the file related to the land in question seems to be kept under lock and key and I strongly fear the eventuality of important documents going missing before a possible investigation commences. While I do not doubt for a second the fact that SJHL is the current owner of the land at Echelon Square, my concerns are about,
- The unanswered questions on the basis on which SJHL acquired it in the first place.
- The possibility of UDA not been within their legal parameters in 1989 when the land was originally given to SJHL.
- The absence of an enforcement team to recover such lands if it was indeed given illegally to SJHL or if stipulated conditions (if it ever existed) were not met.
- Not having any information on the land that was supposed to have been acquired by the UDA and for which the Echelon Square land was supposed to have been given in lieu of it to SJHL.
While I await a response from Mr. Chevaan Daniel for answers to my points of contention, the wannabe investigative writer/activist that I am, I intend pursuing this matter and many others vehemently until rightful ownership is ascertained concerning all and any illegal land grabs that is brought to my attention…. be they state or privately owned.
Ironically, state lands that were given to various people for development projects under previous governments (especially under UNP) seems to be on sale by its owners or not being investigated for non-compliance by the very same government that rode to power on an anti-corruption platform. An example would be lands given to set up garment factories during President Premadasa’s regime and of which most had ceased to exist or declared bankrupt.
In conclusion, I guess reasons behind Members of Parliament from all political parties not wanting to cross swords with media bosses goes without saying now that elections are around the corner.
*The writer is an independent social/political activist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and through FB (Fazl Muhammed Nizar)