Land grabs i.e. the acquisitioning of land by the State/Military has been in the news more often than necessary throughout this year. This last week we saw it becoming headline news again as we learnt that Sriraghavan Kadirgamar the son of late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar had filed for a Writ of Certiorari in the Court of Appeal to prevent his ancestral lands in the Maviddapuram area, in North Valikamam (which were previously in the HSZ) being taken over by the military for security purposes ostensibly to build a Defence Batallion Headquarters for the Jaffna District. This petition by the son of an illustrious person again brought home the apparent devil may care attitude, which the government has been employing in its land acquisition procedure. This petition also follows upon the earlier petitions filed in the Court of Appeal and in the Supreme Court by thousands of landowners in the Valikamam area protesting the acquisition of their lands for the purpose of building the aforesaid Defence Headquarters. These cases are still being heard before the courts.
The government in April 2013 issued a notice under section 2 of the Land Acquisition Act that the lands were to be taken for a ‘public purpose’. But, the purpose that has been stated is in order to benefit the military not the public as stated in the petitions that have been filed. Furthermore, the government in its notice claimed that the owners could not be identified but more than 2000 owners have now sought to petition the Courts to prevent their lands being taken. They claim in their petition that most of them have been in touch with state officials and had been listed as displaced and had received welfare support from the State. The total area of land to be taken in the Valikamam area is approximately 25.8 Sq. Km or 6400 acres and as is claimed in the petitions almost 2/3s the size of Colombo which is a very vast area.
It is indeed troubling that while someone from an illustrious family may have other means of income and several other residences (not diminishing the importance one places on ancestral land) those who have been displaced and living on the charity of others would not be able to withstand the effects of losing their lands and source of livelihood in that area. This is especially so when one considers the public purpose is for the purported establishment of a Defence Headquarters, when all over the island there has been an increase in the call for the military to return to their barracks especially now four years after war.
Protestors against the land grabs has also warned that persons from the South will be brought to settle in those acquired areas, resulting in a demographic change and that they will in the future become voters in the Northern Province and this would have an effect on Northern politics. It is observed that the original landowners lived just outside the HSZ had their title to the lands checked and cleared by a Supreme Court appointed Committee but had not been allowed into their lands on the pretext of the lands still requiring demining. Yet, this is an unacceptable excuse since the landowners later saw soldiers cultivating their lands while they the legitimate owners were being kept away. This is the context in which these land grabs are now being instituted. In the North, 526 acres of land has been taken over in Keppapilavu, and many similar instances have been observed in other Districts in the Vanni.
The government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in its Report (December 2011) took the opportunity to comment on how land issues affected the reconciliation process. It urged that land not vitally needed for security reasons should be released to the public (page 232 of the Report). The LLRC also warned that any land policy of the government should not be an instrument to effect unnatural changes in the demographic pattern of a given Province (page 234 of the Report). Furthermore the Commission was of the view of Government should establishment of a National Land Commission (NLC) in order to propose appropriate future national land policy guidelines. The Commission noted that even though this was a requirement of the 13th Amendment and a draft Bill in that regard had been drafted it had unfortunately not become part of the law (page 242 of the Report). The Commission also stated that it would be opportune if there were bi-partisan agreement between all parties as to the terms of return and resettlement and an agreement not to use it for their own political gain (page 242 of the Report).
The Government responded to these recommendations by unveiling a LLRC Action Plan in July 2012, which sought to address the gaps in the law. The Action Plan included proposals to establish a National Land Commission and to prepare a bi-partisan approach towards land issues. Further action on these proposals are unfortunately yet to be taken. Instead the State has instead upped the ante by taking over land not in the North but also in other parts of the island.
In Panama, in the East it is the Sinhalese community, which has been affected by land grabs. The Sri Lankan Navy and the Special task Force have been involved in taking over at least 1220 acres of forestland in Shasthrawela, Ragamwela, Ulpassawela, Horowkanda and Ella in Panama. Most of these lands belong to villagers who have had title to the land from early days and who were not consulted in the taking over process. The ostensible reason for taking over the land is to build a hotel and for other developmental activities.
Since the said area is considered of great archeological interest there has been a concern raised by the Forest Department, Archaeological Department, Coast Conservation Department and Central Environmental Authority on carrying out development work in the said areas. But, the Navy and STF authorities who recieve their orders to work from the Ministry of Defence claim they do have no need to heed such concerns as it is the Ministry of Defence which approved the projects. No permission has been taken from any authority for the building of these developmental projects. The villagers in the land had been evicted in 2009/10 by the Pottuvil Police. They are now homeless and have no livelihood since their main income generating activities of chena cultivation and fishing is now closed to them due to the land grab.4 Similarly, in Oluvil, in the Eastern Province land has been taken for the building of an Army camp (in 2011, case pending before the Supreme Court) affecting about 500 persons in the area who had been in occupation of that land for more than 6 decades.
In Kalpitiya (which consists of 14 islands), in Western Sri Lanka, land is being seized for the purpose of encouraging tourism while the local residents who are mostly fishermen are lamenting their lack of livelihood. There have been accusations of the government involving in questionable tactics to remove the local residents. About 1000 poor fisher families have been affected. The tourism project it is stated will include about 6000 lodging units, a race-course with 20 stables, a golf course, and an underwater restaurant.5 Such development and the corresponding effect that it will have on the local people including loss of livelihood will be counter the purpose of development which is to provide for a better life for the people of the area. The people of this area are unfortunate in that they do not have any documents to prove ownership of their lands.
Land grabs continue to take place for purposes of military and tourism development. The few incidents mentioned above in themselves highlight the arrogance of the government and the Defence Ministry in not respecting the rights of citizens to access their homes and to engage in their proper livelihood. While providing recommendations to prevent such land grabs would perhaps fall on deaf ears, one must still attempt to give voice to reason by doing so. It is hoped that the recommendations below would proved useful in that context:
- All state authorities should respect the property rights of citizens and make sure that any acquisition does not adversely impact on the citizen’s right to livelihood and to proper housing.
- State authorities should follow proper procedure in the acquisition process, which includes listing a ‘proper purpose’ for the acquisition in accordance with the Land Acquisition Act.
- The government should comply with the recommendations made by the LLRC and appoint a National Land Commission, which allows for a bi-partisan approach to the issue of acquisition for developmental and security purposes.
- The government should amend the 13th Amendment and amend the Land Acquisition Act so that the people of the particular provinces could decide for themselves whether the land should be used for developmental purposes. If that is seen as being extreme, the least the government can do is fully implement the 13th Amendment so that the Provincial Councils are able to exercise their power over Provincial land.
- The Military should be confined to its traditional role and not engage in civilian activities e.g. running recreational resorts, cultivation, building of model villages in lands that have been taken over from the citizens. A decrease of military involvement and in the absence of war a decrease in the size of the military itself would effectively reduce the illegal land grabs that are proving a bane to the country’s citizens.
 The writer is an Attorney-at-Law based in Colombo, Sri Lanka
 M.A. Sumanthiran (MP), Replaying History: Land Grabs in the North and East, TNA Press Release, April 30, 2013, accessed at http://tnapolitics.org/en/replaying-history-land-grabs-in-the-north-and-east-by-m-a-sumanthiran-member-of-parliament/