Four years after the war in the North and East ended, Sri Lankans are very quickly losing rights not only relating to personal life and liberty but also basic entitlements to the very land on which they live.
Disregarding the law
It is now a matter of practice for land owners to be informed that their lands are to be acquired through a single letter sent by a government ministry with minimal compensation nominated. Thereafter, use of this land may be for a variety of purposes quite different to the stated purpose, with gargantuan corruption naturally becoming endemic to the process.
Taking over possession of privately owned land without having recourse to existing legislation, without a specific plan and without stating a specific purpose such as constructing a temple or the like, by the mere declaration of an area of land as being a ‘Sacred Area’ has become another common development in recent years.
And to be clear, the reach of this most extraordinary reduction of established legal rights to thin air as it were, extends throughout the whole country and affects majority and minorities alike though the thrust of the process may be motivated by different factors. In the formerly war affected areas, a significant factor is the continuing militarisation of particularly the Northern peninsula as we saw when hundreds of private land owners recently petitioned the Court of Appeal against arbitrary acquisition of their lands in order to expand the high security zone areas.
Wildly egocentric development
In the East (particularly in Sampur and in Panama) seizing of land ranges from military expansion to the apparent transformation of Sri Lanka into a vast tourist zone with little thought for the detrimental impact on people or indeed, actual economic benefits. Other provinces such as the South and Uva have been caught up in wildly egocentric post-war development as evidenced by the comical plight of the Mattala airport which was built at an astronomical cost and is being maintained also at that same cost but which is frequented reportedly only by the national carrier and a few budget airlines. In yet other far flung areas of the South, reports abound of villagers gathering at the junction holding placards in opposition to land being held for generations by them being acquired at the virtual twinkling of an eye or in regard to their ‘kades’ being demolished without notice and with no sensitivity to the consequent loss of livelihoods.
Little thought to the plight of landowners
This week, it was innocuously announced over national media that Sri Lanka’s Cabinet had approved the proposal made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa (in his capacity as the Minister of Ports and Highways) to award the contract to build an outer circular road to the city of Trincomalee to a Chinese company. This was proclaimed to be part of an ambitious plan to convert Trincomalee into a Metro City in the Eastern Region. What is however less known is that these plans form part of a disturbingly ill conceived National Physical Plan approved during 2007 by a National Physical Planning Council chaired by the President which is to be implemented over a period of 20 years (2011-2030) and covering the creation of so-called Metro-Regions in the North-Central, Uva, Sabaragamuwa, the East and the North.
The re-defining of administrative boundaries and the impact that this may have on provincial land powers is considerable. It is therefore of little surprise that this Government is balking at implementing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in terms of land powers in the hands of the Provincial Councils. But what is even more significant is the fact that vast tracts of land will need to be acquired by the Government for the purpose of implementation of this Plan. The apparent lack of thought given by this administration to the manner in which peoples’ rights will be affected thereto is however palpable.
Established rights to natural justice
These are not mere technicalities. In the building of the Southern Expressway for example, the lenders which were Japan and the Asian Development Bank put into place rigorously constructed safeguards to ensure that the displacement of people does not end in injustice. Adherence to these safeguards was in fact, part of the conditions that the Government had to meet for being awarded the money.
Even with all that, unfairly treated landowners went before the Supreme Court and successfully obtained public trust precedents specifying that natural justice requires advance notice of acquisition and fair compensation in accordance with their legitimate expectations. These rights have now been cast to the four winds.
Astoundingly perilous times
On the one hand, swaggering talk of national sovereignty which is the leitmotif of the Rajapaksa Presidency is used to cover up a multitude of sins including the adamant refusal to enact a Right to Information law. On the other hand and in a supreme irony which mocks the very concept of the People being sovereign, citizens are becoming dangerously vulnerable before a behemoth executive which uses a combination of thuggery and intimidation to achieve its purpose. The Prevention of Terrorism Law (1979) has replaced the ordinary criminal procedure code to all intents and purposes in any particular case when the Government so determines.
In parallel and under our noses, established legal procedures that have protected land rights of Sri Lankans for decades since independence are being discarded. Truly these are astoundingly perilous times. We can only shudder at the furies of fate that await us.