19 October, 2017

Resolve The Land Rights Problems In The North

By R.M.B Senanayake

R.M.B. Senanayake

According to information from NGOs working in the Vavuniya District there are several inter-ethnic problems relating to the ownership of land in the Vavuniya and Mannar Districts. Fifty years ago before the War the Nedunkerny area was thick jungle and so were the banks of the Ma Oya which serves as the boundary between the Vavuniya and Trincomalee districts. During the war these lands came t be occupied illegally by the Tamils from the northern side and the Sinhalese from the southern side. The former were promoted by the LTTE and the latter by nationalist Sinhalese politicians and the Army which was fighting the LTTE. Similar problems of land occupation exist in Mullaitivu particularly round the Kokilai lagoon. The Sinhalese fishermen from the area north of Negombo would regularly migrate to the Mullaitivu coast during the South West monsoon when fishing was not possible on the west coast. They would go to Mullaitivu for the fishing season there and return to their homes after the season. There were few Tamil fishermen then. Later some of these migrant fishermen settled in areas around the lagoon. There were also other settlements by the Sinhalese promoted by government politicians such as the Dollar and Kent farms in Vavuniya North. These settlers have problems regarding their land rights.

IDPs who returned may find their lands occupied by others. The UNHCR recognizes the property restitution (or property compensation for those unable to return to their places of origin). This principle could be applied in a systematic way by an official body. The NGOs are engaged in rehabilitation work but normalization requires recognition of the land rights of those in occupation of the disputed lands and compensation for the rightful owners who cannot be restored to their original habitations.  Protracted situations where the people’s rights to the land occupied by them are not recognized by the rest of the community can prevent IDPs from getting on with a normal life, from reaching their full potential and fully contributing to the community. It can also contribute to the creation of a culture of dependency on NGOs and render parts of the IDP population vulnerable to exploitation.

Fishing disputes used to prevail during the colonial times and the Government Agent was the authority who conducted a formal inquiry. He gave his ruling after a formal inquiry giving both sides the opportunity to state their claims. Their rulings used to be gazetted and were binding on the disputants. But after 1956 the bureaucracy came to be politicized and the Government Agent could no longer exercise his authority since the politicians interfered in decision making. Today there is a vacuum in the institutional set up to deal with such fishing disputes and the authorities should fill the vacuum by talks between the Northern Provincial Council and the Central Government. May be the authority will have to be vested with the courts or a new judicial authority similar to the Irrigation Courts may have to be established.

Similarly the problems in the rights of land ownership should be inquired into by an impartial authority accepting the principle that ethnicity should play no part in the decision-making process. During the colonial period there was the Land Settlement Department which exercised power under the Land Settlement Ordinance. Similar land legislation to cope with the post war situation, which is fair and just should be passed after mutual agreement between the Northern Provincial Council and the Central Government. The forum is obviously the National Land Commission which has not been set up so far although there is provision for it under the 13th Amendment. The UN Resolutions on the land rights and re-settlement of refugees displaced by the war could be a guide.

Similarly disputes about water issue from the irrigation tanks did occur in the Dry Zone where irrigation tanks predominate. During the colonial period there were the Vel Vidanes and the Irrigation Courts. I don’t think these institutions function today although water disputes continue to crop up. There were the Cultivation Meetings presided over by the Government or the Divisional Revenue Officers where decisions binding on all the farmers obtaining  water from a particular tank  were taken. Again it was the politicians who interfered and undermined such community decisions to favor their supporters. When the parties to the dispute are from different communities such disputes take a communal dimension. If we want to restore inter-ethnic peace the authorities must set up the institutions to deal with such disputes and these institutions should as far as possible be independent of politicians.

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