There is an on-going dispute of several months duration which has escaped public attention due to the avalanche of crises that has descended on us Sri Lankans over the last months. This dispute relates to an American company named Trimble Inc. which has offered to do what the Survey Department of Sri Lanka usually does, at a cost of 154 million rupees, amidst vehement protests by the General Surveyors’ Association (GSA) of Sri Lanka which in desperation at being ignored, has resorted to threatening strike action, a familiar form of dispute resolution now routinely practiced by numerous professionals, usually in the scorching heat of the Lipton Circus roundabout.
Should it matter who surveys our lands? The GSA, an institution which was founded in 1922, and the oldest public sector trade union in Sri Lanka, as well as the only trade union of the Government Surveyors, emphatically assert that it does, and has done so most recently in representations to the Secretary to the Prime Minister.
In listing the more urgent reasons for its protests at a foreign entity being awarded the project of land tenure regularization, a potential threat to the security of Sri Lanka due to the possible misuse of geological and other data gathered during the project of extensive surveying has also been identified. The GSA’s discussions with the Secretary to the Prime Minister have come late in the day, after several previous attempts with others had fallen on very deaf ears.
The Cabinet has already approved this project put forward by the weirdly named ‘Ministry of Lands and Parliamentary Reforms’, the latter an overdue task if ever there was one. The American project had the recommendation of Minister Mangala Samaraweera as the Minister of Finance. The Ministry had beaten Trimble Inc. down to Rs. 154 million from Rs.170 million for the project, a commendable level of negotiating skill for sure, but it is nowhere as cheap as what the GSA had offered at less than Rs. 15 million for its proposal, with the signature of approval from the Surveyor-General himself.
This proud profession has existed in Sri Lanka for a very long time. My maternal granduncle Richard Samarasinghe from Asgiriya was a surveyor in the days when they had to brave the thick jungles of Sri Lanka and according to the family tales, encountered isolated Veddha communities, one of whom gave him some ancient scripts written on Ola leaf they had buried in a clay pot since they understood that these were valuable but had no use for it themselves. As a small child, a cousin taught me with appropriate secrecy and gravitas, a couple of 4 line chants that were meant to stop an elephant in its tracks and a snake to move out of the way, that my granduncle had learnt from the Veddhas, or so she said!
My mother’s elder brother Nissanka Samarasinghe was repeatedly elected President of the GSA in his time as a surveyor, and I have memories of his fiery orations in their cause, as well as the enjoyable end of year dances at the club house in Bambalapitiya and trips to Diyatalawa to attend the celebrations at the training academy for young surveyors. My older cousins have told me that Uma Maheswaran, first chairman of the LTTE and founder-leader of PLOT, was a surveyor, and a frequent visitor to my uncle’s home in Wellawatte to discuss various issues of concern to their profession.
The Survey Department proudly claims that it is “the oldest Government Department, founded in A.D. 1800, even before the Kandyan Kingdom fell to the British.” This alone should secure it a decent hearing. While it is likely that technology has been upgraded to meet 21st century standards, if it needs further improvement, it is the government’s responsibility to provide it in order that the Department’s tasks can be carried out to the government’s satisfaction. Is it really wise to rack up large loans in dollars instead, by handing over the project lock, stock and barrel to a foreign company, even if there were no security issues involved?
The GSA’s list of urgent concerns include the absence of a tender procedure in granting this contract to a foreign company, and not consulting the trade unions before final decision, amongst others. It points out that since much of the land surveys have already been done by the Survey Department, the database of information which is being offered by Trimble Inc. could be compiled by the Survey Dept. with the provision of the required technology and equipment at a fraction of the cost.
Besides, the GSA points out that Trimble, unlike the Survey Department, has specified that it will not get involved in adjudication, the most difficult and trying task in land tenures, which the Department will have to carry out in its own time and at its own cost. The GSA also wonders understandably, if the database system being offered by Trimble is in fact the most effective and the latest in the field of land surveying and registration which is what one would expect given the cost, or if it is an older version no longer used in the West. It had no chance to debate the issues since it had not been consulted.
Another issue is that Trimble will use satellite imagery to survey the land and will issue land certificates based on those calculations –when the GSA says that GPS surveys and actual ground surveys differ by a significant degree which will impact on adjudication. The lands already surveyed will be mired in boundary disputes due to this variation, but Trimble will have no responsibility since they will not get involved in any adjudication. Even if GPS is the way to go in land surveying, these valid considerations should be completely resolved before proceeding further if the public is not to pay the extra cost of litigation. Despite a number of such unresolved thorny issues, the project appears to have been fast-tracked through the Prime Minister’s infamous CCEM, which the President recently attempted to disband.
But here’s something further that the public should be very worried about. Trimble Inc. has included biometric scanning for personal identification to be used for land tenure. It means to use “iris” scanning to do so. In India, the Supreme Court has already given a ruling in a unanimous decision that a fundamental right to privacy in the Indian Constitution was violated by the use of India’s new identification program that has gone on to become the largest biometric database in the world, known as Aadhaar. We Sri Lankans may not have that right enshrined in our Constitution but it is still something we value dearly, and no such decision should be taken without public discussion of the legal, ethical and regulatory framework of such scanning. The Economist (UK), in an essay titled “Prepare to be scanned” warned in 2003 that “… in the long term, biometrics, by their very nature, will compromise privacy in a deep and thorough fashion. If and when face-recognition technology improves to the point where surreptitious cameras can routinely recognize individuals, privacy, as it has existed in the public sphere, will in effect be wiped out.” This is yet another concern expressed by the General Surveyors Association, which has had no impact on those in Cabinet.
It is unsurprising that a government would like to regularize and modernize land tenures and registration using expertise from best practices in the world. It is even more unsurprising that this government would like to fast-track freehold land grants in view of the rewards in votes. The “oldest Government Department” is also probably in dire need of some urgent attention in terms of training and technology. However, when it is decided that rather than obtaining the latest equipment and training for a government service that existed since 1800, in order to improve its capacity locally, the Cabinet decides to award the task to a foreign entity without the courtesy or even the wisdom of consulting and gaining the cooperation of the people most closely involved, it raises questions.
Will the official Opposition raise these issues of common concern to all ethnicities, in Parliament?
After the Bond Scam, this government’s reputation is hardly reassuring. The Surveyors’ Association is determined to expose its thoughtless conduct and to demand that their own project proposal be considered in light of all their concerns. Those involved in government are unlikely surprise us with a sensible response. We can look forward to more water cannon and tear gas, as the inevitable trade union action will be smartly dealt with by an obliging Police.