10 August, 2020

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Who Surveys The Land?

By Sanja De Silva Jayatilleka

Sanja De Silva Jayatilleka

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.

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Latest comments

  • 3
    1

    What I heard was $ 154 million from IMF money paid to the bank. they will survey the country. their target is the area around Troincomalee specifically the Trincomalee port. Wait for their recommendations for the sourounding area. Sri lanka does not have but USA has detailed maps of Sri lanka. I thinkl they want to, amidst other things, update it. I think it is sri lankan payong to update theior MAP. Probably Sri lanka even di dnot ask a deal for the country, at least the updated map. They may collect soil samples too, if you watch. that is to survey the mineral deposits available in sri lanka. I think more than one country has surveyed sri lankan shallow seas.

    • 0
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      JImmy,
      What use is it to us if we simply sit on our probably non-existent resources? Let them collect the soil samples and tell us what we have.

      • 0
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        old codger

        “Let them collect the soil samples and tell us what we have.”

        They might discover the soil is more productive and fertile than Dimwit’s brain. Hence if and when people like Dimwits die we should not allow them to be buried for simple and obvious reason that their brains may contaminate the soil and eventually make it barren.

  • 3
    1

    As Mangala Samaraweera is attached to it, it should be from MCC. It looks evcery where IMF and MCC come together. John amaratunga gave advertising contract to CNN for tourism. that is also stupid as American toursit prefer LAtin america and Europe. Thise are all corruptions. when you give a contract you get a big discount for bringing business. that is why instead of a govt agency, mionister involves in it.

    • 2
      1

      Well, so what, if I may say so?
      “While it is likely that technology has been upgraded to meet 21st century standards”
      No, it is MOST unlikely. Our Surveyors were in fact excellent when they were working for the Brits. Many of them were Brits in any case. Now they are just another government department with the usual quota of incompetents, among other departments and ministries that cannot even keep their websites up to date.
      We could put the Survey union’s objections in the same class as the Railway union’s objections to foreign track-layers (just take a ride from Vavuniya to Jaffna to see the difference).

      • 0
        0

        So what old codger, you are damn right. You don’t give a hoot about sovereignty of this island, the upliftment of its own people, or using up 10 times the borrowed money to do the same thing, do you? Because Uncle Sam’s boot lickers are indebted to the said Uncle for helping to destroy this land. And of course you don’t care if Mallika and Sirisena and Indra and Keiran has to have a iris scan done to prove the ownership of the land they held for generations?

        • 0
          0

          Dear Wannihamy,
          There are bigger threats to our so-called “sovereignty” than U.S. surveyors.For your info. an iris scan is a much better way of proving identity.
          China has grabbed real estate in Colombo and Galle for 99 years thanks to your God Mahinda falling for their poli-mudalali tactics.
          You talk about “sovereignty” while a million Sri Lankan women are slaves in the Middle East?
          And you talk about sovereignty when even Cambodia looks at a Sri Lankan passport with deep suspicion?

        • 0
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          wannihami

          ” You don’t give a hoot about sovereignty of this island, the upliftment of its own people, or using up 10 times the borrowed money to do the same thing, do you?”

          Well well well, please let me know the definition of sovereignty and how it relates to this island and its little islanders.

          When did you last have sovereignty?
          VP the psychopath fought for the sovereignty of this island against Hindia falsely believing as if this island had sovereignty.

          Do you think the Industrial giants Germany, Japan, Korea, Brazil, ……………………………… have sovereignty? Like the public racist Dayan you too are liberal with words, phrases, ………… without actually understanding them? When, where, how, .. did the word sovereignty gain currency?

          If you have no idea, please stop bluffing.

          Please tell me although this island is said to possess commercially viable oil reserves how much oil have you extracted from land and sea.

          Why don’t you shove your non existent imaginary sovereignty wherever you see wholes in your body preferably below your waist and think (?) how best to develop resources effectively and efficiently.

  • 0
    1

    What is this rabish?
    Can somebody find out where did the $18B came from?

    • 0
      0

      Mallaiyuran: why don’t you wrtie an openleeter to Mangala Samaraweera. why instead, you just complain ? ITis Rajotha Senarathnae, Pent house Ravi and Mangala Samraweera who headed the gang. Rajoitha was chzased out from the previous govt nad he is a minister in yahapalana govt and continuing. Pent house RAvi is saying I did only what Ranil said.

  • 2
    1

    This government is turning this country into foreigners’ playground

    • 0
      1

      We are in a globalized world and a small country like ours have to integrate regionally . But our people don’t like India and hence oppose CEPA . If we stand alone we will fall.

  • 6
    1

    This is another example of this Ranil/ Mangala clique handing over Sri Lanka to the US global domination project. They will offer UN help to legalise homosexual marriage in return. Pretending to be friends with India, Americans are doing these secret projects in Sri Lanka behind their backs. THey are keen to plot every inch of the world so that they can land marines anytime. That is also reason behind mine clearing under humanitarian pretext. This clique has to be kicked out of power ASAP or we will become an American colony like Guam.

    • 1
      1

      Did you miss the pill this morning?

  • 2
    0

    When ministers decide on allocating work to outsiders the rot sets in.
    State Engineering Corporation was a successful enterprise. Political interference killed it.
    Local expertise was kept out of Norachcholai power plant. Local engineers were not allowed to comment. The contractors delivered a sick sick product. Credit to the locals who gave it sort of life.
    In this case leave it to the Survey Department.

  • 0
    0

    Trimble made a name for itself by supplying GPS for the 1991 Operation Desert Storm.

    The military had about 3,500 of the Trimble Navigation–made SLGR devices available for use in the Gulf War.
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gps-and-the-world-s-first-space-war/

    No question, we should not give any company that has ties to the foreign military carte blanche power to survey our country.

    As I keep repeating, Ranils Ancestor the Tombi Mudali was the guide who directed the English into the Hill Country to capture the country. Ranil is no different, he will facilitate invasion/destabilization by foreign powers.

    The most generous thought about Ranil, is that he is clueless of the implications of modern technology.

    Read John D’Oyly’s Diary for info on Tombi Mudali
    https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.529577

  • 0
    0

    The Survey Dept. is a useless Dept. with, like all other Government Institutions, an antagonistic outlook towards public. They hate public. Once I went to this office at Narahenpita to obtain the Village List including Pattu, Korala, PS, UC, MC details. They came up with various ifs, buts, nos, not yets, can’ts, lets sees etc. Thereafter I went to their office at Gampaha and it was even worse there with some damned idiot saying NO to every thing and and following me to the exit door making sure I did not complain to the in-charge there. When we go there and ask for something they are so eager to sell their products regardless of whether their products are what we are looking for and not taking in customer requirements so that they are able to cater to the needs of the customers. Viewed in that deplorable perspective, even though the price tag of the foreign company is very high it is better to teach these useless riffraff a lesson torching them at the Lipton Circle and obtaining services from the foreign company. It is a pity all these government institution employees have made the people of this country believe in foreigners over their own people and at the cost of improving the country’s infrastructure, facilities and technology.

    • 0
      0

      For 218 years the S.D. had been in existence. For less than one third of the period the mantle of heading the Dept. fell on the locals. See to what a low level of professional ethics we have been brought. So much so for our capability to run our own affairs.

      Dhana

  • 0
    0

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 0
    0

    I would assume old codger will comment on inefficiency of our local survey dept and cost inflation. A story for him..

    I was got back from SL in 2004 (on a H1B visa to boot) to help out GEAM (General Electric Asset Management). It was an implementation of its Bonds, Swaps and Derivatives management of its multi Billion portfolio. It was to be from Trading, Risk to Derivative Accounting. I was no big wig, just a guy who knew the rudiments of business and technology. By the time I was in the US. my friend who got me down had left GEAM.

    Most had been replaced by TCS (Tata Consultancy Services). TCS was just getting into the “Game”. I was employed thru TCS. When the first paycheck came, it was a shock. The Indian Manager said it was about tax etc. Still recall, said I am not an Indian, I still have enough money to fly back and live a decent life in SL.

    They brought in Managers from Health care etc (Sigma Zi qualified or some thing like that). I did not to do Sigma Zi exams. A couple of Indian co workers punched in the answers. I taught my friends the concepts of the business (they knew the technology). And we still keep in touch.

    Anyway Synopsis of Story.
    The GEAM project was initially USD 2-3 million. Ended up being close to 10 million. The Sigma Zi managers got bonuses for a job well done.

    So my take on the Survey Dept issue.
    Why not allow Sri Lankans to do the job. Maybe they will learn on the job. Some will get skills and leave the country. Hopefully some will come back.

    • 0
      0

      HI sbarrkum,
      I think you are comparing apples with oranges. You (and many Sri Lankan expats abroad) do have foreign skills and education. Sri Lankans abroad do much better than they do here (due to the much-maligned white masters?) The surveyors don’t want to know.
      I think if SLT was left to its own devices in the 90’s we would be still struggling with dial-up modems . It was foreign investment which changed the scene, just as it was IOC that spurred CPC to upgrade its ramshackle outlets. Let’s look at the success stories. We all know how Sri Lankan Airlines is doing under local management.
      “The military had about 3,500 of the Trimble Navigation–made SLGR devices available for use in the Gulf War. “
      Well, true, but Boeing supplies B-52’s as well as 787’s ,don’t they? Should we stop flying in them?
      Let’s not be paranoid.

      • 1
        0

        old codger

        “Let’s not be paranoid.”

        Lets not be paranoid and parochial.

        Sri Lankan premises:
        Sri Lankans don’t make mistakes.
        Sri Lankans do not need to learn, because they are gifted with knowledge including undiscovered ones.
        Sri Lankans don’t need to apologise because they don’t make mistakes.
        Sri Lankans demand respect without earning them
        Sri Lankans are literate but stupid.
        Sri Lankan don’t find remedy but faults.
        ….

  • 0
    0

    I heard, UN reconciliation program had some of these as their agenda such as surveying th country. Sinhala people allow tamils and muslims as much as they want without promoting ethinic communalism etc., etc.,

  • 0
    0

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 1
    1

    “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.”

    admiration for your mother and your uncle and LTTE in the same sentence? wow!

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