The Sri Lankan government must stop pursuing destructive land policies that would affects millions

Written by Sajeewa Chamikara – Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR)

There are a number of pillars that underpin the human centric approach to land rights and identification of land needs. Among them are the legal right to hold land that can be used for agriculture and habitation and the right to access the public resources (commons) that are situates around the area one lives and works in. Moreover Article 14. 1. h of the Sri Lankan Constitution states that a Sri Lankan citizen has the right to live in any part of the island (freedom of movement and of choosing one’s residence within Sri Lanka.) The ownership of land is of great importance to Sri Lankans because this is directly linked to their social and economic conditions. However the land rights of Sri Lankans and their right to access public resources are being swiftly curtailed. The government is preparing national physical plans that lay ground work for ‘development projects’ that do not take into account the impact they will have on the people. They are also amending legislation and drafting new laws that would enable foreign companies to own large swaths of land and resources, which were once considered public. This will effectively make millions of Sri Lankans into ‘refugees’ in their own countries. This project of displacement of the local populations and opening doors to global capital at the expense of Sri Lankans is now a few decades old have already degraded the economic, social, health and education levels on many Sri Lankans. However the people of the country does not seem to have understood the gravity of the danger they face, even those who have already been displaced.

World Bank recommendations and amendments to the Land Act

In its 2015 report ‘Sri Lanka Ending Poverty and promoting shared prosperity: A systematic country diagnostic,’ the World Bank has laid out some strategies that the government must take to eradicate poverty in Sri Lanka. They are insisting that one of the main reasons preventing foreign investment to Sri Lanka is the complexity of our land laws and the restrictions imposed on foreigners to acquire land. The solution for this, according to the World Bank, is to open land to free market mechanisms. The first step in achieving this was the amendment the Land (Restriction on Alienation) Act, No: 38 Of 2014 to remove restrictions placed on foreigners, foreign companies and companies that are owned by foreign nationals to buy land in Sri Lanka. This was achieved by the land (restrictions on alienation) (amendment) act, no. 3 of 2017. Article 5A of this amended act states that Land Lease Tax will not to be applicable, with effect from January 8, 2017, to a lease of any land— to a foreigner; or to a company incorporated in Sri Lanka under the Companies Act, where any foreign shareholding in such company, either direct or indirect, is fifty per cent or above; or to a foreign company,

Moreover the Department of the Land Commissioner General’s Department circular 2015/07, issued on December 30, 2015 titled Alienation of State Lands for Special Investment Protects attempts to fasten the process of handing over state land to ‘special projects’. This says that ‘the government adopts a policy of encouraging local and foreign direct investments in development projects and accordingly the government is in the receipt of continuous applications and requests for lands identified for such development projects. The government has paid its special attention on the comments made by the investors on the inefficiency and the long period of time spent for the process of alienating lands through the present procedures formulated in accordance with the existing laws. A set of new proceedings have been introduced to amend the existed procedures by my circular No.2012106 dated 18.1A.2012 with a view to ensuring efficient and expedite alienation of lands for development oriented special projects.’ This circular has been sent to all Divisional Secretaries and Deputy/ Assistant Land Commissioners (Inter Provinces.) This is also a part of the World Bank recommendations.

Displacing farmers by amending the Paddy Lands Act

The 2018 budget was fully geared to implement the World Bank recommendations. The budget documents state that the government plans to amend the Paddy Lands Act, No. 1 of 1958 and the Agricultural Lands Act (No. 42 of 1973). This would allow the use of paddy lands for non-agricultural purposes. The people must be vigilant because such attempts would be aplenty on the 2019 budget as well. On November 14, 2017, The cabinet of Ministers agreed to amend the Land Development Ordinance 1935 (No. 19 of 1935) to easily release the land for development projects.

The Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on June 03, 2016 approved a three year Extended Fund Facility (EFF) of approximately USD 1.5 billion for Sri Lanka to ‘support the balance of payments (BOP) position and in support of the government’s economic reform agenda.’ This fund was tied to conditions, i.e. ‘strategic reforms’ that the government should carry out to address six main concerns on the short and medium term. A detailed report on how to accomplish this was published on May 19, 2016 as the Staff report for the 2016 article iv consultation and request for a three year extended arrangement under the extended fund facility. These reforms fell under six pillars, fiscal consolidation; revenue mobilization; public financial management reform; state enterprise reform; transition to flexible inflation targeting under a flexible exchange rate regime; and reforms in the trade and investment regime. The Staff report also states that the existing land laws of the country was too complex and restrictive and recommends immediate action to amend these laws and to make it easier for companies to acquire land (remove barriers to foreign investment entry and establishment (including access to land). The current administration is implementing these recommendations steadily.

Vision 2025 – making life easy for corporates

The economic policy of the administration, Vision 2025 document and the 2018 budget proposals were directly aimed at carrying out the recommendations of World Bank and the IMF. The 2018 budget attempted to change land ad agricultural laws to and make it easy for market mechanisms to wreak havoc.

According to the Vision 2025 document, the existing laws and regulations on land creates inefficiencies in the land market and adversely affect the investment opportunities. Since the existing laws and regulations hampers private investments, the government is to create a Land Bank and enter into the competitive land market. This is exactly what the World Bank recommended in 2015.

This is another indication that the government is bent on reducing the public access to land and natural resources while opening these to large scale private investors. Moreover steps have been taken to lease out state owned land to private owners through ‘state enterprises restructuring, and to allow large foreign companies to access Sri Lankan lands by establishing land banks. Thus the real goal of the 2018 budget has been to accelerate the dispossession of Sri Lankans.

Non establishment of the National Land Commission

Although the current administration and those before it have taken great pains to carry out the recommendations of the World Bank and the IMF, none of the administrations have attempted to establish the National Land Commission. This Commission was created by the 13th amendment to the Constitution. However although 32 years have passed no government has attempted to establish this.

The 2nd list under the 9th schedule to the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution states that a National Land Commission should be established. The main objective of the National Land Commission is to create a national policy on land. Although this amendment was passed in 1987, the National Land Commission has still not been established. The 3rd sentence of the 2nd List states a number of things. Accordingly the government should establish a National Land Commission and this Commission is responsible for coming up with a national policy on the use of state land. This Commission must also include representatives of all provincial councils of the country. The National Land Commission should have a technical secretariat that will help it analyse the socioeconomic factors regarding land use as well as physical factors of natural resources management. The national policy on the use of state land should be based on technical reasons and not on political or ethnic reasons. The National Land Commission must look at factors including soil, climate, rainfall, soil erosion, forest cover, environmental factors and economic utility and formulate common theories on land use. Moreover the Provincial Councils were instructed to pay close attention to this national policy. All governments were legally bound to implement these. However unfortunately the National Land Commission is limited to the constitution.

Misleading the public through manifestos

The current administration is following the advice of the World Bank and the IMF. Therefore it is unlikely that they would reach the goals set by the ‘Maithri Governance – A stable Country or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collection of 17 global goals set by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. The SDGs are part of Resolution 70/1 of the United Nations General Assembly. Goal 2 of the SDGs is Zero hunger. This states that by 2030 we should end hunger and all forms of malnutrition. This would be accomplished by doubling agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers (especially women and indigenous peoples), by ensuring sustainable food production systems, and by progressively improving land and soil quality. However it’s obvious that this lofty goal can’t be achieved by exposing our lands to the chaotic forces of markets. The SDGs state that the best way to eradicate world poverty by 2030 is by ensuring that all men and women, especially those from vulnerable communities, have access to economic resources, essential services, land and other natural resources, necessary technology and to financial services. But the World Bank insists that poverty can be alleviated by expanding opportunities for investments and by bringing in natural resources under market forces. However given what we have seen in Sri Lanka and across the world, it is obvious that the outcome of following World Bank and IMF advise is displacement of small holder farmers. Adhering to these policies ensures that we will lose our natural resources that are vital as catchment areas and as cushions that protect us from the impacts of natural disasters.

The 15th SGD is protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests, combating desertification, and halting and reversing land degradation and halting biodiversity loss. The SDGs also aim to conserve and restore the use of terrestrial ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, dry lands and mountains by 2020. However the current administration is attempting to sell off the natural resources to foreign investors and depriving Sri Lankans the access to our public goods.

There are two options that lie ahead. Either we can follow the path laid by the World Bank and the IMF, which is the one we have been treading since 1977. The other one is the path laid out by the SDGs. It is obvious that the current administration has chosen the path laid by the World Bank and the IMF and this would ensure that we keep on destroying our environment as well as livelihoods of the most vulnerable among us.

The government can’t sell state land

The government doesn’t have the right to sell natural resources of the country, this includes land as well. According to the Supreme Court case 884/99, (Bulankulama and Others v. Secretary, Ministry of Industrial Development and others) where the SC stopped the sale of the Eppawala Phosphate mine, a government is only a temporary guardian of the country. A government does not own the country. A temporary guardian does not have the right to sell land and other natural resources of the country. Therefore it does not have the right to formulate laws that facilitates this process. The sovereignty of the people is temporarily given to a government through a vote. However the people do not transfer their fundamental rights to the government. Thus a government can’t deprive the people of their right to land, their right to use commons, their right to access natural resources and the right to water. The real owners of state owned lands are the people and such land should be given wisely and to people who do not have access to land. The objective of the government should be the wellbeing of the people and the development of the nation. Being a land sale agent is not the best way to achieve these goals.

The SriLankan government is attempting to place 981, 368 acres of land under the Land Reform Commission in a land bank. This is one of the preliminary requirements to enter the land market and give private investors an access to state land. With this plantation land is to be given to large companies for non – agricultural purposes. This attempt must be defeated soon. If not a large number of people, from estate sector workers to small holder farmers will forever be shut out of land ownership. Thus defeating the land bank act as well as other attempts to deprive the people of their social, economic and cultural rights should be defeated. For this we need to educate the people and their mobilization.