New Land Draft BiLL Political wrangling hinders ironing out complex land issues

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By 2017-12-17

By niranjala ariyawansha

The effort made by the Government to simplify complex land related rules and regulations that has been the bane over the years, so as to enable people the ease of tackling these issues has been opposed by the country's ground reality.

It becomes clear that society has been unable to absorb new concepts in connection with land ownership which exist in Sri Lanka regarding many other matters, when inquiring into the objections targeting this attempt made by the government to prepare a new national land Act.

The national land draft Bill which has been amended to enable the removal of conditions assigned to lands that have been provided to low income families by the government and to grant complete rights to these individuals, Ceylon Today learns, is still trapped in the Legal Draftsmen's Department due to political wrangling.

Top officials of the Land and Parliamentary Reforms Ministry said that due to racist political objections and various other reasons, it has not been possible to submit to the Cabinet for approval, the amended Land Draft Bill.

When the present government came into power, a promise given was that those who received government lands will be granted freehold right to these lands. The Land Grants (Special Provisions) Act – No. 43 of 1979 had to be amended for this purpose.

Different governments have granted 1.7 million parcels of land to low income earning families according to The Land Grants (Special Provisions) Act – No. 43 of 1979. But since these people do not have the freehold right to these lands they have been facing a vast number of problems for a long time.

On the other hand, lands in Sri Lanka are being administrated based on two ordinances prepared in the ancient past. They are the Land Development Ordinance – No. 19 of 1935 and State Land Ordinance – No. 08 of 1947. Due to the incompatible nature of these two ordinances with the present, the procedure regarding lands in Sri Lanka has become an extremely complex process.

Therefore most time is spent in Courts on solving land disputes. It is well known that many land disputes are solved after the owners of the lands have aged and passed away.

There is no debate at all when taking into consideration all these facts that the country needs a new National Lands Act. However due to adoption of the amended Lands Draft Bill being delayed, providing solutions to the continuous problems people face will get delayed too for a long time more.

Government land owners

Under the Land Grants (Special Provisions) Act – No. 43 of 1979, six hundred thousand parcels of land named Swarnabhoomi and another six hundred thousand parcels of land named Jayabhoomi as well as five hundred thousand parcels of land under licenses have been provided to the people. Of these 1.7 million parcels of land, only borders of six hundred thousand blocks of Swarnabhoomi land have been surveyed and handed over to the people. The Ministry of Lands pointed out that since the needs of the people aggravated, the government took steps to hand over Jayabhoomi and licensed lands to the people without the Surveyors Department carrying out any surveys.

The owners of these 1.7 million parcels of land cannot sell them. The third schedule added to the Land Development Ordinance through an amendment is that when assigning the land, it can be assigned to the eldest male child of the family only. What is clear from these restrictions is that the Land Grants (Special Provisions) Act – No. 43 has even violated fundamental rights.

Anyhow the Secretary to the Ministry of Lands and Parliamentary Reforms Dr. I. H. K. Mahanama said that during the discussion on the amendment of the Land Ordinances, various facts for and against it were presented. It is his view that under these circumstances, amending the Land Ordinance is very complex.

A powerful spokesman told us that in the debate that exists regarding amending the 13th Amendment, political streams which are of the stance that land powers should not be granted to Provincial Councils have submitted views in favour of these opinions.

At the same time, others point out that one of the initial reasons for having granted these lands with conditions is to get educated rural society to join the government service. Certain others pointed out that the living standards of poverty stricken rural folk were enhanced and a reason for that was the granting of such lands with conditions.

"If a certain poor family's asset is only the government land, the condition that it cannot be sold ensured that it was protected.

Then the land was developed and the children were provided with an education and the person was motivated to improve his standard of living," they presented facts.

However if the condition that the land cannot be sold is removed, someone could be motivated to sell the land in a crisis and fulfil that requirement. Certain people argue that as a result there is room for these poor families to once again fall into the pit of poverty.

Anyhow, Surveyor General Palitha Udayakantha said that if poverty stricken people were granted lands, it is not justified for the government to have any control over these lands.

Meanwhile strong objections have been voiced against the gender based order that these lands should be given to the eldest male child in the family. They pointed out that it is against the condition that the international standards of equal rights for genders.

"Most often it is the youngest sibling of the family who lives in the ancestral home with his or her parents. It is possible that the eldest male child could have married and is living separately. It is also possible that the youngest sibling is a female. Basing this right on gender is definitely not civilized and neither is it justified," these powerful facts have been presented.

Anyhow another fact that is clear is that there is no centralized system regarding lands as is the case with other subjects in the country. At the same time the figure of 1.7 millions parcels of State land that have been granted to people is only approximate.

One powerful mechanism

When considering all of these facts it seems apparent that it would be far more effective to set up a mechanism to enable solving of all these problems regarding lands through a centralized institution. It is questionable as to why the Government is not taking steps to set up a powerful body such as the Mahaweli Authority through a Parliamentary Act, in this instance.

A top official of the Surveyors Department who agrees with this said that if such a powerful body was established, problems that exist regarding lands can be minimized.

He said further that although the above State institutions established regarding authority in connection with lands under the Bim Saviya Programme which was set up to survey private lands in the country, worked together with cooperation, after a while everything came to a standstill.

"Nobody likes to take on responsibility. At the same time they do not like challenges targeting their authority. Bureaucracy as well as political interference is abundant. Most often they do not like to make decisions and engage in a task. The reason is because the responsibilities are divided up among many institutions. If all of this is centralized under one roof, land problems can be solved very soon," he said.

However, the Ministry Secretary said that arrangements will be made as soon as possible to obtain approval of the Attorney General for the Amended Land draft Bill.

Last week Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had told the Ministry Secretary that arrangements will be made to obtain this approval for the amended lands Draft Bill.

However, what appears clear as of now is that adopting the new national land Act only will not be adequate. A requirement exists that all responsibilities in connection with lands should be assigned to one authoritative institution through that Act. Then the people will not need to waste time at several government institutions. At the same time it is a national requirement that a centralized data base of every inch of land in the country should be maintained and not only in connection with the length and breadth as well as the area of the country such as 65,610 square kilometres.

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