Focus/Spotlight

The untold misery of the Central Expressway Project

 

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

The future of W.A. Dinesh Samantha Kumara, a landowner in Pothuhera, is looking bleak after he vacated his 248-perch ancestral land four years ago to make way for the Central Expressway Project Stage 3 (CEP – Stage 3). He told us he is yet to receive compensation from the Government.

“At a meeting held in 2014, the Government promised fair compensation and said we would be compensated in line with the market value of the land,” he told The Sunday Morning when we visited the area.

Until he was informed in 2014 that his plot of land would be acquired by the Government for the construction of the expressway, Kumara had no intention of selling it, even to the highest bidder.
Kumara continued to explain that the 2014 meeting was the first and last time a meeting of that nature was held; after the villagers’ signatures indicating their agreement to release the land to the Government were obtained, the villagers had to go chase the officials, seeking compensation and other relevant details about the project.

Kumara wasn’t the only one affected; his grievances mirrored the misery of hundreds of other families whose lands were taken over by the Government for this project. Most villagers in Pothuhera whose lands are to be acquired for the CEP – Stage 3 are yet to receive compensation, despite their property being marked for the project five years ago.

From poor compensation terms, delayed payouts, and unreliable information from the Government, landowners said the CEP was having a negative impact on their lives.

The CEP, which has been proposed as part of the Government’s transport network upgrade strategies, will eventually connect Colombo to Jaffna, in a long-term, two-phase plan, commencing with an extension of the existing highway from Kadawatha to Dambulla, with a link to Kandy, under four stages of Phase I and later, to Jaffna and Trincomalee in Phase II.

The four stages of the first phase are from Kadawatha to Meerigama (Stage 1), Meerigama to Kurunegala (Stage 2), Pothuhera to Galagedara – Kandy (Stage 3), and Kurunegala to Dambulla (Stage 4). In addition, there is a link road starting from Ambepussa to Meerigama that comes under Stage 2. Stage 3 of the project starts from the Hiripathwella Grama Niladhari Division (GND) of the Polgahawela Divisional Secretariat Division (DSD) and ends at the Palu Kopiwatta GND of the Tumpane (Galagedara) DSD. Again, Stage 4 of the project starts at the Theliyagonna GND of the Kurunegala DSD and it runs through DSDs Mallawapitiya, lbbagamuwa, Mawathagama, Rideegama, Melsiripura, Galewela, and ends at Mirisgoniya Junction of the Dambulla DSD (crossing A06), according to the Road Development Authority (RDA).

Undervalued

Last week, when The Sunday Morning visited Kumara’s home in Pothuhera, the house seemed to have been abandoned. Only a closer look revealed that there were occupants.

“This is how we have been living over the last few years, thanks to the Government. In 2014, they said we should vacate our land immediately as construction work would begin sometime soon. Since then, I hadn’t repaired the house or the garden. I have three children and they all live in this house. It’s risky,” he stressed.

In 2014, Kumara and his fellow villagers had agreed to vacate their lands, but in 2016, while officials were preparing documents for compensation, Kumara had noticed that their properties had been undervalued and estimated at a lower amount to what they were promised in 2014.

“Initially, they said they will compensate us for everything including trees but in 2016, they prepared estimates at lower prices. I opposed the amount, and then the officials threatened us saying that the lands are owned by the Government and therefore, they could remove us at any time,” Kumara said.
“After they threatened us, we became afraid and thought we would lose the lands and not be given a cent from the Government. Therefore, we signed the papers agreeing to the Government’s estimates. But up until now, the Government has not given us a cent,” he added.

The delay in compensation forced Kumara to put his plans on hold; he elaborated the practical difficulties of constructing a new house with the compensation estimated years ago.

“The prices of all construction materials are going up day by day and we know that it’s impossible for us to construct a house similar to the one in which we live at the moment. If the Government asks us to vacate the place tomorrow, we have nowhere to go,” he stressed.

Speaking further on the poor compensation they had been allocated for their lands and alleged irregularities in the Government’s acquisition process, Kumara shared that he lost around 248 perches of his land, and the value of a perch as estimated by the Government was only Rs. 25,000.

“The land had been earmarked in 2014, and in 2015 a complete survey was carried out. However, in 2016, the Government took over all the land. After they took the 248-perch area, they again took another three-perch area. They have valued these three perches at Rs. 85,000 each. This is what we can’t understand,” he said.

Nandana Seneviratne, another affected villager, told The Sunday Morning that after the Government’s estimates were prepared, he had obtained a private estimate of the land, and when the two estimates were compared, the Government’s estimate was much lower than the private estimate.

In Seneviratne’s case, the state valuers had divided his land into five lots and given five different valuations. According to the Government’s valuation, the value of a perch was only Rs. 20,000 but as per the private valuation surveyor, it was Rs. 150,000.

“I asked for information and details on the process from the RDA and the Ministry of Highways and Road Development, but none of these institutions provided me with information on the procedure or on how the estimates were prepared,” Seneviratne said.

A dead end

In another case, husband and wife Nadeera Wasanthi and W.B.S. Bandara, who live in a small ancestral house in Pothuhera, are waiting for compensation from the Government to build a new home. The duo already identified a block of land adjacent to their existing house which is to be demolished for the construction of the expressway, but they are unsure of whether they can build their new home two or three metres from the proposed expressway.

“There is no one that we can consult. We’re afraid to start construction as we’re not sure whether we will have to give this area away too or not,” Wasanthi said. “I have a small concrete workshop. If they can’t pay the compensation, then they should give us land,” Bandara said.

“I have met with the authorities numerous times, and each time, they said the money would be transferred to the bank account the following week. But now, we’ve lost all hope and believe no one,” Bandara confessed.

There are others just like them – over 2,000 people – who’ve lost their lands and have been waiting for compensation for the past three to four years. The Sunday Morning learnt that the issue was not only in Phase III of the CEP, which Pothuhera comes under, but also in several areas under Phase IV including Omaragolla, Melsiripura, Ibbagamuwa, and several other areas.

Three districts are linked with Stage 3, and a relatively high portion (42%) of the total land required from these districts belongs to the Kurunegala District. A remainder of 34% belongs to the Kegalle District and 23% belongs to the Kandy District. Two DSDs (Polgahawela and Mawathagama) cross the expressway in the Kurunegala District.

Meanwhile, one DSD from Kegalle (Rambukkana) and one from Kandy (Thumpane) cross the expressway.

The Sunday Morning learnt that a faction of the affected families had already received compensation from the Government. Those who released their lands to the project at the very beginning received compensation; they had received payments fairly higher than what is estimated for the second round of disbursements.

Due to such discrepancies, the affected people got together and formed village-level associations to oppose the Government, going as far as to make complaints to each and every responsible authority, the politicians in the area, and finally, the President. However, still, no solution has been given by anyone concerned.

According to the Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) by the RDA for CEP – Stage 3 that was prepared in compliance with the National Involuntary Resettlement Policy (NIRP), the Environmental and Social Safeguards Framework of the RDA, and other statutory requirements of the country, the total number of project-affected lots of land is 3,497. Among them, the total number of privately owned lots of land is 2,886.

Within the number of privately owned lots of land are 1,654 project-affected households. The total extent of project-affected private lands is 99,636 perches.

In addition, there are 463 affected lots of land under the Government. The total extent of government land is 6,466 perches. In addition, 35 lots of land are identified as common property. The total extent of the common land lots is 1,873 perches. A total of 107,975 perches (674.8 acres) of land is project-affected as a result of Stage 3.

Accordingly, as estimated by the Government, the highest impact of land acquisition in CEP – Stage 3 was on private land plots (99,636.34 perches), which represents 92.3% of the total land to be acquired. The remaining 9.5 % is government land and common/public land. Out of the total amount of privately owned land, 65% is agricultural land, 29% is residential land, with the least amount categorised as trade and business land. There is also some barren land that represents 4%. This implies the low level of land used in these DSDs.

No Treasury allocations

The payment of compensation for resettlement will be based on the Land Acquisition Act of Sri Lanka, the Extraordinary Gazette Notification No. 1864/54 (20 May 2014) issued by the Minister of Land and Land Development under Section 63 (2) (E) of the Land Acquisition Act (Chapter 460) and approved by Parliament on 18 February 2014, and Cabinet Paper 14/0833/533/008, which is included in the Northern Expressway Project under this Extraordinary Gazette Notification.

According to the RAP, the total cost of land acquisition and resettlement for Stage 3 from Pothuhera to Galagedara will be Rs. 12.87 billion, which is equivalent to $ 83 million.

As explained by the RDA, the cost estimate in the resettlement budget is based on the corridor examined in the process of data collection for CEP – Stage 3. Therefore, the cost estimate would be reduced on the basis of actual ROW (right of way) that will be established after all technical matters are considered.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning, a senior RDA official said the reason for the delay in disseminating compensation to the affected families in CEP – Stage 3 and 4 was due to the delay in allocating the necessary funds from the Treasury. “The Treasury should allocate funds and for Stage 3, the RDA needs at least Rs. 1 billion,” he stressed.

CEP – Stage 3 is to be constructed with the funds from Japan but the two countries were yet to reach an agreement. Numerous discussions were held between the two parties but there was still no final agreement. Therefore, there seems to be no set date for the commencement of the project.
“Even if Japan granted the loan facility, the Government first needs to compensate the affected families. The lands that have already been acquired should be compensated for, even if the project is not launched,” the RDA official added.

However, when contacted, Road Development Authority (RDA) Chairman Nihal Sooriyarachchi accepted that there were delays in compensating the families but according to him, that delay was unavoidable.

According to him, over the last few years, the RDA made payments amounting to around Rs. 55 billion as compensation for lands acquired for development programmes, out of which nearly Rs. 35 billion was owed by the previous Government.

Referring to payments connected to the CEP, the RDA had paid around Rs. 4 billion so far in compensation, and compensation payments currently pending amount to Rs. 1 billion, Sooriyarachchi explained.

When queried on whether the delay was due to the non-allocation of funds from the Treasury, the RDA Chairman said: “It isn’t the issue of whether the Treasury allocated the money, but there is a process that needs to be followed. And that process takes a little time.”

Comparing the land acquisitions by the previous Government to that of the present Government, Sooriyarachchi alleged that under the former, the lands had been forcefully acquired for the projects, and there were yet some families awaiting compensation, 10 years on.

Meanwhile, speaking to The Sunday Morning, Highways and Road Development Minister Kabir Hashim assured that the Government would be able to pay all the compensation amounts owed by August this year. “We’re trying to expedite this as soon as possible. We believe that by August, we should be able to clear all these payments,” he said.

The Minister, however, acknowledged that the Treasury had already allocated the necessary funds to make compensation payments.

“Basically, we are not moving forward until we duly make the payments, and we have very strict conditions. We do a proper evaluation. There is a small time lag because there is a process that needs to be followed. The land has to be acquired and then the AGA (Assistant Government Agent) office has to certify it and they have to have environmental clearance. Also, there must be proof of ownership. We send the money to the AGA office and the AGA only makes the payment,” Minister Hashim said.
He further said: “We caught up on lots of compensation payments that were due over the past 10 years. But again, since the acquisition is a regular and continuous process, with new highways, etc., another set of payments is to be covered this year.”

Responding to the alleged irregularities that occurred in the process of the Government acquiring the lands, the Minister said that it was beyond the Ministry’s control as the valuation of land was being carried out by the Department of Valuation, which is under the Ministry of Finance.

“The chief valuer determines the value, and we can’t go above that. We have absolutely no power and therefore, we’ve appointed two committees – Land Acquisition and Re-settlement Committee (LARC) and Super LARC. Those two committees intervene when any unfair practices, but is also limited in strength,” he added.