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This land belongs to whom?

a year ago

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When looking at various forms of efforts aimed at ensuring equal rights and treatment, one thing we notice is that Sri Lanka has done more talking than taking action, and every day, people face incidents that affect their basic rights in one way or another. Recently, a Kollupitiya-based family staged a protest at the Presidential Secretariat and handed over a letter addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, following an attempted eviction by a group of armed persons, requesting that justice be served as per the President’s “One Country, One Law” concept. Residents of the said land, who claim to have lived there for 80 years and have all necessary documentation to prove their residential right, also alleged inaction and more harassment by the Police and powerful figures, including businessmen and politicians, behind the alleged incident. This is merely one and the latest form of land-related injustice, and in the past two decades, a large number of evictions, prolonged and unjustifiable acquisition of lands, and unorganised resettlements have been reported from around the country. According to land rights activists, most of such incidents do not go beyond mere complaints or grievances, resulting in not only the loss of residences and lands, but also a huge blow to the citizens’ social security and way of life. The most notable land-related struggles are reported from the northern and eastern parts of the country, and a large number of people are grieving even today over lands that were acquired by the military during and right after the civil war due to security purposes. Even though successive governments have released these lands in phases to those who lost their lands and homes, the struggle is very real and is yet to be addressed. However, it is only after something dramatic happens that most land-related issues taking place in urban areas get reported and/or addressed. Last year, the media reported several incidents of land grabbing in urban areas such as Colombo, which either involved force and intimidation, or illegal processes such as making fake land deeds. Also, the plight of those who were relocated or displaced due to urban development and beautification activities such as expressways and the widening of roads, among others, also remains unaddressed. According to reports issued by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), even after being relocated, people, most of whom are daily wage earners, are made to pay for the apartment. To make matters worse, when it comes to relocation in urban areas, the authorities not giving adequate notice and following a stringent measure in eviction, and also delaying compensations, remain common allegations. However, the authorities are not to blame in all incidents involving questionable land grabbing and relocation. Illegal land grabbing by people living near protected areas such as forest reserves has existed for decades and has worsened in the recent past. Environmentalists claim that this issue is prevalent in almost all parts of the country and is directly affecting flora and fauna near the borders of such areas. Sri Lanka still does not know the true impact on the environment caused by the string of incidents involving Parliamentarian Rishad Bathiudeen clearing a part of Wilpattu National Park and Forest Complex to settle people. Laws and policies pertaining to lands include the Land Acquisition Act, which allows authorities to acquire land in any area for any public purpose, and also the National Involuntary Resettlement Policy (NIRP), which aims at, among other things, mitigating negative impacts of involuntary resettlement. However, the aforementioned realities highlight how the mere existence of laws and policies does not prevent the adverse effects of losing lands, and that practices involving acquiring lands also need to be strengthened. Land laws in Sri Lanka are also known to be complex, with the related processes being time-consuming; therefore, this aspect also needs to be streamlined to ensure people are able to get their land documentation-related work, especially land deeds-related work, with an understanding of their rights and applicable laws. Perhaps, that could reduce the prevalence of the making of fake deeds and selling lands, which also amounts to an act of land grabbing. Raising awareness of land-related laws and acquisition-related processes were highlighted by a recent islandwide report titled “People’s Land Commission’s Report 2019-2020: Our Land, Our Life”, issued by the People’s Alliance for the Right to Land (PARL), which recommended public institutions and officials providing information prior to public consultations regarding the proposed development or state acquisition, among others, of land; giving adequate time for people and communities to meaningfully engage in consultations; and projects and activities not being rushed through without evaluating the impact that they may have on the environment or local people, directly or indirectly, affected by such. In the Sri Lankan context, land and property rights – which closely relate to the state’s responsibility to ensure that the enactment of laws focuses on ensuring for all citizens an adequate standard of living, including housing specified under the non-justiciable Chapter Six of the Constitution, i.e. Directive Principles of State Policy and Fundamental Duties – is not only a basic right which most people can afford only once in a lifetime, but also a possession with great sentimental value. To ensure this basic right, the state has more responsibility than enacting laws; it has to have a proper mechanism to ease land-related legal processes and revisit how authorities deal with the people when it comes to such matters.

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