Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Land, a Very Sensitive Issue in North and East Sri Lanka

by T. Sabaratnam, The Bottom Line, Colombo, September 2, 2009

Federal Party’s founder leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam told the party’s inaugural meeting on December 18, 1949: “We were first denied our share in the government. Next, our electoral strength was reduced by the denial of citizenship to our Indian Tamil brethren. They have started reducing territory by state aided colonisation. The federal structure will get the Tamils their legitimate share in the government and put an end to the Sinhala attempt to grab our territory.”

Tamils are watching with disquiet the ongoing debate among the Sinhalese concerning land in the Vanni. The claim of the Jathika Hela Urumaya that 85 percent of the land in Vanni belonged to the state had disturbed them.

Mangala Samaraeera’s announcement that there are efforts to settle Sinhalese in Vanni added to their concern. Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene’s denial that there are no moves to settle the Sinhalese in Vanni was welcomed.

Land, has been a very sensitive issue in the North and East. Currently, controversy rages about land in Uppuveli and Selvanagar, both in the Trincomalee district. At Uppuveli, the dispute was over the sale of prime beach land. Some officials are accused of selling the land owned by private persons.

At Selvanagar, 80 Muslim families were evicted for settling down on land without proper approval. The Muslim families claim that they lived there before they were displaced.

These instances point out the sensitive nature of the problem of land ownership in the Trincomalee district. Eastern Province Governor Mohan Wijewickrema has correctly identified the dimension of the problem when he said in his response to SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem: “In a province which have the three major communities living side by side, land has become a very sensitive issue.”

A German funded study on land use and coping strategies of war affected societies conducted in Trincomalee in 2002 confirmed the sensitive nature of land.

The researchers from the Centre for Advanced Training in Rural Development (CATAD) found that the Tamils considered the Sinhalese settlers as outsiders who had encroached on their homeland, while the Sinhala colonists regarded themselves as the rightful heirs to the lands in which their ancestors lived.

Whatever the rightfulness of their claims, the study team found underlying hostility among the Tamils and the Sinhalese over the ownership of land.

Land was one of the three factors that prompted the formation of the Federal Party in 1949.  The others were: the denial to the Tamils their share in the government and the disfranchisement of the Indian Tamils.

Federal Party’s founder leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam told the party’s inaugural meeting on December 18, 1949: “We were first denied our share in the government. Next, our electoral strength was reduced by the denial of citizenship to our Indian Tamil brethren. They have started reducing territory by state aided colonisation. The federal structure will get the Tamils their legitimate share in the government and put an end to the Sinhala attempt to grab our territory.”

Thus the federal demand was formulated by the Tamils sixty years ago primarily to safeguard their territory. Safeguarding land had been the prime concern of Chelvanayakam throughout his life. He placed before the Tamils the slogan: ‘Wall must be preserved to paint on it.’

In the pacts he signed with Prime Ministers S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayake, Chelvanayakam gave importance to safeguarding land. Lands and land development and colonisation were among the powers to be delegated to the regional councils the two leaders agreed to establish. A special section about colonisation was included in the pact signed in 1957. It reads:

“It was agreed that in the matter of coloniasation schemes, the powers of the regional councils shall include the power to select allottees to whom lands within their area of authority shall be alienated, and also power to select personnel to be employed for the work of such schemes.” The position regarding the area at present administered by the Gal Oya Board in this matter requires consideration.

The Dudley Senanayake- Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 laid down the procedure for the granting of land under colonization schemes. It said,

“Senanayake further agreed that in the granting of land under colonisation schemes, the following priorities be observed in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

(a) Land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces should in the first instance be granted to landless persons in the district.
(b) Secondly, to the Tamil-speaking persons resident in the Northern and Eastern provinces.
(c) Thirdly, to other citizens in Ceylon, preference being given to Tamil citizens in the rest of the island.

Land was one of the three matters discussed extensively during the talks Jayewardene government held with the TULF from the beginning of 1984 till July 1987, when the Indo- Sri Lanka Agreement was signed between President Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The 13th Amendment which was the outcome of the Jayewardene- Rajiv Agreement, included the substance of the agreement the government and the TULF reached on land as Appendix II. It says,

“Appendix II that describes the devolved subject of Land and Land Settlement.

Appendix II contains three sections: State Land, Inter Provincial Irrigation and National Land Commission. Of these the first section will assume importance in the future when the 13th Amendment is implemented in full”.

I quote it in full:

“State Land shall continue to vest in the Republic and may be disposed of in accordance with Article 33(d) and written law governing the matter.Subject as aforesaid, land shall be a Provincial Council Subject, subject to the following special provisions:-

1. State land

1:1 State land required for the purposes of the Government in a Province, in respect of a reserved or concurrent subject may be utilised by the Government in accordance with the laws governing the matter. The Government shall consult the relevant Provincial Council with regard to the utilisation of such land in respect of such subject.

1:2 Government shall make available to every Provincial Council, State land within the province required by such Council for a Provincial Council subject. The Provincial Council shall administer, control and utilise such State land, in accordance with the laws and statutes governing the matter.

1:3 Alienation or disposition of the State land within a Province to any citizen or to any organisation shall be by President, on the advice of the relevant Provincial Council, in accordance with the laws governing the matter.
Please note sub sections 1.2 and 1.3. They make the Provincial Council the major player with regard to state land and its alienation and disposition.

Disquiet

Tamils are watching with disquiet the ongoing debate among the Sinhalese concerning land in the Vanni. The claim of the Jathika Hela Urumaya that 85 percent of the land in Vanni belonged to the state had disturbed them.

Mangala Samaraeera’s announcement that there are efforts to settle Sinhalese in Vanni added to their concern. Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene’s denial that there are no moves to settle the Sinhalese in Vanni was welcomed.

Let me repeat, land is a very sensitive issue. I have captured is the historic context of this issue and the way forward towards a policy on land use should take cognisance of some of these issues.