Past the 27th kilometre post on the highway from Rattota to Pallegama, we take a right turn into a rugged road. Strewn with worn out metal and potholes are stretches of what was once a paved tea country roadway during colonial times.
Our Dolphin van moved even slower than a steamroller, wading through some bushy outgrowth and mud. After six kilometres, precariously crossing culverts made of old, decaying railway sleepers or logs and skirting over watery ditches, we could not proceed.We alighted and trekked another six kilometres along pathways. The journey was slow and painful. Removing leeches, wiping the blood they sucked out and walking the hilly tracts took three hours. Rays of the hot noon sun came only through patches of sparse vegetation overhead in the dense jungle. We were now in the 155 square kilometre Knuckles National Heritage and Wilderness Area, now a UNESCO declared heritage site. The climate was cool.
Rare endemic flora abounded the jungle. Wild boar, deer and monkeys roamed freely in the area.
From a hilly plateau, we climbed over 120 steps to a taller mountain. The steps were paved with rugged slabs of rock. As we reached the top, the contrast seemed like a scene from a movie. The mountain range, which resembled the knuckles of two fists, was beautiful and offered a panoramic view. Standing before us was a brand new bungalow. Curtains covered the windows. The chimney of a fireplace rose above the green amino metal sheet roof. The floor was paved with wooden parquet flooring. An old house and a few abandoned structures lay next to the new one. “Private Property. Trespassers will be prosecuted,” warned a board in Sinhala. The area, once the village of Sudugala with tea plantations, is now part of the conservation zone. The only remnants of agriculture were abandoned cardamom plantations.
We approached the front door of the older house. A youth in his late twenties, whom we later learnt was the caretaker answered. “Is the owner of these houses here? Can we speak to him,” asked Leon. “Who are you?” he asked. We said we were from the Sunday Times. We had thought that the neatly built adjoining house belonged to a leading Colombo businessperson. The caretaker proved us wrong. He reached for a CDMA telephone, dialled a number. We heard him saying in Sinhala that two persons from the Sunday Times (Times paththaren ) had come. He then handed over the receiver to David.
|Roshan Gunatilleke’s mini holiday home
David asked “Whom am I talking to?” The answer: “I am Air Chief Marshal Roshan Gunatilleke, Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force.” David told him that the Sunday Times was investigating reports about people constructing houses in the conservation area, flouting the law. “I am well within the law and have nothing to hide,” declared ACM Gunatilleke. He said he was the lawful owner of the “two roomed” house on 50 acres of land. The Sunday Times of August 22 reported that it was an eight-roomed house. Members of Nature Forum, an environmental group had claimed the house estimated to be worth Rs 60 million, was eight roomed and had granite flooring. It has now turned out that they had not visited the exact location.
ACM Gunatilleke claimed that the “construction was on an existing building and is hence legal. I have not felled a single tree.” He described the new bungalow as a “mini holiday home” and claimed he had spent only Rs 2.8 million for the 1300 square feet building. However, other contractors, both in Matale and in Colombo, told the Sunday Times (upon being shown pictures of the house and description of the location) that costs would far exceed Rs 2.8 million. “Remember, every item that was required for the construction had to be transported, hand carried by labour and taken uphill. This is expensive,” they told the Sunday Times. A construction engineer in Matale added, “It would cost at least five million or more since the overheads are so high when you construct a building in a remote location inside the jungle. Even with free labour, you cannot build a two roomed house with luxuries for that price.” Both spoke on grounds of anonymity.
A.G. Kumarasingha, the Chairman of the Laggala – Pallegama Pradeshiya Sabha also told the Sunday Times that construction work has been carried out on an old house. “I have visited the house and found that out. It is only if you build a new house that permission is required,” he said. However, as the picture on this page shows, the bungalow is brand new. We walked around and saw no signs of it being built on an old structure.
|Roy de Silva: The previous owner washes
his hands off
Countering ACM Gunatilleke’s claim that he was “well within the law” are remarks by G.M. Premasinghe, Divisional Secretary for Laggala-Pallegama. He told the Sunday Times “No approval for a building plan has been obtained from the Laggala – Pallegama Pradeshiya Sabha. You cannot construct buildings without such plans being approved,” he added.
Yet, ACM Gunatilleke told the Sunday Times “the relevant deeds for my ownership are No 3428 of T.B.H. Dunuwila Notary Public dated 5th January 2010 and 09 of Anusha N. Perusinghe dated 27th February 2009. It was registered at the Land Registry in Matale on February 17 2010 and March 20 2009. By his own admission, ACM Gunatilleke says that he had bought the land in two plots. One was at a cost of Rs 2.3 million and the other at Rs 3.5 million. “I am confident of my legal titles as shown in the notarial instruments,” he said. Thus, the land alone has cost ACM Gunatilleke Rs 5.8 million and the construction of the building Rs 2.8 million, a total of Rs 8.6 million by his own admission. That is only for a mini holiday home.
Charitha Herath, Chairman of the Central Environment Authority (CEA) told the Sunday Times “The owner of the building in question has not obtained the Authority’s permission. Approval for such construction work is granted only after a Conservation Committee thoroughly examines the request.” The CEA has already ordered that any further construction activity be stopped.
Though ACM Gunatilleke admitted to the Sunday Times that he was the “lawful owner” of the mini holiday home within the Knuckles conservation zone, he still faces the prospect of losing the Rs 2.8 million he had spent for construction. That is not all. He also stands to lose the Rs 5.8 million he had spent to purchase the land. The total loss for the Air Force Commander who sought a mini holiday home in a conservation zone would thus be Rs 8.6 million. That covers what he claims is the construction cost of Rs 2.8 million and the cost of the land he purchased for his holiday home.
There are two reasons. One is the official claim that ACM Gunatilleke has not registered the land transaction with the Land Registry in Matale. “The property still remains in the name of Roy de Silva,” Ms. Tejani Tillekerantne, Additional Government Agent, Matale told the Sunday Times. She said, “All our legal dealings will therefore be with Mr. de Silva,” she said. Ms Tillekeratne pointed out that a Gazette notification had been issued in 1991 publicly declaring that the land was to be acquired as part of the conservation zone. However, action to acquire the land had not been initiated, she pointed out.The second is if he proves to government officials that he is the legitimate owner, he is not likely to be allowed to hold property and a holiday home inside a conservation zone. Since the construction is on a conservation area, his claim for any would also become a serious issue. More so since the government had declared it a conservation zone and hence, any construction work is prohibited.
En-route to Matale and Sudugala, we met Roy de Silva, a one time Chairman of the National Olympic Committee at his residence in Piachaud Gardens in Kandy. “I have nothing to do with the land anymore. I sold it in January, this year, to the Commander of the Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Goonetilleke,” he told the Sunday Times. He declined to divulge the amount he received but said an acre in Sudugala fetched Rs 100,000. De Silva argued that “it was a perfectly legitimate transaction” and the authorities would now have to “direct all their queries to the Air Chief.” He said he purchased the land in 1986 from a Tamil businessperson.
|The rugged slabs of rock that lead to a panoramic view (right) and the controversial bungalow
Mr. De Silva said, “I have been returning all the letters I was receiving from the Assistant Government Agent. “I have repeatedly informed him that I am not the legal owner,” he said. He said he was aware of the Gazette notification issued in 1991 but pointed out that it had lapsed since no action was taken for over a year to acquire the land.
Ashoka Peiris, Secretary to the Ministry of Lands said consultations were under way with the Attorney General’s Department. He said “official reports” he had received on the matter were also being studied.
We learnt from residents in neighbouring villages that Air Force vehicles carrying supplies plied the jungle route when construction activity was under way.
They claimed that the caretaker of the “mini holiday home” was an airman who was living there with another colleague. They had grown plots of vegetables outside the brand new bungalow for their daily sustenance. Dry rations, they said, were also being delivered periodically.
Gunaratna Banda, a former teacher and now Notary Public said, “I am aware contractors have been going around saying they are relatives of a VVIP. Therefore, people are frightened to ask questions,” he told the Sunday Times. He alleged that illegal land transactions were going on. We learnt another Air Force officer serving as a Group Captain, had also procured land in the vicinity.
The question now is who will fly high? Is it the Commander of the Air Force ACM Gunatilleke or officials of the government? Only time will tell.
Next Week: A report on other unauthorised constructions in the Knuckles range.