From time to time, Governments in this country have embarked on aggressive land acquisition drives citing development requisites. But when it comes to compensating those who are forced to give up their homes and businesses, the wheels grind very slowly indeed–or, for some, not at all. Under the Land Acquisition Act, the State can secure [...]


When land acquisition ignores citizens’ rights


From time to time, Governments in this country have embarked on aggressive land acquisition drives citing development requisites. But when it comes to compensating those who are forced to give up their homes and businesses, the wheels grind very slowly indeed–or, for some, not at all.

Under the Land Acquisition Act, the State can secure any private land, provided it is for public purpose. There has been a significant rise in Section 2 notices, informing landowners that their properties are to be possessed. Acquisitions are now (and have been for some time) the largest group of gazettes published by the Department of Government Printing.

Thousands of plots, big and small, are involved. Budgetary allocations to cover the cost of acquisitions have also risen. But the Government still owes its citizens millions in unsettled acquisition dues. The scale of takeover, therefore, is massive—a natural consequence of mega projects which have become the norm.

This has created tremendous insecurities and disrupted the lives of large sections of the population. The authorities are routinely using Section 38(a) of the land acquisition act to take immediate possession of lands. The law does provide for consultations with the public with a view to reaching consensus; and for affected parties to oppose or make suggestions, thereby making the Government more accountable. But these clauses are blatantly ignored in favour of barging in and taking over.

The Sunday Times reported only last week how the descendants of the late philanthropist Charles Henry de Soysa—who, ironically, bequeathed many of his properties for the public good—lost their inherited lands at Kompannaveediya in 2012 when the Government acquired vast tracts under the Urban Development Projects (Special Provisions) Act. They haven’t received a cent in compensation.

This is just one case. There are countless others. Some landowners have been waiting decades for their money (they don’t even know how much is owed to them). Others have died before ever receiving that elusive cheque. There is no central record of just how many people remain unpaid. These dues are not even counted as Government liabilities. They should be, because this is a debt the State owes its people.

There are serious concerns about the way in which the Government is taking over lands. Not paying compensation before taking vacant possession is a grievous fault. Cheating people out of their hard-earned assets, particularly if the project is economically unfeasible, is indefensible.

To build the Rajagiriya flyover, the Minister first issued a notice under Section 38(a) in September, 2016. There was no prior consultation with residents. They were merely told to break their walls within a week or face demolition. Nearly one year later, there is no sign of payment for the restructuring or rebuilding of premises and residences after the acquisition. Several of those affected are pensioners.

It has been strongly argued that using Section 38(a) for every acquisition is a violation of fundamental rights. It permits land to be possessed “at any time” after the first notice is exhibited on or near the land over which that servitude is to be acquired. No reason need be given for the acquisition. Reasonable timeframes are not prescribed for the display of notices or objections.

Donor agencies like the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency have strict social safeguards–specific requirements project authorities are expected to meet when there is negative fallout from involuntary land acquisition–incorporated into the terms and conditions of their loans. For this reason, those affected by projects that they support are considerably better off.

The construction of the ADB-funded Southern Expressway funding even led to the creation of a comprehensive National Involuntary Resettlement Policy (NIRP) which was passed by the Cabinet. But one would be hard pressed today to find a copy of that document in any of the offices of project implementers.

There was a reason for the NIRP to be adopted amidst much fanfare in 2001: to protect the rights of the thousands affected by continued land acquisitions. It states, in the first instance that involuntary resettlement should be avoided or reduced as much as possible by reviewing alternatives to and within the project. But the Government has routinely used 38(a) to abdicate any responsibility of finding options that do not require people to give up their properties. The NIRP also says that, where involuntary resettlement is unavoidable, affected people should be assisted to reestablish themselves and improve their quality of life. In practical terms, this happens only in the cases of those projects funded by donors that subscribe to and insist on these standards. In most others, the fates of those whose lands are possessed–and who are, therefore, displaced–are grim.

One of the chief complaints of affected persons is that they are not given information about, well, anything. Notices are issued. Then, authorities “turn up” at a site and start measuring and marking it out. From that point onwards, landowners, squatters, tenants–whoever is in occupation–are haunted by feelings of sheer helplessness and powerlessness as they are dragged into an abyss of ignorance. Officials are known to tell affected persons that, like it or not, they have to give up their properties and take whatever is given to them, whenever it comes.

This is morally, ethically and fundamentally wrong–even if 38(a) does allow it. There is a globally accepted principle that development projects must not leave anybody worse off than they were before. Not only is Sri Lanka failing to embrace this, the country is well behind in bringing about urgent amendments to the Land Acquisition Act.

India, by contrast, is far ahead. That country, in 2013, brought in the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act to replace its Land Acquisition Act. It has provisions to provide fair compensation to those whose land is taken away, bring transparency to the process of acquisition and assure rehabilitation to affected parties.

In 2016, Sri Lanka’s new Government set up an ‘Expert Technical Working Group” to suggest changes. It called for, among other things, the establishment of a negotiation board to make every effort to reach negotiated land purchases and a separate authority for national priority projects to support land acquisition and resettlement processes. The report, which contained a host of other progressive recommendations, was submitted to the Government and has not been heard of thereafter.

In the meantime, Sri Lanka’s administrators continue to extol the very doubtful “virtues” of 38(a). The common attitude is that consultation is not necessary as “private” lands are being taken over for “national” purpose. But let it not be forgotten that a whole host of human and fundamental rights–including the right to shelter, right to occupation, right to notice, the right to be heard, etc–are blatantly violated in the process.

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