Selling away our heritage?
When the United Nations, in its Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat 1) held in Vancouver in mid-1976, clarified the policy of the world organisation on land, a clear logic was implicit in its reasoning. As articulated in the preamble to the final recommendations coming out of the conference, land "could not be treated as an ordinary asset, controlled by individuals and subject to the pressures and inefficiencies of the market."

There was a good reason why this was so. As the preamble itself went on to warn, private land ownership can be a principal instrument of accumulation and concentration of wealth, contributing to social injustice. Thus, " the provision of decent dwellings and healthy conditions for the people can only be achieved if land is used in the interests of society as a whole. Public control of land use is therefore indispensable."

Strong language indeed, for the United Nations. And the policy recommendations contained in this conference document, specifically with regard to agricultural land, put the issue in even stronger terms when it pointed out, (in recommendation D:2), that agricultural land, particularly on the periphery of urban areas, is an important national resource for, without public control, land is prey to speculation and encroachment.

These are commonsensical warnings, one would think. And as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, these principles have regulated the basis on which land grants had been given for decades, as reflected in successive laws. Thus, even though citizens received land grants under the Land Development Ordinance, for example or under various schemes, specific restrictions were imposed with regard to alienation of the land.

On the other hand, the founding fathers of other nations have proceeded on different principles, affirming strongly, the right to own and control the use of private property, as evident, most strikingly in the United States for example. In modern times, this notion of private property rights has manifested itself in many countries as an essential attribute of the 21st century, particularly when it comes to farming communities.

Thus, in January this year, when Scotland passed a Land Reform Bill giving a right to farmers (or crofting communities) to acquire and control land on which they lived and worked, it was hailed as a progressive development that would decisively change the balance of power between the landowner and the crofting community.

However, changes to the ancient practices and laws of land ownership have not been unrestricted. Rather, given the importance of the subject matter in question, they are strictly regulated. Foreign ownership of such land, for example, has been subject to definable limitations, again for reasons that do not require a doctoral thesis to be explained. Restrictions of this nature had been prevalent in this country as well in the past. However, whether these safeguards are being observed in the policies being pursued by the current administration is a moot point.

An obvious cause for concern in this regard is, of course, the highly controversial Land Ownership Bill proposed by the United National Front government which aims to grant freehold titles to some 1.2 million people in this country who presently have only restricted land grants. While the previous government had proposed these measures as well, in a simple vote catching exercise, the current scenario has more dangerous overtones, given that restrictions on alienation of land to non-citizens or foreign corporate bodies, have been now lifted.

The Bill had been earlier tied up in haggling between the office of the President and the Ministry of Lands. Now, to all intents and purposes, it has received Presidential approval and the country could look forward to its presentation in Parliament very soon. However, some fundamental questions remain regarding its rationale.

Civic organisations opposing the Bill, in particular the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform, (known popularly by its somewhat picturesque abbreviation, MONLAR), have drawn disquieting parallels between what the Bill proposes and strong arm World Bank policies, which have been recommending a shift away from rice and other domestic food crops to high value (export crop) production.

Thus, for example, in a revealing World Bank policy document titled the "Non-Plantation Sector Policy Alternatives Report" in 1996, the creation of a 'free land market' was identified to be essential to achieving fast economic growth in the non-plantation sector in Sri Lanka.

Importantly, a primary obstacle was cited to be the vast areas of land granted by the Government to farming families, who could not legally alienate the land on which they lived and worked. In 1996, it was recommended that freehold titles be granted to all those who had only restricted land grants while restrictions to the selling of land be done away with. In 2003, it looks as if these WB recommendations are finally coming to fruition in a manner that bodes ill for the future of this country.

However, as MONLAR and others of their ilk continue to plead very much in the way of isolated voices in the wilderness, the majority of the currently land restricted grantees continue to be desperately poor. Others had committed suicide unable to cope with the slashed subsidies and unmerciful lack of sympathy for their plight, by successive governments. The most logical consequence of outright land grants would be the selling of such land to the highest bidder, which, devoid of any such restrictions to that effect, could be alien entities or individuals.

Whether these fears are alarmist still needs to be evaluated. A further important point concerns the impact of the 13th Amendment on the proposed Lands Bill. Rights in or over land, land tenure transfer and alienation of land, land use, land settlement and land improvement are included on the Provincial Councils List.

Appendix 11 to the List stipulates that state land vests in the Republic and shall be disposed of through the exercise of Presidential powers. Subject to this, alienation or disposition of the state land within a province to any citizen or to any organisation shall be by the President, on the advice of the relevant Provincial Council in accordance with the laws governing the matter. If the content of the Lands Bill is such that it calls for the observance of such procedures, has the 13th Amendment been duly complied with?

But, the Lands Bill, is not as yet, available for public scrutiny. The questions therefore to ask are; when would this Bill be available for public consumption? Would it be like the Intellectual Property Bill, available only a split second before presentation in Parliament (which amended version incidentally, has still not been made available to the public weeks after its passing by Parliament)? Is the Bill in compliance with constitutional requirements or indeed, the Directive Principles of State Policy? Are its provisions subject to any regulatory requirements regarding alienating the land so granted to multinationals and foreigners? Or, don't we just care?

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