Selling away our heritage?
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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?