Knuckles property: Air Chief in alleged violation of land reform laws

More startling revelations of lands acquired by Air Force Commander Roshan Gunatilleke in the Knuckles conservation zone, have emerged after the Sunday Times exposure last week.

The Air Chief owns a total of 80 acres in the conservation zone in violation of the country’s land reform laws. According to the Land Reform Law, possession of more than 50 acres by a family (husband, wife and children under 18 years) is illegal. “The state could take over the additional land,” the Land Reforms Commission Legal Officer W.E.V. Silva told the Sunday Times. She said the laws passed in 1972 were still in force and it was illegal for any person to own more than fifty acres.

Roshan Gunatilleke

Air Chief Marshal Gunatilleke purchased 30 acres (BP 411 made up of 27 acres and three acres) from Sanjeewa de Silva, the son of Roy de Silva, a one time President of the Sri Lanka Olympics Committee. He held a Power of Attorney from his father, Roy de Silva. The deed is dated February 27, 2009. The total value is Rs 2,350,000. This works out to Rs 78,000 an acre.

The Air Chief purchased another 50 acres through deed number 3428 (dated 5/1/2010) from Roy de Silva. The value of the transaction is Rs. 3.5 million that would mean an acre of land has been sold at Rs. 70,000.

It is not clear how the Land Registry in Matale officially register an extent of 80 acres in a person’s name contrary to land reform laws. In the Sunday Times last week, the Air Force Commander claimed he was “well within the law” and admitted, “the relevant deeds for my ownership are No 3428 of T.B.H. Dunuwille, Notary Public dated January 5, 2010 and 09 of Anusha N. Perusinghe dated February 27, 2009.” He said they were registered at the Land Registry in Matale on March 20, 2009 and February 17, 2010.

In a strange and unusual twist to the matter this week, Deputy Environment Minister Faiszer Mustapha (MP for Kandy District) took two provincial journalists to the area. Before entering the house, he asked them to leave their cameras near a board that said “Private Property – Trespassers will be prosecuted.” He warned them not to take photographs.

Mr. Mustapha, who claims he was instrumental in having the UNESCO declare Knuckles (among others) as a world heritage site, told the two reporters that the house was built on an old foundation. The Sunday Times revealed last week it was not so and published a photograph of the brand new house. This was after a team from the Sunday Times visited the area and personally saw the newly constructed house located near some old structures.

Mr. Mustapha later told the two reporters, “the construction was no problem to the environment. It was only a building of around 1,000 square feet.” He added that Environment Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa has appointed an official committee and “it would look into the matter and take a decision.”
This Committee, the Sunday Times learnt, is only in respect of the house constructed by Air Chief Marshall Gunatilleke. The construction of at least 14 other houses in the Knuckles Conservation Zone is now under investigation by other state agencies.

“Committees, like the one that probed a deputy minister who attacked a Samurdhi official, will be of no use for violations of the law. If they are serious about protecting the environment, proper action should be taken by the relevant agencies after an impartial inquiry,” said the head of an environmental group. He spoke on grounds of anonymity.

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