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SARVODAYA releases study on access to land in Sri Lanka

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka, under the Land Watch Asia campaign, recently released a Country Report that presents many highly complex issues of policy and legislation as they relate to land tenure and access to land.

Moreover, it serves as a strategy paper for civil society organizations involved in land rights advocacy to identify opportunities, viable activities and challenges to advance access to land and tenurial security of disadvantaged land-dependent users.

The study was conducted from March to May 2010 by a research team headed by Professor C.M. Madduma Bandara, Ph.D.  (Cambridge).

The main findings of the Study include the following:

  • During the early part of the last Century, the colonial policy of land sales was reversed through large-scale land alienations to the landless peasantry, for village expansion and initiation of large-scale settlement schemes. After National Independence in 1948, the same policy was continued with greater interest under the Mahaweli Project, and under the Presidential Task Force on Land Alienation in the 1990s.
  • The Paddy Lands Act of 1957 changed the landlord – share tenant relations drastically. It brought more social justice, but more social stress and less impact on productivity. Similarly, land reform exercises in the 1970s led to the nationalization of estates owned by foreign companies as well as local entrepreneurs. This hardly had any visible effect on the landless peasantry particularly in the Kandyan areas.
  • Continuing conditions of the LDO permit were imposed with good intentions under the concept of ‘preservation of the peasantry’. However, it was increasingly realized that, such  conditions of the LDO permit have created a problem for the second generations of settlers, who found themselves as a ‘landless, jobless and embittered’  segment of the rural society.
  • The welfare policies adopted by successive governments such as jana saviya and samurdhi contributed much to alleviate abject poverty. At the same time, they created a ‘dependency syndrome’ where it had become difficult to wean poor people away from such support. These welfare measures were also closely related to land development. The notion that improved access to land and tenurial security necessarily leads to a reduction of poverty was deeply entrenched among planners. This presumption however, needs a deeper and objective re-assessment.
  • Conditions in the country have changed significantly during the last few decades with more people looking for employment abroad. Foreign remittances exceed 3 billion US Dollars annually. The economy has grown to the level that Sri Lanka is no longer considered as a poor third-world country. Per Capita GDP now exceeds 2000 US Dollars and the dependency of people on land for agriculture has diminished significantly with increasing importance of service and industrial sectors. In urban areas however, with the increasing demand for land and increasing land prices, it had become more profitable to convert land to non-agricultural uses rather than to use it for agriculture. In the wet zone in particular, most such converted lands are of low agricultural productivity. However, prevailing agricultural land laws tend to discourage such conversions.
  • There is a fresh and rare opportunity, emerging with the end of the long drawn civil war to devise ways and means of re-establishing a durable peace, and prosperity. With a stable and strong government in power, there is a new hope for long-term planning in the land sector. Establishment of the National Land Commission under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution may herald in a new era of effective and efficient land management that would be pro-poor and at the same time result in higher productivity from land.

Some rallying points for public campaign may include, the delay in the establishment of the National Land Commission and a National Land Policy, failure to confer full freehold status to land developed under the Land Development Ordinance, widespread mal practices and corruption in land administration, lack of a common law governing land, issue of devolution of powers to the Provinces, delays in utilizing the opportunities created by return to peace, the plight of second and third generation settlers  under major irrigation settlement schemes,  and the excessive  politicization of land issues.