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Meet governance challenges with deeds not only words

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Gajendrakumar

By Jehan Perera

The arrest of parliamentarian and leader of the Tamil National People’s Front Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam highlights two areas of particular concern.  The first is the high level of surveillance that continues in the former war zones of the north and east.  The visitors to those parts of the country would not fail to see the large presence of uniformed personnel in these two provinces, even at tourist sites.  They remain as a visible reminder of the unsettled and violent conditions that prevailed since the late 1970s and which ended in May 2009.  The failure on the part of the country to overcome the legacy of its violent past despite the passage of 14 eventful years is epitomised by the large spending still taking place on the security forces even in the midst of the general economic collapse.

 The latest update by Verite Research has shown that according to the 2023 budget estimates, of the total state salaries, the defence sector claims 48 percent.  The military takes up 32 percent of the total payroll expenditure and 16 percent goes for other defence services.  According to World Bank (WB) data, the size of Sri Lanka’s armed forces was at its highest between 2017 and 2019 with 317,000 personnel.  According to a publication by the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), 2021, Sri Lanka’s military force is the 17th highest in the world, exceeding even that of the United Kingdom.  The largest contingents of the military would continue to be deployed in the north and the east which provides a fertile ground for anti-government sentiment.

 One of the strong public sentiments in the north and the east is that the security forces are involved in various schemes of undermine the Tamil people, including through being supportive of land grabs and encouraging drug addiction in youth.  The problem of high levels of drug addiction and criminality are, however, not limited to the north and the east but are to be found in all other parts of the country, especially the capital city of Colombo.  Unlike in the north and east, the root of suspicion in the south of the country is that the main problem lies in the venality of all-powerful politicians who may be using the security forces as their tools.  It was this sentiment that popularised the widely used slogan during the time of the Aragalaya that all 225 in parliament should go.

COUNTRYWIDE SURVEILLANCE

 The incident involving parliamentarian Ponnambalam centres around the issue of surveillance in the north.  According the parliamentarian, he was having a meeting with some of his constituents from a sports club numbering about 20 in a public park.  When he was talking to them, two unknown men on a motorbike had come, stopped their vehicle 10-15 feet away and, when challenged, declined to provide their identity cards.  It later transpired that these were plainclothes policemen who had come to collect intelligence for their reporting purposes.  This is a common occurrence in the north and the east, but also takes place in other parts of the country as well, much to the discomfort of participants at those events.

 Sri Lanka is unfortunately today a post-war country that has still failed to find a political solution to the war that would address the roots of the conflict.  It is also a post-Aragalaya society in which the economy has collapsed and continues to slow down, imposing immense hardships on the general population. Making matters worse is the government’s refusal to conduct elections that would permit the people to express themselves and what they want from their rulers.  In these circumstances, surveillance in the north and east also exists in other parts of the country to ensure early warning to the government of potential points of unrest.  The difference is that it is more blatant and overt in the north and east.  It is unlikely that police intelligence officers would come on their motorbikes to within 10-15 feet of parliamentarians in the south addressing their constituents to eavesdrop on their conversations.

 The second issue that arises from parliamentarian Ponnambalam’s arrest was the lack of deference shown to him as an elected member of parliament.  It confirms to the Tamil people that the security forces in the north and the east are acting like an “army of occupation.” The incident itself took place in the north where the police wanted him to come and make a statement at the police station.  He did not wish to do so on account of his concern that the environment in the police station would be hostile to him, as he had alleged that a gun had been taken out during the altercation in the park. The police had thereafter come to Colombo to where the parliamentarian had returned home, arrested him and taken him all the way back to the north to make a statement and to produce him before the court.  An invidious comparison could be drawn between the differential treatment meted out to other parliamentarians in the recent past who have not been treated in a comparably harsh manner by the police despite their provocations.

 EQUAL CITIZENSHIP

 

The strong Tamil nationalist stances the TNPF leader has stood for, including having close links with more hardline sections of the Tamil Diaspora, has estranged him from the south and the Sinhalese polity. The Hindu newspaper reported, “Few MPs from the southern, Sinhala majority areas commented on the development.”  However, the manner in which parliamentarian Ponnambalam expressed himself in the Sinhala language at the point of being arrested was an indication of his commitment to fight for justice for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. This should be encouraged and not suppressed.  Jaffna parliamentarian from the Tamil National Alliance M.A. Sumanthiran said in a tweet: “Police insisting that @GGPonnambalam should go to #Maruthankerni today itself to make a statement or threatening to #arrest him is totally #illegal and violates his #privilege as an #MP. He is being prevented from attending the ongoing #Parliament sessions today. #repression.”

The solidarity that TNA spokesperson Sumanthiran showed to a rival Tamil parliamentarian is a positive development.  There is a need for unity among Tamil political parties if they are to achieve a reasonable bargaining power in their negotiations with the government.   Contradicting Tamil media reports that there had been relatively little support for parliamentarian Ponnambalam from his fellow parliamentarians was the response of Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa to the arrest.  He said, “We have differences with the ideology and standpoints of MP Ponnambalam but he is entitled to be treated as any other MP in this House. He was taken into police custody today while he was on his way to attend Parliament. That is illegal as per the law. We urge the government to respect the law. This is an illegal arrest.”  The opposition leader demonstrated the spirit of national unity and equal citizenship that is necessary to make Sri Lanka the common home of all communities.

The present period in which President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Opposition leader Premadasa are at the helm of national affairs, though on the opposite sides of parliament, offers the best chance to correct the problems of the past as well as existing problems.  With the next session of the UN Human Rights Council set to take place next week in Geneva, President Wickremesinghe summoned a meeting of senior state officials where they discussed a reconciliation action plan.  During the meeting the President had instructed the relevant departments to expedite the drafting of legislation necessary for the plan’s implementation. The progress of initiatives within five key areas of legislation, institutional activities, land issues, prisoner release, and power decentralization were also reviewed.  So far little has happened on the ground though much has been said in words.  The manner in which the government deals with the issue of parliamentarian Ponnambalam’s arrest will be one evidence of change.



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Illegality of Urumaya programme

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President distributing land deeds in Galle recently

by Neville Ladduwahetty

The Urumaya Programme, aimed at resolving land ownership issues for over two million Sri Lankans, was officially launched on 5 February in Dambulla by Minister Harin Fernando. During the press briefing the Minister is reported to have stated: “The programme’s aim is to provide permanent land ownership solutions. Over 10,000 land licensees currently holding Ran Bhoomi, Jaya Bhoomi, and Swarna Bhoomi licences will be among the first beneficiaries of this programme. These licenses will be converted into freehold deeds, granting them full ownership of their land. This move is expected to significantly improve the lives and livelihoods of millions currently struggling with land ownership uncertainties” (news.lk).

Continuing he stated: “Our journey is far from over. Many of our citizens have lost homes, land, and their sense of security. To address this suffering, we have launched a special programme – “Urumaya” Through this initiative, we aim to bring about positive change for over two million people in Sri Lanka.    This involves granting freehold land deeds to those who currently hold licenses like Ran Bhoomi, Jaya Bhoomi, and Swarna Bhoomi.     By empowering our people with ownership, we hope to spark a new era of stability and prosperity” (Ibid).

BACKGROUND to the URUMAYA PROGRAMME

“Delivering the 2024 Budget proposals, President Wickremesinghe unveiled the ‘Urumaya’ programme, wherein he noted that the land slots distributed among farmers under the licences of the Land Development Ordinance in 1935 would be handed back to farmers” (The Morning, February 18, 2024).

“Although around 100 years have passed, the ownership of these farmlands has not been handed back to the farmers who own them. We are handing over the lands to farmers who lost the ownership of their traditional lands during the British colonial era. We expect to commence this task in 2024 and complete it within another few years. Two million families will get the ownership of land and farmland. I allocate Rs. 2 billion for this purpose,” (Ibid).

VIOLATION of the CONSTITUTION

The granting of freehold land deeds to over two million people in Sri Lanka raises several constitutional issues. The most fundamental issue is whether the government has the authority to grant freehold titles to lands and its resources to some, while such authority belongs to the Republic of Sri Lanka and ALL its Peoples as an integral component of their sovereignty.

For instance, the Preamble to the Constitution, which some consider to be of little significance, while others consider it to be the very embodiment of the core values of the Constitution states: “The PEOPLE OF SRI LANKA having, by their Mandate freely expressed and granted …. entrusted and empowered their Representatives …to draft, adopt and operate a new Republican Constitution…whilst ratifying the immutable republican principles of REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY, and assuring to all peoples FREEDOM, EQUALITY, JUSTICE, FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHTS…”.

Arising from these core principles, Article 3 states: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable ….”  The fact that Sri Lanka is a Republic is what makes its assets part of the sovereignty of all the People.    Furthermore, since it is the PEOPLE of Sri Lanka that have “entrusted and empowered their Representatives to carry out functions on their behalf, such Representatives do not have the right to grant part of the People’s sovereign rights and/or its resources that are inalienable, to a select few. However, it is imperative that a strategy is developed to address the issue at hand without violating provisions of the Constitution.

OPINION of the SUPREME COURT
SUPREME COURT JUDGMENTS RELATING to LAND
S.C. 884/99 BULANKULAMA AND OTHERS v. SECRETARY, MINISTRY OFINDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AND OTHERS (EPPAWALA CASE AMERASINGHE. J.

Jurisdiction

“The Constitution declares that sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. (Article 3).   Being a representative democracy, the powers of the People are exercised through persons who are for the time being entrusted with certain functions. The Constitution states that the legislative power of the People shall be exercised by Parliament, the executive power of the People shall be exercised by the President of Sri Lanka, and the judicial power of the People shall be exercised, inter alia, through the Courts created and established by the Constitution (Article 4)”.

“The organs of State are guardians to whom the people have committed the care and preservation of the resources of the people. This accords not only with the scheme of government set out in the Constitution but also with the high and enlightened conceptions of the duties of our rulers, in the efficient management of resources in the process of development, which the Mahavamsa, 68.8-13, set forth”.

Other Lordships of the Supreme Court have also commented on the fact that certain Constitutional procedures need to be followed when granting or disposing of State Lands or other resources that belong to the People in the Republic.    It is the unilateral action taken under the Urumaya Programme without following due process as called for in the Constitution, that makes this Program illegal.

A “Brief Guide on Land Rights in Sri Lanka” states:

“State Land is alienated: • By Permit • By Grant • By the President

“State land is all land that the State is lawfully entitled to, or land which may be disposed of by the State together with any building standing thereon, and with all rights, interests and privileges attached thereto. This also includes lands of various Corporations and Boards. State land is administered at national, provincial, district and divisional levels by the relevant government officials” (Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2014).

By Permit:

“Permits are issued to particular categories specified in the relevant laws such as low-income earners and those who are landless.   Permit holders can use the land as specified in the permit including as a residence and/or for cultivation purposes.     Permit holders are required to pay a nominal monthly rental to the State. Permits can be issued as an annual permit or also known as ‘LDO permit’ when issued under the Land Development Ordinance” (Ibid).

By Grant

“(Swarnabhoomi, Jayabhoomi, R a n a b h o o m i, Ranbima – Permit-holders can convert their permit into a grant or a deed, if they meet specific conditions” (Ibid).

By the President

“The President can grant or lease State land at a nominal price or rent it for charitable, educational, religious, scientific or any other purpose” (Ibid).

Therefore, according to the “Brief Guide” State Land cannot be converted to freehold deeds that grant them full ownership of their land under the Urumaya Program without conforming to the above guidelines.

Since State-Owned Enterprises also form part of the sovereignty of the People, the intended proposal to privatise them, also faces the same restrictions. It is reported that the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte, Asgiriya, Ramanna and Amarapura chapters have in a letter addressed to the President appealed to him to exercise caution about the sale of national assets such as state-owned enterprises” (The Sunday Times, 18 February, 2024).

PROPOSED STRATEGY

The reason for granting freehold deeds is to enable current Permit holders to use the asset as collateral to raise a loan since existing provisions cited above are considered too restrictive.     Therefore, it is pertinent to consider what the existing restrictions are and consider what refinements could be made to existing provisions in order to mitigate the administrative impediments as much as possible while conforming to Constitutional provisions.

The strategy adopted by current Permit holders of State-Owned Assets is to form themselves into a Cooperative. Each member of the Cooperative pays a monthly stipend.  These are forwarded monthly by each Corporative to the Development Co-Op Society for use by its members to secure loans relating to Paribooga Loan (livelihood) and/or Housing Loan.  The process involved to secure a loan is quite rigorous and involves an evaluation of the capability of the member to honour required loan commitments by the Grama Niladhari and members of the Development Co-Op Society. This procedure has enabled members of the Cooperatives to secure loans in the range of Rs. 800,000/= to one million.

The granting of freehold title to current Permit holders, amounts to converting State land on which the asset is cited into Private land. This is a violation of the collective sovereignty of the People. Therefore, existing provisions granted to Permit holders should be revised in a manner where the Permit has a legitimacy equivalent to a title deed for all administrative purposes, except for the land on which the asset is cited.

Furthermore, if Permit holders are entitled to nominate a beneficiary, the interests of the original Permit holder would continue as it would be if the asset has a freehold title. If on the other hand, the original Permit holder did not have a beneficiary of choice, the asset would revert back to the State.    Such possibilities should be explored with caution instead of rushing to grant title deeds to People that may have the potential to disappoint them if they find that the deeds they received are not legal.

 CONCLUSION

The intention of the President to correct an injustice by handing back traditional lands belonging to farmers that were taken over 100 years ago during British Colonial Rule, is indeed noteworthy.  However, there is a need to be conscious of the present context. That context is that Sri Lanka is a Republic and Article 3 of the Constitution states: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable”. That being the case, Sri Lanka’s lands, its assets and resources belong to the People. Furthermore, since nearly all Sri Lankans have endured injustices of one kind or another, it is Illegal to correct the injustices committed against some, at the expense of the rest. This is what the Urumaya Programme is all about.

Therefore, it is incumbent on the part of the President and others associated with the Urumaya Program to act cautiously and revisit the legality of the Urumaya Programme before it is too late. If they proceed regardless, there is a strong possibility that beneficiaries of the Urumaya Programme may have to face disappointment later if it is found to be illegal. A similar note of caution has been issued by the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte, Asgiriya, Ramanna and Amarapura chapters regarding State-Owned Enterprises.

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Among the Trobrianders: A Personal Journey

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Royal Thomian. March 2023

By Uditha Devapriya

You are putting me in a hole.
No, I am taking you out of it!

Somewhere in 2016, I lost my first job.I had been working at my old school for two months, and had been led to assume that I would be retained to help them draft a communications policy. I was into PR, had hopes of entering advertising, and was looking for a suitable opening.

All of a sudden, I was told they didn’t need such a person.

I was 23 at the time. I had just completed law school and was waiting for my results.

It was not the best time to be idle. I needed a job.

And now, I was out of one.

I tried contacting friends and acquaintances, clinging to any mutual contact I could find.

None of it worked.

Frantically, I fired off one email after another.

I may have sent tens if not hundreds of emails. Many replied, and some asked me to come over to be interviewed. The interviews, however, all left a bad taste in my mouth. The jobs they had either paid too low or were outside my comfort zone.

Then an ad agency, one of many agencies I had emailed, got in touch. They scheduled an interview in December. There they said they wanted someone with “zero experience in advertising.” They thought I fitted the bill. They took me in.

By now I was freelancing to several newspapers in the country. I was writing on the arts, reviewing films, plays, the occasional exhibition. The pay wasn’t good, but the exposure was: it got me in touch with artists, directors, writers, dancers.

I had always been mad about culture and the arts. At school I had inclined to subjects like history and literature. Though I did not study them for my Advanced Levels – I chose Commerce, a “safer” stream, instead – I did not abandon them. I pursued such fields as a writer and a journalist after leaving school.

There was a problem, however. For more than a decade I had studied mostly in English, and had become ignorant of my language and culture. I came from a Sinhala speaking background, but since I spent six hours at school, two getting back home, and around five or six active hours at home, this did not amount to much.

In my time, the rage everywhere in the country was for English, Western, private education. Our parents had studied in the vernacular: Sinhala or Tamil. Yet after leaving school they had felt it would be better to have their children taught in English.

Public schools used to have English medium classes, but by the time I was born these had been abandoned. As a result, a new type of school had cropped up, catering to an ever-growing demand for English education.

The problem was that while we readily immersed ourselves in English education, many of us allowed ourselves to neglect our languages. Though our parents were concerned about what was happening to us and nationalist groups bemoaned what this was doing to our country and culture, there was little anyone could do about it. It did not help that in the classroom, we were tacitly discouraged from talking in Sinhala and Tamil.

June 2022

The result was that most of us came out knowing next to nothing about our language, religion, culture, society, even our people. I was no exception. Westernised, though in a half-baked way, I could not relate to the world I had been born to.

Lester James Peries recalled undergoing a similar experience at his school.

Some of us became snobs. Even today, I can’t speak Sinhala properly.

So did Osmund Jayaratne.

If, instead of Latin, we had been given a good grounding of our native tongue, Sinhala, I would have been very happy, but unfortunately this was not to be.

And so did Gamani Corea.
[F]or my generation, the lapse [in Sinhala] was a serious one and a handicap for later life.

These were sentiments I could relate to.

A few months after I began my job, I realized that things would only get worse. I may have been writing to newspapers on local art and culture, but I was writing in English, thinking in English, operating in English, living and breathing English.

My new workplace made me more conscious of these deficiencies. A good copywriter tends to be rooted in his surroundings. He or she tends to be bicultural, if not bilingual, and finds it easy to operate in both English and the vernacular.

My problem was that I was far from being bicultural, in any sense.

It was a hole I needed to get out of, and fast.

My coworkers had, in their own way, stepped in and helped me improve somewhat. Yet they were too busy. I realized I could expect only so much from them.

Someone else had to step in. Someone from outside.

———————————–

Freelancing has its advantages and privileges. You aren’t constrained by deadlines, and you are free to write what you want to write. You get to associate with people who relate to you. You get to write on them. Often you get to learn from them.

One night in 2017, the Secretary of a school society called me. The society, the Library Readers’ Association, the oldest student-led association at the school, was organizing an exhibition-cum-quiz. They wanted a judge for the quiz, and an article written on the event. Since I had been a quizzer and was a writer, I seemed to fit the bill.

I duly served as judge, and the article, which the boys fortunately liked, duly got published. In Sri Lanka, however, events never really end: they lead to other events. Soon I was getting requests from them to write on other societies and clubs, including sports events. These were not typical press release articles, but full-length human-interest essays, different from the journalistic pieces that get written about such events.

It was then that I realised that most of these boys came from a world completely different to the world I had grown up in. Though they attended what was seen as the leading public school in the island, Royal College, they had entered it through the Grade Five Scholarship, and had been boarded at the school Hostel.

Hailing from villages that lay far away from Colombo – you had to fulfil a distance threshold to be boarded at the Hostel – they represented an antithesis of my personality. They had lived their entire childhood at home. As I talked with them, they regaled me with stories of the culture shock they underwent after they moved to Colombo.

At first our parents were worried. Would we grow up away from them?

The first English song I ever heard was our school anthem.

Some classmates mocked me, they made fun of the way I talked.

Becoming the butt-end of jokes, they adapted by either suppressing their identity or, in the more likely scenario, insulting the insulters.

In our first two years, we mocked those who spoke only in English in our classrooms.

They seemed too nerdy, too polite. They were like babies.

That, however, only heightened their fear of the language.

Of course, we were afraid of English. Some of us avoided it, others tried to master it. A few pretended it wasn’t important until it was too late.

Sri Lanka may be a small island, but it is home to an incredible range of cultures and subcultures. There is nothing monolithic about any of them.

A colourful bunch, these boys came from practically every corner of the country. In the way they talked, behaved, the way they interacted with outsiders and with me, they differed from one another. They were a microcosm of their country. Talking to them, I encountered the societies they hailed from, societies I had grown away from.

Slowly, but surely, our associations developed into friendships. As time went by, we realized that we looked at the world in different ways. Yet in one sense we were kindred spirits: we were all learning and absorbing a new culture.

For them, it was a process of discovery: living in a city, English, Western culture.

For me, it was a process of rediscovery: Sinhala language and literature, Buddhism.

In the end, we ended up teaching one another.

It was almost like Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders. The difference, of course, is that they were as much an exotic Other to me as I was to them.

And like Malinowski and the Trobrianders, there were points of disagreement, difference, and incompatibility between us, often too big to bridge.

I found their views on culture and society intriguing. Yet beyond a point, perhaps because of my cultural conditioning, I found it hard to accept them. As an agnostic, for instance, I couldn’t relate to their religious beliefs, particularly their belief in the supernatural. Still, they expressed such sentiments with a lot of conviction.

Gods do exist.

When we feel them, we believe in them, we give them power.

Come over one day, I will show them to you.

If this is one of the more insightful comments on God-worship in Sri Lanka, or anywhere, I have come across – the notion that it is our belief in them that gives them power – it’s because it was said by someone who spoke his mind, someone who responded instinctively to such matters without intellectual obfuscations.

In other words, these boys weren’t just teaching and guiding me. They were immersing me in their moral code, their cultural universe. It was not exactly an encounter between two worlds. But it was an encounter between two ways of looking at the world.

To be sure, I still have not got out of my cocoon. I am still ignorant of cultural matters. I still make gaffes. There are times when I feel like a foreigner in my country.

Yet, largely through the intervention of these boys, I have acquired a decent understanding about things I was unaware of.

———————————–

Late last December, describing my attempts at introducing him to sociologists and historians and at getting him to talk to them, one of these boys expostulated:

You are putting me in a hole.

To which I replied:

No, I am taking you out of it!

Life ultimately amounts to the people we meet and the friendships we form.

It is about what we do for one another, the lengths we go for others.

It is about teaching new things and learning new things.

Or, as my friend put it, about falling into holes and getting out of them.

Like what these boys did for me – and like what I like to think I did for them.

Uditha Devapriya is a writer, researcher, and analyst based in Sri Lanka who contributes to a number of publications on topics such as history, art and culture, politics, and foreign policy. He can be reached at .

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Tea Library Hikkaduwa comes alive

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The Tea Library was opened recently in the heart of Sri Lanka’s most popular beach and surfing town Hikkaduwa. This is another venture of tea industry veteran Malinga Herman Gunaratne best known for ‘white tea’ – probably the most exclusive tea ever produced in the world. The Tea Library adds a new dimension to Hikkaduwa with its three story terracotta exterior and welcoming interiors.

It offers accommodation, a restaurant and a tea shop. The third floor which provides spectacular views of the beach and the Hikkaduwa town, features a mural covering the highlights of Herman Gunaratne’s life in the tea industry by artist Chandana Samarakoon. Architect Shayam Kumaradas has transformed this once derelict building into one of multiple uses and chic interiors. It features hand painted Mandalas by artist Maneesha Sewwandi on the walls of the bedrooms.

Opening times of Tea Library are 9 am – 10 pm daily and you can have an exclusive group tea tasting experience, or use the stunning upstairs restaurant space for events such as book launches.

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