Eradicating the ‘land mafia’ and reviving agriculture | Daily News


Eradicating the ‘land mafia’ and reviving agriculture

The Government has launched a major agricultural drive to boost the country’s food production in the midst of the economic fallout of COVID19. As a result, there is heightened enthusiasm and interest in the field of agriculture and this has generated the common belief that we have the potential to emerge strongly as a self-sufficient country in a COVID19 world.

Understandably, Sri Lanka is facing unprecedented economic challenges due to the global pandemic and the majority of our traditional avenues of income have taken a severe beating.

For instance, Sri Lanka’s migrant workers are facing immense difficulties as many countries in the Middle East region are still grappling with the socio-economic impact of the COVID19 outbreak. Although Sri Lanka is set to reopen the international airports for tourists from August 01, we still don’t know when the industry will recover from the crisis it is in. Our apparel sector is also facing myriad hardships as some of our key markets have been drastically affected by the pandemic and the industry is now looking to explore new avenues to mitigate the damage.

To recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic, Sri Lanka needs to shift to more advanced exports, including value-added agriculture. Continuing our growth trajectory and greater development in the agriculture sector is important for food security, reduced reliance on imports, and export diversification.

This is where the land sector can play a vital role in reviving the economy. Over the years, the institutions handling our land sector have failed to address some core issued faced by the people and this has led to mismanagement of state lands, bringing down the overall productivity of the agriculture sector.

Several state authorities including the Land Commissioner (Divisional Secretaries derive their powers from the Land Commissioner), the Wildlife Department, the Mahaweli Authority and the Land Reforms Commission govern Sri Lanka’s state lands. The Land Reforms Commission — the institution which I head — was set up after the land reform laws were introduced by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government in the mid 70s.

Land Reforms Commission

It is “assumed” that the Land Reforms Commission is in charge of approximately 1.1 million acres of state lands. The most critical issue here is that the Land Reforms Commission still does not have a central land registry to identify the lands coming under its purview. The absence of data and information has led to rampant corruption, abuse of power, mismanagement and under-utilization of State lands. This is one area we intend to fix in order to resolve long-running issues in the country’s land sector.

A sizable portion of lands leased out by the Land Reforms Commission to various entities over the years remain under-utilized. Some lands are held by illegal occupants. The Land Reforms Commission is currently in the process of reviewing the lease agreements and probing those who are occupying the state lands illegally. Some regional plantation companies are also notable culprits in illegally acquiring state lands and this has deprived our agriculture sector of large swathes of cultivable lands.

A common issue faced by our officials is that many people who are mismanaging and illegally occupying state lands have political links. They have used their political affiliations to plunder the resources owned by the State. This ‘land mafia’ has been in operation in this country for decades and successive Governments have failed to address this matter in a decisive manner.

However, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has given clear instructions that action should be taken against those who are mismanaging and illegally occupying State lands. The President’s view is that State lands should be given to those who are capable of putting them into good use. Political links and affiliations should not play any role in deciding who is to get State lands for cultivation or for any other project. The President is determined to depoliticize this process as it will ensure that those who are capable of contributing to the country’s forward march will get the right opportunities.

There is a misconception among the public that the lands belonging to the Land Reforms Commission are easy to grab. Some people believe that if they occupy a land belonging to the Land Reforms Commission for a certain period of time, they will get a legal standing at some point. It need to be stressed that the Land Reforms Commission, under the guidance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is steadfastly committed to ensuring maximum productivity of our lands and leave no room for illegal occupants of State lands to hamper the growth of our agricultural sector.

Whilst following the correct processes to distribute state lands, we are also striving to resolve structural issues that have exacerbated the problem over the years. Creating a centralized database of lands will ensure that we have access to information on how our lands are being utilized and help our reviews on their current status. In addition, this will significantly minimize room for corruption and other strong-arm tactics adopted by the so-called ‘land mafia’ in the country.

It is important to know that physically surveying lands and creating a central database is a painstakingly long exercise. That is why it is important to digitize this process and adopt new technology in implementing the programme. Although this project will entail a cost, it will be a much-needed investment for the future of many sectors.

National policy for lands

We also need a national policy for lands incorporating all State institutions involved in the land sector and guide them on how to surmount the challenges. There were times when these institutions were operating in silos without any cohesive plans on how the state lands should be governed and regulated. Although we work with some understanding under the current Government, it is important to have a comprehensive land policy and set up the institutional framework to implement it.

Agriculture sector and lands are inseparable. The Land Reforms Commission and other institutions involved in the same sector are geared to support the Government’s plan to revive the agriculture sector of Sri Lanka. I am particularly glad that President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa understood the importance of this sector and has given the correct strategic direction to proceed with our work.

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