One of the common practices of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, especially in the North and East of Sri Lanka after the end of the conflict, was the forceful encroachment of land that belonged to private owners, often from the most marginalized communities, to implement ‘development initiatives.’ According to the National Physical Plan 2011 – 2030, passed in 2007, large swaths of land in the North and the East were earmarked for development activities and at the end of the war those areas were taken over by the security forces instead of resettling those who were displaced. The present administration has also allowed this policy to continue.
The entire Walikamam North in the Jaffna District is held by the military and those who used to live and work in this area have been languishing in IDP camps or live on rented properties for seven long years. A 50-acre land that was inhabited by about 45 families in Iranamadu, Kilinochchi is now held by the Army and the Air Force. A similar situation prevails in the Malayalapuram North, Kilinochchi where a 20 acre land, which was the home to 20 families, is held by the Army. Meanwhile a 10 kilometre stretch of beach front, which was used by 300 fisher families along Punagari, Mulangavil and Iranativu areas are now being held by the Navy. Around 50 acres of Paraviyanpark, Kilinochchi which was used by about 75 families is now held by the Army. Ten acres of Thiruwaiaru, Kilinochchi are also being held by the Army.
A 525-acre land in Kopapilaw, Mullaitivu, which was used by 320 families is now declared as a high security zone and is controlled by the security forces. A 90-acre land, where 84 families used to live in Puthukudiyiruppu, is now controlled by the Navy.
Engaged in agriculture
Another 2,500 acres from Mollikulam, Malankadu and Marichchikaddi villages are also held by the Navy. Around 310 families, engaged in agriculture and fishing, used to live in these areas and most of the families are now dispersed across the Northern Province. A one kilometre beachfront at Vidaththaltivu, Mannar is held by the Navy and the Army and this has led to the displacement of 200 fisher families. Navy, Army and Police have also established camps in a three-acre land in Pallimune, Mannar which was previously inhabited by 22 fisher families.
In some of the lands held by the security forces, we have seen the establishment of tourist hotels. In Panama, in the Ampara District, occupied by the Navy, a hotel named Lagoon Cabana has been established. Meanwhile, a hotel named Thal Sevana is built at Walikamam North and Navy maintains a number of tourist bungalows in Mollikulam, Mannar.
Sampur, Trincomalee was earmarked as the site for a coal power plant by the National Physical Plan and thus 3, 200 hectares of land was declared a high security zone, but in fact was reserved for the establishment, ignoring 1651 families who were displaced from the area. A number of environmental organizations lodged lawsuits against the construction of the power plant and the Courts, after considering our requests, directed the government to terminate the project. After the verdict, most of the land, apart from 505 acres, was handed back to those who were displaced. This is only one example to illustrate that the declaration of a land as a high security zone, is in most cases a pretext for reserving the said land for development initiatives. This is the main reason why a number of people, displaced in the North and the East, are still not been resettled. Even now close to a 100,000 Sri Lankans live in 110 refugee camps in India. Nine hundred and seventy-one families, displaced from Walikamam North, live in 32 IDP camps. In addition, a significant number of people live, for over 7 years, in houses that belong to their relatives. Since a significant number of families were settled away from where they used to live, they face a number of social and economic issues.
At the end of the war 1,220 acres in Panama, which was inhabited by 350 families, were taken over by the Navy and the Air Force. Initially the home to a number of camps, the land is now where a tourist hotel, Lagoon cabana, is established. In 11 February 2015 the Cabinet decided that the land should be returned to the people, a decision that was reiterated by the Courts of Law and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. However, still the Security Forces, due to political backing from sections of the government, has not released the land. Most of those who were displaced from Panama are living with their relatives and eek a living as labourers.
The situation is not limited to the North and East. Similar scenarios are being played across the country and a significant number of people, who were displaced due to development activities, have not been compensated or resettled in habitable areas. For example, around 750 families who lived off agriculture and animal farming were displaced due to Uma Oya Multi-Purpose Scheme, Moragahakanda and Kalu Ganga irrigation schemes. They have been resettled in a number of locations which are alien to them.
They had not been compensated and they were not resettled according to the guidelines set by the National Involuntary Resettlement Policy and Land Acquisition Act. Most of those displaced do not have access to necessary infrastructure, including drinking water, and only a limited number of affluent persons among those displaced have received compensation and suitable alternative land. This is another indication that compensating and resettling the marginal communities is not a priority for the government or those implementing these projects. Since these people have been settled in lands which are unsuitable for their traditional livelihoods, agriculture and animal keeping, they now face grave economic difficulties.
Three thousand one hundred farming families from Bandarawela and Ella Divisional Secretariat areas have been displaced due to side effects of Uma Oya Multi-Purpose Development Scheme. There has been no systematic mechanism to resettle or compensate them and to ensure that there is a smooth transition for these people when they start a new life.
The government also continues to lease out large swaths of land used by small scale farmers, which often contain their water sources, to multinational companies. Those companies have been given large swaths of land which are of great importance to farmers. This has adversely affected the farmers who have now been compelled to sell their land to the multinational companies and become labourers in the large scale agricultural projects. Meanwhile, Salapearu lagoon, Trincomalee has been taken over by a company for salt mining and prawn farming. This has displaced about 3, 000 fishing families. Kuchchaveli beach, Pasikudah and Nilaveli have also become no go areas for 6,000 fishermen due to massive tourism oriented development projects. Most of these fishermen have been forced to migrate to other areas, often leading to conflict.
Colombo Port City Project, which was temporarily halted by the government, but was allowed to recommence after a few superficial amendments, has endangered the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen.
One of the main reasons for the displacements is the incomplete Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) which has not properly taken into account the extent of the impact of the compensation that needs to be paid for those affected.
(Written by Director of Environmental Conservation Trust)