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Hidden Hands Take Over Eastern Land

Written By NAFSO on Monday, December 02, 2013 | 10:34:00 AM

By Camelia Nathaniel
Valathapitty Water Tank
Land issues in the Eastern Province is a matter of grave concern to the Muslim people in the region who claim that certain areas that were not under threat during the war have now been acquired by the state.
The Government has been accused of arbitrarily taking over substantial extents of lands purportedly for development activities, such as tourism and other industries, disregarding the legitimate residential and livelihood needs of persons historically inhabiting such areas, and making arbitrary allocations of such lands to chosen others in a manner that is discriminatory and lacking in due process and transparency.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader on land issues leader of the Democratic People’s Front Mano Ganesan said that the armed forces, on grounds of security, have continued to hold in its possession substantial extents of lands owned by civilians. “Voluntary immigration is not an issue, but the problem is the colonisation by the government where they are bringing in families from the South and resettling them in the North and East without first completing the resettlement of the original settlers. This practice changes the whole demography.”
Demographic colonisation
When the government acquires land, he said, there must be some principles and policies adhered to, yet, here, without any such democratic process the army simply takes over people’s land. “This is becoming a military state. There are entire areas in the North too where people from the South have been brought and settled, having given them land and housing and other facilities. The government is slowly, but surely, colonising the Tamil and Muslim populated areas by settling the Sinhala settlers from the South.
We are not against living with people of other ethnicities, but the point is that while there are still so many Tamil and Muslim families who were originally from these areas who have not been resettled in their original lands, it is not right to bring in others from the south and give them lands in the North and East,” he charged.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress MP Hassan Ali said that, on the pretext of setting up military camps to fortify the country’s security, the government is gradually acquiring the land of the Muslims. He said that, in certain areas in the East, army camps have been set up, whereas during the height of the war these areas were not under any threat.
Grounds of security
Sammanthurai
“Last week, we went to the Pottuvil Divisional Secretariat and had a meeting with the land owners who had lost their lands and the Government Agent was also there. Even the GA’s decisions are not carried out and it is evident that there is some force which is far more powerful. Very recently, they had the Deyata Kirula program and exhibition in Ampara and, for security for the venue, the government requested the farmers to hand over their lands to set up the security points temporarily.
Hence, they took over around 150 acres of the lands belonging to the farmers. However, after the Deyata Kirula, the farmers had requested their lands back through a lawyer. The army had written to them that, as these lands were taken over temporarily, they would be handed back to the farmers. Now, however, all these lands are still under the control of the army. So, we met the GA and told him of the current plight of the farmers and he said that the land should be returned.
The army had later chased away the farmers who had tried to go there and commence their cultivation activities in this area,” he said.
According to Ali, in certain areas, even sugar cultivating lands have been taken over from the Muslims several decades ago for the Hingurana sugar factory. However, when the sugar factory was later closed down, he said, even then these lands were not handed back to the original Muslim owners.

“When they went to court and obtained a court order stating that these lands should be handed back to the owners, even these court orders were not carried out. These are the problems faced by the Muslims. According to records, nearly 30,000 acres of land belonging to Muslims in the Ampara district alone are in question.
“The problem is that no one knows who is controlling the land issues, because even the GA has no say in these matters and everyone is silent on this issue,” he said.

Muslim community land to be submerged
However, Hassan Ali claims that the latest problem facing the Muslim community is by the Irrigation Department in Valathapitty in Sammanthurai where a reservoir which stores water only up to about seven feet has suddenly been decided by the Irrigation Department to be increased to ten feet. “The department of Irrigation has come and informed the farmers that they had received orders from higher authorities to increase the water level up to ten feet. They are doing this deliberately because when they increase this water level to ten feet around 300 acres of land belonging to the Muslim community would be submerged. This is another way that the government is depriving the Muslims of their lands.
“We even wrote to the Irrigation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva urging him to give us a meeting, and we had around three meetings prior to that in Ampara. There we decided that the final decision on whether to raise the water level or not would be taken subsequent to the meeting with the minister in Colombo. While that meeting is pending, the department is still going ahead with the raising of the water level regardless of the consequences to the Muslim land owners,” he said.
Devious ways
Ali claims that it is evident that there is some hidden hand that is active in trying to somehow deprive the Muslim land owners of their lands, and they are doing it in numerous devious ways.
“Hence, what we want is a special Presidential Task Force to be set up to look into and resolve the land disputes of the Muslims,” he said.

Meanwhile, when contacted by The Sunday Leader regarding the allegations levelled by the SLMC MP, Military spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasuriya said that the army is not occupying any land that belongs to any individual. “The land that we are using is with the approval of the District Secretary of Ampara and belongs to the government and not to any individual in any way. Further, the army does not arbitrarily decide on military deployment,” he said.
Irrigation Department denies deliberation
The Sunday Leader also contacted the Irrigation Department with regard to the charges levelled against them by the Muslim land owners, pertaining to their decision to raise the water of the Valathapitty tank, the Regional Director of the Irrigation Department S Weerasinghe denied that it was a deliberate act aimed at taking over the lands of the Muslims.
“This reservoir that these people are talking about was originally built to hold ten feet of water, but the people in this area had removed the planks that were fixed at the spill and reduced the water level to seven feet. However, due to the build-up of silt at the bottom of the tank only about three feet of water could have been stored.
However, we have now renovated the tank and repaired the spill as well and secured the planks in a manner that it cannot be removed, and now the tank is able to hold ten feet of water to be utilised for cultivation purposes. This Valathapitty tank which is around 350 acres in extent and ten feet in depth helps cultivate around 1070 acres of land,” he said.
He said that Valathapitty was an area that was under the control of the LTTE and, therefore, the tank was never properly maintained and it was abandoned for quite a long time.
“However, after the end of the war, the Irrigation Department has been renovating all reservoirs throughout the country and taking measures to enable the farming community to recommence their farming activities. Similarly, the Valathapitty tank too was renovated in this manner and restored to its original state when it was constructed in the 1950’s. So, there is no truth in the allegations that the Irrigation Department has now decided to increase the water level to ten feet, but the tank was renovated for the benefit of the farming community in the area,” he said.
While the Muslim community in the East allege that the government is forcibly acquiring their lands, according to government sources, the majority of lands being occupied by the Muslims are those where people have occupied them but do not have legal rights to these lands.
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