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Help bring a feasible solution

Sri Lanka being an island situated in the Indian Ocean comparatively is not that large in extent. It is only 25,000 square miles or 65610 sq.km. Soil erosion taking place naturally by the seaside, and the land slides taking place almost annually in the hill country cause further shrinking.

The buildable land is thus diminishing. The catastrophic tsunami of December 2004 made the State to take safety measures and order the public not to build any dwellings or commercial buildings within 200 meters from the beach. Of the available extent of land about 17% is covered by natural forests.

In the recent past it was roughly between 20 to 22% but due to the cutting of trees and clearing the jungles for chena cultivation the extent of the forests too is being reduced.

This too is a serious issue and it affects the water conservation causing drying up which brings about droughts. Consequently this situation on the whole badly affects agriculture and the very life of the humans and the animals is made difficult.

The demand for houses and other constructions

For sustaining life and maintaining an eco-friendly atmosphere trees and foliage are essential. The fresh air we breath and the pure water we drink are made available by the naturally grown flora.

It is believed that in any country the forest coverage of the total extent of land has to be around 25% which in our country is very much low. Obviously for construction purposes timber has to be found by cutting trees, and for cultivation purposes jungles have to be cleared.

Yet precautions have to be taken not to exceed the limit. Herein lies the problem, whose responsibility is it? The State or the Public? It has to be both. Education should be geared to produce civic minded citizens.

The public should not be irresponsible. They should not engage in illicit felling of trees or unauthorised clearing of jungle land. Not only the public, but also the politicians should be much concerned.

Instances where politicians encourage their stalwarts in this type of unlawful activities have been brought to light. Reforestation has to be undertaken to keep a balance in forest coverage.

Few years back the authorities concerned planted trees even along river banks and on either side of the roads. This trend is almost disappearing today.

There is a huge housing and construction boom throughout the country, though this is mostly true in urban and semi-urban areas.

Expansion of trade and commerce since the introduction of the liberal economy, the trek of people towards highly populated and commercialised areas in pursuit of jobs in sectors such as trade and information technology, the upward social mobility as a result of education reaching the less developed areas in the country are some of the causes among so many others which had led to the demand for houses of one’s own, and also for better houses than the existing ones. Hence the demand for more and more land for construction purposes has increased.

The utilising of prime land such as fertile coconut or rubber lands or even paddy fields is detrimental to development. This trend has to be stopped.

There are instances specially in the central province where paddy fields which once yielded rich harvests had been degraded and are now being used as yards for parking imported already used cars and other vehicles which are displayed for sale.

The filling up of marshy lands also for construction dwellings or commercial buildings is rampant in urban areas. This has already caused havoc during rains when areas hitherto free from floods are being now submerged by floods resulting difficulties to the public as well as transportation.

More than anything else the using of fertile land for buildings is a grave obstacle to sustainable development. Where is development of land heading to? Once rich agricultural land has been converted into barren land covered with concrete buildings, thus giving rise to another problem - environmental degradation.

The movement of people from villages and even very remote areas towards urbanised areas cannot be stopped. Lifestyles have changed. The present day youth from villages fight shy to cultivate whatever land that is available in which their fathers cultivated paddy and vegetables.

They are satisfied to do a labourer’s job in a town either in the government or private sectors, or drive a trishaw as the owner driver some times or work as a paid driver for another trishaw owner.

So their plots of land are neglected, and the reasons given for not cultivating is the exorbitant cost of production entailing hired labour, and meeting the cost of manure etc which too had gone up in price. The question of landless people of course is a different issue, and need to be addressed separately.

How to strike a balance

Finding solutions to the problems discussed has to be severally attempted by the State, the public and other institutions, government or non-government, which think in terms of developing the country where one is born and bred.

As far as the State is concerned the land policy and the laws that are already in vogue have to be reviewed, strengthened and amended where necessary to stop the devastation of fertile land and letting cultivable land go barren.

It is quite appropriate that the present government’s venture in “Let’s grow and let’s develop the country” can boost up the farmers and the youth to take to cultivation.

Regarding the haphazard way in filling up whatever marshy are available for building purposes has to be stopped through strict rules and regulations enforced by the municipal councils, urban development authority, environment authority and such institutions which are responsible for planing and approving construction of dwellings or commercial buildings in urban areas.

Innovative steps have to be taken to lure village youth for cultivation by improved methods of farming and harvesting and by giving the entire process a face-lift.

Applying Co-operative schemes, formation of village youth clubs, facilitating the obtaining of loans from banks, regularising and updating the aid giving system for small scale tea and rubber plantations are some of the devices that can be adopted.

Some of these measures may have been taken already. It is better to find out where they have gone wrong or are inadequate because the problems still remain.

In spite of the fact that some village youth do not like agricultural pursuits, and take up minor jobs in towns, and live in slum areas, and others go jobless, there can be found yet others who have proved themselves wiser. Those are the pore persevering and industrious village youth engaged in agricultural development, poultry farming and the like.

The difference may be due to the standards of education attained by the latter group. Such enterprising youth have to be further encouraged and their example should be made available to the others in order to change their attitudes.

Apart from the land policies and laws to be enforced by the State, the educated public has to co-operate with the government in taking up other steps possible to bring about a feasible solution to the existing problems of housing and construction on the one hand and sufficient agricultural development on the other.

Construction should not endanger agriculture

Land tenure in Sri Lanka is largely State dominated

From recent past the country has witnessed a rapid development in the construction industry. There is hardly any part of the country which has not seen newly built houses, factories, business establishments or any other type of structures.

This construction boon can be attributed to the availability of employments to people either in this country or abroad, to the encouragement given by the government and above all to the people’s necessity to live in their own houses.

From about 1977 the government has not only encouraged the prospective house builders but also built houses by itself under the various organisations like the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, National Housing Development Authority, Building Department etc.

Apart from this, State Banks have arranged special loan schemes for the benefit of house builders. State Mortgage and Investment Bank is an organization especially established for this purpose, Because of this encouragement and the interest shown by the people a new category of people known as Property Developers came to the view to provide lands and built houses for people.

These property developers are ubiquitous: you can see them everywhere. Their main business is to purchase lands, make them buildable by levelling or filling and sell them to people who dream to build houses.

To sell these lands they publish advertisements in Newspapers or distribute leaflets or hang banners on or around the land and at main towns, with picturesque artworks and alluring names. Ironically, the names given to these lands are worth than the land itself; they are so attractive.

Why are such a vast number of property developers engaged in this business? The simple answer is the growing demand for lands and houses. People have realised the importance of having a house of their own.

According to the stories of housemaids who labour in the Araban countries their main objective is to build a house and live happily. This indicates that they have understood the meaning of the adage; A shelter to head is a solace to the mind’.

However, both the government and property developers are faced with a very series problem with regard to buildable lands.

This problem is aggravated every day. While the population is growing at rapid rate, the extent of land does not grow at all; it is naturally shrinking. Sri Lanka is an agricultural country and our staple food is rice; therefore a usable amount of land should be devoted for the cultivation of food varieties.

In the meantime, we have to be alert to provide alternative lands to people who will be displaced by natural phenomena like tsunami, landslides flood etc. In addition, another potion of land has to be devoted to provide infrastructure facilities like roads, playgrounds, office buildings and so on.

In this backdrop the government as well as properly developers were forced to find space from agricultural lands, especially from coconut and rubber plantations.

Under the village expansion scheme the government acquired some stretches of land form coconut and rubber plantations, while the property developers were on the look out for lands, from the coconut or rubber smallholders.

Though housing is a basic necessity of man after food and clothing, yet I feel that the excessive use of coconut and rubber lands for housing purposes is not advisable in view of the economic and other benefits that we derive from these crops.

Coconut tree is known as the ‘Kapruka’ the all giving tree to Sri Lankans. It has been grown in this country from time immemorial. History says that the Europeans who landed here in the sixteenth century were enthraled by the luscious coconut trees which walled our shores.

Coconut grown lands though appeared as estate or smallholdings make room for other varieties of crops such as pepper pineapple fashion fruit etc. In the homestead cattle and buffaloes are tethered under coconut trees, where dung is used as manure.

About rubber, I have to say a different story, Rubber is not an indigenous plant in Sri Lanka, yet it was grown extensively for its vast source of income. Till recent times a man who possessed at least a half an acre of rubber land was a wealthy man and a man of consequence in the village.

Generally, rubber is grown on the mountain slopes; wet zone provides ideal climate for the rubber tree. While protecting the moisture content of the soil, its soft foliage provides cooling effect.

I can still remember how I came from school along the boundary of Ellakanda Rubber Estate treading over the pebbles of murmuring brook. The water course was repleet with zillion fresh water fingerlings tadpoles and mossy plants.

Already a vast extent of coconut and rubber lands has been sacrificed for the sake of house building an for other construction work; yet this humanitarian problem of provision of houses to people cannot be stopped or postponed.

It has to be an on-going process as much as the cultivation. On one hand development would not be conspicuous or meaningful unless there are better houses for people and on the other hand what is the use of having concrete structures at the cost of precious vegetation and natural beauty of over land.

My humble view is that the necessity of housing should not override the protection of existing rubber and coconut lands, natural vegetation and the environment.

Counterpoise construction and agriculture

Land is one of man’s fundamental resources. According to research conducted out of the land area of 6,552,500 ha in Sri Lanka the extent available for use is only 5,527,300 ha.

Though the figure looks sufficient for a small country like ours, land is becoming more and more scarce and often misused with a growing population of 18.6 million using it for various purposes including agriculture and construction.

Therefore whether Sri Lanka has made the best use of their land or not, deserves serious consideration. With the opening of our economies during the early 1980s, foreign investments began to rise in Sri Lanka.

New industries had to be set up and export oriented business ventures were begun recruiting locals for employment. Factories, storage facilities, new businesses offices had to be built and all these required land space specially in towns and villages where there was a large labour force available.

As suitable land space were difficult to find the foreign invester and other local business entrepreneurs faced rising land prices.

Constricted availability of land and depleting unprofitable returns from our large coconut and rubber plantations made these estate owners to sell their lands at high prices due to the shortage of such property to land developers.

The result has been a drastic drop in plantation crops. Because of this shortage coconut prices have sky rocketed and domestically in short supply.

The need for a proper policy for land management has long been felt by Sri Lankans who are still restricted by some threadbare acts and regulations which govern land utilisation.

The first and use policy of Sri Lanka was drafted in 1995 but failed to have any effect on the problems related to land in the densely populated country mainly due to the inapplicability of the laws.

Land tenure in Sri Lanka is largely State dominated with over 80 per cent of land under the ultimate ownership of the State. Of the entire expanse of 6.5 million ha over two million is under agricultural use. Of this 1.72 million ha (63 per cent) is owned by the State but farmed by private farmers under varying tenure arrangements.

The remainder consists of private owned urban land 0.01 million ha) and (4.24 million) ha of State owned forests, sparsely used land and land reserved for the future use. Since recent times coconut and rubber plantation owners have begun to sell their properties to newly mushroomed land developers.

They have cut down these precious trees cleared the land to build modern housing units to be sold using popular brand names. These property developers quote high prices according to the location of their sites. Several major issues confront increasing agricultural problems.

The gradual reduction of agricultural land, agricultural population, agricultural labour, land degradation, declining per capita land, pose a threat to future productivity. The majority is small and marginal producers with land holdings less than 2 ha.

The per capita land availability is declining further due to population pressure urbanisation, industrial and housing development. The small farm size is a dominant factor in agricultural production.

The water resource scarcity is another major concern as there is a competitive demand for water by the domestic, agricultural and industrial sectors. There is always a political desire to satisfy the domestic demand and the emerging industrial demand at the expense of the agricultural demand.

Because of rising land values people have encroached on Government lands in various parts of the country. A major cause of this is that we don’t have a proper land utilisation policy.

Because of this we have given the best coconut lands to set up large scale industries and industrial zones. We should be aware that there are so many poor people who have encroached on areas such as railway lines, irrigation sites and canal banks. They are not the real problem.

The real problem is the large areas of land taken by various persons who are politically or otherwise influential. Such influential people have done over 75 per cent of the encroaching.

Lands: Balancing interests of property development and agriculture

Sri Lanka is developing fast. There is a huge housing and construction boom throughout the country. The burgeoning middle class is building more houses, getting away from rented houses.

Commercial buildings are being built everywhere. This construction boom has naturally led to a demand for more land. We see hundreds of advertisements for land blocks in Sunday newspapers, replete with beautiful colour photographs.

These lands are often advertised as “fully developed” meaning they have been cleared, tarred and provided with water. But what the advertiser won;t tell you is that the land has probably been a fertile coconut plantation or even a rubber plantation. It is also not uncommon for them to fill up marshy lands.

This has become a serious issue. On one hand there is a need for development. On the other, we have to save our remaining coconut and rubber lands which produce precious agri commodities. This is a dilemma that the State and the public face.

What are your views on this crucial issue?

We like to hear from you as the Daily News Debate shifts its focus on to “Lands: Balancing interests of property development and agriculture.” Make your views known in less than 1,000 words. Daily News Debate, Daily News, Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, PO Box 1217, Colombo, or via e-mail to [email protected] before February 06, 2008.


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Ceylinco Banyan Villas

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