By Nirmala Kannangara in Ratnapura – Photos by Thusitha Kumara
Accusations have been leveled against the National Gem and Jewellery Authority (NGJA) Ratnapura for its failure to uphold justice when issuing gem mining licences due to interference from a higher official.
The NGJA has deprived the Saman Devalaya of its custodianship to a gem mining land (Weligodella Watta in Gonapitiya, Kuruwita) for the past few years and instead issued a gemming licence to a person who produced illegal documents as proof of ownership to the particular land.
Basnayake Nilame of the Saman Devalaya, Sunil Shantha Weerasekera made a complaint to the NGJA Head Office in Colombo requesting an impartial inquiry against its officials in Ratnapura for their failure to uphold justice and retain the custodianship of Weligodella Watta to the devalaya.
“We have all the proof to prove that this particular land is a nindagama where the devalaya is the sole custodian. Although we have produced the documents to the NGJA to prove our custodianship, the Authority has still failed to accept it. They have given a gemming licence to one Arunasiri Dissanayake who is working hand in glove with a higher official at the NGJA even though he doesn’t have legal ownership,” the Basnayake Nilame told The Sunday Leader.
According to the 1870 Commissioner’s Book or Praveni Idam Lekhanaya, Saman Devalaya is the sole custodian of the land in question. All such custodian lands are called nindagam and they have been given to villagers to enjoy the benefit of the land on one condition – they are bound to serve the devalaya when the necessity arises, especially during its annual pageant.
Weerasekara Nilame said that villagers in the Sabaragamuwa Province were honoured to live in the nindagam and serve the devalaya. Once their duties were discharged, a note of thanks was issued in appreciation, he said. Weerasekara Nilame said he had furnished copies of the appreciation letters given to the Heenmenike family to the NGJA as proof that the land belongs to the devalaya. In addition he produced the 1870 Commissioner’s Book and other relevant documentation to prove ownership. Yet, he said, the NGJA refused to accept the legal documentation, instead accepting those furnished by Dissanayake, which he claimed were illegal.
“Even the original owners – the Heenmenike family claimed that they have served the devalaya for many generations to prove our custodianship but to no avail,” added Weerasekera Nilame.
According to the Basnayake Nilame, there are no restrictions on anyone who has received official ownership of these lands to sell the property to any other party but the buyer is still bound to serve the devalaya and abide by the devalaya rules.
“In this instance Arunasiri Dissanayake could purchase the land from the Heenmenike family and claim ownership. However he has to pay 1/10 of his income from the sale of gems to the devalaya as its land share. Since there is a belief that there are many valuable gems in this land, Dissanayake does not want to accept that the devalaya has custodianship, as he will have to give the 1/10 land share to the devalaya,” said Weerasekera Nilame.
Adding a fresh twist to the whole scenario, Heenmenike who has a life interest in Weligodella Watte, accused the NGJA of not obtaining her approval when issuing the licence to Dissanayake.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Heenmenike and her son Anura Hemantha queried why the NGJA failed to get Heenmenike’s approval when issuing the gemming licence to Dissanayake.
“What was the reason for the NGJA to issue a gemming license to a land in which I have the life interest? Life interest is more powerful than that of legal ownership. True, this land has been sold to Dissanayake by my son, but I still retain the life interest. Unless the owner gets my approval he cannot apply for a gem license and the NGJA cannot issue one till my approval is given. However the NGJA has given the licence illegally which is questionable,” claimed Heenmenike.
Meanwhile Anura Hemantha said that he could not trust the NGJA officials and added that all his attempts to prevent Dissanayake from obtaining an illegal licence were averted by the NGJA.
“The entire staff at the NGJA Ratnapura is corrupt and they do not follow legal procedure. They would go to any extent to support any party illegally if bribed and would give gemming licenses depriving the owners of their ownership. So many times we asked the NGJA not to issue licences to Dissanayake for this particular Weligodella Watta but still they went ahead,” said Anura Hemantha.
Meanwhile Anura Hemantha said that he had been informed by friends that the Director of NGJA, Nalaka Tiyambarawatte is involved with Dissanayake in gem mining. He added that villagers have seen Tiyambarawatte visiting the Weligodella Watta gemming site very often in the late evening.
“Not only have they seen Tiyambarawatte but also a police officer in a blue TATA police cab visiting the site very often. This was why Dissanayake openly said that he has no issues from the Kuruwita, Eheliyagoda and Ratnapura police as well as from the NGJA as they are all his friends,” claimed Anura Hemantha.
Meanwhile the Basnayake Nilame was recently informed by one of the officials who look after the interests of nindagam in Gonapitiya, that Dissanayake has illegally unearthed a gem stone from the Magalakumbura land which also belongs to the devalaya.
“I immediately called the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Mahinda Balasuriya and wanted him to appoint a team to investigate into this. I cannot allow Dissanayake to engage in illegal gemming in devalaya properties,” Basnayake Nilame said.
He added that a special CID team led by ASP Panamaldeniya had visited the area and questioned the people involved with the illegal mining.
Later it was revealed that Dissanayake ordered his workers to excavate this particular area for gems for three consecutive nights. On the third night they found a pale blue coloured stone said to be a ‘Geuda’ which weighed about 250 grams, the Basnayake Nilame said. He added that the stone had been sold to one Chandare Mudalali in Kuruwita for Rs. 80 million, according to the workers. “However since then Dissanayake and his family have gone missing in fear of arrest by the CID,” added the Basnayake Nilame.
Meanwhile the Basnayake Nilame told The Sunday Leader he was surprised when he received a telephone call from Thiyambarawatte one evening while the CID investigations were ongoing, promising the devalaya its 1/10 land share from the sale of gems to the value of Rs. 19.7 million.
“Although I was told that the money would be given to me within a couple of days it never happened. This clearly shows that Thiyambarawatte was directly involved in gem mining with Dissanayake. This would be the same reason for the NGJA to prevent the devalaya and Heenmenike from their rights to the particular land,” said the Basnayake Nilame.
Meanwhile highly placed sources of the NGJA on the basis of anonymity told The Sunday Leader that Director Thiyambarawatte has bought a brand new Prado jeep recently following the transaction with Dissanayake.
“We were told that he has received Rs. 15 million as his share. He even came to office in this ash coloured vehicle on several occasions and had visited the NGJA site in Moneragala recently. But since his involvement in gem mining with Dissanayake has come to the fore, he has stopped using the Prado now. We are surprised the Minister allowed a Director to get involved in gem mining as it is completely against the National Gem and Jewellery Authority Act No. 50 of 1993. According to Clause 4 of the Act, a Director could be disqualified to continue as a member of the Board if he holds or enjoys any right or benefit under any contact made by or on behalf of the Authority,” claimed the sources.
Refuting the allegations Nalaka Thiyambarawatte told The Sunday Leader that he had no involvement in gemming with Dissanayake.
However when asked why he then promised to pay Basnayake Nilame a 1/10 land share from the sale of gems, Thiyambarawatte denied having any such conversation with the Nilame.
“All these allegations are made to sling mud at me. Even the Prado jeep I am using is not mine, it belongs to my brother,” he claimed.
Meanwhile Dissanayake who has gone missing since the CID initiated an investigation spoke to The Sunday Leader and said that he and his family had not gone into hiding to avoid arrest, but because he had received death threats.
“All these claims that I sold a gem worth Rs. 80 million is a fabrication. The gem I sold was valued at only Rs. 5 million,” Dissanayake added.