A country cannot exist without land. Its history, culture, religion, economy and the very life of its inhabitants are tied to the land through long centuries. In fact, sovereignty and freedom has little meaning without land. The importance of this tangible necessity is such that it can hardly be described.
Therefore the forthcoming land debate in Parliament is of paramount importance for several reasons. One aspect of course is the simple fact that the Government cannot be allowed to sell off prime plots of land for ‘development’ without due process and legal approval. It cannot decide that a specific area or region in the country is given or sold outright to a certain party or company without understanding the full impact of such a move.
Nor can the Government be allowed to sell the land without tender procedures, clear and transparent contracts and good governance to show what the proceeds from the transaction have been used for. There is little doubt that the Government has been deficient in all these points regarding land transactions, giving a shady hue to many deals that need not have been so.
Sri Lanka is strongly feeling the absence of a land bank to catalogue what State land is where and how it is being used. The very fact that few people have a comprehensive idea of how State land at a certain place is being used creates space for corruption to step in. It also removes public ownership to the background so that people are unaware or unable to know what is happening. This means that politicians and their cronies can have a strong hold on the land and what happens to it.
Evidence of this can be seen in the China National Aero Technology Export Import Corporation – otherwise known as CATIC – deal. Shangri-la underwent a similar barrage of publicity before the Government clarified its position. The Government recently accused opposition parties of blocking the US$ 136 million CATIC deal, insisting that opposing the outright sale of land had resulted in Sri Lanka having to settle for a lesser deal. This is a rather illogical assumption.
The Government is answerable to the people and as representatives of the people, the Parliament. If all dealing concerning CATIC is above board, then the Government has plenty of opportunity to clarify these issues before Parliament. In addition, if the deal with CATIC is not as profitable as expected, surely the Government can then call for more tenders and encourage other companies to make bids. There is no need to stick to one company unless a contract has already been signed to this effect – another point that the Government should have divulged to the public.
The Government sidles out of sticky political situations of selling land outright by saying that the land is only leased for 99 years. However, it must be remembered that this is longer than the lifetime of a generation. Land that is leased out, especially for up-market projects, means that an entire generation of the common man will lose access to it. This statement is not being made to discourage or criticise land sale in Sri Lanka, but to emphasise on the importance of making the right decisions and using the appropriate tools for ensuring that all stakeholders emerge with a deal that is beneficial for them.