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News Features  


 

LAND GRABBERS RAMPAGE IN EAST

By Vasantha Maldeniya
Many local and foreign investors’ attention has turned to the scenic locations such as Arugam Bay, Panama, Potuwil, Pasikudah and Nilaveli along the coastline in the East, with the tourism industry reviving fast, following the end of the war. Construction work on several tourist hotel projects in Nilaveli, Pasikudah, Arugam Bay and Panama is already proceeding apace.
Of these promising tourist attractions along the East coast, Arugam Bay and Ragamwela have already won worldwide fame as ideal locations for windsurfing. Several web sites, too, have cited this shoreline as a paradise for wind-surfers. No wonder that the investors have begun putting up tourist hotels in these areas, soon after the launching of the `Negenahira Udanaya’ mega development project. The land value of these areas is also spiralling sky-high giving the tourist potentialities.

Boon for investors, bane for farmers
Tourist potentialities along the East coast which hold out a heyday for investors have posed a threat to the livelihood of traditional chena cultivators who have been raising food and cash crops on lands bordering the East coast. Some of these cultivators have already been threatened to vacate the lands they cultivate now. Meanwhile, a gang of hooded goons toting firearms who descended on the farms of the chena cultivators at Ragamwela on July 17 night had chased away the cultivators after destroying their huts and assaulting them.
Cultivators who were displaced from their chena plots say that the goons had threatened them saying: “Leave these lands immediately. We have received orders from the top to chase you all away. You will be killed if you come back here.” The goons who had burnt down the huts of the cultivators on July 17, later attacked the Valukaramaya temple nearby and driven out the resident monk Ven. Unawatune Vijayawansa Thera.

About 80 farmer families
There are about 80 farmer families living in the Ragamwela area eking out a living from crops they raise peanuts, green peas and manioc. They would till their plots cleared by scorching the jungle cover during August, and cultivate them after the October rains and gather their harvest in January the following year. They have been cultivating their lands on a regular basis, except during brief periods when the terrorist threat was most menacing.
Some of these cultivators’ are the legal owners of their chena plots and possess title deeds to prove their ownership. However, most of them had taken to chena cultivation after obtaining `Cultivation Permits’ from the Regional Secretariat at Potuvil. Some cultivators said that they could not get their permits renewed due to the destroying of the Regional Secretariat by terrorists sometime ago.

Ragamwela cultivators
Potuvil Police had arrested these cultivators sometime ago charging that they had encroached on state-owned lands and produced them before courts. They had been enlarged on bail later. The cases filed against chena cultivators are still pending in courts. Meanwhile, the Department for Conservation of Forests says that they have excluded the cultivation plots in Ragamwela and other areas in the East from forest reservations. Cultivators who were chased away on July 17, say they are unable to go back to their farms due to the presence of armed goons there.
Ragamwela bordering the Panama-Potuvil main road covers a two-kilometre long stretch of land along-side the shoreline. The soil of this land is very fertile. Value of this land is inestimable for investors planning to build tourist hotels.

Sambodhi Viharaya flattened
Meanwhile, Sambodhi Viharaya, a Buddhist shrine situated close to Arugam Bay lagoon was flattened to the ground using bulldozers by a gang that descended on the place under Police protection. When the Security Task Force (STF) personnel in a camp situated near the temple had protested the destruction of the temple, Police had told them that the temple buildings were being demolished on a court order. However, further inquiries revealed that no such court order had been obtained by those responsible for demolishing the temple buildings. The Sambodhi Viharaya was located on a scenic spot between the Arugam Bay shoreline and the lagoon, an ideal location for a tourist hotel. The person behind the demolition of the Buddhist temple is a Colombo businessman, a son of a high ranking Police officer who is planning to put up a tourist hotel who received the prompt assistance of the local Police, informed local sources said.
Viharadhipati of the demolished Samobodhi Viharaya Ven. Sivuralumulle Dhammasiri Thera said that the temple was opened in 2003 by no lesser a person than President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was the opposition leader at the time. The businessman who came to demolish the temple buildings had first called at Potuvil Police station and asked for Police assistance to demolish the temple saying that it was sited on a land belonging to him. Police had then advised him to seek court intervention to have the issue resolved.

Peddling political influence
Undeterred, the businessman had later brought pressure on Potuvil Police through a high ranking Police officer based in Ampara. Having got over the initial refusal by the Potuvil Police to intervene, the businessman had now asked Police protection to visit the temple premises which he claimed as his land. Police complying with his request had assigned two Policemen to proceed to the temple premises along with the businessman. However, he had gone back to the temple this time with a bulldozer and had got the temple buildings bulldozed to the ground while the two Policemen were passively looking on.
Viharadhipati Ven. Dhammasiri Thera said that the Sambodhi Viharaya was built on a permit normally issued in respect of a state land duly gifted for a religious purpose and it was Potuvil Regional Secretary at the time S.L. Segu Ibrahim who issued him the permit to build the temple. The monk said that former Minister M.H.M. Ashraff extended his personal patronage towards building the temple.
“There was no court case regarding the ownership of the temple premises. It is a diabolical lie to say that there is a court order to demolish the temple. Even Tiger terrorists did not destroy this temple. Tsunami too spared the temple. But now a businessman from Colombo comes and destroys the temple. I am asking the President to hold an inquiry into this act of vandalism,” said Ven. Dhammasiri.

Farmers demonstrate
Meanwhile, a group of farmers from Panama-Ragamwela area staged a demonstration on the Okanda- Potuvil Road to protest against torching their huts. They also set fire to tyres blocking the road. The protesters peacefully dispersed when DIG (Eastern province) Edison Gunatillake who visited the scene of protest gave an assurance to them to get a response from the authorities before August 31. Protesting farmers also asked DIG Gunatillake to conduct investigations to ascertain whether the goons who rampaged through their chena plots were personnel from a security force or belonging to a gang of thugs. However, it still remains a mystery as to who descended them on July 17, torched their huts, assaulted them and chased them away at gun point.

Son of an influential official
Meanwhile, people in the area say that they have received information that a 100-acre land had been reserved as a site for a 5-star hotel and there is a powerful government politician behind this move. Reacting to fears being articulated by people in the area, a high ranking security official said that certain powerful businessmen in the area are engaged in this land grab posing as proxies of powerful government politicians to mislead Police.
People in the area who provided us with information relating to this massive land grab, requested us not to disclose their identity as they feared reprisals by the land grabbers.

It is understood with peace returned after three decades of terrorism, the Government is taking measures to revive and promote the tourism industry. The tourist potentialities along the East coast could not be adequately tapped due to the menacing LTTE presence there. The infrastructural development, now under the `Negenahira Udanaya’ is beckoning to the East local and foreign investors interested in tourism-related projects.

Land should be alienated in a legal way
It goes without saying the Government has to take measures to provide such investors with adequate security as well as lands to site their projects. However, government should not allow power-wielding individuals to grab farmlands in Ragamwela and Arugam Bay areas after chasing away the traditional chena cultivators. What the Government should really do is to identify lands ideal for locating tourist industries and take them over after relocating the cultivators to be displaced to other suitable areas. The Government can later alienate the lands thus taken over to prospective investors on a long-term lease. We hope that the Economic Development Ministry will work out a programme in this connection in collaboration with the other authorities concerned.