Yahapalana, land and Trimble
Posted on March 30th, 2018

KAMALIKA PIERIS

Sri Lanka‘s land and property ownership issues need careful and urgent appraisal, said economist Sumanasiri Liyanage. No country can achieve fast growth ensuring prosperity for all without proper ownership of land and property. One serious constraint to both industrial and agricultural development is the unavailability of land, said Sanderatne. There is an urgent need to ensure the availability of land for industry, agriculture, and agribusiness enterprises. There is a dearth of land available for commercial and other productive purposes and land is urgently needed to increase our agricultural exportable surplus too.

The government must set up a mechanism for the speedy release of state lands for such export enterprises. Government is the main owner of land in the country, including a large extent of unutilized land, owned by the railway, he observed. There is a need to urgently examine the land utilization pattern in the country and enable the most productive use of land, jettisoning obsolete land laws, concluded Sanderatne.

The main focus however, is on foreign ownership not local ownership. Many foreign investors have been turned back owing to the long delays in, and inability to obtain land, observed Sanderatne. Foreign investors and local entrepreneurs will not be able to undertake large scale export industries and cultivate and process food crops that have an export demand.

Yahapalana has responded to this. Yahapalana budget 2017 announced that Yahapalana will remove restrictions limiting land ownership rights of listed companies which have foreign owners. It will also remove the restrictions on foreigners’ ability to purchase condominiums below the 4th floor.

There is another important issue relating to land, the interesting tussle going on regarding land surveys. Trimble Navigation Ltd, a US company based in California, had in October 2015, forwarded a proposal for ‘Title/Tenure Regularisation and Cadastral Registry Modernisation’ in Sri Lanka. This proposal has been rejected earlier in 2010.

A high level committee headed by senior advisor to Prime Minister R. Paskeralingam had recommended this proposal. The Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) approved it and Cabinet accepted it. Trimble had asked for USD 170 million and Yahapalana had beaten it down to USD 154 million. The money would come as a loan at an interest of four percent. The loan is to be paid back in 15 years inclusive of a grace period of five years.

The Finance Ministry’s External Resources Department was authorized to negotiate with Trimble to prepare land survey maps and create a streamlined database of 3.6 million parcels of state owned land. Trimble would first survey 2.5mn blocks of land around the country, excluding the Western Province and issue title deeds. Then it would survey 2.5mn plots of land in the Western Province.

The Government Surveyors’ Association (GSA) announced in January 2017, that there was a move to hand over several operations of the Sri Lanka Survey Department (SLSD), including Land Information System (LIS) and Aerial Survey Operations to Trimble Navigation for 15 years. ‘The required plans are already in place to complete the transfer. It appears that the US government had forced Yahapalana to agree to this, said the surveyors.

They also added that the CCEM headed by the Prime Minister, had neither submitted a Cabinet paper nor waited for the Special Committee’s decision, before deciding to grant the contract to Trimble Inc. There was no calling for tenders either. Yahapalana had also failed to consult the trade union before taking this decision.

The Minister for Lands told the Surveyors Association, that the government has decided to implement the proposal and the Association must support the project. Trimble would work with the Ministry of Lands to identify 2.5 million state-owned lands and help to give permanent titles to the persons currently occupying these lands. Bim Saviya programme launched during the previous Rajapaksa regime was a failure. Under this programme, the department surveyed 1.2 million parcels of land over 10 years and issued a mere 405,000 title deeds from 2005.

There is a need to survey 1.1 million parcels of Jaya Bhoomi and licensed land within two years. The Survey department did not have the technology or the efficiency to achieve this target. Considering the many loopholes that exist in the current land registration system in Sri Lanka, acquiring foreign technology to establish a system that maintains sound ownership and transaction records, a system that is difficult to manipulate, will go a long way towards ensuring property rights.

GSA was not impressed. Trimble would be paid USD 154 million. The Survey department could provide deeds and prepare modern cadastral maps at a cost below 40 million US dollars. The department was already using satellite technology for land surveying in the Western and Sabaragamuwa provinces.

Indrajith Wijayaratne, a surveyor who had worked in Sri Lanka and USA wrote in to say that he had taught at the Institute of Surveying and Mapping at Diyatalawa (ISM), and was confident that this job can be easily handled by the Survey department, provided the needed resources are available. The surveyors already know GPS surveying and probably know Geographic Information System software such as ArcInfo. The project will need state of the art equipment including survey grade GPS receivers, computers with large storage capacity and software. The foreign exchange needed for these will be much less than the amount of the contract offered to Trimble.

GSA had many other concerns about the Trimble project. According to their information, the main functions of the Sri Lanka Survey Department, as well as its Land Information System (LIS) and Aerial Survey Operations would be vested in Trimble for 15 years. Survey Department staff and resources will also go to Trimble. 400 public surveyors and 200 additional private surveyors with crews will serve under Trimble, conducting pre-survey, survey and data collection.

If Trimble is given the management of Sri Lanka Survey Department, then Trimble will take control of Sri Lanka’s electronic land register and details of lands. This will be a threat to country’s national security, said the surveyors. Trimble would also be in a position to obtain sensitive information regarding Sri Lanka’s land. There could be misuse of geological and other data gathered during the extensive surveying.

Trimble will use satellite imagery to survey the land and will issue land certificates based on those calculations continued GSA. GPS surveys and actual ground surveys differ by a significant degree. The lands already surveyed will be mired in boundary disputes due to this variation. Even though Trimble has the technical knowledge of creating the data base they will therefore need local help to ensure accuracy of that data.

Most of the individual claims in Sri Lanka are very small parcels, and disputes are many. Trimble has specified that it will not get involved in adjudication. Therefore this task, the most difficult and trying task in land tenure, will fall upon local surveyors. They will have to adjudicate these individual land claims, at the Department‘s own cost. This should be looked into before proceeding further if the public is not to pay the extra cost of litigation, said GSA.

The government then changed its position. They were not outsourcing the work said the Surveyor General. They were simply acquiring an upgraded system that would make the process more efficient. The work would be carried out by the Survey Department.

Wijayaratne’s observations about Trimble supported this. Wijayaratne said that as far as he knew, Trimble was a company that produced survey grade GPS receivers and other survey instruments. ‘I am not aware of their undertaking of surveys of land that involve individual ownership boundaries.’ According to Wikipedia, Trimble makes Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, laser rangefinders, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), inertial navigation systems and a variety of software processing tools. Trimble sells to land survey, construction, agriculture, transportation, telecommunications, asset tracking, mapping, utilities, mobile resource management, and government.

GSA said this was not about technology as the Surveyor General said. One can’t help wonder why the Government would spend Rs 25 billion to import a software system. It doesn’t make sense. We suspect that operations would eventually be handed over to Trimble and this is why we demand that the Government stop this”.

If the present technology used in Colombo is the same as the one proposed by Trimble, there was no need to give a contract for such a large sum, to obtain something we already have, continued GSA. Also, would Trimble be offering the latest in the field of land surveying, or would it be an older version no longer used in the West. GSA had no chance to debate the issues since GSA had not been consulted.

Trimble has included biometric scanning for personal identification. This could compromise their personal security, said GSA. The government answered back. At a time when land fraud has become a threat to property rights, several countries have resorted to bio-metric solutions to eliminate fraudulent practices. The Bhoomi Project” in India and e-Tanah in Malaysia are two systems where land registries confirm identities prior to transactions using thumb impressions in addition to signatures.

The move to hand over the task of drawing land survey maps to Trimble was not acceptable to the Survey Department employees. Survey Department trade unions launched a token strike in December 2017, followed by a three day strike in March 2018.

Thereafter, a committee headed by the Land Ministry Secretary, including members of Survey department unions and the Surveyors’ Association was appointed to discuss issues pertaining to the regularization of title deeds, modernization of preparing cadastral maps and the involvement of the US Company Trimble Inc.We have also taken into consideration the hidden costs of the project and the concerns of the unions and these issues are being discussed at present by the appointed committee.

There are costs to be borne by the Survey Department, Land Commissioner General, Registrar General so on and all these costs will be considered and discussed by the committee and included in the report,” said the Committee. Why has the government not considered the proposal of the Survey Department? It is financially more profitable and has long term benefits, the committee was asked.

There was also concern over the country’s sensitive data and survey details getting into the hands of a foreign company. The data is not considered secret or sensitive. They will be managed by the Survey Department. There is no room whatsoever for the country’s sensitive or secret details to get into the hands of any external or unauthorized entity, replied the government.

Discussions between the unions and the government are underway, reported the committee. The strike action launched by the unions has been called off ‘having understood the issue and the requirements of thousands of people waiting for their deeds.’

A Special Committee of 3 Members of Parliament was also appointed to look into the matter. We met the GSA at the Parliament Committee Room and decided to have another meeting in April. Until then we will not take a decision,” they said. We have asked for the relevant documents of Trimble Inc. and for a Cabinet paper to be submitted,” he added. There was no need to worry, as no contract would be given without first, the committee’s decision, and second, Parliament’s approval, and hence, the protest was unnecessary.

3 Responses to “Yahapalana, land and Trimble”

  1. Christie Says:

    Land Land Land that never grows on earth.

    Who owns our land.

    Not the Sinhalese, compare land owned or occupied by Sinhalese and Indian Colonial Parasites in per capita basis.

    It is the lawyers who make money out of land sales. This has tom change immediately.

  2. aloy Says:

    This is a clever way of extracting sensitive info of our country. CEO of Trimble – Steven Burglund, a Nordic sounding name. Do I see a Norvegion connection?. They are selling product previously owned by Nordic countries. Tekla Orion which I use is one. Do not even touch them with a barge pole. This may even be an attempt to grab our work for Trimble India just like Siemans do.

  3. aloy Says:

    According to a book by some experts on fourth industrial revolution which I read some time ago, data is more valuable than oil. This has been validated by Facebook recently who lost some data to a British firm that caused a loss of over $ 60 billion to the company. All the more reason to avoid this type of disaster.

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