THE GENERAL ELECTION OF 1956 Part 4F
Posted on March 8th, 2021

KAMALIKA PIERIS

Philip Gunawardena is best remembered for the Paddy Lands Act of 1958. The main objective of this Act was to provide security of tenure of a permanent and heritable nature and regulate the rents paid by tenants. However its implementation was flawed owing to administrative deficiencies, observed Nimal Sanderatne.

The first Paddy Lands Bill was passed in 1953 under the UNP. It was a limited attempt at tenancy reform and was focused on Hambantota and Batticaloa alone. Under this Bill, tenant and owner should sign an agreement, valid for 5 years. Philip found that in Hambantota, only two such agreements had been signed.  Landlords avoided written leases. Without clear tenancy agreements, the benefit was for the money lender, said Philip.

Philip brought a revised Paddy Lands Bill before Parliament. It was entirely designed and implemented by Philip. It was a comprehensive Bill dealing with the whole question of tenancy, security of tenure, rights of landlords and tenants. It was to ensure long term security for the tenant and limited very strictly the rights of the land lord.

The new act gave the ande goviya tenure without a time limit.  The number of tenant farmers affected were around 300,000. Philip said the Bill would also free the tenant from his traditional servitude to the landlord. The tenant’s children had to work in the landlord’s house as servants, often without pay. Due to pressure from SLFP the bill did not include Colonization schemes.

Philip introduced his Paddy Lands Bill in 1957.  Meegama said that this Bill was perhaps the most important Bill presented in Parliament since 1947. This Bill will benefit the Kandyan peasantry more than any other worker. The Kandyan peasant is the most down trodden, said Philip. Philip spoke in both Sinhala and English on the Paddy Lands Bill.

Paddy Lands Bill was passed on Dec 19, 1957, with 61 for and 7 against. The Paddy Lands Act provided permanent security to the thousands of tenant farmers, who formed about 51 % of the cultivators. The Act also regulated the rents payable by the tenant to   the land owner. The Act said that the landlord share was to be limited to a fourth of the crop.

The lands were to be administered by a cultivation committee elected by the landlord and cultivator in the proportion of  3/4th to be of cultivators. The power of the landlords was reduced by weighting these Committees heavily in favour of the actual cultivators. The Act  also created a new Agrarian Services Department , to ensure its implementation.

The first role of the Cultivation Committees was to help in the implementation of the tenancy provisions of the Act (Sections 8-19). The Committees were also authorized to act as intermediaries between landlord and tenant in the collection of rents, etc., thus reducing the personal hold of landlords over their tenants. This would also bolster confidence of the tenant-cultivators to actively claim their rights under the law.

Secondly, the Cultivation Committees were given important development functions, with powers for the advancement of paddy cultivation in their areas. They were given access to technical advice in the form of Agricultural Extension Officers and Village Cultivation Officers, who were made ex-officio members of the Committees, but with a right only to speak but not to vote at their meetings. It was hoped that with such technical advice emanating from within, and adopted by the Committees, would enable both paddy production and water-management to be greatly improved by the farmers.

A third major innovatory function of the Cultivation Committees was in respect of (irrigation) water management, with the Committees taking over the functions of the Irrigation Headmen (Vel Vidanes) at field level. These functions, among others, included enforcement of rules relating to cultivation dates, clearing of channels, fencing, etc, as well as improving water management  said Chandra Arulpragasam..

There was provision in the Paddy Lands Act to confer powers to the cultivation committees to make mandatory decisions for better cultivation practices in order to enable maximum production, added Garvin , but this section was not activated.

Chandra Arulpragasam observed that the Act was  an important innovation. For the first time in  South and South East Asia, legal powers in the implementation of tenurial reforms and the management of irrigation and cultivation at field levels were given to an elected body. The idea that an elected body of semi-educated farmers could take over functions from the government bureaucracy was revolutionary at that time.

The rent payable on a particular field was fixed as one-fourth share of the harvest. Only the cultivator would know how much that harvest was. The Act recognized that such questions could only be answered at field level by farmer groups. This was at least 40 years ahead of its time, concluded Chandra.

There were a lot of objections to the Bill, including tremendous opposition from the SLFP in the MEP, especially CP de Silva. The landlords were up in arms. The paddy owners objected strongly. Nothing should be done to disturb to the ancient  hallowed practices, they said.

Crippling amendments were made to the Bill. Philip said he had wanted to implement the Paddy Lands Act in the entire island within three years, but under pressure from landed interests and capitalist interests, he had to make it five years. The number of landlords in the Cultivation Committee was increased to 25%. They could refuse to attend.  They did and the committees could not function.

There was euphoria among the tenant-cultivators and agricultural workers when the Act was passed, heightened by their participation in the formation of the Cultivation Committees, which they felt would support them against arbitrary eviction and higher rents. Nanda Wanasundera recalls, there was one tenant on the paddy land in Peradeniya, owned by her mother, who insisted she must get three fourths with Mother getting only one fourth.

Garvin Karunaratne  said,  I introduced the Paddy Lands Act in the Matara District and was ably assisted by a band of  able Divisional Officers. We held publicity meetings everywhere where we whipped up the enthusiasm of the people through oratory.  All of us  followed the Hon Minister’s prowess in oratory, without the fire.  When landlords evicted cultivators we held inquiries and prosecuted the landlords.  With the management of paddy cultivation in the hands of the cultivators we were on the path to advanced management.

But things did not work out that way. The landlords got the Cultivation Committees declared legally invalid.  The Cultivation Committees were legally invalidated soon after their formation. Since the law and relevant regulations stipulated that all Cultivation Committees shall have twelve members, the refusal by landlords to elect their representatives would render most of the Committees invalid anyway, observed Chandra.

Faced with this situation on the ground one year later, we took the position (with the agreement of the Attorney-General) that if the landlords failed to elect their three representatives, the cultivators could elect the full twelve members of the Committee, since they (the cultivators) were entitled to elect a number not less than three-fourths” of the Committee.

 The landlords then consulted Mr. H. V. Perera, the highest legal luminary in the country. He argued  in Appeal Court that since the landlords were to elect a number   but had elected nought representatives. Nought is not a number. The Cultivation Committees were therefore  not legally constituted. On this abstruse mathematical argument, the Court decided that the Cultivation Committees were not legally constituted.

All past and future actions of such Committees were also declared null and void. This ruling encouraged the landlords to boycott the Cultivation Committee elections all over the country, thus rendering them legally invalid and their actions legally void, said Chandra.

Cultivation Committees  collapsed in the year following their legal invalidation. This collapse caused great demoralization among the cultivators, since they had gained great socio-psychological support from the Committees in standing up for their rights. With their collapse, many tenants surrendered their rights, accepting their plight as hidden tenants” with no rights under the law. There was chaos in the paddy fields too, since there was no agency left to ensure that the fields were fenced or the water issued.

Since these Committees had by law taken over important irrigation and cultivation functions (the vel vidanes having been abolished) their invalidation led to a breakdown in the common arrangements for cultivation and irrigation, thus causing complete chaos in the field.

The Department of Agrarian Services organized rounds of field-level meetings, trying to encourage the Cultivation Committees to hold fast, promising that legal amendments would soon be forthcoming to remedy their legal incapacity. But these amendments came too late. They were passed only after the landlords had already evicted their tenants, and only after the Cultivation Committees had been seen to have failed in their cultivation and irrigation duties, thus losing the confidence of the farmers themselves, concluded Chandra.

Chandra Arulpragasam had more to say. In early 1958, I was appointed Deputy Commissioner of the Agrarian Services Department, in charge of implementing the Paddy Lands Act of 1958. In setting out to draft the Administrative Regulations under the Act, I came across a number of structural, legal and operational considerations, which probably had not been foreseen by its authors. This was probably the first time that it was being looked at by an administrator with field experience – and the first time that it was being looked at by someone who was new to the Paddy Lands Act and to its thinking.

The legal  provisions of the Act  were likely to be challenged and its implementation obstructed. This made it necessary to examine its provisions from an adversarial point of view – which revealed many legal and administrative vulnerabilities. Also, there were new problems of implementation. For example, the Act safeguarded tenants, but there were no records of tenants or of landlords. New records of land ownership, tenancy, etc. would have to be created from scratch before implementation could even begin.

The Commissioner of Agrarian Services happened to be abroad for three weeks. Thus, not only was I was the Acting Head of a Class I, Grade 1 Department at the age of 28 years, but I also needed policy-level help, because this was hitherto unchartered territory in the country.

 So I asked for an appointment with the Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Phillip Gunawardene, the author of the Act, whom I had never met before. The Minister was charming, affable and even fatherly, over a cup of tea and cakes in Parliament. Getting down to business, I brought to his notice the number of legal difficulties and some of the administrative problems that needed his guidance.

In administrative terms, it was clear that there had to be two separate elections: one for the owners to elect their members, and one for the actual cultivators to elect theirs. This required that separate electoral lists be prepared for the owners and separate ones for the cultivators. Given the predictable opposition from the landlords, every name on every electoral list was liable to be challenged, while the elections themselves could be disputed in law.

I was so intent on my presentation of the potential legal problems of the Cultivation Committees that I failed to notice that he had tossed his spectacles on the table, which was a sign (I was told later) that he was losing his patience – and his temper.

 I was only half way through my list when he suddenly banged his fist on the table with a loud noise, stopping me abruptly. Young man” he exclaimed: Have you come across these difficulties in the field – or are they in your head?” When I pointed weakly to my head, Go and work”, he thundered! And when you come across these problems, then you come to me!”

I scooped up my files and scooted .This was the first and last time that I saw Mr. Phillip Gunawardene. Within a few months, every one of the legal and administrative problems that I had raised with the Minister had  come to pass, said Chandra.

The Act needed certain changes. 50 amendments had been prepared.  Philip pointed out that the necessary amendments to the Act were ready when he was asked to resign. But they were not introduced and many tenants were evicted from their lands. They blamed it on Philip, observed Meegama.

The enforcement of the Act depended on its proper administration. But Philip could administer the Paddy Lands Bill for only one year. Philip was pushed out of the Cabinet, to be succeeded as Minister of Agriculture by Mr. C. P. de Silva.

C.P de Silva  was opposed to the Act, He decided to let it fester in its own legal difficulties so as to discredit it countrywide. He was not prepared to push through the amendments which had been prepared,  and  which were badly needed to plug the legal loopholes, nor was he prepared to  publicly repeal the act, since it was popular.

The Paddy Lands Act, even without amendments could have been successfully implemented under a supportive minister and dedicated officers in the Agrarian Service Department, said Meegama.  ( Continued)

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