Mega land-grab imminent? Beware of rushed laws and agreements:
Posted on June 3rd, 2019

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya Courtesy The Island


After Narendra Modi took oaths on Thursday for a second time as India’s Prime Minister, having steered the BJP-led coalition to a landslide election victory, there was a string of announcements relating to diplomatic engagements involving Sri Lanka, India, China and the United States. Modi will visit Sri Lanka on 9th June, President Maithripala Sirisena told a press conference in Delhi, where he attended the Indian leader’s inauguration ceremony. Before that Modi will visit the Maldives, his first overseas trip as prime minister. The Indian media anticipates that the Indian PM will have bilateral meetings with the US and Chinese leaders in September and October, respectively.

Discussions on what the US calls its ‘Indo Pacific Strategy’ are to figure at meetings of senior US officials in Singapore for the Shangri La Dialogue, and in India – a ‘major US defence partner.’ US Assistant Secretary for Political Affairs Clarke Cooper is on a tour of Singapore, India and Sri Lanka from 29th to 6th June.

Against this backdrop, an unusual statement appeared on Friday titled “Indo-Lanka relations under the second term of Modi – In the backdrop of Chinese foothold in SL and US proposed SOFA,” on the President’s Media Division (PMD) website. It is in the nature of a commentary on Sri Lanka’s relationship with India which, it asserts, is ‘at a high now.’ The gist of it was to reassure Delhi regarding Colombo’s foreign policy moves.

Worrying about India’s possible reactions to controversial defence pacts with the US, it said “… Sri Lanka will have to be very careful not to antagonize India while shifting foreign policy decisions or entering into a new pact to replace Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) with the United States. … Now, the US proposes to replace ACSA with a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).”

Repeating the US’s misleading assurances in relation to the SOFA – that there is no need to fear the establishment of a US military base, that Sri Lanka ‘will retain all its sovereign rights’, etc. – the article asserts that “Currently, there is an acknowledgement in Washington with regard to India’s regional supremacy and its role in regional security and stability” and that “there is an understanding of the need for cooperation between India and the US to check rapidly expanding Chinese influence in this region.” Inexplicably, it adds: “Hence, it is essential to keep India informed about Sri Lanka’s intended military cooperation with any outside country, especially with a superpower such as the US.”

External pressure

Could the uncharacteristic comment posted on the PMD website be interpreted as an indirect admission that Sri Lanka has in fact agreed to sign up on the SOFA (which, till now, officials have been at pains to say, is still only ‘under discussion’)? Or is this an indirect (if somewhat clumsy) attempt to reassure India – timed to coincide with the president’s visit to Delhi for the Indian president’s oath-taking ceremony? Whatever the purpose, the sub-text of the essay suggests that political leaders are more interested in appeasing external forces and bowing to pressure from diverse quarters, than guiding policy in a manner that serves the national interest. There appears to be much external pressure being exerted to finalise this pact that gives carte blanche to US defence personnel entering the country, and threatens Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.

The SOFA is not the only agreement that the US has been pushing to conclude in Sri Lanka. The country’s pro-US-prime minister led government is working hard to conclude or implement a number of other pieces of legislation and policy at the behest of its Western patrons, against all odds. If there is a sense of urgency in these efforts, it is because time is running out. With a presidential election only six months away, and the government showing a dismal report card on its performance in most areas, its Western backers know that its days are numbered. Hence the pressure is turned up, to fast-track the desired laws and agreements. It is the US-friendly UNP leadership that will be instrumental in this process. The public will need to be on alert because once these laws are passed there is no possibility of judicial review, under the constitution.

One example is the proposed Counter Terrorism Act (CTA). From the moment the Easter Sunday attacks took place Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been vigorously arguing that a new law is needed to curb terrorism. This is despite multiple arguments that have been made showing that there is ample provision in the country’s existing legislation, to deal with terrorism. It has been pointed out that amendments to the existing Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) would suffice. It is an open secret that the eagerness to have the CTA passed, stems from pressure to comply with the demands of the US-led UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka, which calls for repeal of the PTA.

Land reform and MCC

Parallel to the defence-related agreements and arrangements sought by Western powers, such as the SOFA, a number of laws have been drafted and/or passed relating to the economy as well. Reforms that would bring the economy in line with the Western neo-liberal model, represent the ‘other side of the coin,’ of the defence agreements that advance US hegemony on the military front. Among them are the Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC), new laws that will radically transform patterns of land use and ownership such as the proposed Land Bank Act and already-gazetted State Land (Special Provisions) Bill and, according to some, the revised National Physical Plan 2050 (NPP).

The Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC) is said to be a US grant for development purposes. The MCC was developed in secrecy by a team located in the Sri Lanka prime minister’s office. A government minister in parliament even denied its existence. There has been no public discussion on it. The MCC’s approval of the $480 grant for Sri Lanka was announced by government just days after the Easter Sunday attacks – when one would imagine that Sri Lanka’s investment credentials were at an all-time low. The secrecy, the odd timing of the announcement and other aspects would suggest that the MCC is being imposed by the US for its own purposes, rather than for the benefit of Sri Lankans.

From the little that is known, the MCC relates to two projects, on Transport and Land. The goal of the Land project is said to be to ‘increase land market activity’ and the ‘tradability of land’ through ‘policy and legal reforms.’ Eighty percent of Sri Lanka’s land is owned by the state. Making such land a ‘tradable commodity’ or creating a ‘land market’ as the MCC aims to do, has long been advocated by the World Bank to bring about what it calls ‘market based land consolidation’ for the benefit of private (including foreign) investors.

Dispossession of farmers

Environmental groups and land rights activists who are aware of details of the MCC, are strongly opposed to the project. Smallholder farmers cultivate land on the basis of state grants or other forms of tenure short of outright ownership. Since farmers are chronically indebted, the reforms underway will in all likelihood lead them to sell their plots, activists have pointed out. The end result will be mass dispossession of farmers and other rural populations engaged in animal husbandry, fishing etc. These groups whose livelihoods will be destroyed, are the source of food sovereignty, says Sajeewa Chamikara from MONLAR, a grassroots land-rights organization.

The government’s moves to remove the bar on foreigners owning land, the removal of the 50-acres limit on individual ownership, the proposed ‘Land Bank’ (that will bring publicly owned land under a single hub and make it available for private investors), are inter-related.

“You need to look at all the factors to see the final outcome” explained Chamikara. One needs to ask, if the government is genuinely interested in addressing the land-related and other multiple problems faced by farmers, why doesn’t it address these issues directly, in consultation with the farmer organisations – rather than bowing to pressure from foreign ‘advisors’ who may have their own agendas?

The State Land (Special Provisions) Bill was gazetted on 27.03.19, and the National Physical Plan 2050 was recently reported to have got presidential approval. Both were strongly opposed by the president, during the November-December 2018 constitutional crisis. The land laws which he, at the time, described as ‘anti-national,’ were among reasons he cited for his move to sack the prime minister. What pressure was brought to bear on the president to make him give his assent to them later? Why did he give in? It would seem that the instability caused by in-fighting between president and prime minister has made the country particularly vulnerable at this time.

The State Land (Special Provisions) Bill, gazetted by the UNP’s Minister of Lands (and not the president), will need to be passed in parliament. Its purpose is “to grant absolute title to state lands held by citizens who are holders of grants or instruments of disposition.” Its validity is for seven years. So it would appear the government seeks to dispose of large tracts of land in a short time, to make them quickly available for investors. This again will accelerate the dispossession of smallholders.

Drastic changes

The revised National Physical Plan 2050, prepared by the National Physical Planning Department of the Megapolis and Western Development ministry, is yet to be made public, although it is said to be ‘completed.’ The NPP seeks to concentrate economic activity in four ‘Economic Corridors’ of which the Colombo–Trincomalee corridor will be its showpiece. Attracting private investment is a key objective. According to a draft summary seen by this writer, the NPP’s medium term goals include the ‘transformation of the economy from conventional industries to high tech and innovation based Industries,’ increased international trade and increased ‘attraction for investment and trade.’ The NPP expects to transform land use patterns and bring about movements of population, to achieve a ‘reversal of the rural-urban population ratio’ in 30 years. This gives a clue to the drastic nature of envisaged changes. The NPP however will not be required to be passed in parliament. According to NPP Director General Dr Jagath Munasinghe “it is a policy document, not a Bill” and so it only needs to be gazetted.

It has been observed that the districts covered in the NPP more or less overlap with those coming under the MCC. From the little available information it would appear the goals of the two projects broadly dovetail. It is unlikely that this is coincidental, they both come within the economic thrust of the UNP government that seeks to put the country’s land and other resources at the service of foreign capital. Whatever the merits of these projects, it is unconscionable that plans to bring about such far-reaching social and economic change, are not made available for public debate. The secrecy surrounding them shows that the government knows they will be unpopular. The overarching question is. whether the present government is more interested in pleasing its Western backers, than the constituencies in Sri Lanka, millions of voters, to whom it is answerable.

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