The Return of the Millennium Corporation Compact (MMC)
Posted on November 17th, 2023

Sugath Kulatunga

In his budget speech 2024 President RW waxed eloquent on his proposal to give legal ownership of land to 2 million families who are now owning them under a license system. He has tried to give the proposal an undeserving anti-colonial nationalist flavor by referring to this land as lands acquired by the British under the Waste Lands Ordinance of 1897. Professor G.H. Peris has pointed out that most of these lands went under plantations. These lands were not redistributed among farmers under the Land Development Ordinance of 1935. His statement is given in the Budget Speech under the heading Urumaya” Programme as Waste Land Ordinance was passed in 1897. The British government acquired thousands of acres of rural land across the country under that Ordinance.

Afterwards, in 1935, under the Land Development Ordinance, those land slots were distributed among farmers under the license system. But although around hundred years have passed, the ownership of these farmlands has not been handed back to the farmers who own them. As mentioned in the drama Chalk Circle”, farmers with good conduct; should win the land and villages” We are handing over the lands to farmers who lost the ownership of their traditional lands during the British colonial era. We expect to commence this task in 2024 and complete it within another few years. Two million (2,000,000) families will get the ownership of land and farmland. I allocate Rs. 2 billion for this purpose.”

On the surface this scheme appears to be a farmer friendly plan to give the farmer the legal right to the land and allow him to use it as a disposable asset where the owner is given the right to dispossess the property which was restricted by the Land Development Ordinance of 1933.

This was precisely the proposal in the MCC Compact which was rejected. It was worded as The goal of the Land Project is to increase the availability of information on private land and underutilized state lands or all land in Sri Lanka to which the Government is lawfully entitled or which may be disposed of by the Government (State Lands) in order to increase land market activity.

The Land Grants Registration and Deed Conversion Activity aims to strengthen tenure security by supporting the conversion of State Lands to the private domain, creating a marketable and bankable title to this land in the name of the landholder. The Government will register the absolute land grants in the title registration system, allowing the use of land as collateral for loans and the free transfer of this land without excessive government restrictions”.

This was completely contrary to the objectives of the 1933 Ordinance of which the key principles were to:-

1. Prevent the disposal of Crown land by outright sale.

2. Land to be alienated by a system of selection and not by auction.

3. Prevent land alienated to a particular class passing into the hands of other classes.

4. Prevent the fragmentation of land.

5. Ensure succession and keep the new owners out of courts of law in that aspect.

The Ordinance encompassing these principles was the brainchild of D.S. Senanayake, the Father of the Nation and was presented to the State Council by another stalwart of the UNP John Kothalawala. It was the intimate knowledge of the repercussions of giving legal ownership to allottees of land, that D.S. and team did not open them to dispossession and litigation.

We had patriots among rulers in 1933.

In that context it is ironical that RW is surreptitiously bringing back the rejected proposals on land policy as described under the Land Project in the MCC Agreement.

In introducing the Land Development Bill in the State Council Sir John said that In the past, the disposal of land was done by public auction, and there were many disadvantages in this system. It gave a distinct advantage to the capitalist class in buying up land as against the less fortunate individual.”

“We must not forget that we have very few acres left and if we do not introduce some sort of Ordinance to prevent the wholesale alienation of land we will have to migrate to other countries in search of land.”

Sir John was concerned with the local capitalist class buying up the land from poor landowners but in the present context there is the grave danger of the local money lender, the rich mudalali who would convert a mortgage to an outright sale. There will be more desperate landowners who are drug and alcohol addicts who would readily sell their lands for a pittance. With the LKR at 360 to a dollar and 396 to an Indian Rupee it would be a bonanza for foreign buyers to buy up cheap land in Sri Lanka. What happened in Palestine when the Jews backed by financial institutions dispossessed the land of Palestinians and the aftermath that followed is not a flight of imagination.

In addition, outright sale of landholdings resulting in fragmenting of farmland among dependents would be a serious disadvantage to mechanization and modernization of the already stamp size farmlands. Fragmentation even among relatives is bound to increased litigation. In the rural areas disharmony among neighbors and crime has its root mainly in land disputes.

Sri Lanka consist of 6.55 million ha of land area where only about 50% is arable. Per capita availability of arable land is only 0.15 hectares (approximately 60 perches). Land is a precious national asset and should be protected.

Budget 2024 has several positive proposals which should be pursued. But to revive the rejected MMC proposal should be condemned and rejected. It is unfortunate that this vital issue has not yet been widely exposed.

The proposed allocation of Rs. 2 billion could be spent on the better utilization of these lands.

Sugath Kulatunga

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