by Melanie Manel Perera
The lands and homes they grew up in, played, laughed and cried is precious to anyone no matter how rich or poor. In the event these lands are lost for some reason, it could be very traumatising. Hence, it is the responsibility of the elected government to ensure that the lands of the people are not lost in this manner. Everyone is now eagerly awaiting the new Constitution with the hope that these land issues of the displaced will be finally resolved.
The issue of ‘displaced’ is a much talked about topic these days with the 30 year finally coming to an end in 2009. Yet resettlement has still not happened in a satisfactory manner and those most affected in the North and East are still displaced with no homes to return to. In addition, environmentalists and social activists have pointed out that due to many environmental calamities such as floods, landslides, garbage dump collapses, and consequences of ill planned government projects, many people have had to face dire consequences. Yet its been eight years since the war ended and many years since the floods and landslides, and those affected are still waiting for solutions to their housing issues which have remain unresolved by both the previous government and the current.
“What have we done to deserve this, and be put onto the streets? This is our land and we too have the right to live on our own lands. How can anyone have the right to deny us of our rights? At least now the government should take measures to address our land and housing issues and provide us some solution. The right to live should be included in the new Constitution. We are still displaced because we believed in the words of the politicians and that is where we have been cheated,” said the protestors outside the Keppapilaw village engaging in a protest since February demanding their right to live.
The first settlers of Keppapilaw were 138 families which has now expanded to 182. All these families are displaced. Reminiscing on their ancestral lands, they consider as treasures, these people have lost faith in every government for having failed to address their land issues thus far.
“In addition to our homes where we lived, there are two churches and three Kovils where we worshipped every day. Then there are also the schools that our children attended. Our community centre, library and cooperative etc are all now gone. How could they have built a military headquarters in our village and destroy everything our ancestors had built over time. Who gave them that right? Where is our right to live freely as citizens of this country? At least now this government that we elected should stop this curse of being displaced. They should include a paragraph in the new Constitution that guarantees our right to live freely,” said the temple priest, Arumugam Velayudhapillai.
Vivekanandhan Indrani who is now living in a displaced camp, once owned a land of 2.5 acres with an abundance of coconut, jack, mango and banana trees. Today she lives on the handouts of others and struggles to survive with her children. Just like her, S. Adhiyakala, Maheswaran Jayaseeli and A. Sarasadevi too had lost their lands and homes and were battling to survive having lost all their lands and means of livelihood.
“The government is now treating us like we were people who lived on the pavements and jungles before the war. Today we live by the roadside and have only dust and air to fill our stomachs with. We suffered during the war and now that the war is over, we are still suffering with no way to go back to our lands. We paid with our lives during the war and not even the gods can see our plight now and offer us a solution. Now we are forced to fight with the military to get our lands back. Why is the government doing this to us? We urge the officials drafting the constitution to safeguard our rights too. Otherwise even our children will lose their right to live freely. Our very breath is within our village and our lands,” they lamented.
“When we voted for the President, we hoped that we would have our lives back and we would be able to live in peace. Now we urge the president to honour his promises to us and restore that trust we placed in him. Not only for us but for all those who are displaced. We urge him to ensure our right to live peacefully through this new Constitution,” said Maheswaran Jayaseeli from Keppapilaw, who addressed the UNHRC on the right to live.
According to the coordinator of NAFSO (National Fisheries Solidarity Movement), Anthony Jesudasan, of the 6,800 acres of lands acquired by the military during the war, only about 2,000 acres have been released so far. “In Jaffna alone there are around 8,000 displaced families, while around 100,000 displaced families are living in India. Hence, the government should safeguard the right to live of all these displaced people. It is understandable that during the war the military or the terrorist groups take over people’s lands to secure their safety. However, when the war is over, it is the responsibility of the government to return the lands to the rightful owners and ensure that people are not displaced. The government is bound to safeguard the rights of all its people,” said Jesudasan.
He pointed out that at the end of the war it is the responsibility of the government to resettle the people. “They can’t say these people are displaced because of the terrorists or other groups and escape from their responsibility. Furthermore, the government has no right to resettle people away from their original villages in remote places, with no access to facilities and a means of livelihood, said Jesudasan adding that although it has been internationally accepted that these displaced people should be resettled in their lands, so far the government has failed to fulfill this task.
The displaced people from Keppapilaw due to the establishment of the SFHQ, residents of Pallimunei whose lands were taken over by the Navy, residents of Mullikulam who lost their lands due to the construction of a new Naval camp, the people of Walikamam North whose lands were taken over by the Navy and army, the residents of Iranativu island who lost their lands to the Navy, the residents of Ashrofnagar and Ponnamveli whose lands were taken over by the army and residents of four villages in Panama whose lands were forcibly acquired by the previous regime, are all displaced and have no place to go back to.
As a result of the natural disasters in 2014, residents of Meeriyabedda, Koslanda and this year those who lost their homes to the Meetotamulla garbage dump collapse, the government has so far failed to give them alternative places to live. According to the Disaster Management Centre 145 houses were destroyed and 625 people were displaced. Similarly, in the Salawa blast, people who lost their homes are still displaced. This is as a result of the people right to live not being guaranteed through our constitution.
Environmentalist Dr. Ravindra Kariyawasam pointed out that while the government engages in development, these development projects are targeted upon economic benefits and not in consideration of the environment. “If we look at the displaced figures, only 35% of the displaced are due to natural disasters. The rest of the displacements are due to ill planned development projects that have resulted in these disasters. All this time the people have used their votes to ensure victory for the politicians and win them their rights. Now is the best time for the people to demand for their rights to be assured of them through the new constitution,” he said.
Due to the Handapanagala reservoir being renovated for the Uma Oya project, since April around 120 fisher families and 57 farmer families have lost their livelihood. These people lament that although the government had promised them compensation within a month, its been one year and two months since and they had not received a penny from the government.
“During the drought the government promised compensation to the farmers and fisher folk and they paid Rs. 4800 per farmer family and between Rs. 12,000 to 60,000 per fisher family for six months and that was it. Due to the Uma oya project 57 families were directly affected and many are displaced. We have lost our livelihood and we don’t know what to do. We are facing severe hardships and have no way of feeding our children. We told our plight to the Constitutional Commission as well. All we want is at least through this new constitution, to ensure our right to live,” said Nimal Bandara, K.P. Somalatha, Padma Galapaththi and R.M. Abeykone, residents of Handapaanagala.
We asked the Chairman of the Constitutional Committee, Lal Wijenayake what the government’s responsibility should be towards the displaced. “ A country’s constitution should be formulated based on the ideas and needs of the people of that country. This government allowed that to happen. As a result and as public representatives, we have presented our recommendations at length. The report with our recommendations and the recommendations of the steering committee were gathered and presented to the Constitutional council this month. We were called before the constitutional council and asked about our recommendations and there too we explained at length why we had included these recommendations based on the recommendations of the people. Even Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe had given a good committee report and most of our recommendations were incorporated in it. Hence, in the event this report is passed and accepted, our constitution would have the best paragraph on fundamental rights in the Asian region,” added Wijenayake.
“We recommended that the right to lands should be included in the new Constitution. A land could only be acquired for public benefit. However, once the requirement is fulfilled, the lands should be returned to them. Many of the displaced and war affected from the North came in groups and told us of the hardships they have had to face. Similarly, those from the South who had been displaced due to calamities brought upon by unplanned development projects also told us their grievances. These were all reasonable and humane requests as all they wanted was to be resettled in their own lands. This is a fair request,” said Wijenayake.
During the previous regime, people were simply chased out of their lands forcibly using the might of the security forces. Even in the South due to many of the Southern development projects people were chased off and their lands had been taken over by force. Yet as most pointed out, they have no grounds to fight for the return of their rightful lands as our constitution has no provision for that. Hence it is of vital importance that the right to live and the right to protect the environment should be included in the new Constitution and this is the most pressing responsibility of the government.