Paradigms of Land Policy for Sri Lanka: A Review

A pre-publication copy of the monograph titled Sri Lanka: Land Policy for Sustainable Development, authored by Gerald Peiris (Professor Emeritus of the University of Peradeniya) and due to be released at the coming Annual Book Fair has been sent to me with an invitation to evaluate it. I find it appropriate to place it against the backdrop of the knowledge and experience I have acquired, in the course of my official duties in the executive cadres of the state-sector administrative services stretching over three decades, devoted to matters concerning the needs of the more depressed segments of our peasantry, as well as my own research writings, including a doctoral dissertation on agrarian affairs in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka.

This is undoubtedly a landmark in studies on land policies in Sri Lanka, signifying a radical departure from conventional studies undertaken on this subject in this country, primarily concerned with matters such as ownership and tenurial relations in land, land-use, forest conservation, subsistence farming and poverty alleviation, with a special focus on the peasantry. The author urges a more comprehensive approach to land policy formulation –taking into account the impulses and impact of land policies pursued from historical to modern times, with details not found in any other study on this subject. It is an in-depth analysis with a sharp insight into a wide range of areas impinging on land policies in Sri Lanka, such as theoretical concepts, evolution of land policies, land reforms, rural poverty, agriculture including both the peasant and commercial plantation sectors, land grabbing and malpractices, and the need for strict and urgent legal measures to arrest this disaster; as well as depletions of forests, conservation of water resources and biodiversity, effects of plantation agriculture on Sri Lankan life and the intricacies of the rural–urban-estate land use systems. I am particularly impressed with the attention paid to the need to protect the central watersheds (the ‘Geographical Heartland’, HADABIMA, of Sri Lanka as I call them) against soil erosion and land degradation and depletion of water resources, pivotal for sustainable development and human survival in this country, which no other scholar has so eloquently articulated.

He has emphasised the necessity for a complete reorientation of land policies beyond these fields, covering a wider spectrum, such as the needs and aspirations of people to meet the demand for land for different competing uses as paddy cultivation, plantation agriculture, livestock rearing, the rapidly increasing urban needs and infrastructure development like roads and railways, and arresting natural hazards such as landslides, floods and disruption of wetland ecosystems. He also calls for the need to address a wider range of current issues such as territorial integrity, sovereignty, devolution of power relating to land that are of pivotal significance to governance and all aspects of life in the country; with special reference to the vital importance of reorienting land policy towards ensuring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. A related perspective highlighted by Peiris is the need to protect the land and its resources from foreign and domestic intrusions, driven by subversive ethnic considerations that pose a serious threat to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of this Island nation.

The text is profusely illustrated and supported by maps, drawings, charts and tables that enhance its academic value. This is equally useful for all sectors, including academics and students, who look for innovations and new knowledge, policy makers and administrators involved in land work looking for visionary land policies, and the general public who treat land as their wealth and heritage. In compiling this discourse, Professor Peiris has made use of his vast wealth of scholarly acumen, and almost sixty years of experience as a University teacher, scholar, researcher and a consultant in a wide range of fields and countries, both in the West and the East, which have served as the underpinning of this masterly analysis.

One final word on the painting on the front-cover designed by Manjula Peiris; it is, indeed a masterpiece symbolizing the challenges our nation is facing, both for ensuring sustainable development, and the survival in this country, which is being imperilled. It depicts symbolically the ominous terror and the plight of the hapless rural farmer family. The man, though resolutely trying to drive away a herd of charging wild elephants, is also desperately struggling to save his family and himself. He has only a rod and a huluatta (torch brand) for his defence against this terror by a herd of wild elephants. The anguished mother, with the frightened child on her back, is pulling the elder by her hand desperately holding a lantern in her other hand, which dramatically portrays the plight of hapless peasants in the countryside. Are these miserable peasants invoking God to save them from this ominous challenge before the nation, arising from wrong land policies or a no policies situation adopted by policy makers, and the neglect for which they are mainly responsible?

The name of the book is appropriate and conveys the thematic essence of its content. The need for a comprehensive and meaningful land policy, not only for sustainable development, but also for survival, in this Island nation is the pivotal message that has epitomized in this masterpiece.

It is a work to be ‘chewed and digested’ as Francis Bacon has said of great books. Prof Peiris’ efforts will find true results only in the implementation of the policies embodied in this thesis by policy makers and those who implement them. It is worthy reading to scholars, teachers and students, policy makers, administrators and the public, seriously interested in sustainable development and the survival of the Sri Lankan Nation.

This book has been published by Gevindu Kumaratunga of the firm ‘Visidunu Prakashakayo’, and will be released at the Annual Book Fair which opens on 15 September 2017 at the BMICH.



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