‘Development’ Ousts Tamil Families from Sampoor
By Dinouk Colombage
Land owners in Sampoor in Trincomalee have petitioned the Supreme Court challenging the acquisition of land for what is said to be a multi-billion-dollar investment project to establish a special zone for heavy industries. They allege that the government has illegally acquired their land for the project.
The land acquired by Gazette Notification No. 1758/26 dated May 17, 2012, is to be developed as a Special Zone for Heavy Industries
TNA MP Mathiaparanan Sumanthiran said that the development project would prevent over 200 families from resettling in their original homes after being displaced by the war in 2006.
The inhabitants of the Sampoor area were prevented from returning to their homes in 2006 as their lands fell within the Trincomalee Special Economic Zone which was published in the Gazette Notification No. 1467/03 dated 16th October 2006.
In 2007, despite hostilities in the region having ended, Gazette Extraordinary No. 1499/25 dated 30 May 2007 demarcated the area as a High Security Zone.
“The land that this project is going to take place on belongs to these people. We respect that development must take place, but it must do so without displacing the inhabitants. We are asking the government to choose a new location; these people have been displaced for the last five years because of the war. They must be allowed to return,” Sumanthiran said.
Prabath Nanayakkara, Chairman of Sri Lanka Gateway Industries (SLGI) and head of the project, denied that the land which is to be developed was inhabited by anyone. “I am aware of the court case going on and our lawyers have requested that we be named as respondents so we can clear our names. The land is owned by the state and is leased by the Board of Investment (BOI); in turn we have leased the land from the BOI. These people who claim it is their land have produced false deeds before the court.”
Sumanthiran rejected this accusation, saying that “these are genuine deeds dating back over a 100 years.”
The issue was debated in Parliament on October 21, 2011. TNA MP Rajavarothiam Sampanthan accepted that the coal power plant project must go ahead; but he requested that the people of the region be allowed to return to their lands. Minister of Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa, responded that, “any land that is not necessary and which will not be acquired for the construction of the power plant will be given back to these people and they will be resettled.”
Sumanthiran questioned why, despite the Minister’s assurance, these people have still not been allowed to return. “Many of these people’s lands are not close to the proposed site of the power plant, they are being prevented from entering as it is supposedly BOI land”, he said.
BOI Chairman, M. M. C. Ferdinando, refused to comment on the case.
Nanayakkara defended the project, “even if these lands had been used for farming in the past, we must look at the investments such a project will bring to the country. The development will see over 20,000 jobs created, and will help improve the standard of living of the locals.”
He added that the locals had also been compensated for their land by the government, “several new housing schemes have been already handed over to the people of the area, and they are happily living there.”
The case is expected to be taken up in the Supreme Court on Monday.
Apart from the tussle before the courts, controversy also surrounds the project with contradictions emerging over ownership of the development company SLGI.
According to Cabinet Memorandum No. 12/0051/504/006 dated 9 January 2012 the Mitchell Consortium, comprising the Mitchell Group of Australia, Asset Holdings (Pvt) Ltd of Sri Lanka and its Brazilian partner, had presented an unsolicited proposal to the BOI in 2011 to develop a special zone for heavy industries in the Sampoor area.
In that same year, after getting approval to carry out the feasibility studies, Prabath Nanayakkara (chairman of Asset Holdings) bought over the Mitchell Group’s shares in the Consortium and changed the name of the company to Sri Lanka Gateway Industries (Pvt) Ltd.
Nanayakkara explained that the government had expressed reservations about a foreign company having part ownership over the project, and so he bought out Mitchell Group’s shares. Despite the cabinet memorandum recording Asset Holdings as a member of the Mitchell Consortium, Nanayakkara denied that Sri Lanka Gateway Industries was an arm of Asset Holdings. “I formed the Mitchell Consortium in 2007 which comprised of the Mitchell Group of Australia and myself”, he said.
SLGI is a completely Sri Lankan owned company and is independent of Asset Holdings, according to Nanayakkara. According to the registration forms, Nanayakkara is the sole director and shareholder of the company. The project is expected to cost US $4 billion and will take place over three phases. The first phase will see the construction of a jetty and coal stock pile yard. Nanayakkara said that Phase One would coincide with the construction of the Sampoor Coal Power Plant.