Land Going A Begging In Jaffna
By Camelia Nathaniel
While there are laws against squatters, in several instances where those who were entrusted to take care of the vacant houses while the owners had left the country, were now refusing to return these lands. There are many such cases in courts as well, which take years to be resolved.
However while some land-owners claim that the issue of squatters is larger than that of where the security forces have taken over their lands, there are still some who believe that the land issue in the North relates to the acquisition/occupation of private lands by the armed forces, and not private parties. In Jaffna District, about 6700 acres of private lands are now in the possession of the Security Forces under the HSZ system.
Meanwhile in the Wanni, around 80 percent of the land is State owned and private individuals occupy these lands only with a state permit. There is no issue about the Security Forces or the government taking over lands here as 80 percent of the land is owned by the State anyway. Individuals using land with a state permit are not owners of the land and they cannot alienate it without state permission. Therefore a person who had fled the conflict zone and has returned to claim the land he had cultivate earlier, can get his land back if he has the permit or is able to locate it in the kachcheri.
The Sunday Leader discussed the land problem in the North with V. Anandasangaree, S. Thavarasa, and Dr Mutthukrishna Saravananthan, Ponnambalam and Nehru.
S. Nehru, Expatriate UK police officer who has returned to Jaffna
I returned to my home town Jaffna after a long stay in the UK but only to find that my land had been grabbed by a squatter.
Since the squatter did not pay heed to my pleas to vacate, I went to court. It is two years now, the court is yet to give a judgment. Every time the case comes up, the lawyer for the respondent seeks and gets an adjournment. There are more than 1000 such land grab cases in each court in Jaffna. The problem is huge.
Politicians of the TNA point the finger at the Security Forces for taking the civilians’ lands, but the local Tamils have grabbed more land from their fellow Tamils than the Security Forces.
If a person has stayed on a piece of land for more than 10 years, he claims it as his own. He does this whether he had paid a rent or not. The squatter on my land had not paid me a cent, when I was away, and yet, he has refused to move.
The courts have no guidelines to decide such cases. Judges must be told that they should not drag these cases beyond six months. If there is a shortage of courts, government should establish more courts. Anyone with a deed or title to the land claimed must be given back the land. This is a simple matter which can be decided in minutes. But it takes 5 to 6 years to decide these cases.
Utility agencies like the Electricity Board should not give connection to a property unless the person wanting the connection has a deed to the property or has rent receipts if he has taken the property on rent.
No politician, whether of the TNA or any other party, is talking about it.
An accusing finger is pointed at the army for taking land in the KKS HSZ (6700 acres). But this had been taken for security purposes. The Security Forces have to be here to ensure law and order. They cannot be compared with local Tamil land and property grabbers who cheat expatriate Tamils and returnees.
Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, Lawyer and leader of the Tamil National Peoples Front
Land grabbing by private individuals is a huge problem in the Wanni but not so much in Jaffna. The law on prescriptive right was to be changed to enable those who had to leave the country because of the war to come back and claim their lands and other properties. But to my knowledge this change has not happened. Therefore, the courts are going by the pre-existing law.
As per the present law, if a squatter had acknowledged the claimant’s ownership of the property by paying a rent or by not changing the name registered with the Electricity Board/Water Board or other government departments for any time during a 10 -year period of absence, then he cannot claim the property as his own, even though he may have stayed there for 10 years or more.
But if the squatter had not in any way acknowledged, at any time over a period of 10 years, the claimant’s ownership of the property, then the squatter can claim the property. If he had not paid a rent or if he had changed the name registered with the Electricity board or any other government agency over a 10-year period, then he can claim the property as his own.
People are tackling this problem in Jaffna by paying money to the squatter to vacate. I don’t think many go to the courts. But in Wanni it is a huge issue.
V. Anandasangaree, (TULF leader and resident of Kilinochchi)
As far as the Wanni Districts of Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya are concerned, 80 to 90 percent of the land there belongs to the state, which individuals cultivate with permits. Permit holders cannot transfer land without the permission of the government. If a permit holder wanted his land back at the end of the war it was given to him if he had the permit or the kachcheri had registered his deed.
Of course there is a timeframe for this. Your claim has to be made within 10 years from the time you got access to that piece of land or property. I was able to recover my property. I had access to it in 2010 and I made the claim soon after. If I were to make a claim in 2021, 11 years later, my claim would not be entertained, as it would have been too late.
To my knowledge, practically all who wanted their lands back have got them (except those whose lands have been occupied by the State). I had 20 acres of coconut land in Kilinochchi occupied by somebody else. Of this, I got back 10 acres, and the rest I did not claim just to help the tenant/occupier.
The situation in Jaffna is every different. Here, 80 percent of the land is privately owned. Yes, people did migrate leaving their lands and houses in the hands of others. But here too, the returnees have been able to recover their properties through persuasion or by arriving at some agreement (such as giving time to the tenant or squatter to move out).
Dr Muthukrishna Saravananthan, Principal Researcher Point Pedro Institute of Development
The law says a tenant has the right to occupy only if he has been paying the rent regularly. But in many cases, no rent was paid. In other words, the occupier was a squatter. Squatters can be evicted quite easily through the legal agencies. Living in Point Pedro, what I have seen is there are very few disputes over getting one’s land or house back. In most cases, the returnee is able to get his property back through a negotiated deal. Often, money is given to the tenant/squatter to vacate. In some cases time is given to vacate. Those thus evicted have found alternative accommodation or lands. In Point Pedro there were squatters from Myliddy fishing village. These fishermen vacated the lands they had squatted on when the legal owners came back.
S. Thavarajah, (EPDP NPC member and Leader of the Opposition in the NPC)
There is no problem as far as recovery of land or houses from private parties are concerned. Those who had wanted to get back their lands or houses have got them back if they had the documents either with themselves or with the kachcheri.
I remember Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem had introduced an amendment to the Land Act exempting “the North from the rule that a tenant who has been occupying a property for 10 years cannot be evicted.
The amendment was meant to help people who had fled the conflict zone to return and recover their properties. But I am not sure if the amendment was enacted. If I remember well, TNA’s M.A. Sumanthiran went to court against it on some technical ground.