The Sunday Leader

Dumbara Nindagama Residents Forced To Become Gypsies!

by  Ashanti Warunasuriya

Dumbara Nindagama has a key significance in the recent social discussions regarding land issues. For many years, the residents of Dumbara Nindagama have been doing everything they could to obtain legal titles to their ancestral lands. Although this issue was reported in the media from time to time, it received little attention from the authorities. As such the residents are continuously being harassed and oppressed by corrupt politicians and their stooges.

Over the last few years the situation has turned from bad to worse as these politicos and their henchmen have been accused of ripping off the lush green forests in Dumbara Kiri Ella area that expands up to 8,317 acres in a massive timber racket. According to the residents in the area this operation is sphere headed by a powerful politician and his high profile underworld partner. In order to find out whether there is any undue political influence over this issue, Minister John Seneviratne was asked about the relevant powerful SLFP politician in the area. According to him, this whole area had been a dense forest many years ago and has been gradually cleared due to human settlement. Pointing out that there are constant conflicts between the Nadun Raja Maha Viharaya and the people in the area, the minister said that there have been recent allegations about an illegal timber racket. However, he said that the issue was not brought to his attention in recent times and said that he had been engaged in both protecting the lands that belongs to the temple as well as giving appropriate lands to the people.

The Dumbara Kiri Ella area also comes under his political authority. His statement also backs the claim that illegal deeds are being carried out in this area. As the residents have complained, these racketeers have robbed valuable trees from 12 villages that belong to -4 GS divisions in the Dumbara area as well as trees in forest reserves. This ongoing racket has destroyed many endemic and rare plants that are unique to this area, while the responsible authorities have been disturbingly “quiet and ignorant” about this atrocity, many villagers say. Accusing the Kiriella police, the villagers said that instead of catching the racketeers, the police have taken steps against those who come to the police to make a complaint against these atrocities.

Hiran Yattowita

Accordingly,  “The Sunday Leader” hopes that this issue would soon come to an end. It was the names of Hiran Yatowita, husband of MP Hirunika Premachandra, and the Notorious “Weli Chula” that were mentioned with regards to the alleged timber racket. However, attempts made to obtain a comment from the parliamentarian over the allegation were unsuccessful.

When queried from the Police media unit regarding this issue, they denied any knowledge of the matter. Thus we contacted the Officer in charge of the Kiriella police station IP Bandara. He too was not aware of an ongoing timber racket. Instead, he refused to comment on the subject as the matter has been taken before Supreme and District courts. Although they had not received any reports about illegal timber rackets, he said that matters regarding the land ownership in the Nindagama have been directed to the courts. However, civil action could be taken up under the civil law. The police would continue to preserve the peace and help the judiciary decide what is right, Mr. Bandara said. He emphasised that the police cannot arrest anyone under civil law and that the land issue has been referred to the court. In 1909 the lands in Dumbara has been released by the British Colonial government for the use of its inhabitants. However, in 1994, the chief incumbent monk at the Nadun Raja Maha Vihara, Ven. Handapangoda Wimala thero has started a dispute with the villagers claiming that the area belongs to the temple. Due to these issues, the villagers have even set up an organisation to protect the  Dumbara area. At present Ven. Handapangoda Mahinda thero is the chief incumbent monk of the Nadun viharaya. According to villagers, 2500 acres of land that had belonged to a traditional Nindagam land in Dumbara had been leased out to Horana Plantation Company for 30 years by Mahinda thero and he has been harassing the villagers claiming that the remaining 5500 acres of land also belongs to the temple.

The Dumbara Kiri Ella area provides shelter to over 2500 families at present. In 2012 the villagers had complained to the then Minister for Land Janaka Bandara Tennakoon about their plight. Accordingly a four person committee had been appointed by the minister to provide recommendations to solve the land issue in 2014. The committee has decided that the lands had belonged to the people and had recommended giving the land back to the people. Furthermore, a petition that had been filed against the villagers at the Ratnapura District court has been dismissed. The petitioners had appealed to the Civil Appellate High Court and the case it still being heard.

After hearing the story of the villagers we then asked the chief incumbent monk of the Nadun Raja Maha Vihara Ven. Mahinda Thero for his side of the story. “There is a group of people who are against the temple. If the lands are truly theirs then they can prove their title at the court and get it cleared. Although we went to court against this matter the court removed the sanction. During the previous government these lands were surveyed under Bim Saviya without my knowledge. These lands come under the Buddhist Temporalities Ordinance. They cannot do so. We complained to Mahanayake theroes, the President and the Land Minister to get it stopped. There are many court decisions that had been issued regarding the Nindagama. As they are unable to prove their ownership these people are trying to lie about it” the thero said. As Mahinda thero justified his action, we asked about the alleged lease of 2500 acres of land to Horana Plantation Company for 30 years. In response, the thero said, “Yes. The land has been leased. They must root out old rubber trees and must plant new trees. Apart from that there is no timber racket that is going on there”.

According to Mahinda thero there is no timber racket in Dumbara and he is not involved in the land disputes in the area. “The law is not in my hands. If anyone thinks this is illegal he can take legal action against me. We have all the documents to prove our case” the thero said.

After querying both parties, we also sought out the opinion of former JVP provincial councilor in the area Mr. Pushpakumara regarding the matter. He said that this issue had been dragged on for many years and said that the biggest question is the extent of land that has been claimed by the temple. Claiming that there is no clear information about an ongoing timber racket, the JVPer said that the disputes had escalated during the 2004-2008 time period when the CEB had taken steps to provide electricity to the villagers. He however said that the government should give priority to the needs of the people. However, further information has revealed that while a court case between the monk and the villagers had been dismissed, a group of villagers had cut down trees in an area above the waterfall and had sold the timber. Since the monk had been unable to stop the action, it had later been halted from a Supreme Court order. According to the law, permission of the Central Environmental Authority must be sought before cutting down trees in an area wider than 5 acres. Many of these villagers had been living inside this 8317 acre land for several generations. Yet they still have not received any deeds for these lands. This has caused many problems  to the people living in 4 GS divisions as neither relief aid nor basic essential facilities such as electricity has been blocked due to this issue.

We then queried MP Janaka Wakkumbura, the parliamentarian who represents the Kiriella electorate, about this ongoing problem.

“We have raised this issue at the district Coordination Committee meeting. Those who have lived in these lands for many generations cannot be removed by force. Those days we tried to get deeds from the temple. Even the incumbent monk agreed to it. But the whole scheme was disrupted by a separate group. This issue must be resolved soon. There are 3000 acres of more land that is still disputed over ownership. However the residents must be given their due rights. We cannot remove those who we had settled in these areas after building the entire infrastructure. The President must intervene to provide a solution for this issue. Since the matter is now being heard at the Supreme Court nothing can be done till it’s resolved,” he said. When asked why the issue was not resolved during the previous government, the MP said, “A committee was appointed to survey the land and to prepare the deeds. But that programme has now been stopped. So we urge this government to restart the program.”

Luckily, the Kiriella bridge had been opened before the election. Many other development works have grounded to a halt. However, according to local politicians, the temple had supported the development work that had been going on in the area. It was also heard that Mahinda thero is said to be willing to give the land to the villagers if they are willing to accept that the land belongs to the temple. Accordingly we asked Mahinda thero whether he is willing to give the land to the people. “I’m working under the Buddhist Temporalities Act. I cannot go beyond the law. Those who are unable to sell these lands are now trying to spread false allegations. These lands cannot be surveyed without informing the temple. I am trying to formulate a programme to give legal titles of these lands to the people. But that has to be done properly,” the thero said.

However, there are no records to prove a possible timber racket. But these people cannot be compelled to live in their ancestral lands as gypsies forever. According to the villagers if they receive titles to their lands most of their problems would be solved. Hence the government must direct its attention towards the task. Accordingly we asked the Land minister of the present government T.B. Ekanayake about the government’s stance over the issue. He made a positive response claiming that the problem is known to him and the delimitations are being carried out by the Uva provincial council. The minister also said that he would look into the possibilities of releasing the land to the people in accordance with the Buddhist Temporalities Ordinance.

 

1 Comment for “Dumbara Nindagama Residents Forced To Become Gypsies!”

  1. Perera

    business monlks, land grabbers. simple as that. why does a temple need such a vast swathe of land. just greed. these monks are supposed to help people not rob them.

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