By Camelia Nathaniel/Daily News
On Monday(21), the Sri Lanka Army released 1,201.88 acres of Army-used state and private lands in the North with no impact for national security, in a ceremony in Mullaitivu presided over by Maithripala Sirisena.
The release of this acreage of land includes 972 acres of state land in Kilinochchi, 120 acres of state land in Mullaitivu where the Army has been running farms, 46.11 acres of state land in Jaffna and the Vanni and 63.77 acres of private land in Jaffna and the Vanni.
The ceremony to release the scheduled total of 1201.88 acreages, including Nachchikuda, Vellankulam and Udayarkattukulam Army farms was coordinated by the Security Force Headquarters – Mullaitivu, Northern Governor’s Office, District Secretariat, respective Divisional Secretariats and the Army Directorate of Quartering and Real Estate.
The Army, in a media release, said the release of lands in the North with no impact for national security was part of its continuing effort to honor the pledge it has given to the Presidential Task Force.
The process to release Northern and Eastern lands, belonging to civilians and the state that bear no impact on national security needs, began last year in earnest, following a Presidential direction. Army Commander, Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake, promptly responded and instructed his officers accordingly to abide by the Presidential directive with the objective of further promoting gestures of goodwill and reconciliation
Releasing of land is one of the main areas in the reconciliation process and the military is in the process of releasing the lands held under them since the end of the war.
However, some of these lands which have been converted to farms, providing employment to many rehabilitated ex-LTTE members and civilians alike, pose an array of other issues if released without a proper plan.
During a visit to Jaffna, Killinochchi and Mullaitivu last week, the Daily News visited several of these farms and spoke to these workers. One might expect to see them elated regarding the releasing of lands held by the military, as it is a demand that Tamils have been wanting over the past 10 years. But, on the contrary, almost all of the Tamil workers employed at these farms were worried and unhappy about these farmlands being released as these farms are their bread and butter.
No farm, no income
As for 26-year-old S. Damayanthi, a resident of Ganesapuram, Vellankulam, she has been working on the farm for the past four-and-a-half years. She had joined the farm with the first 25 recruits and has been working there to date.
“When we joined, there were only a few females, but today there are 10 females and 21 males. We have to tend to the vegetables, and during the cashew season, we have to pick the cashew. We pick over 300 kg of cashew per day during the season. Each of us is given different duties. We grow pumpkin, beans and other vegetables here too. The farm spans around 600 acres. For me, I live nearly two kilometres away from the farm and it is easy for me to travel here.”
However, when asked what she would do once the farm was handed over, she simply looked at us blankly and added, “I don’t know what we would do if we don’t have work at the farm. I earn around Rs. 52,000 per month and this is a very good salary for us. I don’t think anyone else would pay us this salary if we were to seek employment elsewhere.”
Niluka, who is an injured ex-LTTE member, had lost a leg during the war and now, an artificial leg supports her as she gets about her work. “Most of us employed here are recruited by the Army to work in these farms and are paid by the Army. I was in Kandy during the war and I came to Killinochchi to see my sister when the LTTE took me away. After the war, I was rehabilitated and thereafter I started my life. Now, both my husband and I are employed at this farm and we take home a good salary.”
For many of these workers employed at the Vellankulam farm, the war had devastated their lives and they had nothing but the clothes on their back when it was over. Hence, while for the rest of the country, the end of the war meant they could get back to their lives, for those directly affected, it is a long struggle to rebuild their lives once again from scratch.
Therefore, many of these farm workers have obtained loans for constructing their houses and purchasing necessities to get their lives back on track. According to some of these workers, they have to pay as much as Rs. 25,000 as repayment for their loans. With the salaries they receive by working in these farms, they are able to manage their loans and they are quite content as they no longer have to beg or be dependent on anyone for their survival. Moreover, many of these farm workers live in the vicinity of the farms making it easier for them to work in the farms and keep an eye on their children as well.
Why hand over the farms?
According to the Army’s Agriculture Director Brigadier Gunaratne, the Army had three farms operating under them, providing employment to around 117 Tamil workers, both rehabilitated ex-LTTE members and civilians. The farms are in Vellankulam, Udayarkattukulam and Nachcchikuda. However, with the handing over of these farmlands, the Army had retained 100 acres at the Vellankulam farm, handing over the balance 500 acres. Now all 117 workers are accommodated at the Vellankulam farm of 100 acres.
The farm administrators revealed that this farm generates around Rs. 20 million in profit, which in turn is used for the welfare of the workers. However, now, with the absorbing of the additional displaced workers on the farm which has shrunk from 600 acres to a mere 100 acres, it is natural that these workers are worried about their future and financial security.
Many of them are also disgruntled that the government and their Tamil politicians had not consulted them and found out their views regarding the handing over of these farms. Many of them claim that the Tamil politicians keep harping on specific areas like a ‘beggar’s wound’ in order to please the international community and keep the Tamils in the North in a pathetic state for their own advantage. For the Army, these farmlands are part of their assigned duties and once their term is done, they move on and they do not depend on them. But, for those who are employed here, it is a matter of life and death.
“If this farm is given up, we might have to move to the Kandakadu farm and if that happens, I might have to leave just like many of us, and then we don’t know what to do. We can’t travel far because our children are here. Our politicians should have thought of these problems that we face before this decision was taken,” said Niluka.
Vijendran Geethika (27) had been a child soldier in the LTTE and was thereafter rehabilitated. She had married and after having three children, found out that her husband was married previously. “His wife came and fought with us and took him away. Now I take care of my children and my mother with the wages I earn by working on the farm. It is easier for me to work here as I can also keep an eye on my children. But, if I have to move to another farm far from here, it will be difficult for me to manage my work and my family. Even if I find other work, I will never be able to find a job that would pay me this salary. For many of us, we are even contemplating committing suicide if we cannot pay our debts and we can’t find work. My children are seven and three years and the first are twins. How can I leave them and move? We don’t know what the politicians and other higher-ups have decided, but eventually all we know is that we are the ones who would have to suffer,” she said.
Rajive Ghandi, Jeromeson, Manivanan, Sri Kala, Padmajayanthini and Maniwanan work at the Udayarkattukulam farm, which is also scheduled to be handed over by the Army. They too have the same fear and uncertainty as those in the Vellankulam farm and fear the loss of their source of income. All these farm workers were recruited to work on these farms on the promise that they would have their jobs throughout their service period. However, now they face an uncertain future, as they do not know what would happen once they lose these farms. However, there is no clear decision as to what the land would be used for thereafter.
Future of the farms uncertain
The Udayarkattukulam farm is around 120 acres in extent, and there are around 50 Tamil farm workers employed here, who claim that they have worked happily at the farm all these years, but now their entire future is again shrouded in uncertainty.
The Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake said these farms would be released as per the government direction, but would do his best to address the grievances of these workers and continue to provide them employment. “We will not put any of them out of work and will take all measures to keep them employed,” he assured.
Having met most of the farm hands, the Governor of the Northern Province Dr.Suren Raghavan had got a firsthand account of the grievances faced by these farm workers. He assured that he would look into all legalities and ensure they continue to work at their current farms and take all measures to ensure their lives are not disrupted.
“My proposal is that these farmlands could be converted into cooperative societies and I need to look at the legalities in either the short-term or long-term leasing of these farms to the same people who were operating it thus far. Then these workers can continue the farms and their lifestyle, but with some measure of government supervision and control. That supervision can either be done by the Agriculture Ministry of the Northern Province or some of these workers who are there. Some of these workers have close ties with the state as they have been rehabilitated. But, I intend to look into each of these cases individually and tailor-make the mechanism within the Constitution and the applicable laws. My proposal most probably would be to have them work their farmer-owned cooperative farmlands. This way they would not have to be moved elsewhere and their lives would not be disrupted. However, they need to have a reporting mechanism,” he said.