Call to abolish Sri Lanka’s land reform law

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka should abolish a land reform law that placed ceiling on citizens’ ownership of private land to 20 hectares, blocking land aggregation and commercial agriculture, an economist and former official involved in privatisation policy has said.

The Soviet-style law was aimed at taking over privately-held land and re-distributing it to the landless. But a lot of the land was still held in the government’s hand. Most of the big commercial plantations were privatised in the 1990s.

"I think it is time to remove the Land Reform Act. There is no reason (anymore) for the Land Reform Act," Romesh Dias Bandaranaike, who now heads a mini hydro power group, told an economic forum in Colombo organised by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

"It was done for re-distribution. Now, that re-distribution has occurred. So why are we still sticking to this Land Reform Act?

He said the abolition will spur commercial agriculture and land aggregation.

The Soviet Union, Zimbabwe and Venezuela, which implemented such laws, found agricultural output and productivity collapsing. In socialist countries, the ownership of land by the king was replaced with ownership by the state.

The moves led to a collapse in agricultural output.

Sri Lanka’s elected ruling class, who inherited a legislating parliament from the British and police to implement their laws on the people, expropriated vast tracts of freehold land from both citizens and non-citizens in the 1970s.

In Sri Lanka, large tracts of tea, rubber and coconut land, as well as forested lands were taken from the people by the rulers after independence from the British.

Until freehold developed in the UK (fully heritable and divisable), most land was ultimately owned by the king and citizen serfs used the land in exchange for a production share or work.

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In Europe, agricultural productivity took-off with privately owned land, combined with the industrial revolution, where large populations broke their ties to land and moved to cities.

In Sri Lanka, private ownership of land started to develop under Dutch rule with the emergence of cultivated cinnamon, and the island’s version of serfdom (wadasassam) as well and slavery was abolished by the British.

But the British also took over all unused land through the waste land ordinance, preventing the widespread development of privately owned land.

As a result, the government owns vast tracks of land that are not forest or wildlife reserves. Post-independent rulers also expropriated fledgling private businesses, also influenced by European socialist philosophy. (Colombo/Aug04/2016)

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