A view of the state minister’s hotel which is being constructed on Nuwara Wewa reserve
Pics by Samantha Perera
The State Minister's alleged hotel being constructed near the Nuwara Wewa reserve
The law hasn’t been enforced yet against individuals who have constructed hotels on lands reclaimed within the Nuwara Wewa reserve in Anuradhapura. Some officials wielding power seem hesitant to initiate legal proceedings against such wrong doers. However, the Anuradhapura District Engineer of the Irrigation Department recently took legal measures to remove unauthorised constructions on the Nuwara Wewa Reserve. This action was taken after the overflow water level of Nuwara Wewa was measured and read to be 88.5 metres. This process was a subsequent re-demarcation of the facility.
The irrigation engineer has verified the new measurements of the reservoir and has measured and delineated the land within the reserved area. Additionally, the Director General of Irrigation has been informed to take legal action to remove unauthorised constructions on the reserve. Despite the efforts of the Anuradhapura District Irrigation Engineer, it seems that he lacks the support of certain higher officials, as suggested by their statements. According to these officials, it seems that there is no one being held responsible for the unauthorised constructions within the Nuwara Wewa Reserve.
A notable instance is the ongoing construction of a hotel said to be owned by the Minister of State for Finance, Shehan Semasinghe, on the Nuwara Wewa Reserve.
There have been considerable discussions recently connected to the issue. Subsequently, construction work on the hotel was temporarily halted, but work has resumed again. Prior to any construction near a tank or tank reserve, permission should be obtained from various state institutions. However, government officials pointed out that State Minister Shehan Semasinghe is allegedly constructing this hotel without obtaining proper approval from specific institutions.
This hotel is under construction in Maha Keneththewa area; No. 279 Maha Keleththewa Grama Niladhari division. This land area falls within the Divisional Secretariat, Nuwaragam Palatha East in the Anuradhapura District. To carry out construction work near Nuwara Wewa Reserve permission must be obtained in the form of a written approval by a planning committee of the relevant Pradesha Sabha. This involves obtaining relevant environmental reports, reports confirming that the area is not a reserve and obtaining approval from government institutions. However, locals in the areas maintain that land has been filled and construction has taken place in the Nuwara Wewa Reserve sans such approval. They point out that State Minister Shehan Semasinghe has been implicated in these actions.
The list of names submitted to the Land Kachcheri for approval under the Government Land Ordinance for selected individuals, according to Circular No. 2008/4, also includes the name of Minister Shehan Semasinghe. The state minister has requested for a plot of land spanning 28 perches under the address Kelatthewa, Arunagama , No. 279, Maha Kelatthewa GN Division, Nuwaragam Palatha East Divisional Secretariat Division, Anurdhapura. The minister’s name is mentioned at the location numbered as 138 on the land allocation list dated 05.08.2021, in the Land Kachcheri.
However, data from the Survey Department of Sri Lanka clearly indicates that this land is situated within the area designated for the Nuwara Wewa Reserve. On August 5, 2021, S.S.M. Sampath Rohana Dharmadasa, former Land Commissioner of the North Central Province, facilitated the allocation of 28 perches of land to Shehan Semasinghe. Dharmadasa is currently operating as the Divisional Secretary of the Nuwaragam Palatha East. The land, on the reserve allocated to the minister, falls within the same divisional secretariat.
To secure ownership of this land on the Nuwara Wewa Reserve, it underwent subdivision, with one portion registered in the minister’s name and the remaining sections in the names of M. Abeysinghe and Sarath Ratna Kumara. This division was essential, as acquiring a half-acre solely in the minister’s name was impossible. M.A. Ajith Munasinghe, a registered authorised surveyor and court commissioner in Anuradhapura, said that due to restrictions on an individual acquiring more than half an acre of land, the land has been subdivided, and licences were obtained separately for each owner. This information is confirmed by plan No. 2021/33T, 2021/40T, and 2021/41T, he added.
“The water level of Nuwara Wewa is 88.0 metres, with 88.5 metres being designated as the reserve area. Thus far, Semasinghe has reclaimed the 88.5-metre reserved area with a filling of 6-7 feet, installed a slab and constructed a building” he said. Munasinghe said that this filling has occurred without prior notification to the relevant institutions, which are required to grant approval before reclaiming the tank reserve.
He added, “Tracings depicting the location of the land within the reserved boundary of Nuwara Wewa, between the 88.5 metres contour lines, are indicated in Plan No Aa/NPE/2029/146. This recent measurement, conducted by the Surveyor’s Office, involved re-marking the boundaries. The lands of Mahakelatthewa (256) and Kudakelatthewa (254) villages were surveyed between October 2020 and March 2021. Anuradhapura District Surveyor Superintendent certified the plan’s accuracy with his signature on July 21, 2021”.
“According to the survey plan Semasinghe’s two plots of land (27 and 28) are situated at the 88 metres water level (depicted in green) and 88.5 metres reserve level (depicted in red). The survey marks the two plots, numbered 27 and 28, are those owned by Semasinghe” he said. Munasinghe said that Semasinghe is carrying out construction work in both the Nuwara Wewa and the Reserve. The Divisional Secretary of Nuwaragam Palatha East also verified that the ongoing construction is in Lot No. 27, which is part of the Reserve. Munasinghe added that this information has been verified in response to the inquiry made under the Right to Information Act.
Land intended for farmers, low-income earners grabbed
The relevant information, including the aforementioned survey plan, has been provided by the letter NO Anu/11/9/2/E.K.279-2021 dated 14-03-2022, bearing the signature of Kelum Dissanayake, Assistant Divisional Secretary, instead of the Divisional Secretary of Nuwaragam Palatha East. The Assistant Divisional Secretary has confirmed that the minister is utilising the specified land. Additionally, Munasinghe said that the Assistant Divisional Secretary has verified that the minister has acquired the land through various individuals. He also noted a concern regarding how the minister obtained government land which was intended for farmers and low-income earners.
To understand how State Minister Semasinghe obtained the necessary approvals to construct a hotel in the Nuwara Wewa reserve, this newspaper contacted J.A.S Udayasiri, the secretary of the Pradesha Sabha of Nuwaragam Palatha East. He said, “It is from our planning committee that the necessary approvals are given for constructing a building. However, no plan for constructing a building in the name of Minister Shehan has been approved by the Pradesha Sabha of Nuwaragam Palatha East. I am not sure whether the Urban Development Authority obtained approval through the Divisional Secretary. In any case, we do not permit construction on a reserve. The plan for the land needs approval through us.” Udayasiri emphasised that no one else has the authority to grant approval for such a cause.
This is the statement issued by Engineer H.A. Jayantha de Silva, the Director of Anuradhapura Irrigation Department, regarding this matter: “We have demarcated the tank reserve and installed posts. The land owned by Minister Shehan is situated within the tank reserve. Considering the water level of the tank and the reserve level, the land falls within the boundary of the H.F.L.+0.5 contour line. I believe the building does not fall within this boundary. Some suggest changing the reserve part of the tank, i.e., the overflow level of the tank. However, we cannot make such alterations. Recently, water was drawn from the Nachchiyaduwa Wewa, and the tank was filled to the overflowing level. This was done to make it clear to those who have forcibly occupied the reserved part. We continue to maintain the spill level. Not only Minister Shehan but also the land of S.M. Chandrasena in the area and known as Pichchamal Pansala is within the reserve. We have installed poles to mark the spill level.” De Silva mentioned that he has forwarded a request to the Director General of Irrigation to file a case against these unauthorised occupants.
This newspaper then made inquiries from Irrigation Director General Engineer Ajith Gunasekara to know whether he would take legal measures to remove the unauthorised constructions, as mentioned by Irrigation Director Jayantha de Silva. In response, the Director General mentioned that it is not feasible to remove all unauthorised constructions in the Nuwara Wewa reserve simultaneously. “Jayantha de Silva has forwarded several cases for legal action. Our legal department has been instructed to pursue legal measures on one or two of these cases. We are actively addressing the issue. We are not wasting time. Unfortunately, we only have one legal officer, and where we should have 320 engineers, there are less than 100. We are collaborating with the officials to handle everything. The removal of these constructions may not happen as swiftly as some may expect. These structures were not erected yesterday. Shehan Semasinghe is constructing the hotel in the correct location. If there is evidence proving otherwise, please present it, and I will take corrective action. If there is an urgency to remove those buildings, provide information about the unauthorised construction sites you are aware of, and I will intervene. I cannot stop them solely based on our officials’ statements. Regarding Shehan Semasinghe’s freehold deed, I am uncertain about its validity,” said Gunasekara.
The Director General of Irrigation suggested inquiring about the legitimacy of the deed from the person who granted him the land.
We also made inquiries from the current Divisional Secretary of Nuwaragam Palatha East, Rohana Dharmadasa, regarding this matter. He provided the following information: “The Irrigation Department is indicating its intent to file a case against Minister Shehan’s construction, and a decision will be given. The land in question was allocated to the minister through a land Kachcheri. In the 1990s, an LDO licence was granted for this land to an individual named Kumarihami. The minister’s party is now utilising that licence. Originally, this land was designated for farming families under the Land State Ordinance, and it was given to Kumarihami. After the licence was canceled, the land was presented again to the land Kachcheri and reassigned. At that time, the Divisional Secretary executed the process correctly, as I was the Provincial Land Commissioner then. However, without measuring the land, it is impossible to definitively state whether this land belongs to the reserve or not.
“The Survey Department conducted a qualitative survey in 2021 to identify the reserve. The findings indicate that while the surveyed area is not currently a designated reserve, it is considered essential for the future reserve of Nuwara Wewa. The department notes that this section becomes relevant only if the water level is gazetted as 88.5 metres. State Minister Semasinghe has somehow acquired the land from the Land Kachcheri and there is conflict with the designated reserve level of 88.5 metres. In 1980, a circular from the Ministry of Lands instructed District Secretaries to allocate land near tanks based on Irrigation Department recommendations. This circular, is in effect even today and outlines the procedures for allocating such lands. There seems to be a lack of effort to accurately mark the boundaries of these allocated lands given without measuring and revising the circular. The Irrigation Department revised the circular in 2008, but nothing significant happened. In 2014, a new circular was introduced, where the irrigation director general gives instructions to maintain the tank reserve areas. It outlined reserve limits for both big and small tanks and discussed strategies for recapturing encroached areas, as well as preserving conditions set by the Survey Department.
“According to that circular, discussions about the reserve level of 88.5 metres ensued. However, in the initial plan of Nuwara Wewa, the actual reserve limit was 90 metres. It was later revised to 88.5 metres. When demarcating the 88.5-metre level, the lands allocated at that time still fell within the reserve boundary. Approximately 400 such lands existed, and the individuals affected sought assistance from the Human Rights Commission. In response, the commission recommended re-measuring and marking the borders. Subsequently, the Divisional Secretary informed the Survey Department, which proceeded to mark the boundaries according to the revised measurement. Some individuals asserted that the measurement involved placing stones in the tank, but this was done to ensure a qualitative measurement. Nevertheless, to this day, determining the exact reserved boundary of Nuwara Wewa and placing stones remains challenging.
“Only when the Irrigation Department files a case will it become apparent whether the circular, the government officials, or the landowners are correct. Seeking advice on this matter, we consulted the Commissioner General of Lands, who said that if there are lands with formally issued deeds, and the irrigation system designates them as part of the reserve, they should be acquired under the Acquisition Act. We concur with this perspective,” said Dharmadasa who added that the authorities are now at a point where acquisition is necessary.
Upon inquiries made with the Central Environmental Authority, a spokesperson mentioned that no permission was sought to construct a building in the name of State Minister Shehan Semasinghe. In a similar inquiry with the Urban Development Authority, one of its officials stated that Minister Semasinghe has never obtained approval for a plan for building construction.
It is uncertain what the criterion governing the allocation of land to politicians outside the existing legal framework is. This uncertainty arises from Circular 02/237, dated 24-4-1990, issued by the Ministry of Land, Irrigation and Mahaweli Development on 15-11-1990. According to this circular, endorsed by the then-President’s directive, the Secretary of the Ministry of Land, Irrigation and Mahaweli Development, A.A. Wijetunga, directed all Provincial Council Secretaries, Provincial Land Directors, and Divisional Secretaries, as well as the Mahaweli Authority, not to allocate government land for the purpose of constructing houses for Members of Parliament, Ministers, Governors, Provincial Council members, and all Pradesha Sabha members. Extending the guidelines outlined in the circular, under the current President Ranil Wickramasinghe’s directive, Land Commissioner General Bandula Jayasinghe issued a new circular on 17-10-2022. This circular was addressed to all Divisional Secretaries, Provincial Land Commissioners, Inter-provincial Land Commissioners, and Inter-provincial Assistant Land Commissioners. The commissioners were instructed that all members of parliament, provincial council members, and local government members, including governors, are prohibited from requesting government land during their tenure, and no land should be leased or transferred to them.
In a blatant disregard to this circular, government officials granted land to Shehan Semasinghe while he was serving as an MP and minister of state. Semasinghe is just one example where a minister has received land in contravention of Circular No. 02/237 dated 1990-4-24. Many others share a similar situation, and the law should be enforced uniformly where all of them are concerned.