A gem mining pit at Laggala
- Politicians attached to several parties and those wielding power are operating several gem mines in state and reserve lands by misusing the license obtained through the present system
- Villagers of Kiri Oya said that Minister Amunugama’s secretary had removed illegal gravels as the gravels in his licensed land were no longer producing
- Laggala Divisional Secretary and Munamalpe confirmed that the state minister’s secretary was fined 100,000 rupees for the offense
The truth is now being uncovered regarding an illegal mining racket in state lands under the Moragahakanda - Kalu Ganga Development Project (MKDP) which is a Mahaveli project in the Matale district. Influential politicians in the Government, Opposition party MPs, higher state officials and doctors are engaged in locating state lands containing gems in the area. Some of them operate mines with licenses and some obtain one license and misuse it to operate illegal mines in state lands and lands coming under the purrview of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).
Politicians and bigshots are not directly involved in gem mining and are engaging their henchmen to operate illegal mines. However they are managing operations from behind the scenes. They purchase state lands and lands of permit-holders either by obtaining ownership or on lease for a relatively higher price. Then they proceed to mine gems illegally using political influence and by using the services of thugs. Politicians and those wielding power are also attempting to obtain ownership of unused lands out of the lands allocated for the construction of Moragahakanda and Kalu Ganga Reservoir. There is higher demand for lands with gem deposits. Such legal transfer of lands or transfer of lands with deeds belonging to other people is taking place in Laggala these days.
The recommendation of the Divisional Secretary was required earlier to issue licenses for gem mines. If such land is a paddy land, archaeological site, state land, or a land under the DWC, the miner should obtain recommendations from the relevant institutes prior to obtaining permission to operate a gem mine. The National Gem and Jewelry Authority (NGJA) then issues a license based on the recommendation of the said institutes and the Divisional Secretary. Even while possessing a license, recommendations are issued on how to operate a mine. A mine is operated under the supervision of the NGJA and the Divisional Secretary and therefore miners tend to commit less offenses. If an offense is committed the law will be enforced which will result in the license being cancelled.
Earlier there was a procedure of inspecting state lands before issuing licenses and when this procedure was followed there were no problems. Divisional Secretaries have no power under the new scheme and therefore cannot practise the law regarding environmental destruction and illegal gem mining
Laggala Divisional Secretary S. Vijayakumar
This procedure changed with effect from November 2020 with the commencement of ‘One Stop Shop’ scheme which catered to the objective of providing all services under one roof. It is true that the Government receives a better income under this programme based on a concept by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But politicians attached to several parties and those wielding power are operating several gem mines in state and reserve lands by misusing the license obtained through the above system. Even though gem mining is unregulated it is operated openly at present. The reasons why authorities delay enforcing the law on these ‘bigshots’ is evident when reviewing the statements made regarding the matter.
Wasgamuwa National Park
With the commencement of the ‘One Stop Shop’ scheme the recommendation that had to be obtained from the Divisional Secretary prior to a license being issued for gem mines was no longer needed. According to the new procedure the NGJA directly issues licenses for mines after the relevant institutes have issued their recommendations. Laggala Divisional Secretary S. Vijayakumar said that licenses are haphazardly issued for gem mines in the area under Laggala Divisional Secretariat. “Earlier there was a procedure of inspecting state lands before issuing licenses and when this procedure was followed there were no problems. Divisional Secretaries have no power under the new scheme and therefore cannot practise the law regarding environmental destruction and illegal gem mining. A copy of the license issued by the NGJA for a gem mine should be sent to me, but I have so far received only a few. 181 licenses were issued between January and November 2020 with the recommendation of the Divisional Secretary. However the number of licensed mines operating have doubled or tripled. I am not aware whether those mines are operated with licenses. Grama Niladhari Officers inform me about many illegal activities in many places. In such cases I inform the Assistant Director of the NGJA Na-Ula Regional Office Sanjeewa Munamalpe and Laggala Police Officer-in-Charge in writing to enforce the law,” said Vijayakumar.
It is learned that one of the Secretaries serving State Minister Dilum Amunugama is also engaged in illegal mining. This secretary, identified as R.B Keerthisinghe, has obtained a license to operate a mine in Kalu Ganga GN division, but it is alleged that he is transporting unregulated gem bearing gravels obtained from state and reserve lands to wash them in the licensed land using his license obtained for mechanical operations. Speaking regarding this issue Kalu Ganga GN officer, D. M. D. K. Dissanayake said that the Secretary of Minister Amunugama has removed gem bearing gravels illegally from a state land next to his licensed land and has also transported gem gravel obtained from reserve boundaries to his licensed land for washing. Measures were taken regarding this issue after the Laggala DS was informed, he added. Villagers of Kiri Oya said that Minister Amunugama’s secretary had removed illegal gravels as the gravels in his licensed land were no longer producing. They affirm that he was engaged in illegal mining wielding the political power of Minister Amunugama. These accusations seem to be true when one studies the letter sent by Laggala Divisional Seceretary on August 23 to Assistant Director of the NGJA Na-Ula regional office Sanjeewa Munamalpe; because these facts are clearly stated in the document. Copies of that letter have been sent to Laggala Police OIC and Kalu Ganga GN Officer. Laggala Divisional Secretary and Munamalpe confirmed that the state minister’s secretary was fined 100,000 rupees for the offense of washing illegal gravels in a land with the license he possesses.
There are also illegal mining activities taking place and they are dealt with according to the law as soon as we receive information. We come across several obstacles when taking legal measures on illegal mines and some obstacles come in the form of influencing
Sanjeewa Munamalpe Assistant Director of the NGJA Na-Ula Regional Office
The state minister’s secretary denied the claims made by Munamaple and Laggala Divisional Secretary. “I applied for a mechanical license to operate a gem mine in a two acre land and abandoned the mine after the license expired. I never appeared as a secretary of this state minister,” said Keerthisinghe. The gem license no GML 1000549 has been issued under A. G. Piyadasa. The license was issued for a period from 19-05-2021 to 18-08-2021. “I operated a gem mine in Laggala area with permission and have not committed any offense. I haven’t paid any fine in my name,” he added. It is the duty of the authorities to find who is telling the truth. Did three responsible state officials fine Keerthisinghe on false allegations? Or did Keerthisinghe try to muzzle the state officials using political influence?
Law not enforced
State Minister Amunugama said that Keerthisinghe served him in the capacity of a secretary. “I gave secretary positions to those who helped me during the election to work for the district and Keerthisinghe was one such person. I knew he was operating a regulated mine in Laggala with a license, but I did not know that he was engaged in illegal activities. I do not have a gem mine irrespective of whether it is legal or not. If this person committed an offense appearing as my secretary then the authorities should take necessary actions.” Amunugama added.
Kiri Oya villagers said that the law is not enforced on those who engage in illegal gem mining. “We have been working in gem mines since birth, but by now we are unable to engage in this trade. When we try to reach gravels with mamoties in hand along Kalu Ganga and in Kumara Ella the NGJA or wildlife officers take us into custody and fine us with Rs 35,000 for illegal mining. We have no income. If we try to scoop up and wash gravel in areas coming under the purview of the Wildlife Conservation Department its officials will enforce the law on us. They demand their share as these lands come under their purview. We engage in mining in a secretive manner in forests ensuring that the enviorment isn’t damaged. But people wielding power are engaged in mining using backoes and destroying the environment. The law is enforced on us and not on them. Wildlife Conservation Department officials raid our mines only after we have reached gravels. They will then seize the gravels and wash them secretly.” these villagers added. Similar issues are taking place in Elahera, Laggala, Bakamuna areas as well, they added.
I gave secretary positions to those who helped me during the election to work for the district and Keerthisinghe was one such person. I knew he was operating a regulated mine in Laggala with a license, but I did not know that he was engaged in illegal activities”
Dilum Amunugama State Minister
They also said that another person wielding power was operating an illegal gem mine in the guise of carrying out development activities in a state land. It is not a secret to villagers in the Laggala, Kirioya, and Pol Athuwadiya areas that he had removed soil to reach gem gravels on the pretext of building a swimming pool, villagers point out. The boundaries of this person’s land fall along the Kalu Ganga. Entry to that area is prohibited and villagers are barred from activities like fishing or bathing in this location. But the owner is using the river area close to his land, the villagers complained. His henchmen are engaged in illegal mining activities in that area. Munamalpe, speaking about this person, said that the said person has legally obtained a state land and there is an ongoing development project.Munamalpe affirmed that this person was not engaged in illegal gem mining activities as alleged.
Laggala Pradesha Sabha Chairman Nalin Kumara said that there are illegal gem mines operating in a massive scale from Laggala area to Elahara and Bakamuna. “We informed the authorities to take action against illegal mines. But the law was not enforced. Wildlife officials raid mines of the less affluent people. Those who obtain licenses for two acres operate mines illegally in 20 acre pots of land. Mines are operated in paddy lands and gravels are transported for washing all under one license. They do not fill those pits. Environmental issues have increased. I informed the Assistant Director of the NGJA Na-Ula regional office, but no legal action was taken. Several individuals from Kurunegala, Ratnapura and Kandy are involved in this questionable venture. We have no involvement. I have informed everyone including the president and the Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption in writing. Bakamuna and Laggala border both Matale and Polonnaruwa districts. The sanctuary zone spanning about 33 acres in Polonnaruwa has been destroyed due to illegal mining. I informed the wildlife officials to file a case, but that hasn’t been done. The law is enforced only when a less affluent person engages in mining using mamoties and steel rods. The authorities are silent when powerful people are engaged in mining using two to three backoes and investing much money. The Department of Wildlife and Conservation, which opposed the organic fertilizer project, has not objected to mining activities in the forests. These activities have been continuing for seven years,” added Kumara.
Earth being removed at a mine using a backhoe
Polonnaruwa District Wildlife Assistant Director W.M.K.S Chandrarathna who oversees the area said that he has instructed the officials to enforce the law against those who operate mines ilegally in the wildlife zone regardless their status. “There are no gem mines in the wildlife zone and if there are any the Laggala PS Chairman can show us those locations, so that we could take legal action. He has not informed us verbally or in writing that illegal mines operate in the area. It is not true that our officials are demanding their share. Such false stories are spread as some people are not allowed to operate illegal gem mines. Those who make accusations that there are illegal gem mines within the wildlife zones are not aware of wildlife boundaries. We do not conduct raids only after mines have been located. Our officials are always patrolling and conducting raids in the area,” he added.
Responding to accusations on obtaining Mahaweli lands to operate mines the former MP Ranjith Aluwihare said that he had requested for a land not to operate mines, but for cultivation. “The Mahaweli Authority acquired one of my lands I have been cultivating on for years. It was taken for the Moragahakanda - Kalu Ganga Development Project. I have applied for compensation,” said Aluwihare. Vijayakumar, commenting on this issue, said that action will be taken in the future based on the investigations conducted as per Sub section 1(a) of Section 46 of the Land Acquisition Act, regarding land acquisition for the development of the left bank of the Kalu Ganga under Moragahakanda - Kalu Ganga Development Project as per Gazette 2073/44 dated 01-06-2018, confirmation of land ownership, issuance of lands and compensation.
“The Mahaweli Authority acquired one of my lands I have been cultivating on for years. It was taken for the Moragahakanda - Kalu Ganga Development Project. I have applied for compensation”
Ranjith Aluwihare former MP
It was discovered that lot no 337 and 689 belonging to Ranjith Aluwihare had been acquired for the Moragahakanda - Kalu Ganga Project. Interestingly the same land is to be released to him when the authorities pay compensation and offer alternate land to Aluwihare; in return for the land acquired. Villagers are wondering whether the same land is released to him because it is not required for the Moragahakanda - Kalu Ganga Development Project or because it contains gem bearing gravels. Aluwihare said that the Mahaweli Authority and the District Secretary are releasing the land again and there are gem gravels in the land. He added that a license should be applied for to operate mines in this land.
An official of the Moragahakanda - Kalu Ganga Project of the Mahaweli Authority said that it was the duty of the Divisional Secretary to acquire and release lands. “The Mahaweli Authority assists those functions based on his recommendations. There are mines operating on Mahaweli Authority lands and I am unaware whether they are legal. There is an issue regarding gem gravels and the Mahaweli Authority has requested the NGJA to auction these deposits to buyers.” he added.
Speaking on reasons as to why the law is not enforced on illegal mining activities Munamalpe said that the NGJA officials are supervising mining activities starting the time gem licenses have been issued till the mining activities conclude. “Those who engage in the gem industry can obtain licenses through the One Stop Shop scheme. The Government also earns much income through this procedure. There are also illegal mining activities taking place and they are dealt with according to the law as soon as we receive information. We come across several obstacles when taking legal measures on illegal mines and some obstacles come in the form of influencing. During such situations we cannot solve issues and we take necessary actions after informing the senior management.” he added.
National Gem and Jewelry Authority Chairman Thilak Weerasinghe said that NGJA officials are supervising mining activities after licenses have been issued. “I learned that there were illegal mining operations in Laggala and the miners are influencing the officials using thuggery and political power. As a solution I will inspect the area and take necessary legal action. The gem lands will be auctioned to buyers and steps will be taken to solve the matter.” he added.
Pix by Samantha Perera