The politics of land reform and land settlement in Sri Lanka By Sunil Bastian Introduction It is possible to analyse land reforms using a variety of frameworks. The most common one found in literature, especially among those concerned about the economy, is to link the land reform debate with the objective of achieving agricultural growth. For others who are concerned with rights, the purpose is to ensure land rights and poverty alleviation. In recent times the notion of rights based development has helped to propagate this approach. This essay on the politics of land reforms in Sri Lanka takes a different path. Its main thrust is to link the politics of land reform in Sri Lanka with the project of state building during the post-colonial period. States are not only a collection of institutions and functions. They are based on ideas. The ruling classes that dominate these states expect these ideas to ensure the coherence of the state. Ideas to ensure coherence of states can originate from different sources. In recent times, because of the prominence given to political Islam, there is a discussion about religious identities and state formation. Building states based on a religious identity is the objective of Islamic movements. The paper begins with the assumption that it is possible to analyse different doctrines of development from a similar angle. Doctrines of development have served the purpose of state building. For the ruling classes they have been a key instrument is forging relations with critical sections of society, so that the stability and coherence of the state can be maintained. Therefore a significant objective of development policies is not only to achieve the policy goals that it has set itself, but also to forge a relationship between the rulers and the ruled so that the state is secure. The objective of this paper is to analyse the politics of land polices and land reforms as an element in state building in Sri Lanka. It argues that the state building project of the post-colonial period was based on a special relationship with rural Sri Lanka, dominated by the majority Sinhala population. It gave special emphasis to the development of rural areas and agriculture. Within this overall framework, paddy agriculture was given a special place. Protecting the Sinhala peasantry as a class, and improving the lot of the small holder paddy growing farmer, became principal objectives of development. This became a central idea in the post-colonial state building project. The objective of land policies and land reforms was to translate this idea into reality. In the last two sections of the paper we shall argue how this idea of protecting the smallholder paddy growing peasantry, which forms a major plank of post-colonial state building, has come under threat from two sources. The first is the forces of globalisation and markets that have undermined the viability 1
of smallholder paddy agriculture. As a result more and more peasant households have to depend on non-agricultural sources of income. This amounts to a significant social transformation that is sweeping the rural areas of Sri Lanka. Second, the separatist demand and Tamil militancy has made it difficult for the centralised state to assert its control in one part of the country. This has deprived the central state of land in these areas, which up until now could be used for the purpose of sustaining these policies. Resolving problems arising from these changes is an important challenge for the crisis ridden Sri Lankan state. State building and Sinhala peasantry Sri Lanka inherited a highly centralised state structure from the colonial period. Although in the 1920s some of the political leaders and representatives of certain ethnic groups put forward the idea of a federal constitution for Sri Lanka, the concept of regional autonomy was not accepted in forming the state structure of the newly independent country. Instead, it emerged as an independent nation with...
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