June 08, Colombo: Public Enterprise and Kandy City Development Minister Lakshman Kiriella yesterday flat out rejected allegations that a land belonging to the Knuckles mountain range had been given to investors to carry out various projects.
Addressing a media conference held at the Department of Government Information auditorium, the Minister said that there were no projects as mentioned by some media reports and the government has taken every step to protect the Knuckles Forest Reserve. The Minister vowed never to allow that land to be adulterated now or in the future.
"No land within the Knuckles Reserve is sold or will be sold. These are plantation lands which have nothing to do with the Reserve," the Minister said.
Kiriella stressed that only loss making state plantation lands owned by the Janatha Estate Development Board (JEDB), Sri Lanka State Plantation Corporation (SLSPC) and Elkaduwa Plantations were being looked at in order to further develop them under public-private partnerships and long term leases to private companies.
He further explained that in 1992, the then government under the program to hand over the management of plantations to private sector, 540,000 acres of plantation land was handed over to 19 private plantation companies. However no company came forward to take the management of the undeveloped lands owned by the three institutions.
Since there was no proper government program over the past two decades to develop thousands of acres of land owned by these plantation companies for tea cultivation, the Treasury has incurred a huge burden of more than Rs. 1 billion annually for the maintenance of these lands, the Minister explained.
Therefore, In order to manage this expenditure burden, the government has created a policy plan to implement an economically systematic program to provide private investment opportunities for these scrub lands, he said.
Under this program, there is a possibility for private investors to invest in these lands. It is not a development of the Knuckles forest reserve of land attached to the range, the Minister clarified.
The Minister said they had received 695 proposals from private investors to develop the undeveloped lands belonging to the Elkaduwa Plantations PLC, Janatha Estate Development Board, State Plantation Corporation and the government has accepted 257 proposals. The Minister said the land demarcated for certain development projects were outside the mountain range and obtaining Cabinet approval for such projects was essential.
These proposals do not include any significant land area belonging to the Knuckles Forest or the nearby lands. Only those estates owned by the relevant plantation companies will be leased out, he said.
These proposals were submitted to Cabinet and the lease of plantation land to these projects in principle were given Cabinet approval.
"These companies will now have to submit EIAs and get permission from the relevant government agencies before they proceed. Nothing has been built on the ground as of yet," he said.
"Eco-friendly agricultural and dairy farm projects have been proposed to be set up outside the Knuckles mountain range. They are only proposals and nothing implemented yet. However, as a ministry, we will not allow the mountain range to be damaged. We have not given any land inside or outside Knuckles to any investor. We wish to invite media personnel and environmentalists who are quick to make allegations to visit the site and check for themselves. Parties who level these allegations should provide us with evidence and later investigate these matters," he said.
"Therefore, we vehemently reject the allegations made by the environmental organizations and certain media organizations that the government has distributed land in the Knuckles Forest Reserve to private investors," Minister Kiriella said.