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Let’s heed the call from our villages for more land for food security and exports – PM

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“Let’s name the echo of the voice demanding more land for cultivation as ‘from our village to the world’, said Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena.

He was delivering the Lalith Athulathmudali Commemorative Lecture, organized by the Lalith Athulathmudali Foundation, Institute for Democracy and Leadership, and NAUMANN Foundation for Freedom, at the BMICH, on November 30.

Speaking on this occasion the Prime Minister stated, “The name Lalith Athulathmudali only brings memories of an extremely distinguished son of Mother Lanka, who was in a deep sense a genuine patriotic person, who served his motherland and her people.

“When I first entered Parliament in 1983, joining a beleaguered opposition during late Lalith Athulathmudali’s first ministerial tenure, I was always intrigued and impressed with his intellectual abilities, prowess and impeccable conduct on the floor of the House. He was by then renowned as having surpassed those of his contemporaries in quality of his service for the good of the public – a memory of which is being sustained and carried forward through the Mahapola Higher Education Trust Fund established by him in 1981. He is a leader in our lifetime who was a statesman of exceptional high achievement – particularly worthy of emulation by those in public office.

“Commemorating the 87th birth anniversary of the late Lalith Athulathmudali evokes memories of a time when he took on responsibilities as a leader of the government formed in 1977. It was a government which ushered in a period of vibrancy to the nation through introduction of radically changed new model of governance, to replace an order which had been evolving over three decades with a slow pace of accumulation of wealth and prosperity. People were looking for change and positive growth. Still we continue the radical new governance that the late Lalith Athulathmudali vested in Parliament. How we should deal with the executive presidency. It is a debate that will go on until the stability of law and order and stability of the economy. The systems then introduced have lasted for over the past four decades which have included almost two dozen Constitutional revisions.

“Following the establishment of the Government in 1977, there was understandably a period of reorientation for the country. This was to adapt to the new order of governance which in terms of the economy was required to embrace a policy of a market economy. It is well recognized that as the Minister responsible for the key portfolios of Trade and Shipping from 1977 to 1984, late Lalith Athulathmudali fully streamlined, or where necessary established, institutions without loss of time. This was to vigorously pursue the 77 Government’s policy of establishment of a market economy – a first time transformation in the subcontinent.

“Since the opening up of the economy, Colombo which had been a quaint cosmopolitan port city with a mild business milieu has transformed itself into a commercial city within a regional megapolis being formed in its vast hinterlands. During this time, the Colombo Harbour experienced a vast expansion in line with advancements in port technologies, operational technologies, techniques and other parameters of international trade and shipping. This strategic intervention had been at the nick of time to ensure that the Colombo Port maintained further its established level of primacy. It was showcased to the population at large as the sparkling new Jaya Terminal. To the credit of the port planners, there seems to have been no slack in preparation of plans and evolving strategies in time and space to maintain the Colombo Port’s primacy in the hierarchy of ports world over.

“Though largely promoted by a state-sponsored drive of shifting the country’s Parliament and the state administration to what had been underpopulated areas in relative proximity to the east of Colombo. Then warehousing with manufacturing to vast acreages of hinterlands north of Colombo. Such a first of a kind formal spatial development strategy implemented in the 1980s has been the backbone of the phenomenon of an urban sprawl which has engulfed the city, its suburbs and vast areas of its hinterlands into a typically metropolitan form of an agglomeration.

“In spite of economic and social volatility experienced during the early decades of opening up of the economy, the urban sprawl has attracted and been able to accommodate an explosion of small and medium businesses within a necklace of townships. And moreover, junction nodes which are in relative proximity and or having fair connectivity with the core of the phenomenon.

“The city per se has since been transforming itself towards the financial and business hub of the megapolis with potential towards establishing in it a financial hub of international branding within a highly ‘incentivized’ Colombo Port City of futuristic architectural forms and world-class operational modalities. Even with several revisits and updates and connectivity for the Port City is a requirement for economic revival.

“Athulathmudali didn’t hesitate at all to return home and get involved in serving the nation building cause, as Ceylon had just come out of British occupation of over 13 decades. He travelled in all the major countries and travelled the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, and understood the poverty that prevailed among our people and villages as impoverishment was spread wide and deep.

“Ever since the colonial days to date, Sri Lanka’s socio-economic dependency largely is vested on the foreign exchange earned through traditional export crops such as tea, rubber and coconut. Through the days of Lalith Athulathmudali, even with few new additions to this formula, like apparels, foreign employment and tourism, still to date, large extents of our socio-economic texture remain in poverty and indebtedness.

“When we look at 2018 figures in major land use pattern in Sri Lanka, urban land consists around 2 percent, home gardens is 18 percent, agriculture land for tea, rubber and coconut is 10 percent, rice paddy cultivation is 15 percent, forest land consists of 38 percent, and water bodies use upto 6 percent. It is very clear that President Ranil Wickremesinghe wants radical changes in land reforms, and in agriculture. This was very clearly announced during his 2024 Budget proposals made in Parliament.

“Mainly owing to the colonial land grab policy which began over 200 years, which has been the governing law since the 1830s, entrusted all the land under colonial monarch and completely alienated the indigenous people of Sri Lanka from access and ownership of land for more than 200 years, and even to date. They consist of an overwhelming percentage of rural people of Sri Lanka, and we have to immediately address and come out of this grave situation and launch into reinvesting in our lands.

“As Prime Minister and main orator at this year’s Lalith Athulathmudali Commemorative ‘Freedom Speech’, I wish to echo the voices of our people, especially farmers and villagers and their cry for more land to cultivate towards food security and export-oriented production. More than ownership of land they want access to cultivate. Let us name this Freedom Call as ‘Ape Gamen Lovata’.

“This new Gateway of Exports from ‘Ape Gamen Lovata’ connecting over 14,000 Grama Niladari Divisions, with each GN division being made up of three or four villages, across the country will have a total over 40,000 villages.

“Our voyage must begin with first 1,000 GN divisions across 334 Divisional areas in 25 districts, and target towards achieving 5,000 or one-third of total GN divisions, thereby directly getting them to contribute towards national food security, and exporting surplus towards earning valuable foreign exchange to the country.

“For this, the new generation must be released with hundreds of thousands of lands deprived of them for centuries and for generations. These lands for decades and some for centuries have remained underutilized and unutilized in large extents. For them to engage in foreign exchange earning and improving their own income generation, and thereby come out of severe poverty and indebtedness that has engulfed the rural people of Sri Lanka.

“These lands can be vested under different schemes for food and export production. I am certain our eminent panellists including legal luminaries groomed under the tutelage of Athulathmudali, will provide their expertise to redraft any law and reclaim what was loss for generations and for centuries.

“Not just to cultivate with traditional crops of rice paddy, tea, rubber and coconut, but importantly, to target the essential demands of the future by growing cinnamon, vegetables, fruits, nuts, cereals, spices, etc., targeting a growing world of over 8 billion people, in a growing problem of climate change.

“Not just for cultivation but land must be used for us to come out of our energy crisis. Land that can be utilized to produce energy especially through a variety of renewable potentials, thereby not only helping the climate challenge but also to meet the need of our small and medium industries and importantly, for logistics.

“Not only export crops but through new technology and communication our youth will be able to link up Sri Lanka’s unexplored experiences into the world of tourism. When climate challenges the world, even those living and travelling to capital cities in our region would look for spaces to breathe some fresh air. “Not only cultivated food, but importantly fisheries exports. Villages lining up along the entire golden coastal belt stretching over 1,000 miles must be looked at afresh, and towards exporting the catch to thousands of markets across the globe. We can be assured that even internal water bodies will get involved in adding variety and numbers. This sector still remains in darkness and fishing in troubled waters only, and we need to put a new vision envisioning an important global share.

“Dear friends, ours is the land that can make miracles. This is the land which belongs to a people who can collectively bring synergy in creating miracles. Let us thrive and make the new freedom call of ‘Ape Gamen Lovata’ emancipating hundreds of thousands of rural villagers and their generation for the future.

“Finally as I remember Lalith as a young Member of Parliament. Lalith and others were participating in debates before us. We had only eight in the Opposition. But we kept the democratic norms of the Parliament. Contribution to the Budgets, contribution with knowledge, discussions with government, not on political grounds, but of getting through Bills, making amendments in discussions and working together, that is how Government and Opposition should work on principles, on policies and work towards reaching the goals that we can agree to declare.

“Finally, let us remember that we who are gathered here today, as well as our nation, will always remember with the highest gratitude that the late Lalith William Athulathmudali made the supreme sacrifice by life, only having defended and upheld our unitary state and democracy for generations unborn.”

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Ministers, MPs, relatives of late Lalith Athulathmudali and members of the Lalith Athulathmudali Foundation were present.

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