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Sri Lanka: Hats off to the Court of Appeal

The blame for what Bathiudeen has done to the environment cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the yahapalana leaders, who gave him free rein between 2015 and 2019. 

by Prabhath Sahabandu

The Court of Appeal (CA), which heard a case filed by the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) against SJB MP Rishad Bathiudeen over clearing part of the Kallaru forest reserve in Mannar for a housing scheme, has ordered him to bear the cost of reforesting the affected area. The CEJ deserves public plaudits for its successful legal battle against the destruction of forests.

The CA judgment is most welcome and sure to have a deterrent effect on those bent on destroying the country’s precious forests. The onus is on the government to reforest the deforested section of the Kallaru reserve; the affected area is believed to encompass as many as 2,500 acres. How much Buthiudeen will have to spend on reforestation has not been estimated. However, senior lawyer Ravindra Dabare, who fought the successful legal battle against Bathiudeen, has said the cost of replanting will be about Rs. 3 billion.

The question, however, is whether the present regime that has ordered the construction of a road through some parts of Sinharaja, a world heritage rainforest, and sought to ridicule environmentalists as a hindrance to development, has any concern for forests in Mannar. It has also taken steps to allow what are known as ‘other forest’ lands to be utilised for cultivation purposes. It looks as if forests had to be protected from the government as well!

The blame for what Bathiudeen has done to the environment cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the yahapalana leaders, who gave him free rein between 2015 and 2019. His deforestation drive began during the Rajapaksa government, in which he was a powerful minister. In fact, it is the Rajapaksas who created him and benefited from his block vote until he decamped in 2014. The rise of Bathiudeen in politics was possible due to the internally displaced Muslims’ grievances that have gone unaddressed all these years. Before and after the conclusion of the war, governments led by the UNP and the SLPF, let them down badly. Bathiudeen, who himself is a displaced Muslim, undertook to champion their cause, but after being established in politics, emulated others who are notorious for seeking political expediency and carrying out various rackets on the pretext of helping the public.

Now that the CA has determined that the forest land where the newly built houses stand in Kallaru was cleared illegally, the people living there will have to be removed. Bathiudeen says the houses have been given to internally displaced Muslims. The LTTE chased about 100,000 Muslims out of the North in 1990. They were given a few hours to leave, and their assets plundered. They fled to Mannar, and some of them moved to other areas. These people have been denied their right to return where they had lived before being driven away.

The Muslim IDPs, occupying the newly built houses in areas like Kallaru must be resettled in a proper manner. Crafty politicians must not be allowed use their plight as an excuse for grabbing forest lands or carrying out other rackets. Bathiudeen deserves severe punishment for destroying forests, but the grievances of the Muslim IDPs must be redressed. The same goes for the IDPs belonging to other communities, who also became victims of the LTTE’s ethnic cleansing campaign, and have not got their properties back in the North.

In this country, even a person who cuts down a jackfruit tree in his own garden without a permit gets fined or thrown behind bars. Now that the CA has given its much-awaited judgment, the state is duty bound to prosecute Bathiudeen for destroying a forest reserve. Whether the state prosecutor will get cracking remains to be seen?

The writer is the chief editor of the Island, where this piece first appeared 

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