Saturday, August 8, 2009

Buah Pala residents agree in principle, but...

By Anil Netto,

In the confusion that surrounds the Kg Buah Pala crisis, a different version of events over the last 24 hours has emerged.

About 80 per cent of the villagers participated in a meeting last night along with several activists. The villagers are understandably upset – there is a strong sense that they have experienced a grave injustice.
The meeting was witnessed by Sungai Siput MP Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, who revealed some of the villagers’ main reservations over the developer’s offer.

According to him, the villagers have agreed in principle to the developer’s proposal – but subject to further fleshing out and clarification to ensure they are given a decent deal that protects their interests.

They are willing to dialogue and negotiate further with the developer and the state government on these points.

  • Their main reservation centres on the number of houses: 24 terrace houses is simply not going to be enough given the number of extended families, which could be over 40 families (perhaps not as high as the 60-odd families mentioned by some villagers). So they need more terrace houses.

  • They are also asking for temporary rental reimbursement for each family of about RM1,200 until the houses are ready.
  • They want the offer to be made in a proper legal document to each family, that is enforceable with details such as the housing specs and delivery date (two years?) shown.
  • They also need to know what happens if Nusmetro goes bankrupt or turns into a shell company or is unable to complete the project. What happens if the company doesn’t get all the necessary approvals? Will the state government stand as guarantor or could there be another mechanism to protect their interests? This should not be impossible to accommodate.
  • Some alternative grazing land provided for their cows.

Now, if for some reason the developer is unable to accommodate some of these points, the villagers are urging the state government to allow them to use the 2.4 acres of adjacent land, which is state reserve land. This could be divided into 24 lots (a similar number to the existing lots in the village) and the money that the developer was going to use to build the 24 terrace houses could be given to the villagers to build their own homes.

The state government, however, appears to be reluctant to allow this for fear that it would set a precedent – a fear that may be legitimate.

But what sets this case apart are the alleged elements of fraud in this particular deal – several MACC reports have been lodged. The state government could cite these as extraordinary circumstances that deserve an extraordinary solution – a real win-win solution.

If the Penang government is really interested in seeing justice done and the villagers’ interests protected, then it should seriously look into these reservations to ensure that an acceptable and just settlement is reached.

The residents agreed that Jeyakumar would convey these reservations and recommendations to the state government for it to consider. This he has done: this morning, he submitted a letter containing some of these points to the Chief Minister (Guan Eng was not in, so the letter was passed to his office) and personally to Deputy CM Ramasamy.

All is not lost if the state government could only look at the issue from the lens of the villagers and really understand their fears and insecurities. Few outsiders can feel their anguish at being wrenched apart from the land they have called home for generations – and all because of a land grab under dubious circumstances.

“They must be given a decent deal,” says Jeyakumar. “There are so many different people saying different things. I would take last night’s meeting, which was well attended, as reflecting what the villagers want.”

The above need not be seen as absolute demands but as the starting point or building blocks for further negotiations to arrive at a more just solution.

Meanwhile, the developer should be told once again that if there is forced eviction/demolition, the state government would stick to its pledge of revoking the development order.