Monday, July 13, 2009

Buah Pala folks above politics

By SV Singam

The land now called Kampung Buah Pala was occupied by settlers for more than 200 years. Some 150 years ago, David Brown, who then owned the coconut plantation there, gave the land to the settlers for them to continue their farming activity.

A written document exists to prove this. After Brown had returned to Britain, the state government took over the land and proceeded to collect annual temporary occupation licence (TOL) rent from the villagers.

In 1999, the villagers applied for the land to be gazetted as heritage land but the then BN government dragged its feet over the matter and failed (or refused) to take any firm action.

I have no idea how many people were privy to the fact that a developer called Nusmetro Ventures had a plan to develop condominiums on the land occupied by Kampung Buah Pala.

I have no idea as well when the project was launched but I do know that as early as December 2007, even before any land transfer had taken place, prospective buyers were already discussing the launching price and putting down deposits.

In retrospect, it appears that the BN government had no intention of gazetting Kampung Buah Pala as heritage land. Instead, the land was to be sold to a developer to build the condominium project. In the process, BN cronies, including senior state government servants, were to make fat profits.

At the time of campaigning for the general election last year, residents of Kampung Buah Pala claimed that they highlighted their problem to the Pakatan Rakyat candidates who promised to solve the problem if they won the elections.

I have not seen any recorded evidence of the Pakatan Rakyat candidates making that promise but I find it quite believable simply because at that time the DAP did not expect to win outright.

After the Pakatan took over the state government, the plotters behind the scheme had a problem. People within the government administration would lose the lucrative profit they were expecting to make. The crony developer would lose a lot of money already spent on launching the project. Buyers of the condo units would only get partial refunds because lawyers' fees and so on would not be returned.

They would stand to lose lots of money. It was a real mess that the plotters had to clear up, which they did.

Three weeks after Pakatan took control of Penang, the Kampung Buah Pala land was quietly transferred to the Koperasi Pegawai Pegawai Kanan Kerajaan Pulau Pinang for them to sell to Nusmetro Ventures, right under Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng's nose.

The initial transfer of the land and the subsequent sale of it took place after the Pakatan government had come into power. They could have stopped it if they had wanted to but had it been stopped, they would have to face the wrath of the buyers of the condos.

On the other hand, if the project went through, only the Kampung Buah Pala residents would be affected.

I suspect this is why the state government closed its eyes until it was too late.

The chief minister is now claiming that the developer had offered a compensation of RM200,000 per residence which the settlers had rejected. The truth is the compensation offered was only RM90,000 and this was accepted by only six of the 41 families living there.

The others rejected the offer not because the money was not enough but because they wanted to stay on the land that had been settled on by their ancestors. They needed the land so that they could continue with their livelihood of rearing cows and goats.

The chief minister has the power to acquire the land. Of course he has to compensate the buyer but his claim that he had to pay RM200 per sq ft is ridiculous.

The land acquisition was done under suspect circumstances. The buyer only has to be paid a nominal sum above the purchase price but no one really seems to know what the actual payout would amount to.

What I can see is the unwillingness on the part of the state government to stop the project. I can understand why the chief minister fears to do that. The buyers of that project together with their relatives and friends would constitute a huge voter block. He cannot afford to antagonise them. He may not be corrupt, but he is a politician. He is in power on the votes of his supporters. He is surely beholden to them.

Everyone is lambasting Hindraf for their confrontational attitude. Well, don't forget that the reasonable negotiating attitude that had been adopted for some 10 years, all the way until that point had resulted in utter failure. If Hindraf had not acted as they did, Kampung Buah Pala would be reduced to rubble by now.

Hindraf has won one month for all parties to come out with a fair solution. Let us see if the Penang Pakatan government has what it takes to address this really difficult issue and fix it.

The Pakatan government may not be guilty of any corruption or illegal action but they are guilty of inaction, which has brought grief to the settlers. It is morally wrong to make it seem like the settlers are greedy and are demanding more compensation. All the settlers are asking for is to be left alone to do what they have been doing for more than 200 years.

The right and proper thing to do is to confiscate all profits made from this nefarious project and use that to compensate the affected parties equitably. If the Penang government is unable to do that for whatever reason, they have to do the next best thing in providing a suitable alternative location.

The settlers are not asking for fancy urban homes or money. They just want to be able to continue with their lives and livelihood. Is that too much to ask?

What I recommend is not impossible to do. It only requires a willingness on the part of the state government to prove that they are truly a people's government and not merely a taxpayer's government.

High Chaparral: Hindraf to 'turn the screws' - Malaysiakini

The Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) will step up its pressure in coming weeks on the Penang government to preserve Kampung Buah Pala as a state Indian heritage village.

uthayakumar high chaparral 040709 uthaya speakExpressing disappointment that the state government failed to fulfill any of his three demands outlined last week, Hindraf leader P Uthayakumar said the movement would now turn the screws to compel the Penang government to protect the villagers' interests.

During his visit to Kampung Buah Pala Saturday, Uthayakumar spelled out three actions that the state government must take within a week to save the village, popularly known as 'Tamil High Chaparral'.

His demands were:

• Sign a purchase order to acquire the village land from its current landowner, the Senior Civil Servants Cooperative Society (Koperasi Pegawai-Pegawai Kanan Kerajaan Pulau Pinang).

• Disclose findings of its ongoing investigation into the alleged land scam involving the village.

• Reveal the court order on the dissolution of the legally-constituted Brown Housing Trust, which encompasses Kampung Buah Pala.

"We will now step up our struggle to save the village," Uthayakumar told Malaysiakini today.

However, he declined to reveal Hindraf's next plan of actions.

'CM has overreacted'

Kampung Buah Pala in Gelugor is known as the 'Tamil High Chaparral' due to the existence of cowherds, cattles, goats, other livestocks, and Tamil lively cultural features.

kg buah pala 020709 villagers protest 02The village's 300 residents now face a court eviction order after Aug 2 to pave way for a lucrative condominium project called Oasis.

Oasis' proposed developer Nusmetro Venture (P) Sdn Bhd executive director Thomas Chan has said that the company would demolish and flatten the village after the deadline.

Uthayakumar and his supporters across the country are expected to be at the village on Aug 2 to provide stiff resistance ala a Mexican standoff against the possible 'High Chaparral' demolition.

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has said the state government plans to invoke provisions under the National Land Code to stop the developer from demolishing the houses.

However, Uthayakumar remained unconvinced and accused Lim of hiding behind the law to sidestep responsibility to preserve the village.

He reiterated his call on Lim to instead use Section 76 of the NLC read in conjunction with Section 3 of the Land Acquisition Act to acquire the village land from its current owner.

“Lim can end the crisis with just a stroke of a pen … undoubtedly,” he said.

Stressing Hindraf was not racist, he explained that the movement got involved in the crisis because the land dispute touched on social and natural justice.

“Hindraf's struggle was always based on universal human rights, natural and social justice.

“But Lim overreaction to our involvement turned it into a communal issue,” Uthayakumar claimed.