Excuses about feng shui and concerns over disturbing the dead were stumping officials trying to deal with illegal graves on public land, Hong Kong’s government watchdog said in a report on Wednesday.
The Ombudsman took the city’s lands and home affairs departments to task for their “lax attitude” in tackling burials outside permitted areas across the New Territories, which it said was encouraging rule breaking and damaging the environment. This is the second time in four years the watchdog has raised the issue.
Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing’s latest direct investigation found that officials were often unable to take enforcement action and were too accommodating to the villagers’ excuses and dawdling.
While many hillside graves outside designated areas were probably dug there by accident, the report said, in some cases, the graves were several hundred metres beyond the boundaries and “could hardly be excused as inadvertent mistakes”.
“If the departments concerned fail to rectify such irregularities, it will not only cause damage to the natural environment but also encourage other people to follow suit and aggravate the problem of burials outside permitted burial grounds,” it added.
Under a policy that dates back to 1983, swathes of government land were opened up to indigenous villagers In response to rampant illegal burials.
There are about 520 such sites – totalling 4,000 hectares, roughly half the size of Hong Kong Island – all on unoccupied government land across the New Territories.
In its report, the Ombudsman cited four cases. In one incident, a district land office received a report of a burial 333 metres outside the permitted site listed on the burial certificate.
The case was referred to the district officer, who urged the certificate holder to relocate the grave.
However the offender refused to comply on “grounds of feng shui” and claimed to be unaware that the burial site was outside the permitted area. He said he would move the grave only seven years after burial, as per village custom. The district officer gave him a warning letter.
In a similar case, district and lands officers could not reach a consensus on whether a hillside tomb was illegal – there were no structures built on it yet – or whether to acquiesce to the affected party's request for discretion on grounds that moving the grave would “disturb the peace of the deceased”.
The Ombudsman recommended the department designate the boundaries of permitted burial sites more clearly as only eight had been marked so far.
While it understood that it was awkward for officers to get people to move graves, the watchdog said, it urged them to tackle the problem at the source and ensure villagers knew where the boundaries were.
It reminded the Home Affairs Department that it was empowered to revoke burial certificates and require removal of the human remains.
Lands officials could not continue allowing illegal occupation of government land for years at no cost, it said.
“They should consider taking punitive measures, such as imposing a fine,” the report read. “It is indeed a matter of justice and fairness.”
Eddie Tse Sai-kit of the Alliance for the Concern over Columbarium Policy said little had been done to address issues raised since the Ombudsman’s first investigation in 2014. The report then urged the departments to implement better planning and limit grave sizes.
Problems such as land degradation, occupation of private lots and the illegal sale of burial privileges to non-indigenous villagers for profit remained commonplace, and the rules were rarely enforced.
“They need to start over and do a major tally of burial sites to get a snapshot of how many have been occupied by certificate owners and set strict planning guidelines for all new grave applications,” Tse said.
The home affairs and lands departments agreed that there was room for improvement and said they would study the watchdog’s recommendations while exploring other measures to prevent burials outside of permitted areas.