Land grabbing is a major cause for concern in Bangladesh. Of course, a huge amount of land is illegally grabbed. According to the Land Ministry, about 1.3 million hectares of government-owned lands are currently grabbed by influential elites. Influential persons illegally grabbed government-owned lands in char areas, riversides, roadsides, forests, hill tracts and other areas. But it is difficult to exactly say about the total amount of lands illegally grabbed because there is a lack of record of illegally grabbed private lands. Though there are various arrangements to settle land disputes and recover lands from illegal gabbing, the problem of illegal land grabbing has not received enough emphasis in the country. Consequently, most land disputes remained unsettled and most illegally grabbed lands, government and private, remained unrecovered from land-grabbers.
Of course, land grabbing is an ongoing process for decades in Bangladesh. Notably, land grab broadly means any involuntary dispossession of landowners from their lands. Land grab can be both legal and illegal. It is legal and is often called land acquisition when government and national and international companies or organizations acquire lands with a voluntary transfer of a landowner(s). But land acquisition is arguably legal in the sense that government or private companies sometimes acquire lands without the voluntary agreement of a landowner(s). In the strictly illegal sense, land grab involves the usage of force that compels or coerces individuals to give up their lands and illegal dispossession of lands by any other exploitative ways including forging legal documents. Undeniably, illegal land grabbing, which is the focus of this article, is not limited to a certain group of people. Private and government lands are illegally grabbed by persons (such as political leaders, businessmen, locally influential persons, or other powerful elites), groups of people, private companies and others.
It is notable that land grab in Bangladesh is the result of a wide range of direct and indirect social, economic, political, legal, institutional and other reasons that are not amazingly different from those of some other gross mal-practices. Some notable reasons for illegal land grabbing in rural, urban and other areas are an inadequate system for the settlement of land disputes and legal loopholes, a lack of deserved attention from concerned authorities including the ministry of land, widespread corrupt practices, the culture of might based right, the culture of impunity of powerful persons (even if powerful persons are being increasingly made accountable), and political influence in the land dispute settlement efforts. Of course, a number of factors including scare land, increased social and economic value of lands, uncontrolled greediness and ability to grab land work as stimulating factors in land grabbing.
It is, moreover, undeniable that land grabbers are powerful in political, social, or economic terms. And since powerful persons or groups are involved with illegal land grabbing, land grabbers can easily make things arranged in their favor and manipulate the concerned authorities in a variety of ways including the manipulation of registration, lease, transfer, or other land-related legal documents. Of course, an unscrupulous nexus that can be consisted of a land grabber(s), concerned officials and others make such efforts easier. Consequently, the prevention of illegal land grabs and the recovery of illegally grabbed lands, both private and government, seems a difficult task and land grabbers can remain out of reach in urban, semi-urban, rural and remote and hilly areas on most occasions in Bangladesh.
Of course, illegal land grab clearly violates the right to land and property given in Article 42 of the National Constitution of Bangladesh and the right to property given in Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Also, the land grab has enormous social, economic, environmental and other negative effects. Land related dispute or illegal land grabbing often leads to violence and criminal offenses. A significant number of people are killed because of land disputes or grabs. According to different sources, more than seventy percent of criminal offenses come from land disputes. Moreover, the loss of lands can put many in a vicious cycle. Undeniably, many private landowners who lost their lands fail to spend enough on education, health care and other aspects that can increase their social status and wellbeing. These make them further vulnerable in economic, social and other terms.
It is notable that there are varied legal, policy-based and other efforts that can prevent illegal land grabs and recover illegally grabbed government and private lands. But the land administration is criticized to be established on the age-old or traditional regulatory system. Undoubtedly, there are huge criticisms of the processing of land ownership, registration, relocation, mapping, tax payment, will or testament and other legal documents. Land recording or registration systems are often considered to be a time-consuming and costly process. There are more than 3.2 million land-related pending cases in the country and a large number of the aggrieved persons are not empowered enough to approach the courts for litigation. It is further criticized that the legal system is still too expensive with little government incentive and the poor and marginalized including indigenous people are often denied justice related to land disputes.
Recently, the Law Commission published the proposed Land Act of Bangladesh 2020 that codified and brought land-related laws into one place aiming at settling land disputes quickly. To spearhead the settlement of land disputes relating to the wrong record, partition, boundary disputes, unlawful possession and forceful possession, it proposes a land Tribunal in each district and provides judicial powers to Additional Deputy Commissioner, Assistant Commissioner (of land) and Assistant Settlement Officer. The proposed act has potentials, but it has many notable criticisms including its empowerment of administrative organs with judicial powers, contradictory approach to deciding on records of rights of possession and title, and provision for the absolute decision of Deputy Commissioner on records of rights. The proposed act, which is also criticized as pro-elite or corrupt-indulging, consequently raises an important question on whether it can settle land disputes reflecting justice as expected, decrease the number of proceedings, and reduce illegal land grabbing in Bangladesh.
Of course, efforts are sometimes made to recover illegally grabbed lands with force. The government, especially the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), has carried out eviction drives to recover the lands of the Buriganga River from illegal grabbing. Massive drives that were carried out by the BIWTA demolished many illegal establishments of influential persons, groups, or companies on government lands and recovered a huge amount of illegally grabbed land. But these are not enough given the amount of illegally grabbed government-owned lands. There are also criticisms that such drives are sometimes halted by influential persons and are mainly focused on the recovery of government lands, not private ones. Consequently, eviction drives do not bring out the desired outcomes, though these have huge potential in the efforts to recovery of illegally grabbed lands.
Thus, more efforts are important to prevent illegal land grabbing and recover illegally grabbed lands not only of the government but also of private owners. For this, diverse land administration-based and legal loopholes need to be well addressed as much as possible with varied measures including digitalizing land recoding system, settling pending land-related cases as speedily as possible, securing effective case management, adoption of pro-poor land policy, and securing accountability among land officials and land grabbers at the deserved level. Of course, increased media coverage of illegal land grabbing across the country can be very effective. Eviction drives can also be effective for recovering lands of other ministries or departments including the ministry of railway. Such drives can give a strong message to illegal grabbers of private lands too.
As noted earlier, illegal land grabs put many into a vicious cycle. Thus, some other efforts including increased opportunities to lodge land-grabbing complaints amidst threats exerted by influential land grabbers, legal supports to fighting cases and protection from threats deserve to be increasingly made whenever needed. Of course, justice-based settlement of land disputes and the recovery of grabbed lands can change such a vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle for many in the country because many with their recovered lands can increase their capacity to spend more on education, health care and other positive means that can lead to improved economic conditions, social status and wellbeing. These can further make them less vulnerable and more protective.
The views and opinions expressed in this opinion article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eastern Herald.