Friday, February 11, 2011

On land purchase, acquisition and distribution

The Independent, February 12th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The show of people’s power over the acquisition of land at Arial Beel for a new international airport and the government’s decision to bow to people’s will are welcome signs for democracy in the country. This notwithstanding, the issue that is becoming a serious one for the country is land acquisition both legally and other means through which agricultural land and land for domestic use are being transferred a small number of rich people of the country. The Independent in a recent issue has carried a picture in the front page showing people of Rajshahi town gathered in a foul mood, some armed with indigenous lethal weapons, protesting the take-over of agricultural land for a housing project.

Land-people ratio in Bangladesh is the worst in the world. Hence, the demand for land will continue to increase as it has done since independence. In the last few years, this rush to buy, acquire and grab land has acquired irrational proportion. A small section of the people who have become fabulously rich are purchasing land as investment; for their own personal aggrandizement and for a variety of other reasons that only reflect their personal interests and little of the country.

On a recent visit to my village home near the Dhoom Ghat Bridge on the Feni side, I was shocked to see sign boards on very fertile agricultural land. Most of these signboards are for some factory or industry. I could not believe why people would buy agricultural land where there are no roads nor any other physical infrastructure for building factory or industry. I was told by the villagers that such land has been purchased and more are being purchased every day and very few if any at all of the new owners of the land have any intention of building any industry or factory on such land.

The spree to purchase agricultural land has been spurred by the fact that their owners are selling such land for economic hardship at prices set by the buyers although given the scarcity of such land, it should be the other way round. The buyers are buying such land just as investment. This process of transfer of ownership of agricultural land from farmers to investors in land has embedded in it dangerous consequences for the future. In case of my own village through which the four lane Dhaka-Chittagong highway has been planned, the price of land will rise by astronomical proportion very soon and land will no doubt be lost to agriculture for good. The poor sellers will see how these investors turn their land into gold mines!

A lot of agricultural land has already been lost and more would be lost in future throughout the country with improvement of the roads infrastructure to investors and speculators in land. If such transfers were to lead to transformation of Bangladesh from an agricultural to an industrial country, then the country and the people will benefit. Unfortunately that is not going to happen because transformation into an industrialized country is much more than mere transfer of agricultural land. Many of those who have bought the agricultural land and are buying more are not industrialists or potential industrialists but speculators in land who have made huge amount of money by both legal and illegal means and are greedy to make more profit by investment in land. These investors are just not taking away vital agricultural land to satisfy their greed; they are pushing the economy towards a bubble burst that could bring the economy down.

The rush to buy, acquire and grab agricultural land has already started to affect the country’s vital agricultural sector. The adverse impact has the potential also affect both society and politics in Bangladesh. In fact, the news headline in The Independent is loaded with hints of a disastrous future unless corrective measures are taken quickly. The transfer of land from farmers to the few and new rich people of the country is not taking place in any fair manner. The poor farmers are being dispossessed of their ownership of their land for a pittance. As these disposed farmers see the price of land they once possessed rise to unbelievable levels, they will feel cheated. As the number of such people swell, it will only need a catalyst of any sort to unite them to create disturbances to threaten the stability of the country, a preview of which we saw in Arial Beel and Rajshahi.

There is a different type of land purchase that is now a fashion among the rich people in Dhaka. They are buying land both agricultural land and land in domestic use in short distance from Dhaka in areas such as Savar, Gazipur, etc to build their farm houses. In a country where land is in such short supply, these individuals are buying many acres of individual holdings with ponds, recreational and entertainment facilities that can only be fantasy for all in the country except these few individuals.

There is of course no harm in anyone owning such farm houses. The problem, however, is the same as with the agricultural land being lost by the poor farmers to the land investors. These farm houses are built on land owned by the less fortunate in society. Their luxury holdings are already beginning to look like eyesores as these are surrounded by ancestral homes of people less fortunate many of whose relatives or neighbours have sold their land to these new rich of the society. These rich individuals have agents who are out to ensure that those who are holding to their land are lured to sell their land for more luxurious farm houses.

There is of course no clear law against acquiring agricultural land for purposes other than agriculture. An environmental group however has filed a case against the Army Housing Scheme for acquiring land for housing on agriculture land in Rupgang. The group has argued that the constitution guarantees right of life and livelihood for all and taking away agriculture land from farmers is tantamount to taking away their right to livelihood.

Rupgang is just one instance where a case has been made of agricultural land being lost to the newly rich in the country because it is taking away people’s livelihood from the sector that employs the highest number of the country’s workforce. The need for agriculture to support the country’s huge and growing population that is growing is also being seriously hampered by this dangerous loss of agricultural land. The most dangerous consequence on this land transfer by sale, acquisition and other means is the fact that it is placing the majority poor and the few rich on road to conflict that could tear the country apart.

The government must therefore enact laws immediately to prohibit selling agricultural land for use in any others sector. The Government must further enact laws to restrict land holdings so that there is a maximum amount that an individual would be able to buy to avoid clashes and conflicts between the small number of new land owners and those who are being forced to sell their land that is their livelihood and their ancestral holdings for economic reasons.

The Prime Minister’s decision on Arial Beel and the move by environmentalists against the Army Housing Scheme in Rupgang are steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, it does not seem likely that those who are indulging in the mindless acquisition of agricultural and domestic land by purchase, acquisition, etc would be encouraged to follow the Prime Minister’s lead or listen to the environmentalists. To stop incidents of people’s power shown in Arial Beel or Rajshahi spreading to the rest of the country with the potential to take the country apart, the legal system must be brought into the loop against mindless land acquisition by individuals for their personal aggrandizement.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a former Secretary to the Government.

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