- One lakh acres of land in 20 chars in 4 upazilas of Lakshmipur
- The lands have fallen under control of 25-30 powerful individuals
- Landless people have to pay extortionate fees live in the chars
- Administration has no control over the char land
- Govt fails to formulate and implement plans to reclaim the land
Most of around 1 lakh acres of land in 20 chars that have emerged in the Meghna River within four upazilas of Lakshmipur in the last four decades have fallen under the control of some influential individuals and their goon squads – locally called lathials.
Thousands of landless people inhabit these chars and are involved in sharecropping, paying regular extortionate fees to the unlawful occupants.
Local people said the control of these chars by the encroachers has persisted for years due to the absence of law enforcement and the government's failure to formulate and implement plans to reclaim the land. The administration has no jurisdiction over these areas.
As per land laws, newly emerged chars come under the ownership of the government. The district authorities are tasked with the duty of getting these lands registered and allocated to their rightful owners or landless individuals.
Nevertheless, according to residents of these chars, located in a 76km area from Char Bhairavi to Tanki Bazar, Ramgati, the authorities distributed some lands once in 2001-2008 and no such activities have been seen since then.
Who are the encroachers?
The residents of the chars said the majority of influential land encroachers in these areas include individuals with affiliations to piracy, political figures, union parishad members, and upazila chairmen. Many of these individuals reside on the mainland of the upazilas but exert control over the char areas through the use of their goon squads.
They exercise authority over all aspects, including agriculture, livestock farming, fishing, and the sale of sand and soil in their occupied areas.
Many of the illegal occupiers have filed legal cases with both lower and High Courts, asserting ownership of the encroached land in order to sustain their occupation. Additionally, some land in these chars is embroiled in inter-district boundary disputes.
One of the most powerful of such individuals is Altaf Hossain Hawlader, also known as Altaf Master, who is the former chairman of Raipur upazila and a leader of the local Awami League. Inhabitants of several chars in the region said he has occupied at least 5,000 acres of land in Notun Kanibogar Char, Kaniboga Topto Char, Kanibogar Char, Char Ghashia, Char Kachhia and Char Jalia.
Altaf Master told The Business Standard that following the emergence of several chars around 1994-95, influential individuals from Barisal sought to lay claim to these lands. He said, "I along with the support of the administration and local residents, reclaimed all the land that had been occupied by them and took control of it. This effort resulted in several confrontations."
He declined to disclose the precise extent of land that he currently occupies.
However, he said there is an ongoing case in the High Court pertaining to 2,300 acres of char land, which belongs to the ancestors of the local residents. He added that although he provides leadership to the local community, he is not the plaintiff in any legal case.
Local residents allege that Raipur union parishad member Mofiz Khan currently occupies around 1,000 acres of land across several chars.
Mejhab Uddin Helal, leader of the Jubo League in Ramgati upazila, has claimed that a substantial portion of Char Abdullah's land is under the control of 5-6 political leaders.
Char Abdullah union, encompassing around 16,200 acres within Ramgati, is reportedly under the influence of two pirate brothers, Khokon and Fakhrul, who have established control over Teliar Char, Moulvir Char, Char Muzam, and Char Sevaj in the union with the assistance of two influential public representatives from Bhola and Hatia.
A resident of Char Abdullah union, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that UP Chairman Kamal Uddin Monjur has allegedly taken possession of around 500 acres of land, with his brother Babul serving as the leader of his lathial force.
Within Lakshmipur Sadar upazila, it is alleged that around 1,000 acres of land across five chars are currently under the control of Yusuf Chhaiyal, who serves as the local chairman and holds a leadership position in the Awami League.
Abu Yusuf said there were attempts by certain "terrorists" from Bhola who intended to seize control of Meghar Char in Lakshmipur and the adjacent chars. He explained that he has maintained control over the Lakshmipur chars by thwarting these encroachment efforts.
According to official data, most of the land in these chars are government owned fallow land.
Threats of lathials
The chars in Raipur, Lakshmipur Sadar, and Ramgati are reported to be under the control of influential encroachers who employ lathial forces in their service.
Md Mostafa Kamal Bepari, president of Ward-6 of Awami League in North Char Banshi union, acknowledged to the reporter that Altaf Master exercises control over the southern part of Kanibga through him and his fellow lathials.
Local residents have made allegations that the armed groups working on behalf of land occupiers pose a significant threat to them. They claim that these armed individuals frequently resort to violence when met with resistance or when their directives are rejected.
A woman from Char Kaniboga said on condition of anonymity that not one inch of char land, river and canal water can be used without paying money to the lathials.
Jasim Howlader, from Notun Kanibogar Char, said he has established a modest settlement at Char Kachhia. To secure 1.6 acres of land for this settlement, he pays an annual fee of Tk10,000 and a stamp cost of Tk18,000 to a middleman who works for land occupiers.
However, he remains apprehensive that the land might be seized by encroachers.
According to sources, over the past two decades, Lakshmipur district has witnessed at least 20 murders related to disputes over char land possession. Additionally, there are approximately 100 criminal cases pending in various courts concerning these incidents, which also involve arson and looting.
Govt distributes some land
Based on informal estimates, around 10,000 landless people reside in the 20 chars that have emerged in the Meghna River.
Local residents have said between 2001 and 2008, the administration did register some lands for landless people in areas like Char Kachhia, Jaliar Char, and Char Pagla. Unfortunately, there has been no subsequent initiative by the administration to continue this process.
Rahman Gain from Raipur said a majority of settlement documents were anonymously created by influential occupants. Currently, these documents are still being transferred to landless individuals at high prices.
What the administration says
Officials in the Lakshmipur district administration have highlighted the fact that due to the remote location of the chars from the mainland, char residents often struggle to report complaints to law enforcement agencies. Consequently, the administration has limited control over the chars, allowing influential individuals to solidify their possession of these areas.
Russell Iqbal, land officer for Raipur upazila, told TBS that when attempts are made to reclaim government-owned khas land from illegal occupiers, legal cases are often filed on behalf of the encroachers.
Lakshmipur Deputy Commissioner Suraiya Jahan said a comprehensive survey will be carried out in all the chars along the Meghna River within the district. She emphasised that without the proper survey and mapping, the land cannot be allocated to anyone. Additionally, she noted that some issues cannot be resolved without addressing disputes based on the recommendations of the Inter-District Boundary Disputes Committee.
What the law says
Under the law enacted in July 1994, in the event of land erosion within thirty years, the previous owner or their heirs are eligible for conditional recovery of the land. Initially, the authorities will take possession of the land, followed by a public notification and a comprehensive survey. Subsequently, after the map is prepared, the authorities will allocate the land in the name of the former owners or their heirs.
According to the Land Crimes Prevention and Remedies Act of 2023, individuals who forcibly seize government khas land without proper documentation can face penalties that may include imprisonment, fines, or both.
How locals want to solve the issue
Residents of the chars say that even if the government is unable to offer formal settlements, they suggest that the government should assume control over all these chars. If needed, a specialised policy could be devised to lease some of this land to landless individuals for a period of 5 to 10 years.
This approach would grant char residents the chance to live and cultivate legally, promote land surveying, decrease criminal activities, and generate revenue for the government, they said.
JM Farooki, president of Socheton Nagorik Committee, which operates under Transparency International, said the issue must be resolved through a special policy undertaken by the government for the benefit of the landless people living in the chars.
New chars emerging
According to government measurements taken in 2011, these chars encompassed 48,000 acres of land. However, utilising Google Earth's measurement tools, it has been determined that after 12 years, the area now comprises 65,000 acres of land. Furthermore, the land in the chars of Lakshmipur, encompassing the border regions between Bhola, Barisal, and Noakhali, totals at least 100,000 acres.
Local fishermen have also reported the emergence of additional chars in the Meghna River.