Abdus Sattar Hawlader has been looking after his three-acre land property for last four decades. Farming is his only profession. None of the children– one son and three daughters– of the farmer from Dashmina upazila under Patuakhali district, has inherited the profession.
The 60-year old farmer, also a local organiser of Bangladesh Krishak Federation, worries that, after distribution of his property among the children, the land would be used in non-agricultural activity someday.
Hawlader annually earns around Tk1 lakh by cultivating two paddy crops and winter vegetable. But he cannot save any money. "If there is an industry on the land, it would bring some profit," his neighbours say. A mega power plant has been built in Patuakhali and the locals are dreaming of mega development of their community.
Road communication network has also been expanded across the coastal district. Recently a cyclone shelter has been built at Dashmina. Being insisted by his successors, Hawlader is now planning about developing part of his property–a one-acre land adjacent to the cyclone shelter– as a construction site. Once the land is developed, it would sell to public or private entities for a higher price, he expects.
"Currently our country is self-sufficient in food grains. But if land conversion goes on unchecked, there would be no agriculture in future," Hawlader told this correspondent over phone recently.
The importance of cropland conservation is unquestionable. This is the foundation of people's food security. In every crucial time like natural or man-made disasters when food is considered as a relief, adequate supply of food helps mitigate the crisis.
This has been proved again when the coronavirus pandemic and two spells of monsoon floods hit the overpopulated country this year. Nobody has reportedly died of food scarcity yet. The contribution of agriculture and the farmers have been praised for this.
Before Boro harvesting this year, there was 12.75 lakh tonnes of rice as public stock. In mid-May, a BIDS researcher had predicted that once the Boro was harvested, Bangladesh would not face any food shortage in the next six months.
Fortunately, Boro harvest in this season was estimated at 201.81 lakh tonnes– considerably a bumper one. Per hectare production is 4.25 tonnes, an increase from 4.09 tonnes per hectare in the previous season.
In 2017 when three spells of flash flood severely affected the Boro cultivation, the situation was just the opposite. That year, there were only 3.4 lakh tonnes of food grains including 1.54 lakh tonnes of rice as public stock.
Retail price of rice went up 4 to 6 percent. And the situation had prompted the then finance minister to admit publicly that Bangladesh was facing a food crisis for the first time in nearly two decades. In July-December of the 2017-18 fiscal, imports of the staple food stood at 22.59 lakh tonnes, highest since 1998-99 fiscal.
"During crisis time, only the countries self-sufficient in food could survive well. Food is a basic need, and we produce food grains on cropland. But every year, we are losing one percent of the country's agricultural land. This is a grave concern," said Badrul Alam, president of Bangladesh Krishak Federation–a farmers' organisation established in 1976.
Every year, a large amount of land is acquired by the government for development projects. Additionally, real-estate companies promoting unplanned urbanisation purchase a considerable amount of land for business. Farmers often are compelled to sell their property when they find their cropland infertile due to haphazard industrialization, brick manufacturing, shrimp and crab culture etc. River erosion is also a reason for land loss.
"Farmers consider cropland as their children. Losing a piece of land brings great sorrow to them. But they have no choice but sell the land when middlemen eat their share of profit and powerful businesses target the land for grabbing," Badrul added.
In this decade, Bangladesh has witnessed perhaps the most vigorous expansion of urbanisation coupled with public-private-run infrastructural development in its history. Unfortunately, there is a lack of updated information on land conversion in last 10 years.
Altaf Hossian, chief scientific officer at Soil Resource Development Institute (SRDI) under the agriculture ministry, termed a seven-year-old study titled Agricultural Land Availability in Bangladesh as the latest one. The study was jointly conducted by SRDI and United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation.
According to the study published in 2013, yearly average loss of agricultural land were 23,391 ha and 56,537 ha during 1976-2000 and 2000-2010 respectively. In 1976-77 fiscal, 9.39 million ha of cultivable land was available in the country.
In the 2017-18 fiscal, the amount of cropland was 8 million ha, says Year Book of Agriculture 2019. Whereas in 2010-11 fiscal, the SDRI-FAO study writes, the amount was 8.52 million ha.
According to a 2017 study led by economist Abul Barkat, between 2003 and 2013, 2.65 million ha of land was converted into non-agriculture. The non-agricultural sectors include residential, shrimp culture, tobacco cultivation, construction of market and real-estates.
According to the SRDI-FAO study, non-agricultural land was 1.18 million ha, 1.78 million ha and 2.40 million ha during 1976, 2000 and 2010 respectively, indicating an increasing trend of land conversion from agricultural land into non-agricultural land.
After retaining power for the second consecutive term in 2014, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed her concern over the agricultural land loss.
Even in November last year, she said, "…no more industries will be allowed on arable lands particularly in triple-cropped ones." State-run Bangladesh Sangbad Sangshta quoted Hasina.
Keraniganj upazial of Dhaka is now considered as a booming industrial area. According to Department of Environment, there were 271 approved industries in Keraniganj upazila in 2010. As of February this year, the number stood at 590.
There are BSCIC Estate, Dhaka Special Economic Zone, East West Special Economic Zone and Arisha Private Economic Zone for controlled industrialization in Keraniganj.
In a recent move, a chemical village on 310-acre land, and two more private EPZs on 450 acres and 137 acres of land are separately brought under development. The latter is initiated by the Keraniganj Upazila chairman. According to local people, the acquired assets were low lands cultivable for one paddy crop and winter vegetable.
The Prime Minister in many occasions warned that no industry will be allowed outside economic zone.
"If a proposal for private-run economic zone from politically influential goons comes, can the local administration refuse it? This is very rare," Bangladesh Krishak Federation president Badrul alleged.
Changing nature of a cultivable land for sell is a common practice and there is no effective authority to check it. Moreover, there is no zoning process to categorise the available lands.
Therefore, Association for Land Reform and Development (ALRD)–a non-government organization, has long been demanding formation of a land commission.
The incumbent ruling party pledged for bringing vibrancy in agriculture and rural life in its 2008 Election Manifesto as the main strategy of poverty reduction.
When Sheikh Hasina was elected in 2009 as prime minister, a group of eminent citizens led by economist Rehman Sobhan called on her. They requested the prime minister to form a comprehensive land commission with experts. Hasina assured them.
ALRD executive director Shamsul Huda was among the attendees. "Twelve years have passed, but the assurance has not materialised yet," Huda regretted.
The land ministry had drafted a bill on Agriculture Land Conservation and Land Use in 2011. It was modified twice in 2015 and 2016. But the draft has not been finalised yet.
The latest draft provisions for zoning of the available land in agriculture, residential, wetlands, forests, roads-highways-rail, commercial-industrial, tea-rubber-horticulture, coastal, tourist spot, charland, environmentally critical area and others categories.
The draft prohibits conversion of agricultural land. District administration is empowered to take necessary action in case of any violation of the zone-wise map as well as changing nature of the agricultural land.
The proposed bill provisions for three years imprisonment or Tk3 lakh fine or both, though the initial draft in 2015 provisioned for five years imprisonment or minimum Tk one lakh fine or both.
Huda, in this regards, said, "An influential section of people oppose the legal instrument. Because, if the law is enacted, according to them, it would discourage industrialisation."
To keep use of agricultural land only limited for agriculture forever, ALRD recommends farmer-centric agriculture land purchasing. For that, the NGO also demands land zoning so that a land in agriculture zone cannot be sold to non-agriculture buyer.
Huda cited examples of South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, "Even in the neighbouring West Bengal, India, owner of a pond cannot fill it up on a whim. He or she needs to get approval from appropriate authority," he said.
Land ministry is implementing a project on crops-wise land zoning across the country. The ministry secretary Md Muksodur Rahman Patwary told this correspondent that land development for industrialisation in Bangladesh also requires approval from the land ministry.
"Suppose, an industrialist owns a factory on 10-decimal land. If there is a plan for an expansion of the industrial capacity and the industrialist applies for purchasing the neighbouring lands, the local administration sends the proposal to the land ministry," the secretary said.
"This is relevant to the country's development. Land ministry approves such proposals. But it happens on a limited scale. In general, the ministry does not allow conversion of land cultivated for three or two crops," Muksodur added.
The bureaucrat reminded that the existing laws allow selling and purchasing of private land. If a land owner wants to build residential house on agriculture land, there is no bar.
Due to increase of literacy rate, a shift of traditional rural-based occupation is evident. Very few successors of a farmer, if educated, are willing to inherit the profession.
According to ALRD, there are more than 1.51 crore farmer families in the country. Of them, 60 percent are landless. "With the government's intervention, agriculture land owned by absentees should be handed over to the farmers. They will conserve the cultivable land," Huda concludes.