Siraj Khan, 65, has been living with his family on the 'Char Bangla', located in Galachipa Upazila of Patuakhali district, for the last 27 years. He has never had a piece of land to call his own. He catches fish in the nearby Galachipa river and cultivates rice on a small low lying piece of land in the neighbouring area.
In 1993, a group of families, including his, settled in the char area, which was nothing but a jungle at the time. They cleaned up the area and began living there. During the first five years of their stay, they were left undisturbed and lived relatively peacefully
"Five years later some influential people showed up and started claiming that they were the landowners and made us pay them half of our harvested paddy," said Siraj. He does not know whether he will have a piece of land of his own in the future.
Now around 300 families live in the alluvial land which has been claimed by some local influential people. Like Siraj Khan, more than 40 lakh people in the country are also landless, according to the Agriculture Census 2019 of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). The BBS also found that 11.33 per cent of all households in the country are landless.
The issue of the landless people came to the fore a couple of months back after a girl called Asfia from Barisal was rejected a police job despite passing all necessary tests, as well as obtaining the final reference, because she had no permanent address. Asfia's family has been living on a piece of land owned by another man. After police verification, it was found that Asfia's family was landless.
While millions like Asfia continue to live without a permanent address, according to the Land Ministry's Annual Report 2020-2021, the government has more than 40 lakh acres of khas land. The amount of leasable land is more than 5 lakh acres across the country.
The amount of non-agricultural land is 23 lakh acres and the amount of leasable non-agricultural land is more than 1 lakh acre. The amount of agricultural khas land is more than 17 lakh acres while the amount of leasable land is more than 4 lakh acres.
In the fiscal year 2020-2021, the government provided 81,787 landless families with 3,224 acres of agricultural khas land.
Though the landless people are eligible to receive agricultural land, the government has no policy framework in place to provide non-agricultural land to landless people so they can build houses to live in. The government has instead been providing houses to landless people under various projects like Guchhagram.
Landless by the numbers
- 11.33 per cent of all households in the country are landless.
- The government has more than 40 lakh acres of khas land, of which 5 lakh acres is leasable.
- There are 23 lakh acres of non-agricultural land, of which 1 lakh acres is leasable. Of the 17 lakh acres of agricultural khas land, 4 lakh acres are leasable.
- The government provided 81,787 landless families with 3,224 acres of agricultural khas land.
- The government has leased out more than 1 lakh acres of land. 40 per cent went to Economic Zones.
- PM Sheikh Hasina handed over 69,904 houses and 53,340 to landless families under two phases of Ashrayan-2.
The government has been leasing out non-agricultural land for industrial purposes, such as for the construction of educational and religious institutions. The government has so far leased out more than one lakh acre of land. Of which, 40 per cent has been allocated for Economic Zones.
People become landless for various reasons, including natural disasters like river erosion. But there are many less obvious reasons behind becoming landless. In many cases, just to survive, poor people take loans from loan sharks and then when they cannot pay off their loans they are forced to sell off their lands.
Many people in the country also become landless due to medical expenses. They are forced to take loans against their land for treatment but they never become solvent enough to get the land back. Eventually, they have to sell off their land, becoming landless in the process.
ABM Shamsul Huda, executive director of the Association for Land Reform and Development (ALRF), has been working on the landless issue for the last 30 years. According to him, there is no policy in place for the distribution of non-agricultural land among the landless people, thus forcing tens of thousands of people to live on someone else's land.
He added that even though the government has distributed land among landless people, it is insufficient. In most of the districts, the government's efforts to distribute land has been postponed. He also believes that the size of agricultural khas land is more than what the government has recorded.
"There are many chars across the country where the diara survey has not been conducted yet. As a result, those pieces of land have not been included in the government data," said Huda.
Another problem is that people who are not supposed to receive khas land have taken possession of that land by forging documents or influencing corrupt government officials, and this practice has been going on for years. These sorts of incidents take place both in rural and urban areas.They include agricultural khas land as well as the non-agricultural khas land.
"Will someone be able to forge a land document on one's own? Of course not, they will have to be in cahoots with someone from the land office as well as the registry office," said Shamsul Huda.
Shamsul Huda alleged that government officials know very well where the diara survey has not been conducted yet. But they are unwilling to take necessary initiatives because they [government officials] are also benefitted by letting land grabbers use government-owned land.
He said that the real landless people have been deprived of government land because the government has not taken the issue seriously.
"The landless people are not getting land because it is not a priority of the government to distribute land among them," said Shamsul Huda. "The government has to be pro-landless people, there is no scope to be neutral in this matter."
The existing system is not supportive of the landless getting land, although the government has formulated a policy to distribute agricultural land among the landless people.
"Because the landless people do not have money, they do not have influence, as well as muscle power; they do not have the police on their side," said Huda. "What a landless person can do at best is to apply for a piece of land. That's all."
"Their applications get stuck in red tape for ages, the officials do not consider the applications. There is no accountability," said Shamsul Huda. "If you do not hold officials accountable, it is hard to implement a policy."
He claimed that there is no representative of NGOs working for the landless people at the Upazila level. Moreover, most of the district committees do not hold regular meetings.
The government needs to overhaul the total land management system. The ruling party, in its 2008 electoral manifesto, pledged that it will set up the National Land Reform Commission. It has been 13 years since the government came to power but they have yet to come good on the promise. He believes that if the government were to set up the commission and it [the commission] functions properly, the real landless people would finally get land.
"The commission could help the landless, by formulating a plan on how to distribute land among landless and conducting diara survey of char areas quickly," said Shamsul Huda.
When asked, Land Minister Saifuzzaman Chowdhury told The Business Standard that they are providing landless people housing facilities in different projects like Guchhagram.
"We are giving agricultural land to landless people in the different char areas across the country. However, we are not giving away non-agricultural plots of land to families directly, because we have an instruction from the Prime Minister's Office not to do so," added Saifuzzaman Chowdhury.
The government housing project
On the occasion of the birth centenary of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the prime minister Sheikh Hasina handed over 69,904 houses to homeless and landless families in January last year under the first phase of the Ashrayan-2 project, the world's biggest ever scheme for providing shelter to homeless people.
Later on 20 June 2021, the premier gifted 53,340 more houses to the landless and homeless families under the second phase of the Ashrayan-2 project as part of their initiative to bring all landless and homeless families under the housing scheme.
On 4 January, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) approved a Tk6,316 crore scheme to give new homes to another 2.50 lakh homeless families under the Ashrayan project.
However, the government has taken initiative to provide Asfia a house, after her problem came to the spotlight. The initiative is under progress.