Land for the land less

by Dr. M A Momen

ALTHOUGH land reform was once accepted as the foundation of rural development and social and political stability, its significance has eroded both as a policy issue and in development thinking. The great enthusiasm for land reform in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s appears to have withered away. Apparently a dying issue, land reform, however, has staged a comeback after dramatic structural changes in the former socialist countries. This time, however in a different form, not in the fashion of the wholesale state acquisition, but in restoration and restitution of land rights of the cultivating peasantry. The empirical evidence drawn from Asia, Africa and Latin America shows a strong and positive correlation between rural household income and access to land.Land reforms have fallen from the grace of contemporary development literature and international development agencies as a victim of new intellectual fashion. The post-independent Bangladesh was under a socialist spell for a few years, with a radical land reform seen as an essential step towards the socialist goal. But the step was not taken, as the condition in Bangladesh was not at all compatible with radical changes. The governments that emerged with the state power in the following years were also hesitant to implement the already existing provisions of land acquisition and distribution.The land reform issues got dissolved in the recent past in the apparently dominant issues of environment, rural development and micro-credit operation. Although all governments through Ministry of Land and district and sub-district offices kept the process of land distribution alive for name's sake alone, the success was always far from satisfactory.

A closer look at land reform attempts of the 1950s (the major legal instruments being the East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act 1950), 1970s (the Presidential Ordinance No. 98 of 1972) and 1980s (the Land Reform Ordinance 1984) shows that the proclaimed success was often fictitious and overblown. What was projected to be the success of land reforms, particularly in terms of distribution of land had very little to do with the landless population, as the land had often remained occupied by the affluent section of rural population.A DFID study undertaken by Saurav Sinha of University of Sussex and Kazi Ali Taufique of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies comes up with some recommendations towards promoting land rights. An important recommendation that the landless should have access to public land at a market price, of course not free of cost, triggered a debate.The proposed approach of payment for land at market price excellently suits the orthodox market mechanism and market economy and eliminates the phobia of price distortion at the land market. The DFID sponsored study mentions that the landless it has examined are willing to pay at the market rate provided they are assured of their access and rights.But the point that deserves further examination is whether the landless people are really capable of paying the government the land price at the market rate? If they are capable, should their inclusion in the priority list of the prospective beneficiaries of land distribution programme was logical?Payment of price by the landless has been viewed as a disincentive approach which tends to reduce capture- attempts by the rich and minimises the bribe package paid by the poor. The government can invest the sale proceeds of land to update land records and evict encroachers.

While appreciating the market norms for efficiency, market price approach also seems politically correct. But DFID can give another thought on the idea of lesser capture-assumption by the rich. The assumption has ignored the supply side of land market. When the land scarcity situation is properly understood, then putting market price in land does not appear to have any disincentive effect on the rich to reduce their land-based interest.

The land, on the one hand, with a price tag is likely to create a disincentive environment for the poor, while the rich on the other hand are more likely to cook up plots to grab public land by a process of pseudo-financing the poor and keeping them at the forefront. They are capable of using this proposed disincentive approach to their advantage.

The second assumption of reduction of bribe with price tagged to land does not reflect the Bangladesh situation. There is no doubt that the prospective beneficiaries of land distribution are to bribe almost at every stage, from applying for an application form for a piece of land to obtaining a deed from the land office and taking over the possession. But in reality the size of bribe is directly proportional to the price of the asset. Hence the escalation of price will equally escalate the amount of bribe, and thus distance the actual landless from the benefits of land distribution. The third one i.e. investment of sale proceeds in land development, particularly in updating land records, would be highly appreciable. But experience suggests that Land Ministry does not have a record of useful investment of its earned money. The payment at the market price formula will work if the state arranges for the actual landless a low-interest land purchase credit and an income generating package and ensures a profitable investment environment. The landless people, only after an ensured subsistence, may love to pay from their savings. It needs a poor-friendly market and a market-friendly polity and economy. These, however, appear to be a remote dream.DFID experts make some relevant findings in line with a distributive land reforms suited to Bangladesh. Policymakers may make good use of these findings. A three-pronged strategy has been advanced. It approaches the government to promote reform by updating records and rationalisation of process, the market to take care of the land price and the civil society to make essential mobilisation and play watchdog. A reduction of corruption in the government, elimination of urban-based distortion of markets, and upgradation of the civil society will work for the landless and poor.The writer is a Management and Training Specialist with the South-South Centre, Bangladesh.

Source: The Independent, 24 May 2000