Problems and Solutions of Land Management: Role of NGOs


by Abdul Kader, Sarwar Alam and Sohel Ibne Ali


THE system of land administration of Bangladesh is complex with archaic terms and conditions and there is a general lack of land holder's confidence in the records, as seen by the unduly high portion of matters that are litigated in the courts.

Current structure of land administration is based on three core functions: 1. Record keeping 2. Registration and 3. Settlement. Each of these functions is handled by different offices. At the lowest tier, the function of record keeping is the jurisdiction of the Tahsil office while that of registration is of the office of the sub-registrar and there is a different office that handles the function of settlement. The major problem here is that ownership rights are being recorded in two different offices each of which follows completely different executive jurisdiction process. Tahsil office has a chain of command distending from the Ministry of Law. Similar is the cases with settlement.

The problem arises when there is a conflict over land claims. Say, one has a long dispute in a village. Now, to have a satisfactory resolution of this dispute, the most important requirement is the proof of ownership. Now, if one party brings a proof from Tahsil office, another from Registrar's office and yet another from the Settlement office, and if there happens to be a difference, which is obvious, then how a judge is to adjudicate the dispute? Because each of these offices are legally constituted and hence their documents are legally admissible. This multiplicity of documents or records of rights is the central flaw in the system of land administration.

In our present land management system, there is no appropriate process to identify an inheritor of land. Presently, in this case the court has to depend on village marriage register (Kazi). As such, adjudication of the case is based on his opinion. Allegations are rampant that receiving large amounts of bribe the staffs of Land Record Directorate tamper with the documents in different ways in order to create false ownership. Then the land owner deed writing process is too old, continuing since the Mughal era.

It is found that the National Land Revenue Board has not been doing the proper mutation work in due time. Consequently, dual ownership is often created. Besides, the Board never properly identified khas land, khas water bodies, khas ponds, enemy property, abandoned property as well as unused land under different government office. Consequently, land grabbers have occupied these lands. The existing land ceiling has not been properly enforced.

The present agriculture system is too traditional and absolute. Government has never identified experienced agricultural workers. There is no fixed working hours and appropriate wage for agricultural labour in Bangladesh. The sharecropping law has never been enforced. The present land distribution committee is dependent on bureaucrats. Thus, land reform has never been a success due to lack of political willingness and vested interest groups within and outside the government.

Possible Solutions
It is very important to engage properly trained, experienced and educated persons in survey and mapping works. A magistrate should be appointed who would be present in the field during the survey and mapping period. A temporary magistrate's court must be established in the field during the survey works. The contract basis works of survey and mapping must be discontinued. A committee with members of civil society should be formed which would act as a watchdog during the survey works. The presence of Land Revenue Officer in the field must be ensured during the survey works.

A single parcel basis system of land registration must be established which needs modification of existing laws and introduction of new legislation. It is necessary to create an efficient surveying, documentation, recording and taxation system, which would provide transparent land administration of the government for the public. Redesigning existing register books, indexes and khatians and creating a stand-alone "Land Register" showing existing land ownership and new transaction is needed.

The functions of record keeping and registration have to be brought within a single executive process at the field level i.e. Tahsil office and Sub-Registrar's office both should come within the jurisdiction of a single executive officer, say the Assistant Commissioner (Land).

The work of mutation and change of classification of land must be ensured in due time. Government should identify the khas lands, khas ponds, khas water bodies, enemy property, abandoned property, unused land of different government offices and distribute these among the landless poor as per government laws. Government also should acquire and reclaim swamp areas and wastelands suitable for aquaculture and distribute them on favourable terms to fishermen for development of aquatic farming, identify the accreted land (chars) from the sea and rivers and distribute these as per land reform related Presidential Ordinance, 1972, increase the participation of civil society in land distribution committee and decrease the number of bureaucrats in khas land distribution committee.

Special land court in every district is to be established. The State Acquisition Act; Vested Property Ordinance; Bengal Tenancy Act; East Bengal Non-Agricultural Tenancy Act, 1949; Bengal Permanent Settlement Act, 1793; Bengal Regulation Act, 1793; Transfer of Property Act 1882, SAT Act; Sharecropping Law; Law of Adjournment; Inheritance Law of Land; Survey Act, 1875 and Rule 42 (1) and Part (v) of Registration Act, 1908, must be amended.

Those laws, which discriminate against women in respect of rights of inheritance, ownership and control of property must be repealed and ownership rights promoted for women, including joint ownership and co-ownership of the land in its entirety to give women producers with absentee husband effective legal rights to take decision on the land they manage.

Government should take steps for such pro-poor administrative reforms as would reduce conflicts over land as well as bureaucratic corruption and increase small holder security. Enhancing poor people's right to land is likely to require a range of interventions to strengthen their own voice, advocacy to gain support from government, and create impetus for reform and also institutional reform per se to enable the demand itself to be met, particularly at the local government and administration level.

Experience of NGO Samata
Samata was formed in the aftermath of the liberation war of Bangladesh and like most NGOs, its organization and work has evolved over time. In 1976, some of the local youths of the village of Bishnupur, Khetupara union in Santhia thana, organized a youth club and occasionally involved themselves in small scale and temporary relief efforts. Following this, they set up a development organization, which followed many of the aims and objectives of the community development programmes undertaken throughout the country at that time (infrastructure development and emergency relief). It also however reflected many of the weaknesses of the projects that benefited only the rich and middle income peasants. The nomenclature "Samata", which in Bengali means equality, symbolized both the spirit and philosophy of the new organization, and sought to challenge the prevalent rural power structure that systematically disenfranchised the poor. Its focus was exclusively on the landless poor of the area. Shortly after its registration with the Department of Social Welfare in 1983, Samata's activities were given national and international prominence as a result of its struggle to free 1,200 acres of khas land (land under the ownership of the government) situated in the Ghughudah Beel. This area of khas land was an important material resource, which had been illegally occupied by certain local influential persons and which by right should have been given to the landless poor. Although the government laws awarded such land to the landless, the strength and contacts of the powerful elite were such that the same laws were easily manipulated in their favour.

The struggle to free khas land became significant for a number of reasons. First of all, it served to show that if the poor could be organized and united, they could exert considerable pressure to actually change the power structure and resist the threats, violence and political manoeuvrings of those who opposed change. This was an important source of encouragement to other groups of poor peasants in Bangladesh. Secondly, in response to the struggle, Samata engaged an NGO coordination council for land reform established in 1987. This was in effect the first major NGO forum (and the predecessor to the present Association for Land Reform and Development-LARD), which brought together like-minded organizations in an attempt to deal with a specific issue. Finally, this brought to light a particular development methodology, the logic of which offers crucial insights into current development practice and theory.

The NGO, maybe only of its kind in the area, has been using a number of strategy and process to recover and distribute the khas land among the landless poor. These are:

1. Mobilization: 1. Area Selection; 2. Survey; 3. Primary Selection; 4. Group Formation; 5. Follow up (Weekly Meeting, Area-based Meeting, Issue-based Meeting).

2. Identification and Redistribution of Khas Land: 1. Area Identification; 2. Information Collection and Selection; 3. Lobbying and Advocacy; 4. Recovery of Khas Land 5. Selection of Beneficiaries; 6. Leasing out of Khas Land; 7. Transfer of Deeds; 8. Possession of Land; 9. Fixation of Quantity of Land.

3. Legal Aid: 1. Information Collection; 2. Supporting Court Case; 3. Re-recording and Revision of Record; 4. Processing Khas Land Distribution.

Development Methodology:
Although it is difficult to give an all encompassing summery of Samata's development philosophy and activities, for the present purpose it is useful to distinguish between its roles in lobbying and advocacy, implementation and grassroots mobilization.

a. Grassroots Mobilization: As a development organization, the NGO is firmly committed and ultimately accountable to its grassroots samities (informal village groups). It has always argued that it is not giving organizational responses to problems posed by "needy-clients", instead it seeks to operate as a platform where the demands of the landless poor find public expression and are effectively represented. The efforts put into group formation, together with the organizational structure ensure that this form of "representation" actually reflects the needs and aspirations of the members themselves. The unity, solidarity and collective action of the samities have already produced tangible results as the poor secure more real influence over the process, structures and relationships in which they are enmeshed (and procuring khas land is a good example of this). At the same time, less visible (but no less important) benefits can also be identified. For example: the courage and confidence of the members have significantly increased as they realized that collectively they can engage in different issues besides khas land rights. New role models have also emerged in that the poor have devised their own leadership base and are now in a position to participate more actively in village and union level organizations and institutions, to promote greater awareness of the need to implement policies which seek to improve tenure arrangements and are committed to land and agricultural reforms.

b. Implementation: Although lobbying and advocacy is an ongoing process which is constantly being refined as new experiences, demands and opportunities emerge, there is already a need to implement at the local level those possibilities which have been successfully secured. Here too Samata has played an important role for some time now. Since 1987, following a change introduced by the government after successful lobbying by NGOs, the NGO has been a full member of the local thana committee charged with the allocation and distribution of khas land. Its presence on this local government committee is an extension of its strategy to ensure that rights of the landless are fully respected and executed. This however is but one aspect of the longer implementation process, which begins with the identification of khas land and ends with the permanent settlement of the same land in the name of landless poor. Since the process is both lengthy and complicated, those holding and willing to manipulate their position of power and influence against the poor can easily subvert it at any stage or time.

c. Lobbying and Advocacy: The question of land rights currently brings together a number of different NGOs in Bangladesh. These are represented at a national level by ALRD (Association for Land Reforms and Development) whose main objectives include lobbying and advocacy and information sharing. As explained above, the work of ALRD can be traced back to the historical experience of Samata through the creation of the NGO Coordination Council for land reform. Today the work of lobbying and advocacy continues and it is the most direct route to establishing the forms of transparency and accountability necessary to enhance real and effective development participation. Lobbying and advocacy therefore remain central to Samata's understanding of good governance theory and practice. Without the establishment of the rights at this level, there is little effective space in which to operate.

In order to strengthen national, regional and local lobbying and advocacy work, Samata has been developing a training module on land and agricultural right which is offered in the form of training, workshops and seminars to other NGOs and interested groups. The significance of this experience lies not only in the fact that important information is disseminated, but also those different experiences from around the country are collected and then incorporated to enrich the syllabus.

We now know how a piece of land can change the livelihood of landless poor people. Therefore, as development workers we should think how the land movement brings a positive change in the life of landless poor and which truly works to eradicate poverty from the country. So all should come forward and work together to build a poverty-free Bangladesh.

The writers are Executive Director, Director Programme and Coordinator, respectively, of Samata.


Source: The Daily Star, 7 January 2000

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