Fighting for land to fight poverty

Bangladesh won its independence in 1971, with the dream of establishing a poverty-free Sonar Bangla (Golden Bengal). The inner spirit of this dream was to establish a secular society, free from exploitation and optimum parity between the rich and the poor. During Pakistan era the disparity between the rich and the poor was so high that the people of East Pakistan became desperate to get of Pak domination and craved for a society of equality and justice.

However, even after 39 years of independence that dream is still a far cry. The disparity between the rich and the poor is growing and 40 per cent of the population of 140 millions are living under the poverty line. The segment of the population which comprise the bottom 10 per cent of the economic ladder are extremely poor, not even earning Taka 22 a day. This evidently indicates that even though there is visible growth, the fruit of economic benefit is going only to the rich segment of the Bangladeshi society as they get more and more access to and control over resources including land.

In Bangladesh, more than 80 per cent people live in the villages and 80 per cent of this population depend on agriculture for their livelihood. The majority of these agri-dependent people are farmers. However, most of these farmers do not have land for agricultural work. These people are called landless. As per government's definition, landless are those farmers who have 10 decimals or less amount of land (100 decimals make one acre).

The relationship between the people and land is deep and profound in Bangladesh society, but many millions of poor, especially landless families, are deprived of this relationship. Nothing perhaps is closer and more fundamental to the requirements of human survival than land. Land provides food, shelter and clothing - the three basic needs.

Statistics show that at present 22 per cent rural agri-dependent families are landless, meaning having no land at all and more than 40 per cent are landless as per government definition, meaning having 10 decimals or less. In terms of absolute number of persons, the landless people have increased 3 times since independence. One of the main reasons for landlessness is that day by day the agricultural land is going into the hands of the elites, in other words, neo-feudalists, who are not farmers and do not live in the villages but keep huge amount of land under their control while living in the big cities. Therefore, a large number of the landless people are forced to migrate to the big cities for alternative employment. In rural economic structure only 17 per cent of the rich families possess more than 67 per cent of agriculture land.

The government has so far taken a number of reform measures to curb the growing trend of landlessness, but no improvement has been found as yet. Much has been talked about land reform but nothing concrete has so far been achieved. One of the most important and sensitive areas of land reform remains the acquisition and distribution of Khas land in the plain and Char land areas, but due to mismanagement and weak governance nothing much is happening. It has now become evident that the poor and marginalised people's dream to improve their life and livelihood depends on public distribution of Khas land from the government.

A large amount of public resource of different types such as agricultural land, non-agricultural land, forests, water bodies etc remain under the name of Khas land. Much of these resources are supposed to be distributed among the marginalised landless population who are mostly farmers of different categories. But, since Khas land resource remains a major area of confrontation between the vested interest groups and marginalised farmers, fair and meaningful distribution is difficult to perform. An estimate shows that there are more than 5 million acres of Khas land and water-bodies which, if distributed among about 10 million landless families, will result in reducing food shortage and poverty in Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, the movement by the NGOs and the civil society for promoting rights of the people is getting momentum. Among the leading national NGOs, Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) is critically engaged in claiming rights of the poor and marginalised people in different arenas of rights violation. MJF provides intellectual and technical guidance to its partners for implementing rights-based projects. MJF is also involved in some major policy advocacy and law reforms at the national level.

One of the themes that MJF is addressing is the "rights of the marginalised." Among the marginalised communities, landless people are extremely poor, vulnerable and deprived. A number of MJF's partner organisations are working for the landless people by addressing the issue of Khas land through people's movement. One such NGO, Uttaran, is based in Satkhira and Khulna, the southern part of Bangladesh. Uttaran is engaging landless people to claim their entitled Khas lands and after redeeming, these are distributed among the landless people under government supervision.

In most cases Khas lands are occupied by influential land-grabbers and politically powerful people. In redeeming Khas lands, the land-rights organisations, along with the landless people, have to face intimidation and administrative hassle. The landless people find no alternative to resorting to clashes with the land-grabbers who are occupying these lands illegally. They also have to exert pressure on the local administration to declare these lands as Khas and register those in the name of the landless persons.

In 2004, MJF went into partnership with Uttaran to support them in their effort to transfer Khas land to landless people. The broad objective of MJF was to collaborate with Uttaran so that they may organise a movement with the landless people to claim and establish their right to Khas land. As a non-political rights-based organisation MJF capacitated Uttaran, both financially and technically, to deal with both duty-bearers (i.e. government officials) and rights-holders (i.e. landless) of Satkhira and Khulna regions. Thus Uttaran, which has been catalysing the movement of mobilising landless people since 1985, became more capable of engaging landless people to organise in groups and claim their right to Khas land. People's organisation building was the quintessence of the movement. As the people's organisations were taking shape and increasing day by day, the group members were trained with land literacy, community mobilisation, advocacy, leadership, small business development and sustainable organisation development. Uttaran also organised civil society members of different professions so that they could create pressure on the government duty-bearers to respond to the demands of the landless people. Among others The representatives of local government (i.e. chairmen and members of Union Parishads), among others, joined the civil society groups.

With the help of Uttaran and civil society groups the members of the landless people's organisations identified the lands under Khas-category and claimed them from the officials of district and Upazila (sub-district) administration. They organised mobilisations, possessions, rallies, sit-ins and meetings to assert their claims to duty-bearers and did advocacy and lobbying to reach a settlement.

The whole process was not always smooth. Sometimes the land officials were proactive and sometimes they were reactive or non-responsive. On the other hand, the land grabbers were always there to fight against the landless. For removing the land grabbers from the occupation of Khas lands the landless people had to fight them out in groups and take control over the Khas lands. After that they made their claim and this paved the way of establishing their right more easily. This time the government had to respond and register Khas land to the landless on a priority basis.

Under the programme with MJF, Uttaran has so far organised 1400 groups representing 28,000 households. Among them are 1120 female groups and 280 male groups, each comprising about 20-25 members, which together represent some 150,000 people. Uttaran's work with the landless people has so far resulted in the recovery of 9406.57 acres of Khas land and Khas water-bodies which have been distributed to about 10,125 families. The monitory value of the land recovered and distributed is about TK 8.46 billion (Taka 8,465,913,000).

Those who have received Khas land are now much better-off. When they were landless they could not manage even three meals a day. Getting a piece of land is like gaining a source of power and confidence as they have become 'land-owner' from landless. The empowered and confident land-owners are utilising their lands either for agricultural purpose or for small business activities. The piece of land has given them a means to survive with dignity and courage.

This change of state echoes in the voice of once-landless Shirina Begum who, if you meet her, says, "After getting a piece of Khas land we are in a well-off condition and have food security for three meals a day for three months ahead. We feel encouraged to live with dignity. Now, we are leading a secure life."

By: Shazzad Khan and Fatima Halima Ahmed

Shazzad Khan (e-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )  is with Manusher Jonno Foundation and
Fatima Halima Ahmed (e-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) with Uttaran.

The case study has been published in The Financial Express:
VOL 18 NO 164 REGD NO DA 1589 | Dhaka, Saturday June 26 2010

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