Land-grabbing – Nightmares
Last month, I was in Bangladesh visiting Dhaka and Chittagong. Dhaka, the capital city with a population in excess of twelve million, is now one of the megacities of our time. Chittagong, with the major infrastructure projects being undertaken for the city, including a deep sea port, the second largest city is fast becoming a regional transit hub for regional neighbors like India, China, Bhutan and Nepal.
Like many parts of south-east Asia, there are visible signs of material progress everywhere. High rise buildings now dot most parts of these cities, and roads are jammed with foreign cars, mostly imported from Japan. Traffic jams on major arteries of these cities are regular features costing millions of lost hours every day. It took me more than three hours to reach Paribagh from the Dhaka airport, a trip which should not have taken more than an hour. Some flyovers and inter-district roadways are currently being constructed to alleviate the chronic problems faced by most commuters. In spite of the fact that prices of most commodities have steadily gone up no one seems to be starving these days, thus pointing to higher purchasing power of the people. For too long, Bangladesh, next to China, has been known for its garment industry. Nowadays, the country proudly sells its ocean-going vessels to European countries. These are positives.
On the negative side, however, Bangladesh is failing – like India and Pakistan – in matters of law & order, security and land-ownership. Only days before my arrival, some criminal students (now jailed) – rather professional killers - had killed an innocent man on a street of Dhaka. Such crimes were simply unheard of when I grew up in Bangladesh.
Of particular concern is the land-grabbing of both rural and urban land by domestic actors. With scarcity of land, and its price having skyrocketed in the past decade, many land-grabbing syndicates have emerged that prey upon private landowners, especially targeting those owned by expatriates. With support from some unscrupulous influential people these criminals have encroached on private and public lands with false documents and obtained court decrees to confirm their illicit ownership, often with help of immoral lawyers, corrupt members of the judiciary branch of the government and officials in the land-administration and management departments.
They use local musclemen with guns and daggers, including criminal students, and corrupt officials within the local administrations. So corrupt has the government land-administration department become that a senior friend of mine, who was a principal of a medical college, told me that he was asked to pay a hefty bribe for a simple mutation job which required transferring ownership from his deceased parents to his siblings. Threatened by such chronic problems, most of the time, land owners feel obliged to sell their lands at a price well below the market value.
Since 2005 when my own family properties in Khulshi, Chittagong, were targeted for illegal land-grab by a criminal land grabbing syndicate that was led by a local fraud Jaker Hosain Chowdhury (known as Jaker master), who once worked as a bell-ringer for a school/madrasa and later imprisoned multiple times for forgery and fraudulent activities, and had the explicit support from a powerful MP, I came across many victims of such crimes. An analysis of their saga unveiled the modi operandi of many of these criminal land-grabbing syndicates, which follow a typical pattern, as shown below:
(1) Buy the so-called 'power of attorney', often through illegal money-laundering, from family members of a dead zamindar (who had moved to India after Partition of Pakistan) now living in India.
(2) In that so-called Deed of Power-of-Attorney, deliberately falsify information by showing the peasant or “raiyat” properties -- tenanted (projabili) lands of land-owners -- as part of the zamindari khas land so as to target such properties for potential land-grab. It is worth noting here that the zamindars under the British Raj were responsible for collection of revenues from the projabili lands (tenanted). With the passage of the East Bengal Estate Acquisition and Tenancy Act of 1950, which is the basic or fundamental law for land management in Bangladesh (previously East Pakistan), the entire Zamindari system was dissolved. The act established a 33-acre land ceiling on private landowners, with the excess transferred to the government upon payment of compensation, and all the raiyats were made owners and asked to pay their revenue directly to the Government. [The 1984 Land Reforms Ordinance placed a 20-acre ceiling on acquisition or holding of agricultural land and invalidated benami transactions, in which a person purchases land in the name of another so as to evade the land ceiling.]
(3) If the previous two methods could not be employed, falsify land deeds in collaboration with the corrupt officers in the government Land Deeds & Records Department. It is widely rumored that an “official” falsified record could be obtained from these vital offices with a payment of approx. 1% of the actual property value.
(4) File the so-called 'Partition Suits' on behalf of the dead zamindar’s family members (who had become Indian citizens) without the knowledge of the real owners and get a verdict in their favor so as to prepare the groundwork for future land-grab with support of government agencies. (Note: in these cases, the real owner is not made aware that his/her land is being contested by these crooked attorneys, and as such, are often ill prepared to put up an injunction order in time to stop such a court-decreed possession or land-grab by the criminal syndicate.)
(5) Grab the property of the legal owner of the (erstwhile) ‘raiyat’ property by evicting him/her and/or his/her tenants with tens/hundreds of criminal cadre behind. In this scheme of things: the local thana is already managed by the land-grabbing syndicate, and the corrupt politician is engaged for his/her support so that the entire criminal project will move smoothly with no actions expected to come from the law enforcing agencies; no court order is even served to the affected family who did not know that there was an old case, resurrected from the early Pakistan days, on its property and that the court, without an independent, unbiased inquiry, had already issued an execution case for possession of his/her legally owned and possessed land by the land-grabbing syndicate that had wielded its power of attorney;
(6) In the meantime, sell the property to tens of greedy buyers willing to buy land at prices significantly lower than actual market value, making them all a party to the criminal loot;
(7) Before the actual land-grab, sometimes the legal owner is threatened to pay an exorbitant extortion money (which may run into several crores of Taka), failing which he/she is threatened about the dire consequences of losing his/her entire land on which he/she had been living and paying taxes, revenues, bills, etc. for all these years;
(8) Upon illegal land-grab, quickly change the face of the property by demolishing old structures/buildings and repopulate the properties with new buyers;
(9) Use connection with powerful, corrupt and greedy politicians, government officers, police and magistrates, etc. to control police and administrative actions against them. (Note: many a time all such people colluding with and aiding the criminal syndicate are promised and delivered a piece of the looted land/apartment/properties.)
(10) If all previous tactics had failed, harass the family of the legal owners with false cases and threaten them with death threats so that they become broke - financially and psychologically.
None of these criminal schemes should come as a surprise to the member of the parliament and government ministers. According to the Land Minister’s statement of 4/2/2010 in the Parliament, a total of 1.3 million-acre public land has been grabbed by such syndicates. In the private sector the total grab may even be higher.
With a very flawed and corrupt system it goes without saying that the land grabbing culture has been increasing. Without the necessary wherewithal - financial and otherwise -- the legitimate landowners are fighting a losing battle. They can’t fight the battle singlehanded without government intervention and sincerity to stop their sufferings. They need help to protect and secure their ownership rights against these criminal syndicates that have the necessary muscle to wield, and dirty money to spend and buy influences by corrupting various branches of the government to victimize others.
The Government of Bangladesh owes it to its law-abiding and tax-paying citizens to stop the crimes of these powerful land-grabbing syndicates. If Bangladesh is serious about digital revolution and transforming the country to a developed nation, it must create an environment where the property rights are secured which would help not only to retain its own talents in-house but also attract highly talented expatriates to return and contribute in nation-building. Many of the expatriates want nothing better than to return and help the country through their acquired wealth, skills and talents. They are, however, haunted by nightmares and frustrated by government’s utter negligence on this vital issue that is so fundamental.
Laws must be enacted that close the legal loopholes and protect genuine landowners from the Pakistan time (pre-liberation of 1971), without which most family properties, esp. those of the non-resident Bangladeshis and expatriates, would be grabbed by criminal land-grabbing syndicates. A concerted effort from the Ministry of Law and Ministry of Home Affairs is urgently necessary to go after these criminals of the land-grabbing syndicate so that they know that they will not be tolerated in Bangladesh. The sooner the better!
- Asian Tribune -