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Char (Island) dwellers and mega programmes: Department for International Development (UK)

violence in islandOn December 19, 2003 an electronic media made a graphic presentation of the state of agriculture in Bangladesh. It had displayed how farmers including sharecroppers are tilling newly formed Char areas in Rajbari district without using animal power. Five to six farmers contribute to the tillage process as if they are animals. It has raised other issues such as the ownership of Char lands and the rightful share of the sharecroppers. The existing land law provides ownership of newly formed Char lands to the State. This applies to lands gained by accession from recess of river or sea.

Possession of New Chars (Islands) and Violence

violence in charWith the lynching of three more alleged robbers by the local people, the number of those killed in the last four days in the char areas in the Noakhali district has risen to 31 no doubt an appalling figure that gives a grim account of law and order.
It is not enough to say that the killers were aggrieved villagers who acted out of an urge to finish off a nagging menacethe presence of bandits. An accused has to be treated as being innocent until proven guilty. And an even bigger pitfall lies in the possibility of innocents being victimised in the anarchical situation that arises when an angry mob targets some people. Mob justice, under such circumstances, is very likely to deliver gross injustice only. Since that is how most people look at the issue, the question arises as to why the police remained mute spectators to the killings. Were they overwhelmed or cowered by the mob? If so, they fell far short of performing their duty, which was to enforce the law, not allowing others to take it in their hands. It sent the signal that there was abdication of the law enforcement authority, involuntary though it might have been, that ultimately resulted in such a big number of deaths.

The char (island) areas have become crime-prone because of lax administrative control due largely to the absence of physical facilities. The areas need a stronger administrative presence to ward off the threats that pirates and bandits pose to the local people. There is also the problem of bloody clashes among people over possession of new chars. Such accretions must be brought under land settlement to preclude the possibility of locals relying on muscle-power to grab land. It will also help development of more organised community life, a prerequisite for law and order, in the remote areas (Editorial, The Daily Star, December 11, 2003).

The opposite case relates to what is known as reappearance of lands on account of alluvion when such lands were earlier lost by diluvion. In such a case the right, title and interest of the original tenant or his successor's in-interest are protected if such lands reappear insitu within 30 years of theirs loss. However, the right to immediate possession of land thus reappeared shall first be exercised by the Deputy Commissioner (DC). The complexity involved in the enforcement of land rights are too well-known to be discussed. In practice, local influential persons grab the Char lands of either of the two descriptions and let it out on sharecropping basis on their own terms.

The Independent on December 22, 2003 in one of its editorials had drawn attention to the urgent need to protect Char lands from being grabbed by local influentials. The reference was to the Char areas of Noakhali and Lakshmipur. This only confirms lack of enforcement of State rights over Char lands that makes planned development of such lands difficult.

As far as development of Char areas go, Department for International Development (DFID, UK) has in agreement with the government, decided to fund a programme called Char Livelihood Programme (CLP) with an outlay of 50 million.

The concept note for the programme was said to have been approved by the Secretary of State of the United Kingdom (UK) in April 2001. The available records show that the proposal took 16 months to develop in order to understand the complexity of Char dwellers livelihood opportunities. The cost on this account is not known. An analysis of the cost components of the programme indicates that about 69 percent of the total cost will be for long and short term technical assistance (TA), operating and management costs. If this is true, for the improvement of livelihood opportunities for Char dwellers in five districts along the Brahmaputra river, there will be only 31 percent or 15.5 million.

This is perhaps one of the most lopsided investment programme that the government will ever undertake in complete disregard to its own laid down policy of TA cost not exceeding 25 percent of the total budget. If 69 percent of the costs are spent for implementation of the programme in terms of TA and other costs, what real benefit will accrue to the Char dwellers remains an open question.

In fact, a major element of ensuring sustainability of the programme depends on clearly defined land rights for the Char dwellers and its enforcement mechanism. There is enough evidence that it is strikingly absent in the Char areas of Bangladesh:

  • Violence leading to deaths over land disputes in the Char areas are very common. The recent tragic events of Noakhali Char areas testifies to this. The project appears to have bypassed this vital issue expressing the pious hope that social mobilisation and democratization will increase upward pressure for improved government planning and coordination of services at Upazila and district levels.
  • The question of resolving land disputes and updating the record of rights in the Char areas will continue to defeat all pressures from below thereby providing opportunities for further exploitation of the poor by the rich and the influential.

    Apart from the question of land rights, the issue of credit appears to have been ignored. All that the programme envisages is capacity building through group formation and linking the groups to credit providers. Who are the credit providers are not spelt out. There are only three sources. First, the specialized agricultural banks such as Bangladesh Krishi Bank (BKB) and Rajshahi Krishi Unnayan Bank (RAKUB). Second, the Nationalised Commercial Banks (NCBs). Third, there are the non-government organizations (NGOs).

    River Grabbing

    According to a news item published by a vernacular newspaper the river Dakatia at Raipur is being encroached upon by the local influential people of the area. The once-mighty river is being filled as shops and houses are being set up. The authorities apparently have decided to turn a blind eye to this phenomenon as it has been going on for quite some time. Because of the dominance of th influential people involved in these activities the river is decaying and the number of water vessels has come down drastically in the river.

    However, the worst hit has been the poor fishermen who are dependent on the river for earning their livelihoods. Many of them have become unemployed and leading a hand-to-mouth existence. The concerned people are raising the issue through protest marches but these are hardly having any effect. The Dakatia is hardly the first river in this country, which has had this unfortunate fate. Many other rivers of Bangladesh have been up for grabs for a number of years. The Buriganga, which flow by the capital has also had huge portions of it encroached upon by miscreants.

    Unfortunately in Bangladesh the environmental lobby is yet to get strong. The groups that do exist are concentrated in the urban areas. With the majority of the people suffering from crushing poverty environment is rarely given the importance it deserves and finds it extremely difficult to find a place in the list of priorities of the policymakers. But Bangladesh can no longer remain silent about the issue. The grabbing of the rivers must stop and stern steps should be taken against the responsible persons.

    In respect of fund disbursement and accounting, the mega programme appears to follow a dichotomized approach. The government of Bangladesh will account for those financial elements that it administers. For funds provided by DFID, disbursement and accountability responsibilities remain with the management agency, which is accountable directly to DFID. The entire funds put in by DFID are in the name of people of Bangladesh and yet the government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh has no control over such funds.

    The sovereign Bangladesh is now more than thirty years old. Since its birth to date, neither any government nor any of the major development partner NGOs ever raised the issue of distributing resource to the poor. The leftist political parties earlier raised this issue, however; but it did not reach any effective fruit to the grassroots level. Government and NGOs are creating 'safety net' through providing micro-credit, VGF, VGD cards etc. to the poor. But this is not establishing their rights. These 'safety nets' are not eliminating the sources of poverty, although seeming as effort to reduce poverty from the country. However, in reality it may even bring negative effects increasing number of the poor from the non-poor rather than the non-poor from the poor. Therefore, the causes of poverty will have to be eliminated from the society for sustainable development of the country.

    The unequal distribution of resources and economic discrimination will have to be reduced and the rights of the landless poor established. Because in our present context, land is the base of our society, economy as well as culture. Land is a principal element of our socio-economic structure, source of power and means of production. So, the poverty reduction effort should start from land. The following need to be done for establishing the rights of the landless poor, poverty reduction and sustainable development of the country.

    • The khas water bodies -- pond, haor, baor etc. which lie across the country need to be recovered and redistributed to the real fisher folks. All the difficulties relating to water bodies' distribution which recently evolved need to be removed. The real fishermen who are inherently involved in fishing and real cooperatives should get priority while leasing out water bodies.
    • All the char lands (land accreted from river or sea) have to be included in the khas khatian by changing the present law relating to char lands and it should be redistributed to the real landless poor. The 'Diyara Survey' needs to be immediately conducted in the charrareas. Those who are not living in the char areas should not get khas land in the char areas. A separate 'Land Management' for Char Areas needs to be put in place. The land administration should give D.C.R to the landless poor prior to cultivation season.
    • A well accepted 'National Land Policy' and 'National Land Use Policy' should be formulated for systematic and optimum use of land. All the reforms regarding land and agrarian issues should be people-centred and people-led while all the discriminative laws relating to land should be repealed.
    • A separate 'Land Commission' for indigenous people who are living in the plain land should be instituted to retain their land ownership. A constitutional recognition has to be provided to the indigenous people. The communal ownership of the indigenous people has to be respected, and all the government initiatives to build so-called eco-park, dam, social forestry, military base etc. that may go against it should be stopped immediately.
    • The number of marginal peasants may be increased through reducing the number of big farmers while the migration to the cities can be stopped though creating agro-based income opportunities in the villages
    • 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 land in its entirety to give women with absentee husband effective legal rights to take decision on the land they manage.

    Given the above, it is too early to predict how such mega programmes for Char dwellers will be useful for the intended beneficiaries. As things stand now, the project design appears to be inconsistent and the inconsistencies need to be addressed .


    References: Prathom Alo, The Daily Star, New Age, Independent, A. S. Ali, 2003.

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