Recovery of grabbed government lands

A parliamentary committee disclosed some years ago that some 20,574 acres of government lands in three districts were grabbed by different wheeler-dealers and the current market value of the lands would be some 700 billion Taka. If this is the estimate of grabbed lands and their valuation for only three out of the country’s 64 districts, then one may imagine how big would be the total area of government lands that have been similarly illegally occupied throughout the country. While no such figure exists at the moment, the same is deduced to be over thousands of billions of Taka.
A national daily reported in a recent issue that land grabbers have grabbed some 6,000 acres of government owned land in Sylhet. The grabbers include influential and powerful person in the governmental administration or are locally influential persons who can count on the strong support of the ruling establishment. The police are seen taking the side of the grabbers and turning a blind eye to the cries of the victims for help in these cases. In many cases, government lands meant for distribution to landless and destitute people, have been allotted to well off persons having or claiming connections in the government and the ruling party.
This scene is not only typical of the Sylhet region but happens to be a representative one of the whole country. Land grabbing was noted under all governments in varying degrees. Only difference is that incidents of land grabbing appear to be reaching new highs recently. And not only government owned lands, they are grabbing even privately owned lands with the least care for law and legality and morality. The incidents are also getting profusely reported in the media but causing no response from the relevant ministries or the government.
Property rights are sacred and inviolable. If property rights can be so easily trampled down upon and government or privately owned lands can be so easily grabbed and the illegal occupation maintained, then that signals the end of civilized existence. The entire system of the government acting to save its own properties from the grabbers, appears to have collapsed. The system was also a weak and ineffectual one in the past. But it has become even weaker and far less effective with none to arrest the decline.
Government’s lands form a particularly valuable asset. All sorts of demand for the quick implementation of important projects can be met from the availability of such lands. For example, during summer several years ago when a severe crisis of water gripped Dhaka city and some areas were found to be very inadequately supplied, the need arose to set up some underground water pumping plants in these places for emergency lifting and supplying of water.
But these plans suffered as suitable government lands could not be found in these areas. The ones that were there remained under different kinds of illegal occupation by their private occupiers and tangled by legal hurdles in evicting them.
From distribution of lands to the landless cultivators to even finding lands for the establishment of power generating plants that the country badly needs, the establishment of all sorts of public utilities are getting hampered from the usurpation of governmental lands. Buying land from private owners some of whom many not be willing also to be so dispossessed involve greater costs in time and money for the government as progress of high priority public projects stagnate as a result. Thus, seen from any perspective, the retention of government’s possession over its lands, ought to be seen as a very important issue.
But this vital matter of concern appears to be poorly addressed at the moment. It has continued to be an easy practice for a long time for locally powerful individuals to establish their control over government’s lands all over the country. They usually occupy the lands and set up their various enterprises in the grabbed lands. There are vast areas in Dhaka city, for instance, where individuals with money, influence and connections both to the underworld and the ruling political parties, had grabbed government’s lands .
Rice mills, saw mills, bustees (shanty dwellings), small businesses, shrines of holymen, etc., have been established in such lands and their unlawful possessors are deriving every financial benefit from either running them directly or from getting rents. They have also succeeded in tampering with land records to be able to lay legal claims also over these lands.
Typically, government’s reaction is to start a case against such grabbers. But the process gets bogged down in the extremely tedious legal procedures experienced in this country. Besides, and more significantly, government represents itself in these cases through its lawyers who are very poorly paid in contrast to the grabbers who pay lucrative fees to their lawyers and sometimes even ensure the inactivity of government’s lawyers through underhand bribing. Government’s pleaders are sometimes seen not even coming to courts during hearing and the occupiers, thus, are able to get one sided verdict in their favour.
From the continuation of this most unacceptable neglect, government has already lost its claim over thousands of acres of land properties and would suffer more losses in the future. Very urgent actions are necessary to check and reverse this trend. Government must create real incentives or motivation for its legal practitioners to defend government’s properties through substantially and appropriately increasing their fees and other benefits.
A truly efficient and accountable system must be laid to ensure that they do their work with sincerity and it becomes impossible for anyone to so easily to lay hands on public properties and consolidate the usurpation.