Cultivatable land in this predominantly agrarian country is squeezing fast, thanks to both legal and illegal grabbing by real estate owners and builders constructing high rise and low cost structures for living and other purposes.
As a result, many farmers across the country, especially in districts surrounding capital Dhaka, are being made landless or pushed into a life-long struggle for survival.
It has been gathered from sources and by talking to concerned officials that real estate companies coax poor farmers to sell their land with lure of high price - though they are often below the actual market rate - for money to pay back debts and set up small business to keep their families going after losing the land.
Such scenarios are readily available if one would travel to villages in Gazipur. Narayanganj, Mymensigh and in the close neighbourhood of Dhaka city. For example, huge tracts of farmlands in Keraniganj have been grabbed by real estate companies often against the will of the owners but with help of the local administration, political thugs and corrupt law enforcing agencies.
In many cases, land owners were "made to sell" their meagre property as they could not hold on this under mounting pressure from the buyers, it is alleged. They are becoming increasingly scared as the real estate business in the area continues to expand alarmingly.
Perhaps, there is no strict law to control the abuses in real estate business or law does not strictly apply to offenders as money (kickback) plays a big role in this sector.
As a result, the size of cultivatable land is shrinking fast, stoking fears of a food crisis with depleting crops while population keeps rising steadily, officials and experts said. They suggest that the government should take immediate effective steps to curb an indiscriminate transfer of arable lands to other uses.
Despite government's initiatives to recover the huge tracts of lands from the illegal grabbers, the real estate builders and companies are still unscathed while buying and selling agricultural plots for non-farm purposes.
Though the government had framed a National Land Use Policy 2001, keeping in view the competitive use of land for food production, housing, urbanization and environment protection, most of the realtors are not complying with the policy.
The policy also emphasizes efficient use of land to ensure the minimum level of food security for the people and suggests restrictive use of land for housing, physical infrastructures and other constructions. The implementation of the policy, however, is still a far cry as there is no compulsion of following the rules.
Trying to address the situation, the ministries of land and agriculture took a joint initiative to promulgate "Agriculture Lands Protection Act" during the tenure of previous grand alliance government. But officials of the two ministries who were given charge to draft the promulgation failed or just sat on the plan for years - virtually making this redundant. As of now, there is no visible sign of it getting a push forward, concerned sources said.
Taking the advantages of dilemma of the bureaucratic system, a major section of housing and real estate companies continued grabbing farmlands, owned both by the government and individuals, to build commercial and residential buildings.
Bangladesh had 9 million hectares of farmland in 1980, which has come down to about 6 million hectares in 2012. The country's current population growth rate is 1.42 per cent as against the decline in agricultural land area by 1 per cent annually.
In Bangladesh, the average cultivated holding is too small for sustainable livelihood of farmers, especially the marginal and small ones. The land transferred to non-agriculture is derived mainly from the land-poor (up to 2.49 acres) constituting 88 per cent of total farm holdings. More than 55 per cent of the converted land was used in housing predominantly in metro villages (60 per cent).
The next two important uses were in the construction of roads and business establishments covering 10 and 8 per cent, respectively. There were wide regional variations in the non-agricultural use of converted land.
The illegal land grabbers are often aided by corrupt and political influential persons or cartels that derive hefty commission and bribe for backing up the illegal land business, a large section of which are illegal and unregistered.
Land Ministry's Senior Secretary Mohammad Shafiul Alam, however, told the Daily Observer on Sunday that the draft of proposed law would be finalised by the end of this year. "We have already consulted with the stakeholders," he said, adding that "misuse of farmlands will be considered as criminal offence under the law."
If the proposed law takes effect, the Ministry of Local Governments would be empowered to take steps against the offenders in the real estate business. "It will help the government to protect the farmlands," he added.
According to a report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Land Ministry, there is widespread allegation that around 1,500 real estate companies are involved in the housing business without being registered with Real Estate Housing Association of Bangladesh (REHAB) and Rajdhani Unnayan Katripakkha (RAJUK), and most of them are directly or indirectly involved in public and private land grabbing in different districts.
The report also said that land grabbing by the real estate developers is rampant across the country. The Land Ministry recommended quick disposal of cases filed in connection with encroachment.
"More than 1,000 acres of khas lands were illegally grabbed by some prominent real estate developers only in the capital city. The size of grabbed lands in other cities, including Gazipur and Naraynaganj, is yet to be estimated," the officials said.
Land Ministry sources said even in Dhaka, the RAJUK authorities failed to check land grabbing due to irregularities and corruption while some big business houses such as, Sheltech, Concord Real Estate & Building Products, Navana Real Estate, Asset Developments & Holdings and Eastern Housing are running their business without necessary authorization.
Allegation also arose earlier against East West Property Development for grabbing 83.7 acres of land at Khilkhet, actually owned by Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (DWASA). The DWASA had planned to build a treatment plant on the land to supply 50 crore litres of clean water in Dhaka city, originally coming from the Meghna river, the sources added.
Fazlur Rahman of Manda area under Sabujbagh Police Station in Dhaka claimed some of the real estate companies are grabbing land in the city by flexing muscles. Others said the realtors even use hired terrorists and armed gangs to scare land owners into selling their property at a token price. Otherwise their life would be threatened, several victims told the Daily Observer, requesting anonymity.
They are selling plots and flats built on public or private properties showing those as their own. In some cases, they, hardly, rented the lands to install a signboard or signed agreement with the owners in a view to buy the lands.
The parliamentary committee on July 18, 2013 asked the government to take immediate initiatives for recovering the huge quantity of lands from the possession of illegal grabbers and ensure exemplary punishment to the grabbers.
In particular, the parliamentary body laid emphasis on recovering lands in the major cities, including Dhaka, Gazipur and Narayanganj, where several thousand acres of public and private lands were occupied by the unregistered real-estate developers.
"But the duck is yet to lay golden eggs," one frustrated land owner in Gazipur said
The JS body also expressed severe concern over grabbing of government khas lands in different districts while several real estate companies are forcibly encroaching upon the river-side areas and adjacent cultivatable farmlands defying existing laws.
Mamun Rashid, an eminent banker and economic analyst, said almost one-third of Bangladesh farmland has disappeared in the last 30 years because of unplanned urbanization and transfer of lands to other uses, such as human settlements, brick fields and industries. "|The loss of farmland could have serious repercussions on agricultural production, particularly rice, the main staple for Bangladeshis," he said.