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Land law revisions bring little relief to tribals

Many tribals in Bangladesh still landless

Land rights remain a problem for many minorities in Bangladesh (photo by Chandan Robert Rebeiro) Land rights remain a problem for many minorities in Bangladesh (photo by Chandan Robert Rebeiro)
  • ucanews.com reporters, Dhaka and Mymensingh
  • Bangladesh
  • September 27, 2012
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Sabita Chisim could have died 15 years ago had she failed to borrow money in time for cardiac treatment.

A tribal Garo woman, she borrowed from a local Muslim moneylender who asked for her thumb print to secure a loan of 20,000 taka (US$244) over a decade ago.

“I don’t know how to read and write and so I didn’t realize it was a trap to grab my … land,” she said.

Since then she has lived with relatives in her hometown of Haluaghat in northeastern Mymensingh district.

“The moneylender has fake land documents. I never had enough money to start a legal fight over my lands,” said Chisim.

Motahar Hossain, the moneylender in question, says Chisim sold her land willingly when she failed to pay back the loan.

Another Garo woman, Teresa Manda, says she lost 4.45 hectares to land-grabbers in the same area in the north of the country, home to a large population of Garo and other minority tribes.

“I’m illiterate, didn’t pay taxes on my land and had no documents,” said the 45-year-old. “So, land-grabbers exploited my ignorance and today I’m penniless.”

These two women, examples of the thousands of tribal people thought to be victims in similar cases, travelled to Dhaka this week to draw attention to their situations in front of government officials and journalists at the National Press Club.

“About 80 percent of tribals in Mymensingh and adjacent districts have – more or less – land problems,” said Theophil Nokrek, director of the Mymensingh branch of Caritas which organized the event.

The Garo, a matriarchal ethnic group, are among the least educated minorities in the country making them particularly vulnerable to land grabbing.

They are one of an estimated 45 minority ethnic groups in Bangladesh which together account for about three million people.

Home to over 160 million people crammed into a country with the ninth-highest population density in the world, Bangladesh has suffered land disputes even before independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Since 1965, ethnic and religious minorities have lost thousands of hectares of land under a controversial property law which allowed the government to confiscate property deemed to be owned by “enemies of the state.”

It was a law originally designed to target Hindus during the Pakistan war against India when Bangladesh was East Pakistan but has since been used against a range of minorities in the country until the ruling Awami League repealed it this year.

Sanjeeb Drong, secretary of the Bangladesh Adivasi Forum, a tribal rights group, says that if the government is sincere about the land problems minorities face they could be easily resolved.

“The state guarantees equal rights for every citizen,” said Shafiq Ahmed, the law minister, who witnessed this week’s testimonies by tribals at the Press Club. “If you have land troubles, please take legal action and if that doesn’t work, write to me personally and I will take action.”

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