Development sans protection of arable land improbable

Development and urbanization go arm in arm. As Bangladesh is now speeding on the highway of development; urbanization is also spreading across the country accordingly. However, development and urbanization almost always come at a cost of losing arable land.

The cost of losing cultivable land can be compensated well if urbanization takes place in a planned way. But the loss becomes heavy and almost irreparable if development and urbanization lose their parallel speed. That is, if urbanization takes place in an unplanned way.

If one makes a120 kilometre journey by bus from Dhaka to Mymensingh, in first 80 kilometre upto Bhaluka upazila of Mymensing, he will see villages but find no arable land even several miles deep into the villages on the both sides of the highway. These villages, once with abundant of fertile cultivable lands, now have anything and everything but crops field. These villages have turned into unplanned congested human habitations with industrial units, markets, shops, housing plots and buildings and what not!

As there was no effective government plan to protect cultivable land or develop planned urbanization, all villages around the capital and other divisional cities and big towns are rapidly turning into unplanned congested habitations due to various commercial projects by private companies resulting in loss of huge amount of cultivable land.

The country already has experienced quite a lot of unplanned urbanization and therefore loss of huge amount of arable land. But being a small overpopulated country, everyone in Bangladesh should be very cautious and prudent regarding use of all types of land, especially cultivable land, not only to avoid probable food shortage but also to ensure proper development of the country. Therefore the government should take immediate effective measures to protect cultivable land across the country. 

Cultivable land, as commonly thought, is not only the land where crops are grown regularly; it also includes, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, land under temporary crops, temporary meadows for mowing or for grazing, land under kitchen gardens and land temporarily uncultivated.

As the previous governments were quite indifferent about 

protecting cultivable land, it has already become late for

 proper land management of the country. Due to the lack 

of a proper policy or law, indiscriminate and harmful use 

of arable land as well as unplanned urbanization has become a 

perennial problem of the country

Nonprofit organisations working to protect arable land in the country also include farmhouse and natural forests, mangrove forests, rivers, beels and haors, aquaculture farms, tea gardens and saltpans as agricultural land.

A recent media report quoting the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics’ (BBS) data from 2015, said that Bangladesh is losing approximately 68,700 hectares of cultivable land, that is, around 1 percent of cultivable land every year. While according to BBS data from 2007-2008, arable land was being reduced at a rate of 0.66 percent annually across the country. That means, rate of losing cultivable land is increasing gradually.

That is, the rate of transforming agricultural land into non-agriculture land is increasing every day. Country’s non-agriculture land was 8.17% in 1976 while it became 12.31% in 2000 and 16.47% in 2010. Which means, amount of arable land is decreasing in the country day by day.

The trend of losing arable land is increasing in the country mainly due to construction of unplanned houses and industrial units. Cultivable land is also getting reduced for shrimp cultivation and brick kilns besides mindless occupying of arable land by hundreds of real estate companies across the country.  

Land and environment experts express grave concern that if this trend of losing arable land continues the country will soon face a crisis in food production which ultimately will severely impede the ongoing development activities of the country.

Beside the present government’s initiative to enact law to protect cultivable land, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has instructed authorities concerned not to approve any project on arable land. As per the Prime Minister’s instruction, no project will be allowed to use extra land than necessity; or to acquire crop land, arable land, land of poor people and of sharecroppers. If there is no alternative to acquiring cultivable land, price of that land will be three times more than the existing price and the owners of the land must be paid the price and be rehabilitated before starting works of the project.

Following the instruction of the Prime Minister, the Cabinet Division has issued some instructions. Such as: 1) Tendency of acquiring excessive amount of land for development projects will have to be shunned. 2) During approval of new projects, unused land of other projects, even if that is under another ministry or division, has tobe used as much as possible. 3) Multistoried buildings will have to be constructed to accommodate different government offices. 4) At the time of preparing and processing a project the ministries and divisions concerned may watch over the matters regarding use of land. During the project approval, the Planning Commission can watch over the matters in this regard. 5) The ministries and divisions concerned will keep record of the land under their jurisdiction and preserve documents of those lands. During land survey, the ministries and divisions concerned will remain aware to record their land properly.

But these instructions of the Cabinet Division have little impact on people as they are not laws in true sense. Taking cognizance of the necessity of a separate law for protecting cultivable land, the government is working to enact a law in this regard.

The government has drafted a law named ‘Agricultural Land Protection and Land Use Law-2016’to protect arable land of the country. As per the proposed law, taking prior certificate for construction of houses and infrastructures is a must. In rural area, the Union Parishad is the authority concerned for approval in this regard. One will be fined Tk 50 lakh or five years jail sentence in violation of the law, the proposed law added.

As the law is not passed yet, unplanned urbanization, construction of house buildings, shops, commercial buildings, housing societies, brick kilns, shrimp farming and many other activities responsible for losing arable land and forests, are going on across the country alarmingly. As a result, the country is losing huge amount of cultivable land every day.  

Experts strongly recommend immediate enactment of the proposed law in order to save the country from the looming threat of food scarcity and environmental disaster as well. They also demand for taking necessary steps to recover the cultivable land that has gone under non-agricultural sector.     

There should have special rules and regulations for selling and buying agricultural land too. Arable land has to be used only for agricultural purpose. There should have special and effective policy for Khas land which will ensure that only the landless people will get allotment and the right of possession of Khas land.

As the previous governments were quite indifferent about protecting cultivable land, it has already become late for proper land management of the country. Due to the lack of a proper policy or law, indiscriminate and harmful use of arable land as well as unplanned urbanization has become a perennial problem of the country.

If immediate effective measures are not taken without any delay it will be too late to protect the already-in-danger cultivable land.

Durjoy Roy is News Consultant at Bangladesh Post