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Land Management

Land Management Before abolition of landlordism in 1950, land management activity in East Pakistan was comparatively limited. The task of the government comprised collection of land revenue from landlords as fixed by the permanent settlement and in areas where temporary settlements were made. The government had also in its possession vast areas of land in the coastal region, where char areas (accretions) appeared from the bed of big rivers or sea by way of new formations. These were called khas land as were huge areas of land, originally belonging to big estates, but later vested in the Court of Wards in due process of law and managed by government-appointed managers or agents. Added to these, were large chunks of land acquired by the government for railways and other big land-based projects. In addition, excess khas lands were vested in the government in consequence of state acquisitions. These khas lands were managed directly by the government through government appointed-managers or trustees (in case of trust properties) and/or by managers/ shebaits/mutwallis (in case of religious trusts, debottars or waqf estates). Further, land and buildings abandoned by their original owners as a sequel to the Partition of Bengal (1947) came within the management responsibilities of the government, first as abandoned property or wench properties and later, as 'enemy' properties after the Indo-Pakistan War in 1965.

After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, 'enemy' properties were turned into 'vested' properties and brought under the management of custodians or assistant custodians working under the Ministry of Land.

As an immediate consequence of wholesale state acquisition of landed interests of pre-acquisition landlords, tenure-holders, and all kinds of rent receivers in East Pakistan, innumerable ground tenants (tillers of the soil) came directly under government control and the government took over old proprietors or other superior rent-receivers. All non-retainable excess khas land standing in the name of former zamindars, rent-receivers and jotedars, privately-owned hats and bazaars, forests, inland water bodies, river ferries, tea gardens, co-operative farms, and orchards were vested in the government, which also had the responsibility of managing them. The management work mainly involved settlement of government khas land to deserving persons and collection of rents from such tenants. The work was handled by a special Khas Mahal department of the collectorate.

The original land-tenure system involved zamindars or big tenure holders at the top of the social ladder and the men behind the plough i.e, the ground tenants (tillers of the soil), at the bottom. This gave a new shape to the social formation in rural areas. Now men at the bottom were left completely to themselves, although the zamindars were supposed to look after the interest of the cultivating tenants. A large-scale sub-infeudation created a long chain of middlemen defusing all direct connections between zamindars and their tenants. The land which formed the basis of agricultural production was seemingly nobody's concern. The financial assistance needed by cultivating tenants for carrying on production was not available. Poor tenants (raiyats) were left at the mercy of village moneylenders who provided them loan at exorbitant rates of interest.

The original objectives of the abolition of zamindari system included acquiring zamindari or all types of rent-receiving interests on payment of compensation and bringing peasant raiyats under a system of direct relationship with the government (see floud commission). As a consequence of the move, the middle class landed hierarchy disappeared, making way for small and marginal farmers in addition to a huge number of landless agriculturists and sharecroppers of absentee landowners. The sharecroppers are by and large not landowners and cultivate land for others, mostly absentee owners of land. They appeared as the biggest target groups, for whom a sound land management policy was needed. They constituted part of the large landless rural population, and amounted to about 57% of rural families.

According to the provisions of the State Acquisition Law of 1951, no person or family could own land exceeding 100 standard bighas (1 bigha = 0.33 acre). The ceiling was subsequently raised to 375 bighas on the recommendation of the Land Reforms Commission and then again brought down to 100 bighas. The 1984 Reforms Ordinance however, provided that families owning land up to 60 bighas were debarred from acquiring further land by purchase, inheritance, or otherwise. The original law, read with the subsequent ordinance, forced big agricultural families to surrender surplus land beyond the approved ceilings to the government. In 1984, two legislative acts for streamlining the land administration were formulated. These were the Land Reforms Board Act and the Land Appeal Board Act. The acts created two apex bodies, one for strengthening the district land administration, and the other for speedy disposal of appeals and revision cases relating to the land. The land revenue staff at the district level and subordinate offices down to tahsil office were made accountable to the two apex bodies.

Land management does not envisage the collection of land dues (land revenue or rent, now called the land development tax) only. The scope of land management covers maintenance of record-of-right, quick and equitable settlement of khas land and alluvial accretions, rent adjustment in diluvion affected holdings, institutional financial assistance to landless and marginal farmers, speedy disposal of recovery proceedings and, above all, provision of trained revenue officials and adequate supervision of such officials at all levels. Proper maintenance of record-of-rights requires preparation/revision of land records including maps on periodical basis and continuous updating of these records. The updating of land records is required because of continuous changes in land ownership by way of transfer, purchase, sale, gift, mortgage, inheritance and partition deeds.

This is a responsibility of the Directorate of Land Records and Surveys. The techniques and methodologies are old but dependable and produce end-results that have a fair degree of accuracy, compared to the cost involved. Information regarding land ownership or shares of ownership are collected on the ground in a way that minimises local disputes. A procedure of settlement (or adjudication) follows to allow objections and appeals to be dealt with. Computerisation of land records and development of an organised land information system (LIS), however, have become essential, especially because of the increasing number of tenantry. For farmers holding land or having interest in land in more than one village, a khatiyan or a record of right, containing their individual land interests and essential details of each plot with classification and area is needed. The proposed LIS, developed on a district basis, can be useful for retrieval of information for specific purposes.

A tahsil office (revenue office at the lowest level, usually one in every large or two small unions or wards) works to implement changes in land ownership by updating records through a process called mutation. Mutation cases are heard and disposed of (after giving notice to parties involved) by a revenue official at the thana level, now designated Assistant Commissioner, Land. The tahsildar, or head of a tahsil office, conducts a preliminary spot inquiry to ascertain the genuineness of a mutation prayer. The tahsildar has many other functions, and it is on the basis of his work that the unit officer at thana level passes orders. For instance, he has to keep a complete list of government khas land, which includes land in excess of the ceiling on ownership and surrendered to the government. Tahsil office staffs therefore, need proper training at regular intervals.

The government undertook several initiatives to improve land management through reforms including pilot projects on modernisation of land records and land management. However, there has been no significant improvement in the overall situation since all new proposals to change the existing system of maintaining and updating records are still under scrutiny. [T Hussain]