YOU can take away their land and you can take away their freedom -- 25 million people in Bangladesh are not free to live like normal human beings. They are landless and jobless. Some of them are landless due to natural disasters, others due to encroachments and extortion by powerful individuals and others because their fathers were landless.
Khasland is state-owned land that has been designated by the government for distribution to the needy. This is a legal and practical way of channelling available resources towards poverty eradication. Khasland in the hands of the poorest can be used to grow vegetables for household consumption or for sale to generate some much needed income. Experts in the khasland arena believe there is enough land to meet the needs of our entire extreme poor population, but for the obstacles.
To begin with, many of the poorest don't know about khasland nor that they are entitled to it. In fact, they don't know about rights at all. When asked if they hold their government responsible for their situation, sadly most extremely poor people reply, “No.” They do not understand that the government they have elected is required to serve them and meet their basic human needs. Those of the poorest who are aware of khasland often cannot manoeuvre through the cumbersome application process. They are illiterate. They lack the money required to fill out the forms (which needs photocopies of identity documents, passport-sized photos, etc). The GoB land offices in remote unions often do not even have forms in stock.
Mostly, the existing khasland is occupied by the wrong people. The vulnerable poorest five percent of the population are marginalised people, mostly women. They have no money, social capital or connection to power. They are not in a position to negotiate with the local government officers or those with vested interest in the land.
Khasland transfers are a multi-office process that requires significant coordination. An application form must travel down several corridors over the course of several months to attain all the stamps necessary. The department of local land administration, the local government, the UNO and DC are all involved. There are eleven steps in the process (elucidated by khasland expert, advocate Saidur Rahman, in a policy brief available on the shiree website).
The actual geographic records of available khasland are not yet digitised. Union land officers are the only source of khasland information but they conceal the information as they see it as an opportunity for rent-seeking behaviour and deliberately avoid people who want khasland information.
Often land officers themselves do not know how to distribute khasland quickly, and more over, they do not have the tools to correctly target the extreme poor.
The inefficient distribution of khasland can be addressed by bringing together the poorest, suitable NGOs and committed GoB officials. NGOs that work with the extreme poor use carefully considered participative survey methods to identify the poorest members of village communities. Hence NGOs can play an important role: working with land officers to identify the poorest, helping the poorest apply for khasland, and finally, ensuring that the plots are not later grabbed by local elites.
Local land administration officers can support the effort by expediting the overall process and regularising upazilla khasland distribution committee meetings. They can identify the khasland to distribute and evict illegal land grabbers. Once the land is obtained, both NGOs and local agriculture officers can help the poorest utilise the land productively. This means providing support with agricultural inputs, market linkages and crop insurance.
In two regions of Bangladesh, Shiree has had success bringing these three groups together: the Haors (Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Noagoan) and the Southern coastal belt (Satkhira, Khulna). The field officers of three NGOs were trained on the khasland application process and encouraged to nurture a relationship with local government officers.
Local government officers were sensitised about the terrible conditions of the poorest and shown how they could help. Later, the most motivated supportive officers were recognised by Shiree as "heroes" and given special thanks at a national event.
This effort facilitated the transfer of 3,300 acres of khasland to 10,500 extremely poor households over the past year. This demonstrates that with the support of district level officials who mobilise speedy land transfers and field officers who work heart and soul to help the poorest, khasland resources can reach the neediest.
I encourage heroes within district land offices, NGOs, donor organisations and people in positions of influence to work together to quickly distribute the remaining khasland to the needy poor. I encourage agricultural specialists and banks to consider how to support the efforts of the extreme poor through good quality inputs, efficient markets, technical support, crop insurance, loans, etc.
And finally, I encourage you to do whatever you can to demand that your government makes the eradication of extreme poverty a number one priority!
The writer is the Head of Advocacy at Shiree and author of Like a Diamond in the Sky. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org