Satyabati Bakti, 95, a blind retired tea-worker of Chandpur tea estate, is ready to take a bullet to protect her farmland.
“If I could see, and had the energy, I would stand in front of my paddy field and tell them to shoot me before taking the land,” she says, referring to her 15-decimal land, situated inside Chandpur tea estate, where the government is planning to set up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ).
Satyabati and her tea-labourer family relies on the land for their yearly supply of food. The wage of a tea-worker is currently Tk 102 per day.
Like Satyabati, 6,000 people from 1,250 families of the Chandpur tea estate, run by Duncan Brothers Bangladesh Ltd, might soon lose their farmlands, and their much-needed supplementary income, because of the proposed SEZ.
MARGINALISING THE MARGINALISED
The 512 acres of land of Chandpur tea estate at Chunarughat upazila in Habiganj is one of the 88 places where the Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority (Beza) plans to build SEZs.
According to its website, Beza, formed in 2010, “aims to establish economic zones in all potential areas in Bangladesh including backward and underdeveloped regions with a view to encouraging rapid economic development through increase and diversification of industry, employment, production and export.”
In 2015, the government cancelled Duncan Brother’s lease on the land in question and Beza acquired the 512 acres, where workers of Chandpur tea estate have been farming since the establishment of the tea garden in 1890.
When the tea labourers came to know about the government’s decision, they started protesting it. For months, they guarded their rice farms and held demonstration and rallies, but the government remained firm in its decision.
“Recently, a number of people in expensive cars visited the land and asked about the cost of land filling in the area,” said Nipen Paul, joint-secretary of Bangladesh Tea Labourer’s Union Central Committee.
“Besides, a local lawmaker at a programme in Sylhet recently, announced that the work of setting up the SEZ in Chunarughat will start soon,” he said.
Fearing imminent eviction, the Chandpur tea estate workers started a one-hour daily strike from December 7, protesting the establishment of SEZ in their cropland.
THE QUESTION OF LAND RIGHTS
Nipen explained the custom in all tea-gardens was that workers will live in and cultivate the fallow land within the gardens.
The owners, in turn, deduct a certain percentage of the workers’ daily ration for the use of each decimal of land. The deduction is almost like a payment of land tax, he claimed.
Both the accommodation and the cropland are passed down to the next generation along with the tea-labourer’s job, he added.
The tea workers belong to various tribal groups, and were brought to the tea estates in Sylhet division as bonded labourers by the British around 200 years ago from different other parts of Indian subcontinent.
They are, however, not given any legal entitlement to the land.
Barrister Jotirmoy Barua, coordinator of Life and Nature Safeguard Platform (LNSP), pointed out that the rights of the tribal tea-workers over the land they use must be recognised because Bangladesh had ratified the International Labour Organisation Convention 107.
Article 11 of the convention asks governments to recognise the right of ownership of land traditionally occupied by underprivileged tribal groups.
Jotirmoy said Bangladesh did not enact any law in line with the convention.
AGRICULTURE VS INDUSTRY
Barrister Jotirmoy Barua also referred to a remark made by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the 10th council of the Krishak League at the Suhrawardy Udyan on November 6 this year, where she reiterated her stance on not allowing industries on arable land.
“BEZA is violating it in every step,” he alleged.
President of the Begum Khan tea garden Panchyat Committee Chandra Karmakar complained that the district administration classified the 512 acres as “barren land” in the 2015 requisition document, although workers had been growing crops there for more than a century.
The tea estate is yet another where workers stand to lose their land.
According to Upazila Agriculture officer of Chunarughat Jalal Uddin Sarkar, yearly production of paddy and other crops in the 512 acres of land are worth 80 lakh and 20 lakh taka.
Even Beza, in reply to an application filed by this correspondent under the Right to Information Act, mentioned that the land chosen for the SEZ in Chunarughat is unused cropland where a certain varities of rice is grown, swamp and canal type.
Yet, Beza mentioned that the land was taken under Acquisition and Requisition of Immovable Property Ordinance 1982 and Non-agriculture Khas Land Management and Settlement Policy 1995.
Eminent Supreme Court lawyer Hasnat Quaiyum told this correspondent that he had visited the spot and found it to be paddy land. “The local government office termed it barren land and this is false. This is punishable under articles 167 and 409 of the penal code,” he added.
Shamsul Huda, executive director of Association of Land Reform and Development (ALRD) and a member of Life and Nature Safeguard Platform (LNSP), said, “The government should work to establish the land rights of the tea-workers, otherwise a large number of indigenous populations may face food scarcity in the near future.”
Chairman of Bangladesh Tea Association Shah Alam also opposed the idea of setting up the SEZ on tea estate land.
“When Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the chairman of the Tea Board, he announced that the land of tea estates would remain intact. He [Bangabandhu] made this remark keeping the workers’ tradition and their poor condition in mind,” he said.
Noting that agriculture sector is as important as the industry sector, Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman, former caretaker government adviser and executive chairperson of Power and Participation Research Centre said, “There is a tendency to take the lands of marginalised people without prioritising efficient use of land. It must be stopped.”
ECONOMY OVER ENVIRONMENT?
Meanwhile, activists and forest officials are concerned about the environmental impact of the proposed Chandpur tea estate SEZ on the Satchhari National forest and Rema-Kalenga Wildlife Sanctuary and rivers of the area.
According to the forest department, Satchhari National Forest is only four kilometres away from the SEZ while Rema-Kalenga Wildlife Sanctuary is 19 kilometres away.
General Secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (Bapa) Central Committee Sharif Jamil said, “Increased traffic to connect the economic zone through Satchhari will hamper the wildlife habitat and facilitate poaching. It will lead the forests to complete death. Death of this rainforest will severely impact the streams and rivers at the downstream”.
“Rivers like Sonai, Bolobhadra will be affected by the ecological degradation. Especially, Sutang will be highly affected by this specific zone. These will pollute the Meghna river that has far widespread impacts,” he warned.
He urged the government to conduct comprehensive and transparent assessment and review the plan of setting up a SEZ in Churnarughat.
Divisional Forest Officer of wildlife management and nature conservation in Sylhet ANM Abdul Wadud told this correspondent that different species of birds, reptiles and apes in the Satchhari National Forest will be endangered if the SEZ is established.
Even Raghunandan and Rema-Kalengaya forests will be affected, he added.
The RTI application revealed that Beza has not done any feasibility study or Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for establishing the special economic zone yet.
Beza, itself, would not comment on the matter and has only responded when an RTI application is filed.