An investigation into the leasing of a tea garden in Moulvibazar -- which was approved by the land ministry -- should be initiated immediately as it was mired in irregularities, rights activists demanded yesterday.
They said in the lease papers, there is no mention of Khasi people living on the land and as a result, they are now under fear of being evicted by the authorities.
The speakers said this at a press conference in Jatiya Press Club, organised by 10 rights organisations, including Bangladesh Adivasi Forum and Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST).
Reading out a statement, Adivasi Forum General Secretary Sanjeeb Drong said Khasis have been living in Jhimai Punji (hillock) in Kulaura upazila for generations. Currently, around 500 people live on the 405-acre land in the area.
“There are graveyards, school, church and betel leaf gardens, but those weren’t mentioned in the lease,” he said.
He said the authorities once tried to fell 2,096 trees in the area where Khasis live. Because of a court order, they were unable to do so, Sanjeeb Drong said.
According to the statement, the garden authorities have been cultivating tea there since before independence on a part of the leased-out land. In 2012, the government renewed their lease on 661.55 acres of land till 2052.
“In 2015, the garden authorities built a gate in the area, limiting locals’ movement,” said Rana Surong, headman (chief) of the punji. “It’s our home, it’s where we belong. We don’t want to lose it,” he added.
Surong also claimed that a zamindar (land owner) leased out the land to a Khasi chief for cultivating betel leaves in 1935. However, after the zamindar system was abolished in 1950, they did not have any legal document to claim the land as theirs, due to lack of awareness and remote communication.
Research and Development Collective Trustee Board Chairperson Prof Mesbah Kamal, said, “In 2016, Moulvibazar district administration submitted a memorandum to the land ministry for its directive on providing land to Khasi people. But nothing has been done in this regard till now.”
Nijera Kori Coordinator Khushi Kabir demanded a free and fair investigation into the matter.
BLAST legal adviser and former Supreme Court judge Nizamul Huq said indigenous people often face such incidents. Their land rights must be ensured by the authorities concerned, he stressed.
Among others, Oikya Nap President Pankaj Bhattacharya and Association for Land Reform and Development Executive Director Shamsul Huda were present at the event.
Contacted, Assistant Commissioner (Land) of Kulaura upazila Nazratun Nayeem said, “I joined the office two months ago. I’m not fully aware of the situation. I’ll get back to you soon.”
Md Moniruzzaman, manager of Jhimai Tea Garden, told this correspondent to contact the company high-ups in this regard.
According to the statement, the tea garden in owned by Kedarpur Tea Company Limited. Laila Rahman Kabir is the owner of the company.
Contacted, an executive of the company, wishing anonymity, said they will get in touch with the owner regarding the issue and let the newspaper know about their version soon.