Enacting law to regulate use of arable land
ON January 21, Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury told the Parliament that the government was planning to have a law requiring its permission to build any structure on farmland. Earlier on May 19, 2009 the parliamentary standing committee on the planning ministry recommended that the government legislate against construction on arable land.
Why is it necessary to enact a law to regulate the use of arable land?
The need for a policy to regulate the use of agricultural land was felt within a few years after independence. The Third Five-Year Plan stated that per capita availability of land was the lowest in Bangladesh in the South-East Asian region and it was continuously declining due to population growth. Since the availability of arable land was declining even faster because of demand for land for other uses such as for homesteads, industries, and roads, a forward looking land use policy was of great importance.
Despite steady progress towards industrialisation, agriculture remains the most important sector in Bangladesh. About 21 percent of GDP (according to Bangladesh Economic Review 2009, in the FY 2008-09, contribution of agriculture to GDP was 20.60%) of the country comes from agriculture sector. Besides, it has indirect contribution to the overall growth of GDP. Many sectors included in broad service sector such as wholesale and retail trade, hotel and restaurants, transport and communications are strongly supported by the agriculture sector. According to Preliminary Report on Agriculture Census (PRAC) 2008 (published in 2009) of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), agriculture sector provides employment for around 50 percent of the total labour force (15 years +), and it is striving hard to feed about 150 million people of the country.
As per Two-Year Plan (1978-80), total agricultural land in the country was about 90.80 lakh hectares. The agriculture minister informed the House on January 21 that cultivable land in 2002-03 stood at 80.31 lakh hectares which, according to data given for 2007-08 by the BBS, dwindled to 77.65 lakh hectares. This means that the agricultural land is decreasing at 0.66 percent a year in the current decade. Towards the end of 2007, agriculture adviser to the caretaker government, CS Karim, said that the annual rate of loss of agricultural land was one percent for its use for other purposes such as, human settlements, rapid urbanisation, industrialisation, construction of new roads and broadening of the existing ones and various other development activities. Experts also claim it to be 1 percent. In that case, the country is losing every year around 80 thousand hectares of land suitable for cultivation.
Of all the users of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes, housing sector is probably causing the highest loss. "A household" as defined in the Agriculture Census-1996, "means a group of persons normally living together and eating in one mess (i.e. with common arrangement of cooking) with their dependents, relatives, servants, etc." A look into the Agriculture Census reports of 1983-84 and 1996 shows that in 1996, total number of households in the country stood at 17,828187 against the total number of 13,817646 in 1983-84, which means an increase of 29.02 percent. The PRAC-2008 shows a total of 28,670000 households, which means 60.81 percent increase over 1996. Out of the total 28,670000 households shown in 2008 PRAC, 25,360000 (88.45%) are in rural areas and only 33,10000 (11.55%) are in urban areas.
Town planning system exists in City Corporation and municipal areas, but there is no land zoning policy for rural areas. The increasing number of unplanned households in rural areas is causing a colossal loss of cultivable land.
While this is the situation of losing agricultural land for other uses, the more alarming is the scientific forecast of loss of land from sea-level rise due to global warming. According to IPCC's forecast, just a one-metre rise in sea level due to global warming might cause around 17 percent of Bangladesh's landmass to go under water, displacing some 20 million people in coastal areas.
The process of industrialisation in the countryside in a haphazard and unplanned way is not only causing loss of huge amount of croplands and water bodies but also polluting environment as these industrial establishments lack mechanism for treatment of effluent and wastage.
The annual population growth rate is outpacing the food production growth rate in the country. According to various studies, the population will double to around 280 million at the current rate of growth (1.4%) by 2080 and reach about 180 million as early as 2020. To feed this huge population, we shall have to restrict, if not stop, the use of arable land for purposes other than agriculture, and go for mechanised farming in a large-scale.
It is good to see that the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) recently approved a project at an estimated cost of Tk.149 crore for speeding up the process of farm mechanisation in order to boost crop production and minimise post-harvest wastage. The implementation of the project brooks no delay.
In view of what has been stated above, the need for enacting a law to regulate the use of arable land can hardly be over-emphasised. It is not unlikely that a powerful lobby may be active against enactment of such a law. But, it is expected that the government will seriously consider enactment of such a law as early as possible. Since the proposed law will encompass almost all strata of the society, the government may solicit opinion of the civil society members, legal experts and the media on the draft law. This will ensure people's participation in the process of decision-making, which is a characteristic of good governance.
M. Abdul Latif Mondal is a former Secretary to the Government. E-mail: [email protected]