Amendment of CHT Land Commission Act 2001 needed
THE government is finally going to amend contradictory provisions of the CHT Land Disputes Resolution Commission Act 2001. On May 27, the land ministry placed a draft amendment bill titled "CHT Land Disputes Resolution Commission Act (Amendment) Bill 2013" before the cabinet, which approved it on June 3. On June 16, it was introduced in the Parliament for adoption. The Parliament sent it to the Parliamentary Stating Committee on the Land Ministry, seeking its opinion within 7 days.
However, indigenous leaders expressed their concerns saying that some provisions have not been incorporated properly as per 13-point amendment proposals of the CHT Affairs Ministry and the CHT Regional Council, which were approved by the CHT Accord Implementation Committee (in its 4th and 5th meetings) and inter-ministerial meeting held on July 30, 2012 headed by Law Minister Barrister Shafique Ahmed.
On July 12, 2001, the day before handing over charge to the caretaker government, the then Awami Lieague government hurriedly passed the "CHT Land (Disputes Settlement) Commission Act 2001" in the parliament without taking into account the advice and recommendations given by the CHT Regional Council. As a result, the provisions of the Act, which are in conflict with the CHT Accord and appear to be detrimental to the interest of the Jumma people, remained unresolved.
With the grand alliance forming a new government in January 2009, the CHTRC once again sent the recommendations to the government on May 7, 2009 for consideration. After convening a dozen meetings, the Ministry of CHT Affairs (MoCHTA), after consultation with CHTRC, finalised 13-point amendment proposals of the Act and sent them to the land ministry on June 20, 2011 for taking necessary initiative to place it to the cabinet and Parliament for final adoption.
Later on, the land ministry sent them to the CHT Accord Implementation twice, seeking its opinions. Accordingly, the Accord Implementation Committee in its 4th and 5th meetings held on January 22, 2012 and May 28, 2012, approved them. The 13-point proposal for amendment of CHT Land Dispute Resolution Commission Act was also adopted in the inter-ministerial meeting held on July 30, 2012 with the law minister in the chair.
However, out of the 13 amendment proposals, only 10 have been incorporated in the "CHT Land Disputes Resolution Commission Act (Amendment) Bill 2013." Among them, eight provisions have been placed in conformity with the 13-point proposals and the other two provisions have not been incorporated properly. These include exclusion of the word "practices" in clauses (a), (b) and (c) of the Sub-section 6(1) and the words "occupied land" in clause (c) of the Sub-section 6(1).
The word "practices" (usages) is the most important in terms of land management and administration in the CHT. One of the most crucial examples is mandatory practice to take report or recommendation from the concerned Headman (mouza head) for transferring, settling on and acquiring any land of the hill districts, and ensuring whether the concerned land is free from dispute. Considering this importance, CHT Accord of 1997 stipulates to resolve land disputes by the Land Commission in accordance with the existing laws, customs and practices in the CHT. However, the government inserted only "existing laws and customs" excluding the word "practices."
In addition, the 13 point amendment proposals also recommend omission of the proviso of Sub-section 6 (1) which says that this sub-section shall not be applicable in case of reserved forests, Kaptai Hydroelectricity Project area, Betbunia Earth Satellite Station, state-owned industries and land recorded with the government or local authorities. This amendment proposal has not been incorporated in the amendment Bill 2013, which was adopted by the cabinet on June 3. If this proviso is retained in the Land Commission Act, then most of the land disputes will remain unresolved.
The CHT Accord also provides scope to cancel such lands, including fringe land given for settlement or occupied in violation of the existing laws, customs and practices in the CHT. However, the government excluded the words "or occupied" in the amendment Bill 2013. Despite land disputes of returnee refugees, there is a huge amount of forcibly occupied land in the CHT. So, if the words "or occupied" are not inserted in the Act, around 70% land disputes will remain unresolved or out of jurisdiction of the Land Commission.
However, the CHT Accord clearly states that all land disputes, including that of the refugees, would be dealt with by the Commission, as is categorically provided in Part D, clause 4 of the Accord. The proposed Bill will be yet another step that violates the provisions of the 1997 Accord and keeps the vital land issue of the CHT unaddressed, with internally displaced people carrying on less-than-human existence in remote hill and forest areas, without adequate food, shelter, healthcare and education.
Besides, there are three important provisions which are totally missing in the amendment Bill 2013. One is related to quorum. Section 7(3) of the CHT Land Disputes Resolution Commission Act 2001 provides for a quorum with its chairman and other two members. However, among the members of the Commission, the chairman of the Hill District Council and circle chief are directly related to the land management and administration in the CHT. So, in order to ensure presence of one of them in resolving land disputes, the 13-point amendment proposals recommended having quorum with the chairman and three other members.
However, the amendment Bill 2013 excluded this important amendment proposal, which may hinder smooth resolution of the land disputes in the CHT. This may mean that decisions will be taken against the wishes of the indigenous members in the event of their absence from the concerned meetings on account of illness or otherwise.
Another one is the provision for inclusion of the functions of CHT Land Disputes Resolution Commission in the CHT affairs ministry instead of the land ministry, which has not been incorporated in the amendment Bill 2013. It is the CHT affairs ministry that has been empowered to deal with all matters relating to CHT affairs. However, the CHT Land Commission has been kept under the jurisdiction of the land ministry. That is why the 13-point amendment proposals recommended insertion of a new provision (Section No. 21) which includes the functions of the CHT Land Commission in the CHT affairs ministry.
The issue of disposal of the disputes over lands has faced extreme uncertainty for a long time. It is because of non-settlement of the disputes over the lands that conflicts and riots occur in CHT and forcible occupation of lands belonging to the Jummas is going on unabated.
For the sake of smooth and proper resolution of land disputes, the Land Commission Act should be amended as recommended by CHT Regional Council and CHT affairs ministry and endorsement of CHT Accord Implementation Committee. In the circumstances, it is imperative for the government to give due weight to the demands of the CHT people -- including those of the CHTRC -- to include the concerned recommendations prior to the passage of the bill by parliament.
The writer is information and publicity secretary, Parbatta Chattagram Sanghati Samity (PCJSS).