The restructuring of CHT land commission: An ice breaker?

It is broadly agreed that land dispute is the core of the long persisting problem in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), and without resolving this overarching issue, lasting peace in the region would be elusive. The government has recently decided to make some procedural changes to the Land Dispute Resolution Commission of the CHT (Land Commission) so that it can operate more effectively and contribute towards the advancement of lasting peace in the CHT. In order to assess how much actual contribution the proposed legal changes would bring about, we need to look back at the origin of the Land Commission.

Following the signing of the CHT Peace Accord on December 2, 1997, the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land-Disputes Resolution Act, 2001 (Land Dispute Act) was passed. In order to achieve the objective of the law, the Land Commission was set up in 2001. The Land Commission consists of a retired Justice of the Supreme Court as its chairperson, the Chairperson of the Regional Council or her/his representative, the Chairperson of the concerned Hill District Councils, a Circle Chief of the concerned ethnic minorities, and the Divisional Commissioner of Chittagong Division or an additional Divisional Commissioner nominated by the Divisional Commissioner as members.  

The Land Commission failed to achieve anything in terms of the settlement of actual land disputes in CHT. The main objection of the ethnic community about the Land Commission has been that under the Land Dispute Act, in matters where a unanimous decision will not be possible, the chairperson's decision is treated as the decision of the Land Commission. In other words, the Chairperson of the Commission could overrule any decision taken by the fellow members of the Land Commission. After the proposed amendment to the law becomes operative, the chairperson would lose this veto power and the majority of the members of the Land Commission would take the decision. This surely should inspire confidence among the ethnic community, since there is no longer any prospect of the chairperson of the Land Commission taking the final decisions alone. Additionally, regarding the quorum of the Land Commission, the proposed amendment would provide that the chairperson and three other members would constitute a quorum (under the current provision it is the chairperson and two other members).

One possible concern with the proposed amendment in the Land Commission may be that under the Peace Accord as well as the Land Dispute Act, it was envisaged to act as a quasi-judicial body to be headed by a retired Justice of the Supreme Court. That in and of itself in no way justifies the effective veto power of the chairperson and the proposed change would make the Land Commission a body where all the members may participate knowing that the ultimate decision of the Commission would not be taken by just one member. This would fundamentally alter the fabric of the Commission, but surely makes it only a more deliberative body and should also make it a fairer one.

Perhaps the fundamental practical challenge with the proposed scheme would be that a decision on a majority basis may effectively mean that the ethnic community would always have their say (provided, of course, they speak with one voice) and to what extent some Bengalis in the CHT region would be willing to embrace this is unsure. This would likely happen because a majority of the members of the Land Commission (except the Chairperson and the Deputy Commissioner of Chittagong or her/his nominated Additional Divisional Commissioner) would, under the current scheme of the Land Dispute Act, have to be from ethnic community. This is because both under the CHT Regional Council and the three CHT District Council Acts, only 'tribal people' (as the word has been used in the respective laws) can be chairpersons in the relevant bodies. Thus, the proposed law reform should give some impetus to the Bengali and ethnic community to engage in serious dialogues to make the Land Commission functional. However, only time will tell how they would respond to the reforms.

The writer is an Associate Professor at School of Law, BRACUniversity.


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