Glance through the Information Commission's publicly available database of applications made under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, and something striking stands out. A number of the applications that the Commission dealt with were requests made for data on how much khas land exists in a particular union, and who are the landless people being allocated the land for use.
Take this one made by Tilak Mandal, a woman from Kazirhola village in Dumuria, Khulna in 2012. She requested the assistant commissioner of land in Dumuria to provide her with a list of landless farmers selected for providing the agricultural khas land at Sahas Union from 1987 to 2012. As the government official refused the data, Mandal challenged the AC in a hearing at the Information Commission in Dhaka. The story has a positive ending—Tilak Mandal got the information she wanted. This village woman from coastal Khulna could then check the information to see which land belonged to whom, and if the people who got the khas land from the government, were actually landless or not.
Khas lands are government-owned lands, including those which stay submerged for a significant part of the year, islets that appear mid-river, lands confiscated from landowners who had more land than was allowed by the state, and lands whose taxes had not been cleared, among others. Following independence, vested properties also got included in that list. Agricultural khas land is legally reserved for distribution to landless households, but across Bangladesh, these fallow lands are being encroached by land grabbers/jotedars, often with the blessings of the local state machinery, particularly the district administration and the police.
In all these years, there has not been a proper appraisal of exactly how much khas land exists where and who has been allocated how much. This also means we don't know how much land is being illegally occupied.
This is where RTI applications come in.
Making available government information regarding how many acres of khas land there are in a certain union, or who are included in landless lists, is a way of releasing the landless class from needing to depend on landowners, to continue tenancy of khas lands. The impact of this cannot be understated—in a country where 57 percent of the population do not own any lands whatsoever—access to information itself is a breakthrough.
There is another aspect to this—by making the requesting of information a public right, it also somewhat levels the playing field between men and women. Experts note that knowledge about khas lands exists mostly in informal male circles, that do not include women. In his book Political Economy of Khas Lands in Bangladesh, Prof Barkat notes, “Around three-fourths [of those who were allocated khas lands] came to know about the listing of landless from informal sources and the rest were informed through official media channels. Female-headed households—about 12 percent of all rural households and most of who are hard core poor—get rare chance to be enlisted for khas land”. When a woman can simply go to a government office and demand to know whether a certain land is khas and how she can get it, it completely changes the game.
Mahmuda Begum, of Panchgachi union in the Pirganj upazila of Rangpur, was one of the many landless women who used RTI to a stop a local influential from taking over a 700-acre water-body two years ago.
“Nearly 200 landless families depend on it for their livelihood. One day local influential men came and told us that the beel will be closed off for a government aquaculture project. We applied to the District Commissioner's office for more information on this project and got to know that it was all a lie,” describes Mahmuda. “When the men came back to take over the beel again, we stood guard with bamboo rods and drove them away.”
Mahmuda has to use the RTI act at least once or twice a month, she says. “Four months ago we had a meeting with the union chairman where we asked him for information on what khas lands are currently being illegally occupied. He told us to use the RTI act and apply for information accordingly,” says Mahmuda proudly.
Government offices are very difficult places for women to navigate, says economist Selim Raihan, one of the co-authors of Political Economy of Khas Lands in Bangladesh. In most of the cases, women have to take a male figure along with them for assistance because the environment is not gender-neutral.”
Mobilising women to take control over their own land deeds and obtain information from land offices is also a way to address the fact that that women are less likely to be given khas lands.
“Government officials give more preference to men when distributing khas land because of in-built systems of discrimination,” says Raihan.
“The current system also discriminates against women-headed households,” says Khushi Kabir, coordinator of Nijera Kori, an NGO with decades of experience in land rights for the landless. “There is a 1987 directive that says women headed households have to have a capable male in the family in order to be given a khas land.” The directive Kabir refers to is the Land Reform Action Programme 1987.
“Why should that be the case? In many of the districts we work in, women's participation agriculture on the field is as much as 35 percent, so why should they not be given khas land?”
“Even when the wife is given a khas land in addition to the husband, she loses control over it should they get divorced. This is in spite of the fact that legally they both own the land!” adds Kabir.
Data from the last decade suggests that landless women vastly lag behind the men when it comes to key indicators like literacy—while men have a literacy level of 53.2 percent, only 37.3 percent of the women are literate.
But even the process of demanding information under the RTI Act has left women vulnerable to abuse—only this time, it's in the hands of the state.
Nijera Kori interviewed several landless female individuals who were downright abused when they went to ask for information, which they compiled in a report titled “Using Right to Information Act to access khas land: experiences of the landless in Noakhali”.
Amena Khatun of Subarnachar in Noakhali was arrested for demanding information in 2012. She wanted to know who was given which khas land in her area. “I was locked up for 24 hours inside the Charjabbar police station in Noakhali. I was let out after a whole day, when other landless members of the community protested outside the police station demanding I be let go.”
Nijera Kori's report further described how Amena came to arrested: the mother of three adult children had gone to the Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) to submit an RTI application but he refused to accept it, so she filed an appeal with the DC. Then she was called up by the UNO at midnight who asked her to meet him urgently. When she went to his office, he verbally abused her for daring to file an appeal against him. At one point of the exchange the UNO instructed his office assistant to call the police. She was then beaten up and locked up in custody.
The report also includes testimonies from other women who were similarly abused. When Arnika Dhali, a landless woman went to ask for information on khas lands, and was refused, she said it was her right under the law. The government officer dealing with her apparently yelled, “You old woman, you have come to teach me the laws? I educated myself with my father's money to sit on this chair.” He threatened to cut her off from social safety net services like rice distribution among the poor.
“The state machineries do not know how to deal with it, when women try to exercise the right given to them as per the constitution,” says Khushi Kabir, “The moment you try to exercise your right, the state's repression is severe. This is especially true if you are a poor, landless woman from the village.” They are the margainalised of the marginalised.
“When these extremely marginalised tries to exercise the right that is guaranteed to her by the Constitution, everything is done to make sure that she never repeats this again,” states Kabir.
“I admire and respect these women—they are the ones who are fighting patriarchy within state systems on a day-to-day basis,” says Kabir.