Fellow Since 1998
Human Rights Development Centre (HRDC)
This description of Hanif Mahmoud's work was prepared when Hanif Mahmoud was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998.
Responding to the pressures of the worlds most densely populated country Hanif Mahmood is working towards making Bangladesh's land recording systems more accountable, transparent and accessible to the public. The methodology he has developed enables citizens, particularly the poor, to defend their land rights thereby ensuring their economic livelihood in Bangladesh's largely agrarian society.
The New Idea
The high population density of Bangladesh's agriculture based economy has resulted in land prices being abnormally high, preventing poor peoples access to property. Majority farmers are actually landless and have only their labor as a means of employment. As agriculture is seasonal, they have no regular earnings and are virtually deprived of all social benefits. They are wholly dependent on cultivating other people's lands and are forced to accept low wages. Recognizing the plight of the landless peasants, the constitution of the country guarantees the poorest sections of the population access to 'khas' or unutilized government land. In practice though, influential persons and prosperous farmers in connivance with government officials cultivate most khas lands. Another important matter to consider is that even in situations where people own and have access to property, conflicting claims of land ownership generate unduly large number of litigation in different courts. There are many instances of people being rendered landless due to the high costs and lengthy court procedures.Developing a methodology for identifying and verifying records is essential for land reform. Hanif has been working on this very issue in one 'mauza' (lowest land administrative unit comprising an area ranging between 500-1000 acres) of Badarganj, Rangpur district. He has searched, correlated and linked the different land surveys done in that region from 1890 onwards. As there is more than one copy of the survey records stored in different locations, the probability of manipulation of all the related documents is low. Thus, this method, time consuming as it may be, provides an exact detail of the land area and can be replicated all over the country. Through this process Hanif has also identified the loopholes officials are taking advantage of for manipulating records. Hanif is concurrently conducting training programs and public awareness campaigns on land issues. The training programs are targeted for non-government organizations in order for them to identify khas land in their respective working areas. These organizations can then assist their poor beneficiaries to mobilize and gain rights to those lands. The awareness campaigns targeted for the general public, particularly the poor, focuses on the procedures involved in identifying and verifying land deeds. By offering the government a workable model and applying pressure through educating and mobilizing the people, Hanif feels that land reform can be effectively implemented.
The importance of land cannot be overemphasized in a country where the vast majority of the populace live on agriculture. It is therefore all the more imperative that the administration of land in such countries be efficient, reliable and accountable. The structure of land administration and land record system in Bangladesh contains systematic weaknesses and dysfunctional properties. The present land laws and supporting regulations are complicated and there is no effective legal framework. The absence of an updated, systematic and universally accepted source of information on land resource availability and land rights is one of the principal barriers to the successful implementation of land reform programs leading to the effective adjudication of land disputes.Land surveys are an important tool for identifying land, documenting names of the rightful owners, measuring the area, and other related matters. Outdated mechanism, corruption and irregularities in the land survey, however, deprive the illiterate, landless and minority people of ownership rights to their land. Even the government is being deprived of her khas land. There is also a general lack of public awareness on land resources and problems with most people ignorant of procedures and regulations.Land surveys such as Cadastral Survey (CS), State Acquisition (SA) and Rivisional Settlement (RS) have been conducted over different periods. CS surveys were conducted between 1890 to 1940. The 'khatian' (code number related to ownership of a particular land area) surveyed is known as CS, DS, or Zila khatian. CS records consist of land ownership of the Indian Emperor, Zaminders (landlords), and the general public. SA surveys were conducted from 1956 to 1962. The records consist of land ownership of the general public and the government. After the abolition of the Zamindari system in 1950, lands belonging to them were converted into khas land and recorded under khatian 1. RS surveys began in 1965 and are still in practice today. They consist of land ownership of the general public and the government. CS and SA records are kept with the Zila (District) Collector's office and RS with the Assistant Commissioner's (Land) office.The present structure of land administration is built around three core functions - land settlement or survey, land registration, and record keeping. Land settlement identifies the utilization of land i.e. is the land being used for agriculture, housing, ponds, roads, waterways and all other information related to the land. Registration deals with registering land transfers and preparing the deeds. Record keeping records ownership rights to the land i.e. records the names of the owners. Registration and record keeping are based on information gathered from the land settlement. Three separate offices deal with the different functions of land administration. The Tafsil office is responsible for land record keeping and collection of land revenue; registration is entrusted with the Sub Registrar's office; and the Settlement office handles land settlement. The Tahsil office and Settlement office have a chain of command extending to the Ministry of Land while the Sub Registrar's office follows a different chain of command extending to the Ministry of Law. Problems arise when there is conflict regarding land claims, where resolving the dispute would require proof of ownership. If one party brings proof from the Tahsil office, another from the Sub Registrar's and another from the Settlement office, it becomes extremely difficult to adjudicate ownership on the basis these documents since each document seemingly bears the legitimacy of the authority. This multiplicity of documents or records of rights is the central flaw in the system of land administration. Another flaw is that registration officers are not entitled to question the validity of documents brought for registration. Not only do they not have the jurisdiction their office does not store supporting documents for verification. Hence, even if registration officers registering false transfers knowingly they cannot be prosecuted. The break down of information and lack of check and balance between the three offices allows for the registration of numerous false land transfers. The bulk of civil and criminal litigation in the country arises from such conflicting claims of ownership. The other problem facing the land administration is the excessive backlog of land related documents awaiting printing. Certain records have also been intentionally destroyed or were damaged during the Bangladesh independence war. The government owns large amounts of khas land in different parts of the country. With no single conclusive record or document related to land, however, the distribution of these lands amongst the poorest sections of the population is a daunting proposition. The government herself does not know the total area available, whether the land is in control of the authorities or not, whether certain areas have been affected by river erosion and so forth. There have been previous attempts to redistribute khas land and different laws have been passed for this purpose. The lack of proper implementation, however, has resulted in the landless being invariably left out.
According to government rule, any person can apply for a certified land record by depositing a nominal amount. In practice, however, land records are difficult to obtain with officials causing undue harassment and charging excessive fees. People in general have remained ignorant of procedures related to land records due to the complex nature of the problem. This is more so for the poor who have neither the resources nor the time to hire professionals to do the needful. Khas land is recorded in a separate register book under khatian 1. The information is supposed to be available to the public at the Tahsil and Settlement offices but local authorities are more often than not averse to show the records. Hanif had to first decipher the complex land record system and develop a methodology for retrieving these documents.The Settlement office, like most government offices, is located in two areas - one at the Thana level (lowest administrative unit) and the other at the Zonal level (larger region comprising several districts). Hanif initially searched through the records located at the Tahsil and Thana Settlement office. He found many discrepancies between these sets of records with over writing, crossing out of details, writings in different ink on the same document, false distribution of shares, pages missing and so forth. The application for the land record itself has to be submitted to the Zonal Settlement office. To avoid suspicion of officials, Hanif randomly applied for records at different times. In this manner he meticulously retrieved the khas land records in the particular area. The extent of record manipulation was comparatively lower at the Zonal office.Most of the manipulation has occurred in surveys conducted from the 60s onwards. The early surveys have remained largely untouched. For this reason, linking the various surveys was essential for obtaining an accurate detail of the land. Hanif tracked down large portions of the areas originally belonging to the Zamindars and which were subsequently converted into khas lands. The Department of Land Record, located in the capital city of Dhaka, has the original copy of all land survey records. As manipulations do not occur at the central level, these records have escaped tampering. They are not open to the public but they can be referred to if the need arises. Hanif followed the same procedures and tactics for obtaining private land records and thus retrieved all land-related documents in the mauza. The next step was to document them in a manner that would be efficient and reliable. The Research department of Grameen Trust, a sister organization of Grameen Bank, has come forward and programmed the data. The Department of Land received a grant from the ADB for computerizing land records but the work has not gotten off the ground as yet. They have since visited and expressed an interest in the GIS land record computerization housed at the Trust. The distribution of khas land amongst the landless poor in Badarganj will begin in January 1999. Each land area has been documented with the name of the owners. There is little scope for landowners to be on the list of the landless. As per government rules, a committee has to be formed for the redistribution of the lands. Hanif has involved the government officials, elected local level representatives, members of parliament, union council, journalists, lawyers, NGOs and other civil society members of the area to be members of the khas land redistribution committee in Badarganj. The second component of Hanif's work involves training and public awareness campaigns. The training program focuses on instructing NGO field workers on the methodology for identifying and accessing land records. As land is a permanent asset, many NGOs are interested in redistributing khas land amongst their poor members but they lack the necessary know how. Hanif has completed training programs for over 30 NGOs located in Naogaon, Jaipurhat, Rajbari and Dhaka. These organizations have around 3000 members amongst them. Some khas land has already been identified and redistributed. In Rangpur, ten interested NGOs have been identified and their training program will begin in January 1999. The public awareness campaigns are conducted for the general public. Hanif distributes leaflets, advertises in the local papers, and broadcasts the event through microphone for attracting people. NGOs working with Hanif also inform their members about the campaign program. The event is conducted similar to a legal aid camp. Land related documents, procedures, rules, fees, functions of the various land offices and other matters are explained. By creating greater public awareness, not only will the government come under pressure for reforming the system, officials will also be less prone to take advantage and cause undue harassment to citizens. Hanif is also meeting with government officials to share information and provide practical solutions for land reform. Hanif's future programs include publishing a book on land issues and land tax evasion.
Hanif is from a farmer's family. He is the second amongst eight children. When he was in class nine he became involved with landless peasants and actively struggled for their rights to khas land. As a result of this he had to suspend his education for one year. During his university he remained involved with this issue. In 1990 he and some of his associates formed the Human Rights Development Center, a human rights non-government organization. Hanif has previously identified close to 200 acres of land in Rajbari, Noaga and Dhaka district. Around 300 landless families have been rehabilitated on these lands following proper procedures and regulations for khas land transfer. In Badarganj, Rangpur he has identified nearly 100 acres and there are plans to redistribute these lands among 100 families or more. Hanif lives with his wife, two sons and a daughter in Savar, Dhaka.