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Last Updated: Monday, 12 April, 2004, 09:33 GMT 10:33 UK
Bangladesh's poor lose ground

By Roland Buerk
BBC correspondent in Dhaka

70-year-old Mofizzuddin Shikh
Mofizzuddin Shikh has the deeds to his land - but no longer owns it

Bangladesh is one of the most crowded countries in the world and competition for land is fierce.

Disputes over ownership dominate the courts.

Economics Professor Abul Barkat of Dhaka University has calculated that at the current rate of progress it will take 30 million years for all the cases to be resolved.

"On average in each case, if I include both parties, there are 45 people," he said.

"So the total number of people involved in the cases will exceed 150m in a country of 140m. This is unbelievable."

About 10% of the land is owned by the government and in rural areas should, by law, be distributed to the poor for use in subsistence agriculture.

But their tenure is being challenged by the unscrupulous, who often use a corrupt court system to pursue their claims.


Mofizuddin Shikh, 70, was allocated about two-thirds of an acre in the district of Pabna in the west of the country.

It was enough to feed his family for most of the year, but all he has now is the title deed.

"Monsur Ali, one of the rich men - he's a doctor - he came with the police and threw me off the land," said Mr Shikh.

"He also made false cases against me and I could not continue the fight and I lost that land."

The alleged land grabber, Monsur Ali
The High Court took his title and set it aside. The land was given to me
Dr Monsur Ali

Dr Ali works in the nearby village of Chobbishmial.

He insisted Mofizzudin Shikh's land was rightfully his and rejected the old man's claims.

"Quite impossible," he said. "The High Court took his title and set it aside. The land was given to me."

The land may indeed, as Dr Ali says, have belonged to his ancestors.

But in other cases, so-called land grabbers produce false documents then bribe corrupt court officials to legalise their claim.

With so many cases crippling the courts, Bangladesh's government is considering new laws to try to solve the problem.

Government 'signal'

Cabinet Secretary Saadat Hossain led a committee set up to investigate land grabbing.

It proposed increasing the maximum penalty for those found guilty of the worst cases from two years in prison to 14.

"Now at least the signal is that government at the highest level is aware about it; that government at the highest level is determined about it," Mr Hossain said.

"And in our country, when the determination of government is known, some of the, shall I say, not-so-hardened criminals may shy away from their activities."

But in Bangladesh, according to international campaign group Transparency International the most corrupt country on earth, it is all too easy for the rich to avoid being caught.

And every day the poorest like Mofizuddin Shikh are losing what little they have.

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