At long last, the government has swung into action in saving fertile arable lands across Bangladesh from being misused and destroyed. The cabinet last week approved the draft of Urban and Zone Planning Bill, 2017 to bring discipline in land management and restrict misuse of land in the country. The Bill proposes mandatory official clearance for building houses in rural areas as well as use of lands across the country. The draft law provides for five-year prison term and a Tk 5.0 million fine as penalty for offenders. As per the draft law, a 27-member high-level Advisory Council will be led by the Housing and Public Works Minister to supervise the Urban Development Directorate or its Executive Council. Another 25-member Executive Council will be headed by the Public Works Secretary.
The minister-led panel will act as a policymaking body, while the executive council will be in charge of implementing those. Official clearance from the Advisors' Council will be required for using lands for every government and private organisations as well as individuals. The council will, however, be able to empower any government organisation to issue clearances.
Thanks to her oft-repeated directives in all meetings with industrialists and chamber bodies to preserve and protect arable lands for meeting crucial food security, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina deserves kudos for setting the ball rolling with the adoption of the draft law. The bill, to be passed by parliament into a law, will be stringent enough to prevent misuse of scarce lands of the country. Earlier she made it clear that her government will not allow anyone to set up industries indiscriminately destroying farmlands and forests.
"Indiscriminate setting up of industries destroying our cultivable lands and forests won't be allowed anymore. Industries could be set up on 100 special economic zones being established across the country by the government," she said while addressing a discussion meeting marking the 44th founding anniversary of Bangladesh Krishak League. She said the country will surely go for industrialisation, but not at the cost of agriculture. "The way arable lands are being destroyed, where the raw materials for the industries will come from, what the industries will produce!" she questioned.
It is really alarming that arable lands in Bangladesh have been shrinking by 0.6 per cent every year due to demand from housing and industries and infrastructure, as well as loss of land from river erosion. Also a new class of the rich that has emerged following their employment in the Gulf countries is now buying arable farmlands to build houses or shopping centres that are not really needed. Most of them have their houses in their ancestral homesteads but they destroy farmlands to build houses as a mark of so-called social prestige. On the other hand, shopping centres are already there in marketplaces that have been set up near their homes. There has also been an alarming trend to transfer lands to other uses such as brick kilns.
Executive Director of a leading think tank Policy Research Institute (PRI) Ahsan Mansur once pointed out that land prices are going up as farmlands are being used for other purposes. "Land is getting out of agriculture," he said. Mansur suggested demarcation of agricultural lands to prevent people switching to other uses.
Fast-shrinking agricultural lands have the potential to stoke fears of a food crisis as Bangladesh has so far been failing to curb an indiscriminate transfer of arable lands to other uses in the absence of a proper law. If cultivable lands continue to decline at this pace, it will be difficult to ensure self-sufficiency in food production, experts have already warned. Such a concern on reduction of farmlands has come at a time when food prices around the world are poised to surge, spurred by ravaged crops due to adverse weather. Food prices have also gone up in Bangladesh, which still produces its staple rice near a food sufficiency level, reinforcing the belief that dependence on the world market might not ensure food security unless there is adequate production at domestic level.
However, sufficient domestic production to meet demand of a growing population, now more than 160 million, depends largely on factors such as raising productivity and protecting the agricultural lands. That is why the fall in farm lands needs to be stopped to ensure food production and create jobs to accelerate the pace of poverty reduction. A hostile nature too is working for loss of fertile lands in Bangladesh. With global warming and climate change, another one-sixth of the land may be submerged with brackish water due to rising sea levels. In fact, the main challenge for achieving and sustaining food security comes from continuing growth of population. The progress in reducing population growth, from 3.0 per cent per year at independence to about 1.3 per cent now, is laudable. But the population is still increasing by 1.8 million every year. Rice production has to increase by 0.40 million tonnes every year to meet the need for staple food for the growing population. The increase in domestic production at that rate would be difficult due to several supply side factors including loss of arable lands.
Now the government has to enforce the law strictly once parliament passes it. It should put in place a fool-proof plan to monitor and supervise its strict enforcement. Union Parishad Chairmen and members, as they live in their respective locality, should be assigned to report total arable lands lying under their jurisdiction and attempt of any person to misuse agricultural lands every fortnight to the Upazila Parishad. The Upazila Parishads, on their own, will send these reports to the Executive Council and recommend suing violators of the law with the State acting as the prosecutor.