Land disputes most severe; people suffer due to graft-ridden land administration

A new study has recently found out that each year as many as 31 million people confront with legal challenges in Bangladesh. A majority of these challenges occur when dealing with neighbours and the most complicated ones arise when dealing with land related issues. Netherlands based nonprofit The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL), in league the Netherlands government and BRAC in Bangladesh, conducted the study through in-depth qualitative interviews of around 6000 respondents who were randomly selected in 64 districts of the country.

It came out from HiiL-published study findings that people in Bangladesh mostly face legal issues over disputes with neighbours, land, criminal offences, family disputes, money-related issues, social, consumer-related issues and accidents. However, in terms of the severity of the issues, land related legal disputes come out on top of the rest.

Land disputes are identified as the most serious legal problem in Bangladesh, affecting 8 million people per year. Disputes over the use of land, ownership and land grabbing are the most frequently cited specific problems. The negative impact these disputes have on people's lives is substantial, with 66 percent reporting a major impact. People generally take action to resolve the dispute when it comes to land disputes. Despite this, the resolution rate of land disputes is only 25 percent. A complex system of rules and procedures makes this a difficult problem to navigate for the average citizen in Bangladesh, while local elites, in many cases, take advantage of the confusion to exert their influence and grab pieces of land. The current situation is unsustainable, with many people suffering and having their livelihoods impacted. Change is an absolute must.

Land justice is particularly pressing, according to the data. The current land laws are several decades old and are in dire need of updating. Digital innovation can play an important role here by, for example, creating a fully digitalised registration system. Procedural changes can also play a vital role; increasing coordination and creating a one-stop service for citizens would be a helpful first step, as currently two ministries and several departments are involved in legal disputes related to land. People feel lost and end up going back and forth between different institutions multiple times. Delegation of some functions to non-governmental actors can also contribute to reducing the current strain on the system and substantially improve the accessibility and speed of justice, HiiL suggests.

It is evident from the answers received from surveyed respondents that they mostly rely on alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and very few problems are referred to courts of law. Taking action oneself, such as gathering evidence, or going to local elites, such as the UP chairman or the matabbar, is far more common than going to the police or court. Lawyers are costly to retain and not necessarily easily accessible in more remote parts of the country and as a result, a limited number of people is able to engage them in legal disputes. Legal aid provided by the government goes some way to cover this need, but is far from sufficient.

It is no wonder though that people in Bangladesh suffer a lot over land-related dispute resolution. The system is utterly corrupt. In series of reports that Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) published over the last one decade - it was commonplace in each one of those reports that people have to bribe for land management services and also for getting justice. TIB-done 'Corruption in Service Sectors: National Household Survey 2010' found out that 71.2 percent households had suffered due to corruption in land administration. Land sector in Bangladesh has been replete with numerous anomalies and corruption. Newspapers and electronic media regularly release reports on anomalies and corruption that include bribery in different land services and usurpation of state and private properties through collusion of land officials, vested-interest groups and influential people aligned with power structure, deprivation of landless people in distribution of khas land and eviction from their land. According to National Household Survey on Corruption 2012 conducted by TIB, 59% households experienced corruption while receiving services and nationally estimated total amount of bribe given by Bangladeshi households was found to be Tk. 22610 million. Another TIB report - 'Land Management and Services in Bangladesh: Governance Challenges and Way-forward' - published in 2015 stated that land is the source of almost 60 percent legal disputes in Bangladesh. Total pending cases related to land as of December 2014 was 1.7 million. For such huge pending cases, TIB said, ordinary service recipients have to endure inordinate delay and corruption in settling their disputes and need to make unwarranted spending.

HiiL observes for the people who do take action to resolve their legal problem, about four in ten find a solution to their problem. This places a substantial burden on the social fabric of a country. Unresolved legal problems cause significant uncertainty and difficulties at the individual level. Moreover, a lack of justice delivery also undermines trust in the system itself. To ensure more effective dispute resolutions and ensure better justice mechanism a number of recommendations were drawn in the HiiL report, which include among others: prioritisation of legal problems to solve them, improve information delivery, design and provide affordable and accessible justice journeys for all, explore the full potential of hybrid justice mechanisms, justice innovation and digital innovation.

Reaz Ahmad is Executive Editor, United News of Bangladesh

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