Courtesy: New Age, Dhaka, Op-ed, Oct 14, 2010
by Mustafizur Rahman
THE government is obligated to comply with the directive of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Settlement Commission for a land survey, its chairman, Justice Khademul Islam Chowdhury, says.
‘The decisions that the commission has taken so far with regard to land survey and dispute settlement remain in force, and it is obligatory for the government and its relevant agencies to implement the decisions,’ he said in an exclusive interview with New Age on Tuesday.
Justice Chowdhury believes the survey will resolve land disputes in the hill tracts for ever. ‘Land survey is a must for effective and permanent solution to the long-standing problems in the region,’ he said.
The land commission was constituted in 2001 in line with the CHT agreement signed between the then government and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti on December 2, 1997.
The accord recognises the Chittagong Hill Tracts as a region inhabited by the indigenous communities, and acknowledges its traditional governance system and the role of circle chief in the three hill districts of Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban.
Justice Chowdhury, who started his career as a lawyer in the High Court Division in 1996 and joined the bench in August 1999, joined the commission as its chairman for a three-year tenure in July 2009, after he had retired as a High Court judge in April 2009.
He hopes that the government would extend all-out cooperation to the commission in disposing of the land disputes in the hill tracts.
Justice Chowdhury says the commission is independent and its judgement over any land dispute is final. ‘The commission’s directives are binding for the government and its machinery,’ he added.
Excerpts of the interview:
What is your evaluation of the recent inter-ministry meeting on land survey and dispute settlement in Rangamati?
As far as I could gather from reports in the news media, the meeting could not arrive at any concrete decision on land survey or dispute settlement. The authority to take any decisions on these issues lies with the commission. However, officially, I was kept in the dark about the decision to convene the meeting. Simply put, I was completely bypassed. Be that as it may, the decisions that the commission has taken so far with regard to land survey and dispute settlement remain in force, and it is obligatory for the government and its relevant agencies to implement the decisions. The commission’s judgement on any dispute is final.
Why do you think a land survey should be conducted first? Ethnic groups have demanded resolution of land disputes before any such survey in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The land commission is empowered to order the authorities concerned to conduct a survey in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Hence, the question as to which should come first does not arise.
As per the law, the government is to resolve survey-related disputes. This is in no way in conflict with the authority of the commission, which is empowered to dispose disputes over the surveyed land. The survey did begin in 1986 but was suspended in 1988 after the abduction of two surveyors.
The people of the ethnic minority communities fear that they will lose ownership over land if demarcation of land through the survey takes place before settlement of land disputes. Is their fear justified?
Not at all. The survey is not conclusive. The title will be determined by the commission on evidence. It is a baseless fear that the people living in the area for generations will be displaced.
Leaders of the ethnic minority communities are of the opinion that any survey before resolution of land disputes would only complicate the situation.
A proper land survey, I believe, will actually help in expeditious resolution of disputes. It will remove the cause of disputes without any complications. The The land disputes will be resolved for ever if a survey is conducted in the CHT region, which covers one-tenth of the total land of the country. Land survey is a must for effective and permanent solution to the long-standing problems.
How will the traditional rights of the ethnic minority communities to the CHT land be protected?
Traditional rights of ethnic minority communities in the CHT would be considered during the hearing of land disputes on the basis of rules and regulations.
The government decided, at the inter-ministry meeting, to expedite implementation of the CHT accord. How will it execute the decision?
I do not see any eagerness in local leaders about implementation of the CHT accord, which was the outcome of years of talks for peace in the region. If other members of the commission come up, the disputes would be resolved soon. There is no other alternative than to make the commission effective for expediting implementation of the CHT treaty signed between the government of Bangladesh and the Jana Sanghati Samiti on December 2, 1997.
The government has also agreed with the representatives of the CHT regional council to amend the land commission law. Is it necessary?
The present CHT Land Commission law in my view is exhaustive, complete and comprehensive in resolving land disputes, the major problem in the region. There is no undemocratic provision in the law which is a special enactment for the purpose of speedy disposal of the disputes in the CHT.
How many applications seeking dispute settlement are pending with you? Will it be possible for you to dispose of those applications during your tenure?
We have so far received around 4,500 applications seeking settlement of land disputes, of which 1,000 have been readied for disposal. The commission will soon start the hearing of disputes and dispose of the appeals it has received so far. The judgement will be given on the basis of evidence available, subject to the land survey. We will not have to wait for the survey to deliver judgements. I am hopeful to resolve all the disputes in my tenure, which will expire in 2012.
You were not invited to the meeting on land survey and dispute settlement in Rangamati. Do you find any discord between the government and the commission?
It is very sad that as chairman of the commission I am unaware of the meeting on land survey and dispute settlement. This is against the basic rule of law. I hope that the government would expend full cooperation so that I could discharge my responsibilities. In the past one year or so, I have received all-out cooperation from the Prime Minister’s Office, ministries and all others concerned. Everyone feels that the commission should go ahead with the programmes we have taken so far.
You know that the previous chairmen could not make any headway in resolving the disputes. Do you have any success worth mentioning here?
The commission had been dysfunctional since beginning. Not a single dispute was settled in the past 10 years. But the present commission has held five meetings so far and also sat with the locals at the community level.
Through separate public announcements in March and May this year, the commission asked the affected landowners in the hill districts to appeal to the commission. Response from the people has been very good. We are still receiving applications for settling disputes. I hope that I will be able to complete the task during my tenure. I call upon all concerned to come to the commission for settling the land disputes.
Will you continue in the position if you fail to discharge your responsibility or if the commission remains dysfunctional?
I do not contemplate any such situation. I will see if such a situation arises in future. I hope there will be no misunderstanding between the government and the commission. The government should not do anything dishonourable for either itself or the commission.