Rich and local strongmen ruthlessly trying to elbow out thousands of landless families from the chars (islands).

Most of 20,000 acres of government char land in Noakhali has been grabbed by businessmen, politicians, union chairmen, religious leaders and local strongmen ruthlessly trying to elbow out thousands of landless families from the chars. People of Zia's Char, Boya's Char, Char Bagga, Char Langla and Char Majid said police and hired goons torture them for floating an organisation for protecting their land rights and refusing to go away from the char lands.

"(The grabbers) hired thugs came and set our crops on fire, razed 84 houses to ground and continue to threaten us to go away from the area," alleged Abdur Rahim, a landless farmer in Char Bagga. The landless in the char areas also said the businesspeople and vested quarters have filed false cases against them and local NGO workers on charges ranging from inciting violence to attempted murder, giving Char Jabbar police 'the licence to torture and abuse' their families.

"Police came and took Taher, Khayer and Yusuf away without any reason," said a landless woman. She added it is common in the area for men and women to get arrested only to be released on the payment of at least Tk 10,000, which is a fortune for the impoverished inhabitants of the char land. She also alleged that police officers, like the hired thugs, have also sexually abused women during such raids and beat up family members indiscriminately while giving threats not to act against the land-grabbers.

Acting in-charge of Char Jabbar Police Station, Sub-inspector Lutfur Rahman denied all such allegations and said he had visited Char Bagga that day 'not to arrest anyone but to discuss the situation in the locality'. The Daily Star correspondent met Kohinoor, Rahima and her husband at Char Jabbar Health Complex. The goons of the land grabbers in south Char Majid roughed them up and nurses at the health complex say at least two to three landless people come here every day to get treated for wounds from the torture of the land-grabbers and policemen.

A recent high court order directed the Noakhali district authorities to make sure that no landless people are evicted from the chars. The businessmen, owners of some of the biggest companies in the country, and some politicians have already grabbed over 10,000 acres in the name of a shrimp farming project that is yet to be approved by the government

"Whoever is occupying the land, even if they are saying it is for shrimp farming, are breaking the law," said Mustafa Kamar Haider, deputy commissioner (DC) of Noakhali. Locals, however, claim the administration has remained totally indifferent to the grabbing of char lands. The DC said the matter was not a priority for the district administration as he did not receive a single complaint on eviction of landless people, who, according to him, are living there illegally. A prime ministerial directive states that the landless are to receive first priority in case of new char lands.

When it was pointed out to the DC that the law stipulates the landless get 1.5 acres of land in the event of surfacing of new chars, he contradicted his earlier statement: "We started a process to issue certificates to the landless for the land, but we are yet to complete it." The businesspeople and shrimp farmers have already started cultivating thousands of acres and have thrown up buildings on the land.

Local journalists, NGO workers and landless people said the land-grabbing started in the early 1990s and the local authorities' initiative to designate the chars for shrimp farming is an attempt to legalise the grabbing. Asked what action his administration would take against the illegal occupiers if the government approves shrimp cultivation in the area, the DC said, "We are not sure what we are going to do, we have a lot of things on our hands here."

He said the government plans to divide the char lands for the landless, an eco-park and shrimp farms. Shrimp farming would be a better alternative for the landless in the area as it would be more profitable for them to become workers in the farms instead of sowing crops. Local administration has already sketched out a primary map of allocations made in the area for shrimp cultivation, with ministers and MPs making open statements to encourage the practice in the char lands.

An International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report on the impact of shrimp farming in Bangladesh observes that shrimp farming increases salinity, decreases livestock and significantly reduces the chances of farming in the surrounding areas.

The coastal area was under the grip of forest bandits till January this year when the administration and people together drove them from the area. Locals say forest bandits sold the businessmen false land documents since there has not been a land survey of the area. (Ashfaq Wares Khan, July 10, 2004)

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