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CHT Land Dispute Issue Put on Ice

Nazrul Islam
The military-controlled government seems reluctant to reconstitute the Land Commission to settle the longstanding disputes over land ownership in the Chittagong Hill Tracts despite its commitment to re-activate the nearly dysfunctional commission. 'Initially it might have been the government's priority, but as the days went by it became less and less important as the government took too many things on its plate,' said a leader of the CHT indigenous community regretfully, adding that their very existence depends on settlement of the disputes over their ancestral land.

When he was asked about the progress made so far after the interim administration took up a scheme to amend a few provisions of the CHT Land (Disputes Settlement) Commission Act, a top official of the CHT affairs ministry said his office hardly deals with the matter. 'The land ministry used to deal with the matter in the past,' the secretary of the CHT affairs ministry, Shaikh Altaf Ali, told New Age.

The top post of the Land Commission became vacant late last year with the death of its chairman, AM Mahmudur Rahman who was a retired judge of the Supreme Court, on December 2. A month after his death, the council of advisers at a meeting emphasised the need for putting an end to the thorny land issue, which has intensified other problems in the three hill districts -- Khagrachhari, Rangamati and Bandarban -- that account for one-tenth of the country's land area. The hill people wanted changes in a few provisions of the Act to make it functional.

Eight months after, the government has neither appointed a chairman of the Land Commission nor made substantial progress in amending the Act, which came into force in line with the terms of the CHT treaty signed between the government and Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti in 1997.

Since formation of the commission on June 3, 1997, three retired judges served as its chairmen until December last year, but they could hardly make any visible progress in settling the land disputes. The Land Commission, with the judge as its head and the chairman of the CHT regional council or his representative, the chairmen of three hill district councils, the circle chiefs and the divisional commissioner or his representative as the members, held only one meeting in nine years.

Tens of thousands of ethnic minority people had to flee their homes and take shelter in safer places, including neighbouring India, because of decades of conflict in the area, and the Bengali settlers, taking advantage of their absence, moved in to occupy their lands, alleged locals. The displaced people returned to the CHT after the signing of the treaty, but most of them are yet to get their ancestral lands back.

During his visit to the CHT in late March, Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed assured the ethnic minority community that he would ensure settling of the land disputes by making the Land Commission active.

Special adviser to the chief adviser Raja Devashish Roy, after returning from the CHT, told the media that the government was seriously contemplating amendment to the Land (Disputes Settlement) Commission Act and reconstitution of the Land Commission for speedy disposal of disputes.                     July 2008