DHAKA, 8 June 2010 (IRIN) - When Roton Mia could no longer make ends meet working for US$2 a day, he sold his land in central Kishoreganj District to feed his wife and two children.
With no choice but to move to a slum in Dhaka, the capital city, Mia and his family are now among millions of Bangladesh's landless.
"When you need to feed your family and you do not have enough income, selling your land is the only way to survive," the 35-year-old said. "There are many problems in the slum, like a water crisis, a lack of space - but I have no option to go anywhere."
Landless families often end up in the slums of Dhaka, while luckier ones live on government-owned land in rural areas.
Millions of Bangladeshi households have lost their property, either through poverty, natural disasters or land-grabbing by corrupt elites.
Of Bangladesh's more than 160 million inhabitants, close to 4.5 million are completely landless, mostly in rural areas, according to a 2008 Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics survey. [http://www.bbs.gov.bd/dataindex/ag_pre_08.pdf]
"The number of landless people is higher than government statistics, and it is growing at a high rate," said Shamsul Huda, executive director of the Association for Land Reforms and Development (ALRD) [http://www.alrd.org/], an NGO working for the land rights for poor people.
According to a report by researcher Tahera Akter, published by the Dhaka-based Unnayan Onneshan think-tank [ http://www.unnayan.org/reports/Climate.Change.Urban.poverty.and.Food.Security.pdf], on average, 39 million people in Bangladesh are displaced by each major flood, with three million more displaced by each cyclone.
"Climate-induced hazards, such as recurring floods, cyclones and river-bank erosion are contributing to increasing landlessness," added Mohammed Abdul Baten, a research associate at Unnayan Onneshan.
"As an impact of climate change, the productivity of the land is also on the decrease. When farmers cannot earn their living by farming, they sell their land."
Facing economic hardship, many farmers take out loans from mohajons [loan sharks] and then lose their land when they fall behind on repayments. "Landlessness of the farmers leads to their insufficient purchasing power to buy adequate nutritious food for their families," states a Unnayan Onneshan report [http://unnayan.org/reports/Impact_of_Increasing_Landlessness.pdf].
Land-ownership patterns in developing countries show significant social imbalance, according to a study [http://www.scipub.org/fulltext/jss/jss2254-60.pdf] by Habibur Rahman and Somprawin Manprasert from Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.
The study found that "rural landscapes in developing countries are characterized by highly inequitable social structures, or what many have called 'bi-modal agrarian systems', in which expansive commercial estates control vast tracts of fertile land while large numbers of landless or nearly landless people cultivate little or no land".
Landlessness can inflame social problems as "[l]and-oriented poverty and rural-to-urban migration without any expansion in the housing and utility services lead to the expansion of slums with all affiliated social problems".
Land grabbing is another reason for the increase in landlessness. "In rural areas, influential people grab the land of the poor by creating fake documents," added Huda from ALRD.
The government has struggled to limit how much land individuals can own and wealthy people sometimes bribe state officials to get their hands on plots, while forged ownership documents are sometimes used to pressure families into giving up their land.
Taking back the land
Land Minister Rezaul Karim Hira on 5 February told parliament that 1.3 million hectares of government-owned land had been "grabbed". The government has taken steps to recover the land, but there is no data on how much has been retrieved, he added.
Huda said the government was not doing enough to reduce the number of landless people.
"Without land reform, you cannot solve land deprivation," he added. "In fact, according to the Land Law, government-owned cultivable land is supposed to be distributed among landless people. But most of the land is still occupied by influential people."
But lawmaker and land committee chairman AKM Mozammel Haque told IRIN the government was working on a policy of land reform.
"We have asked the concerned authorities to distribute government-owned land among the landless people," he said. "We asked the authorities to prepare the necessary papers for land reform. A committee was also formed to check the possibility of land reform."