Some time ago, two friends and I visited Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari in order to find out more about land plotting and food insecurity in these districts. Traveling from Itahari (Sunsari) via Birtamod to Chandragadi, we found that most land close to the road, highway and sub-highway had been converted from agricultural use to being used for housing and fallow. The question then arose: to what extent is this land plotting, and not land grabbing?
As a general concept, land plotting offers a framework for the appropriate management of settlements and physical development. But presently, land plotting within the Terai appears to be motivated primarily by profit. A recent report indicates that within one year, in Jhapa alone, 1000 hectares of agricultural land was converted into housing and fallow. Informal sources suggest that the real figure is considerably higher. Those who are involved in this business indicated that many mid-level political leaders were buying land in substantial quantities and selling it at 10 to 20 times the amount they paid for it.
In the absence of any significant legislation, land plotting or grabbing of this magnitude will continue unchecked. In Chandragadi, we met with a number of government officials from key departments such as Land Reform, Land Revenue and Land Survey as well as the Agriculture Office. They suggested that land grabbing is encouraged considerably by existing state mechanisms, often to the extent that cadres of political parties are actively involved in land plotting. The government does not have a land use policy and there are no restrictions on those engaged in land acquisition. Indeed, the ready availability of loans only encourages this process. The absence of any legislation to curb this phenomenon effectively prevents poor and indigenous people from securing land for their own use.
The District Land Survey Officer indicated that many who became involved in the land business in Kathmandu in mid-1990s are beginning to invest in land plotting for housing throughout the country. Banks are increasingly seeing investment in real estate as a lucrative business, whilst corporations are diversifying into real estate in order to offset business insecurity and reduced profits. According to the District Agricultural Development Officer in Sunsari (DADO), land plotting is driven by two key factors. First, a sense of insecurity felt by people in the south; the Madhes movement has led to many Pahadi people seeking to migrate from their home area and purchase land in what they perceive to be a safer location. Second is the high level of unemployment in the agricultural sector, which has driven many labourers to work in areas where they can realise a higher income. The lack of agricultural labour, in turn, pushes landowners to plot and sell off their agricultural land.
Officials in the government offices in Sunsari district reported that the phenomenon appears more in areas where hill migrants reside or own land. Although migrants from the southern belt of the Terai district buy small pieces of land to build a new home, a significant number of those buying land are Nepalis earning a substantial income from working abroad.
Aggregated land is bought as a form of speculation, sometimes by groups of land grabbers. Large pieces of land are transferred from one group to another, each transaction resulting in a further price hike. The primary objective appears to be that of investment rather than development.
Trends in land grabbing Land plotters prefer to buy land where public land is available. They can then use it for roads, parking areas, parkland and other infrastructure development. By using public land, the investor realises more profit from the re-sale of land that would otherwise be required for infrastructure. In many cases, there appear to be strong alliances between those acquiring land, the local authorities and government service providers. For example, in one area in Birtamod in Jhapa, land plotters have bought land adjoining public land and according to squatters and locals, used the local police force to clear them from public land and build a gravel road under the cover of darkness. And according to a group of villagers from Jhapa, the relationship between the cadres of the political parties and providers of drinking water services, electricity supply services and the like makes it extremely difficult for individual households to gain access to these essential services.
Those who raised the issue of revolutionary or scientific land reform at the outset are themselves involved in land plotting and encouraging agricultural land to be turned over to housing or fallow land. A major impact of this in the Terai has been that an area which once produced a food surplus is now in deficit or on the way. In addition, the investment of large sums of money in ‘unproductive’ sectors has increased the level of dependency of local people on others. According to the media report, 445 billion rupees has been invested in land plotting and housing while 80 per cent of remittance monies coming into Nepal are similarly invested. This in turn serves to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. With land prices increasing by up to five times the value prior to plotting, poor people cannot afford to buy land for even the smallest hut. Many poor and indigenous people have been losing their land and have become squatters on the land that they had previously worked on. Despite this being an almost daily occurrence, the government has taken no action to date as land is increasingly transferred into the hands of non-farmers and elites. The net result of this is increased food insecurity, higher levels of unemployment and an increasing gap between the poor and the rich.
source:Basnet, Jagat (2011),"Politics of land ", The Himalayan Times, 22 July 2011
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