Hill people of six mauzas in Khagrachari fear that they might become landless as the forest department has initiated a move to acquire land, including their homesteads.
They expressed their concerns when the Chittagong Hill Tracts Land Dispute Resolution Commission was working on land dispute settlement amid growing commotion among the hill people over continued grabbing of land and forests in the three hill districts � Rangamati, Khagrachari and Bandarban.
The forest department is set to take control over thousands of acres of land declaring reserved forest at Dighinala in Khagrachari. The people said they would be left with no scope to file appeals if the land were acquired by the government.
Bengali settlers in place in the hill districts in the past week took possession of land, especially in market areas and by road stretches.
Incidents of attacks and clashes between the hill people and the Bengali settlers also increased in all the hill districts in recent months over land grabbing, ownership of land and land possession.
Hill people also alleged that some Bengali settlers, directly patronised by the administration, were also grabbing land at Chonrachari, Lemuchari, Paujyachari, Keang Ghat, Jaisen Para and Nunchhari in a few years. In the latest of such attempts, a group of Bengali settlers tried to grab the land of Sunil Kanti Chakma at Lemuchari on December 5, creating tension in the area.
The district administration also barred demonstrations in the area against land grab attempts on the plea of possible deterioration of law and order.
The forest department has asked the Khagrachari deputy commissioner to hand over to the department 12,849 acres of land at Rengkajya, Chota Merung, Bara Merung, Tarabanya, Hajachhara and Chota Hajachhara mauzas at Dighinala to expand the area of reserve forests.
Of the forest land to be handed over, 1,400 acres are at 55 Hazachara mauza, 4,600 acres at 28 Renkajya, 1,750 acres at 29 Chhota Merung, 3,999 acres at 30 Bara Merung, 500 acres at 54 Tarabanya, and 600 acres at 55 Hazachhara mauzas.
Hill people say their homes and livelihoods will be jeopardised if the district administrations of Rangamati, Khagrachhari, and Bandarban hand over the land to forest department.
In a letter on October 12, divisional forest officer (jhum control) in Rangamati, ABM Abdul Barik, requested the deputy commissioner, Anis-ul Haque Bhuiyan, to hand over the forest land.
In 1992, the then BNP government declared a total of 6.85 lakh acres of land in three hill districts reserved forest areas.
The leaders of hill people said the move would make landless at least 40,000 hill people who were rehabilitated there after their land had been submerged by Kaptai Lake hydroelectric dam in the 1960s. Headmen of six maujas and 23 karbaris submitted a memorandum to the deputy commissioner on November 23 to stop the land acquisition move to contain a possible humanitarian catastrophe.
The headmen said the forest department had taken the move without consultations with them although moves for land acquisition in the hills require such consultations.
They also fear that the move was taken to infiltrate Bengali settlers in the name of reserve forest expansion.
Headman Purnakumar Chakma said during the 2007-2008 emergency rule, land was leased out to 218 families of Bengali settlers at Dighinala and the people given the land were only in paper. �The settlements remain in papers only but we fear they would emerge all of a sudden and claim land ownership,� said headman Prantar Chakma.
In similar way, 812 families of the Bengali settlers were given land in the neighbouring Baghaichari that led to attack on small ethnic groups in February 19-20, 2010.
Societypriya Chakma, a resident of Rengkajya, said he suddenly came to know that his father�s homestead and 15 acres of teak orchard had falled in the area the forest department has planned to acquire. �We have no other piece of land. Where will we go if government takes away the land?
The Rangamati circle forest conservator, Shafiul Alam Chowdhury, said there was no fresh move to expand reserve forest area. A move was taken in 1992 and that has been continuing till date and the forest department was yet to receive the land.
“We are writing to deputy commissioners time and again and they keep it pending. The divisional forest officers in my circle also wrote such letters asking the deputy commissioners to hand over the land,” he said.
Abdul Barik ruled out the need for consultation with headmen for land acquisition. “They are not part of civil administration. So we did not talk with them.” But Shafiul said the headmen were part of the administration as they collect revenue.
Anis-ul-Haque said the district administration was examining the land sought by the forest department at Dighinala. The land will be handed over to the forest department after scrutiny, he said.
As for land grab attempts at Lemuchari, Anis said as there were contradictory claims, he suggested that both the parties should move court.