Charlands: Formulating inclusive development programme

Mohammad Zaman | Published: April 22, 2019 21:05:42 | Updated: April 27, 2019 21:47:35

-UNB file photo

The people living in the chars of Bangladesh are suffering. Millions living in the chars in the southern delta and in the floodplains are isolated and largely deprived of everyday basics including food, shelter, health and education. This is making it difficult for them to rise above the poverty cycle. They are also increasingly being exposed to all kinds of weather and climate-related vulnerabilities, particularly in the coastal region in the southern delta. Despite recognition of the need for alleviating poverty in the chars, there are, however, no concrete and integrated plans as of yet at the national level. The pro-poor and the inclusive growth strategy of the 7th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), which coincides with the final year of millennium development goals (MDGs) and the UN's new sustainable development goals (SDGs), has also no dedicated programmes for poverty alleviation and risk reduction of char dwellers.

The unique and precarious living conditions in the chars have not changed much over the last 50 years. For many, this existence is both one of choice and necessity for survival. Under the circumstances, the poor continues to suffer, more so the women through issues like child marriage, dowry, gender-based violence, isolation and absence of empowerment. Two of my previous op-ed pieces published in the Financial Express recently (March 13 and April 06) highlighted the various aspects of the marginality of char life, largely shaped by the colonial and post-colonial land tenure systems and administration with regard to alluvial and diluvial land. In Bangladesh, charland administration is a misnomer as most of the lands in the char areas have rarely been surveyed and ownerships duly recognised. There is no comprehensive land policy for charland for the benefits of the char people.  The chars have great potential if given appropriate and renewed attention with focus on long-term sustainable development strategies, anchored in new institutions, policies and good governance. The 1st National Char Convention of 2015 was attended by more than 1,200 people (half of them char dwellers). The convention called for char development ("Let the Light of Development Spread over the Chars") with a 14-Point Declaration that includes demands for proper infrastructure, healthcare, education, safe drinking water, skill development/livelihood support, mainstreaming gender in char development, social safety net programme, new land laws for mainland chars,  distribution of khas land to genuinely poor char dwellers, and a national char foundation to strengthen the development of char communities and to formulate a char development policy. Till date, there has been no update or responses to the 14-Point Declaration.

In view of the physical and social conditions, a more systematic and integrated approach to char development is required. Such an approach should be grounded on enhancing preventive, adaptive and mitigation measures for better protection and social development/livelihood support to the char dwellers in the country. Therefore, where feasible, efforts should be taken first to prevent and/or minimise displacement and risk from flood or river erosion through protective works. Currently, protective works such as embankments, polders, bank protection etc. tend to focus on large settlements or urban centres rather than preparing, for example, char villagers with the best ways to protect themselves, their crops, and livestock through improved measures like flood and erosion forecasting and mitigation measures.

In other words, the physical or protective works must be supplemented more and more by social and economic processes such as better economic opportunities, local economic diversification, land rights, and more importantly overhauling the antiquated laws and regulations related to charlands in the country. Any new law dealing with erosion and accretion of land must ensure rights of the displaced and char people, with provisions for periodic aerial mapping of the char areas using satellite/latest technologies; improved and timely land surveys, records and registration; and finally, faster resolution of charland disputes by the court systems. Mapping, updating and storing the data in geo-database would be critical to maintain a charland information system, which should address the existing shortcomings.

Bangladesh should move towards an inclusive and integrated approach to charland administration for promotion and better management of all alluvial plains replacing its present business-as-usual practice. As a riverine delta, the charland will remain a perennial resource for agricultural production and food security. The use of this resource within the context of natural disasters and climate change must be better ensured and managed. The chars are called homes by millions of char dwellers, who struggle to earn a living for survival. According to the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100, the impact of environmental risks would likely be more severe on income, employment, infrastructure and migration. The char dwellers will clearly be hit hard unless appropriate measures are taken to support them so that they are prepared to face the climate change effects in their environment.

A long-term sustainable strategy is required to address the concerns raised at the '1st National Char Convention of 2015'. The government of Bangladesh should allocate separate and dedicated resources in the five-year plans for inclusive and integrated char development, preferably under a new institutional set up such as a Char Development Authority (CDA). This body could be responsible for all aspects of char administration in coordination with relevant departments and agencies of the government of Bangladesh. It is important to have a designated institutional focal point such as the CDA for future charland administration. The focal agency should establish conditions leading to provision for basic services, support, and new economic opportunities, including coordination with existing NGO activities and services in char areas. The government may also coordinate with the international community for resources and capacity building for charland development and administration.

Mohammad Zaman is a social safeguard/resettlement specialist and advisory professor, National Research Center for Resettlement, Hohai University, Nanjing, China.

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