Socio-Politico-Economic Problems in the Hilly Areas of Bangladesh: the Case of the Chittagong Hill Tracts

By Khaled Misbahuzzaman

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) make up the south-eastern region of Bangladesh. This region shares international boundaries with the Indian states of Tripura to the north and Mizoram to the east, and the Chin and Rakhain states of Myanmar to the south-east and south. The vegetation is lush and tropical with natural forests of evergreen and deciduous trees, bamboo and sungrass.

The Hill Tracts are home to the country’s largest concentration of ethnic peoples, namely the Bawm, Chak, Chakma, Khumi, Khyang, Marma, Mru, Lushai, Uchay (Mrung or Hill Tripura), Pankho, Tanchangya, and Tripura (Tipra). The ethnic hill people differ from the majority Bengali population of Bangladesh in their physical features, culture, and religion. The hill people are mostly of Mongolian origin, belonging to the Tibeto-Burman language family, and are closer in appearance and culture to their neighbors in north-eastern India, Myanmar, and Thailand than to the majority Bengali population. The dominant religion of the ethnic peoples is Buddhism.

Traditionally, nearly all the hill people have been engaged in subsistence swidden cultivation known locally as jum (also referred to as “slash and burn” or “shifting cultivation”). Juming is integral to the hill people’s way of life and is a cornerstone of the ethnic culture in CHTs. Through juming the ethnic farmers or jummas/jumias cultivate a number of swidden fields in rotation. This enables the swidden fields to regain their fertility during the fallow period. Generally a specific area of about 4 to 5 acres is cleared in late winter and left to dry, usually leaving aside the larger trees. After a few weeks, depending on weather conditions, the field is set afire. The ash works as a fertilizer, and generally, no other fertilizers are required.

In 1860 the British took control of the CHTs and recognized them as an important area distinct from the rest of the country. Before the British invasion, lands in CHTs were under community customary management regimes. As the system of land tenure in the CHT differed considerably from the British concepts of land administration, the colonial administrators restructured the land revenue system to bring it into greater conformity with their systems of land tenure.

In the 1870s, the British administration began to declare certain CHT areas “Reserved Forests,” with a total ban on juming within their confines. In 1900, the British enacted Regulation 1 of the 1900 Act in order to protect the jumma people from economic exploitation of non-hill people and to preserve their sociocultural and political institutions, based on customary laws, common ownership of land, and so on. Throughout the British colonial period the 1900 Act functioned as a safeguard for the jumma people, prohibiting land ownership and migrations of the non-hill people in the CHTs.

In 1960, during the Pakistan era, with the construction of the hydroelectric dam at Kaptai in the Rangamati district, 100,000 people—10,000 families that used ploughs to cultivate the land, and 8,000 jummia families—lost their principal economic base, with little or no arrangements to provide them with alternative avenues for income-generation. This exacerbated the crisis situation of cultivable lands, which had already been felt even prior to the construction of the dam. The marginalized and displaced jummas were encouraged to take up commercial fruit gardening, and with few other livelihood options open to them, many did so. However, due to problems with marketing, storage, and credit facilities, and deteriorating hill soil conditions, there was limited success in this enterprise and the jummas were once again forced to seek alternative avenues for income generation.

The next major upheaval the ethnic people of the CHTs had to face was a government plan to resettle hundreds of thousands of landless people and families from the country’s plains areas in their area between 1979 and 1984.This program of population transfer has transformed the ethnic people into landless laborers without a land or resource base for their subsistence activities. In addition, their religion and culture is threatened, and the situation is one of ethnic conflict in the CHTs.

In 1974, after the independence of Bangladesh, the ethnic people of CHTs started an armed struggle for autonomy. The 23-year-long struggle came to a close with the signing of a peace accord on 2 December 1997 between the Government of Bangladesh and the Parbattya Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS), the political front of the armed group. Nearly two and a half years later, the armed members of the PCJSS have deposited their arms and returned to normal life. However, the government’s implementation of the accord has met with delays due to new sociopolitical tension in the region. The commitment as laid out in the accord to transfer administrative responsibility to a Regional Council has not been honored.

The CHT have been subjected to unsustainable and economically, ecologically, and socioculturally disruptive “development” and “afforestation” projects. Not surprisingly, today the CHTs is faced with a severe land crisis that is caused partly by natural factors such as poor soil conditions and lack of communications, infrastructural, and credit facilities, and partly by human interventions such as the development projects. The ethnic people of the CHTs have been displaced time and again from their traditional lands without their consent, and without receiving adequate compensation for the damages sustained. Today most ethnic people beleive, this has been a result of the implementation of the government’s development projects and policies including: (1) the creation of government forests; (2) the submersion of lands during the construction of the Kaptai hydroelectric power project;(3) the settlement of lands to outsiders; and(4) the military’s counter-insurgency strategy.

The government of Bangladesh must take immediate and effective steps to resolve the issue of the land and resource rights of the ethnic people of the CHTs. Unless the land issue is resolved there can be no definitive solution to the present sociopolitical crisis in the region. The Peace Accord of 1997 outlines the measures to be taken in order to generate a peaceful and lasting resolution to the violent ethnic conflict that has been raging in the CHTs for decades. It is therefore necessary to reassess the land rights situation within the context of this accord. This is of particular relevance in the light of the legal reforms and other changes that have already been made since the signing of the Agreement, and those that are proposed for the future.

Mr. Tanvir Mokammel, one of the most famous short film makers of Bangladesh, provides a glimpse of the existing socio-politico-economic problems of CHTs in his documentary film “Teardrops of Karnaphuli”:

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