Bangladesh’s food security is at risk as cultivated land continues to shrink due to the unplanned expansion of rural settlements. The Business Standard recently spoke with Dr. Akter Mahmud, a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Jahangirnagar University, to discuss getting out of this precarious situation.

April 25, 2022, 11:05 a.m.

Last modification: April 25, 2022, 11:37 a.m.

Illustration: TBS

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Illustration: TBS

Senior Upazila Master Plan Specialist at Technical Assistance Project for My Village-My Town Dr Akter Mahmud, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Jahangirnagar University, recently wrote on compact housing and land redevelopment for conserve farmland and environment in a daily Bangla.

According to Dr. Mahmud, who is also a former president of the Bangladesh Institute of Planners, precious cultivated land will no longer exist if the unplanned expansion of rural settlements cannot be stopped. Neglect in land management will threaten Bangladesh’s food security.

The Business Standard recently caught up with the rural planner to find out more.

How do you define the trend of land loss, especially around rural Bangladesh?

Bangladesh is a small country with a large population. Several studies suggest that the population density of Bangladesh is over 1,200 people per square kilometer and that many European cities have a much lower population than Bangladeshi cities.

We must realize that agricultural land is a precious resource of the country and nothing else can compensate for it. If a parcel of cultivated land is converted to a non-agricultural parcel, it will remain so permanently.

A serious concern is that the cultivated land and the natural ecosystem have disappeared. What are the reasons?

First, rural dwellings are expanding. A dwelling plot belonging to one person is divided into several parts by the heirs, which leads to the construction of new houses by the next generation. We are in a continuous process of engulfing cultivated land.

In addition, infrastructure development and industrialization are also responsible for reducing agricultural land.

We are losing our wetlands which are an integral part of our ecosystem and our forests are disappearing due to rapid urbanization.

According to studies, between 1961 and today, the agricultural area per capita has fallen to 0.048 hectares.

We need to protect our farmland. We should try to bring rural settlements under a compact housing practice, and for that the country needs a national physical plan.

What is a compact housing? Where does the concept come from?

Dr. Salim Rashid, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Illinois, introduced the concept of compact housing two decades ago. His idea is still at the theoretical level. Echoing Professor Salim, I also recommend piloting a compact housing project.

How could we do it? You see, many people in rural areas currently live off non-farm jobs. Many farmer successors have not inherited the profession, and they either work in RMG and other industrial sectors or work overseas.

Many remittance providers come from rural areas. Their family members still live in villages.

People like them no longer prefer to live in agrarian housing. They need security of life and property, and compact housing will provide them with a safe and healthy life.

Dr. Akter Mahmoud. Illustration: TBS

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Dr. Akter Mahmoud.  Illustration: TBS

Dr. Akter Mahmoud. Illustration: TBS

What is a compact housing?

Compact housing is an agglomeration of houses, hospitals, schools, markets, rural industries and local government units that provide all essential services to a population threshold – ensuring the best use of land.

It can be a plot or a low-rise apartment. There would be a shared space like a community park or playground, and well-planned roads would connect the entire area.

When rural settlements evolve haphazardly, providing utilities such as electricity connection and water supply becomes very difficult.

On the other hand, the provision of most civic services – at affordable prices and in an accessible way – can be made possible for people who reside in a compact housing system. In such well-equipped places, waste management can be done easily.

Suppose a population threshold (the minimum number of people needed for a service to be convenient) is set in the area. In this case, they can establish a primary school, a doctors’ chamber and other facilities there.

Utilities become easy to provide if there are compact dwellings. For example, when a compact dwelling has a mini health facility, the pressure on the Upazila health complex decreases.

Therefore, we can retain our agricultural land by controlling the expansion of rural settlements.

In the past, many people rehabilitated in the Ashrayan project did not find the cluster accommodation comfortable due to the non-agrarian arrangement. For example, there was no courtyard. Do you think rural people will accept the idea of ​​compact housing?

To the right. The ecological needs of rural families requiring a yard and places to raise poultry and livestock are different because they depend on agriculture.

As I mentioned earlier, there are also non-agrarian families who live in rural areas. Only 40% of the rural population is involved in agriculture, and the sector contributes only 15% of total GDP.

If there are well-planned compact dwellings for these people, there will be a school, a park, a well-managed body of water and a place of social gathering. People living in compact housing will have a good standard of living.

We can consider something else. If the rural settlements under a compact housing facility are designed to be compatible with the rural ecology, families can raise poultry and livestock in their homes. Architects and civil engineers have already developed such designs, and we need to accumulate these ideas.

Recently you have recommended that rural landowners develop a planned residential area by private arrangement. Since the people are dependent on government initiatives, how can such an arrangement be possible in private?

Individuals cannot organize themselves. Upazila administration and grassroots representatives should be involved in this process. They can organize landowners and implement the plan in a cooperative style. A land management committee can be formed. The Local Government Engineering Department and the Bangladesh Institute of Planners can provide technical assistance.

At the Upazila level, there is a dire need for a master plan for the Upazila. Upazila Parishads will need planners to implement the plan after it is formulated. Otherwise, no one can implement the plan and land management will not be done properly. Currently, there are officers in the departments of civil engineering, health, education and agriculture at the upazila level. There should also be planners.

Why is land consolidation important? What are the stages of land consolidation?

There are several land consolidation techniques and stages.

For example, landowners will first temporarily cede their land to the cooperative they have formed, and the latter will consolidate the land holdings.

The second step is to make a plan. The plan should cover road communications, utility networks and land for necessary residential, educational, recreational, cultural and other facilities.

As the owners will in turn have access to a higher standard of living, they will not be able to access the exact amount of land for individual use that they have ceded to the cooperative.

For example, they will get 50% of the original land for individual use. In return, they will benefit from civic amenities and a better living environment. 30% of the territory will be dedicated to road networks and public services. And the rest of the land will be “reserved” for commercial plots. The cooperative can manage the costs of the project with the income generated by the sale of commercial plots to foreigners.

Do we need a law to popularize these consolidations?

Yes indeed. The law on the protection of agricultural land and land use was finalized in 2015. But the government has not yet approved the law.

However, although the law was formulated to protect cultivated land, it does not cover the issue of land consolidation. So there should be a separate law for land consolidation.