Bangladesh is the most densely packed human domicile in the world among nations having more than 10 million people. With more than 1,100 men, women and children per square kilometre, Bangladesh struggles to provide breathing space to her teeming millions. Without a shred of doubt, “habitable land” is the most scarce and inelastic resource we have to contend with. Dhaka, meanwhile, is the unenviable topper among all capital cities in terms of population density with nearly 20,000 people per square kilometre. Despite being at the lower half of the global per capita GDP rankings, the average price of agricultural land in Bangladesh is higher than that in the UK and is probably the highest in the world. Some commercial properties in the capital command per-square-foot prices higher than that of Las Vegas.
Compared to income levels here, homesteads figure disproportionately in a family’s overall material assets. Most people owning homesteads acquire them through inheritance and a large majority of people, who lose homesteads through river erosion, natural calamity or family fragmentation, never own homes again, leading to almost a fifth of the population categorised as ultra-poor and poor who have never known a place they can call their own.
At the time of our independence 47 years ago, Bangladesh’s economy was in a shambles and yet encumbered with sustaining 75 million citizens, prompting some world leaders to write it off as a “bottomless basket”. That very Bangladesh has now emerged as the second largest apparel exporter and the second biggest source of freelance IT service providers in the world, which is a testament to the grit and perseverance of the very people that many observers once thought would be a burden to the world at large. As this economic juggernaut unfolded and Bangladesh’s economy blossomed to over a third of a trillion dollars on the back of sprawling mills and factories and increasingly mechanised agriculture, one resource has remained stuck in the ground: our landmass, measuring 147,570 sq km. It has remained more or less the same as the population more than doubled to 163 million in the last half century. The burgeoning population and a prospering economy have put a tremendous strain on the fixed landmass, making it the most precious resource at our disposal.
Land administration is a three-headed hydra that has the whole business of owning, registering and transferring landed properties knotted up in unending anguish and frustration for the general public. The lack of clarity in procedures for obtaining and verifying land ownership information has given rise to the largest clan of thugs and fraudsters that prey on ordinary folks’ simplicity and lack of knowledge of the complex web of legal and administrative mumbo-jumbo. Legal experts estimate that four-fifths of all litigations are land-related, and the overflowing cases clogging the judicial system sometimes take several generations over many decades to come to a settlement!
But this does not need to be this way. Landmass is a fixed resource that is cut and diced into land parcels across the country either as private freehold property, or public leasehold property, or government or state-owned land. This fixed inventory of land can be meticulously recorded in a database with relevant geographic information as well as Global Positioning System tags (Land Database with GIS Extensions and GPS Tags), thereby removing the uncertainties, complexities and confusion surrounding land records. With this simple yet effective step, the nation can rescue the archaic land administration system and at the same time get rid of most of the disputes dogging our judicial system.
The fact that a digitised inventory and upkeep of all land parcels is the panacea for all that ails the land administration, land taxation and land adjudication ecosystem of the country has been known to government policy planners from the early eighties. Any large set of data lends itself to effective and easy maintenance in the form of computer-assisted database, and thus the fact that the millions of land records of the country can benefit from digitalisation was a no-brainier. However, the sad fact is, even though the government had been tinkering with computer-based land records since the mid-eighties and had commissioned many pilot projects since then, land administration remains largely untouched by any tangible benefits of digitalisation. There have been many laudable piece-meal initiatives but without a holistic digitisation of the land administration ecosystem and continuous upkeep of the digital system, the real benefits of such measures will continue to elude their intended beneficiaries: the citizenry.
The digitalisation of land administration—encompassing records of rights, payment of land development tax, land title transfer or mutation, and digital land survey—requires a slew of information technologies, know-how and expertise that are readily available locally. Most of the land automation pilots have been done by local companies and even the few pilots that were funded by Bangladesh’s development partners and contracted to foreign companies were essentially carried out by local sub-contractors.
Digital Bangladesh has touched many facets of public service in the last ten years but not so much the land administration. However, land administration involves the maintenance of the most precious resource of the nation—our fixed landmass—and if any government dispensation deserves the full force of Digital Bangladesh, it is the land administration. Vested interest groups that have been preying on the innocent populace for decades, taking advantage of the opacity and complexity of land administration, will surely oppose any such move but to be in sync with the current government’s call to arms to root out corruption and hassles from all citizen services, digital land administration is a crying need of the hour.
A comprehensive digital land administration will not only curtail corrupt and fraudulent practices in land transactions but will also greatly improve Bangladesh’s ranking in the “ease of doing business” index. Investments, both local and foreign, are fully contingent on moving up in this ranking. Now all that is needed to make it happen is an unflinching political will.
Habibullah N Karim is an author, policy activist, investor and serial entrepreneur. He is a founder and former president of BASIS and founder/CEO of Technohaven Company Ltd. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org