Report on Land Ownership Pattern in Bangladesh with USA UK China and India

Landownership Pattern

Land ownership means the legal rights to hold and use of the land. The landownership patterns are not same in the world. It may be state ownership, communal and collective ownership and private ownership (Wikipedia. 2011). Land reform involves the changing of laws, regulations or customs regarding land ownership (Batty, 2005). Land reform may consist of government-initiated or government-backed property redistribution, generally of agricultural land. Land reform can, therefore, refer to transfer of ownership from the more powerful to the less powerful (Borras, 2006). The land ownership pattern of the study countries are detail described in below;

Landownership Pattern in USA

Land Ownership in USA

The land surface of the United States covers 2.3 billion acres. 60% (1.4 billion acres) is privately owned, 29% is owned by the Federal Government, 9% is owned by State and local governments, and 2% is in Indian reservations. Virtually all cropland is privately owned, as is over half of grassland pasture and range and forestland. Federal, State and local government holdings consist primarily of forestland, rangeland, and other land. Despite past concern over foreign ownership of farmland, foreigners own only 1% of agricultural land including forestland (Vesterby, 2001).

Land Ownership: Past

Land ownership patterns changed substantially in the first century after U.S. independence. Between 1781 and 1867, through purchase, cession, and treaty, the Federal Government acquired lands totaling 80% of current U.S. area, constituting the original public domain. The largest acquisition, the Louisiana purchase added 523 million acres in 1803. Other large acquisitions included cessions from the original 13 States and from Mexico, as well as the Alaska Purchase. Acquisitions after 1867, including purchase of degraded forest and farmlands, added most of the Eastern United States’ national forests (45 million acres) as well as 4 million acres of national grasslands in the West (National Research Council; USDA, Forest Service, 1993). The difference between the total land area of the United States (2.3 billion acres) and the original public domain (1.8 billion acres) is land that has never been in the original public domain.

Land Ownership: Present

As of 1998, 1.1 billion acres of the original public domain (about half of the total U.S. area) had been granted or sold by the Federal Government to States, corporations, and individuals (USDA, 2001). Grants to States totaled 329 million acres, including 65 million acres of wetlands granted on condition that proceeds from their subsequent sale to individuals be used to convert those acres to agricultural production. Another 288 million acres were granted or sold directly to homesteaders on condition that the land be settled and cultivated. Disposition of Federal lands had slowed by the 1930s, and in 1976 the Federal Land Policy and Management Act explicitly directed that most remaining Federal lands be retained in Federal ownership (National Research Council). Remaining Federal lands totaled 656 million acres in 1997 (USDA, 2001).

Federal and State Lands Today

Most lands in Federal ownership are managed by four agencies: USDA’s Forest Service (FS) and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and National Park Service (NPS). Federal lands are concentrated in the West. Alaska alone has about one-third of Federal land. Forest Service and BLM lands are managed for a variety of uses, including grazing, timber harvest, recreation, and wilderness preservation, while FWS and NPS lands are managed primarily for preservation and recreation (USDA, 2010).

Table 4.1: US Federal Landholdings by Agency, 2009


Million Acres

Percent of Total

Department of Agriculture



Forest Service (FS)



Other Agencies



Department of Defense (DoD)



Department of the Interior



Bureau of Land Management (BLM)



Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)



National Park Service (NPS)



Other Agencies



Other Departments






Source: USDA, ERS, based on U.S. General Services Administration and U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, 2009.

The principal source of funding for Federal land acquisitions today is the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), created by Congress in 1964 (National Research Council). LWCF appropriations allow Federal land management agencies and State and local governments to buy lands for recreation, environmental protection and scenic and historic preservation. LWCF appropriations have fluctuated between $100 million and $400 million in most years. The Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) proposed the use of offshore oil and gas revenues to fully fund the LWCF at its $900 million annual authorized level (Zinn, 2001a & 2001b). The CARA legislation was approved by the House, but not the Senate, in the 106th Congress (met 1999-2000). The CARA proposal was reintroduced in the 107th Congress, which meets in 2001 and 2002. The Bush Administration proposed full funding for the LWCF (at $900 million) in its FY2002 budget (Conservation Fund, 2001)

Foreign Ownership of U.S. Farm Land

Congress passed the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act of 1978 (AFIDA) in response to concern about foreign ownership of U.S. farmland. The AFIDA required all foreigners holding agricultural land, including forestlands, to report their holdings to the Secretary of Agriculture by August 1, 1979. All foreign persons purchasing or selling agricultural land thereafter were required to report these transactions to the Secretary (Barnard etal., 1997). Despite earlier concern over foreign ownership of land, data collected through the AFIDA show that foreigners have consistently owned approximately 1% of agricultural land during the past two decades. Most of the changes in foreigners’ agricultural land holdings result from changes in the ownership of forestland. Changes in foreign ownership of forestland are largely due to transactions by large timber companies that may involve millions of acres (Blevins etal., 2000).

Foreign individuals and corporations owned 16 million acres or 1.2% of the 1.3 billion acres of privately owned agricultural land as of February 29, 2000, nearly two-thirds of it in the Northeast, Mountain States, and Southeast. Foreign holdings in 2000 remained relatively constant compared with earlier years. In 2000, foreign holdings exceeded 5% of privately owned farm and forestland in three States, led by Maine with 17%. Forestland accounted for 48% of all foreign holdings, pasture and other non cropped agricultural land accounted for 32%, cropland accounted for 17%, and nonagricultural land accounted for 3% (USDA, 2000). Individuals and corporations from Canada held the largest share of foreign-owned farm and forestland (31%), followed by owners from Germany (11%) and the United Kingdom (10%).

Partial Interests in Land

Land ownership whether private, government, or foreign consists of a ‘bundle of property rights’, not all of which are necessarily held by the landowner (Wiebe etal., 1996). There are typically many interests in a single parcel of land, including rights to grow crops, build houses, or mine minerals. The bundle of rights that comprise land ownership may remain largely intact or they may be allocated among multiple parties, both public and private. For example, a farmland owner may rent land to a farm operator and sell drilling rights on the same parcel of land to an oil company. The landowner also holds development rights. If the land has potential for conversion to residential, commercial, or industrial use, these rights may be highly valued by developers, government agencies, and conservation organizations. The fact that partial interests in a particular tract of land—the “sticks” in the bundle—can be held and traded separately presents opportunities for public agencies to influence resource use without incurring the political costs of regulation or the full financial costs of outright land acquisition. An example of partial interests used by Federal programs is the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), through which the Federal Government acquires cultivation rights from willing farmers and farmland owners in an effort to reduce soil erosion, protect wildlife habitat, and improve water quality. State and local government agencies and nongovernmental organizations also acquire partial interests in private land for conservation purposes, including the preservation of farmland, wetlands, and wildlife habitat. Farmland preservation programs, which seek to retain land in agricultural use when land values rise due to urban pressure, operate primarily at the State and local levels, although USDA’s Farmland Protection Program (FPP) offers assistance for easement acquisition (USDA, 2001).

The Private Property Rights Issue

From an economic perspective, property rights in land represent expectations about which land uses will be legally permitted over time, as well as expectations about the returns that those uses will generate. The actual decisions that farmers make about crop production, input use, conservation, waste disposal, and land conversion are all influenced by the nature of the specific property rights they hold in the land they own or rent (Wiebe etal., 1996). Land ownership rights are not absolute. In order to balance landowners’ rights with the rights of other members of society, rights to use land may be limited by government regulations, zoning ordinances, conservation easements, contracts, or other instruments that arise out of law, custom, and the operation of private markets. This holds true whether the landowner is a private individual or the Federal Government. Despite these limitations, private property is protected by the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, which states that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation. Only physical appropriations of property were viewed as ‘takings’ until 1922, when the Supreme Court ruled that regulation could also be considered a taking if it went ‘too far’ (Pennsylvania Coal Company v. Mahon). Even so, the courts have considered a regulation’s impact on a property’s value as only one among several criteria such as the nature of the public purpose accomplished by the regulation in determining whether a taking has occurred (Wiebe etal., 1996). Various bills have been considered by Congress in recent years that would require the Federal Government to compensate landowners whenever Federal restrictions on land use causes property values to fall by more than a threshold percentage. This would establish diminution in value as a sufficient criterion by which takings could be determined, regardless of other economic and legal criteria. Support for such changes has subsided since the mid-1990s.

Farm and Nonfarm Owners of Farmland

According to the Agricultural Economics and Land Ownership Survey (AELOS) of 1999, a special ‘follow-on’ survey to the 1997 Census of Agriculture, farmers made up 58% of the 3.4 million farmland owners in 1999. These landowning farmers also held 58% of the land in farms (USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2001b). Non-operator landlords accounted for the remaining 42% of the land in farms. 95% of non-operator landlords were individuals/families or partnerships. Of these landlords, 55% were at least 65 years old, and another 11% were between 60 and 64 years of age. Many non-operator landlords have a connection to farming in their past. Among the people who have exited farming or inherited farmland since the number of farms peaked during the great depression, a number have retained ownership of some or all their land (Hoppe etal., 2001).

Rural-Urban Ownership

Most urban land in the United States is defined as either private or public property. Yet such land may be more like common property than is usually recognized. Zoning and environmental regulations, for example, do not allow private landowners to do anything and everything with their land. Instead, for example, the private owners of land next to a river may not be permitted to install underground oil storage tanks. Those aspects of land use that affect the community’s quality of life or shared environment are managed almost like common property (USDA, 2001).

In the federal government, two principal agencies define rural property in the United States: the U.S. Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The government evaluates a combination of factors to determine a property’s classification as rural including its size and its proximity and dependency on neighboring urban municipalities. The function of defining rural areas and properties is two-fold: funding and zoning. Funding is allocated to areas to support local programs and government-run facilities. According to the USDA report- rural America at a glance, federal funding for rural areas is significant. The dollar amount of federal funding per capita at the county level is nearly equal when compared to metropolitan area funding. Zoning regulates the use and development of areas for the protection of public safety and health and general well-being of an area. Some examples of rural property include farms, stables, ranches, land and homes, which may include heavy equipment and livestock. The general features of a rural property, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, are its location in an unincorporated area with a population density of fewer than a thousand inhabitants per square mile. The OMB further describes these properties as being unrelated to larger urban areas nearby and without a central city (Vesterby, 2001).

Landownership Pattern in UK

Land Ownership in UK

The UK is one of the most crowded countries in the European Union, and indeed the world. This means pressure upon land and land use, and makes it especially difficult to find land for new development. Unlike much of continental Europe, the UK has experienced little major redistribution of land ownership since the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, apart from the temporary growth of state land ownership in the 20th century, some of which was reversed during the 1980s (Robert, 2009).

 Land Ownership: Past

Little is known about England before the Norman Conquest (1066 AD), which brought to the island a strong and universal system of feudalism that is essentially a hierarchical structure of tenure in landownership. It is obvious that the theory of tenure in the minds of Norman administrators were from the Continent. Hence, in order to know the origin of feudalism, it is necessary to trace back to Gaul, then a Roman colony, and further to Roman system (Deng, 2007).

In the early Roman society, the social and economic unit was a ‘patriarchal house community, familia[1], the state in little’ It functioned simultaneously as the religious, political and juridical organization. It is very different from our modern notion of family (father, mother, and children). Propinquity and the power of the head cemented this social unit and determined its characteristics and internal organization. It was made up of a group united mainly by other relationships than those of consanguinity, and the larger and more successful it became, the more heterogeneous were its constituents (Noyes, 1936). All human beings and non-human objects as well as land belonged to the head. Later a distinction between free members of the household and slaves appeared to be made by using the word ‘dominium’. There were also semi dependents who attached to the house community for the sake of the protection given by the membership (manus). Succession to the pater was not decided by the custom of primogeniture but the testament of the father. The continuance of the patriarchal family was verified by “the evidence that many heredia remained in the same families for generations and even centuries, which would seem to be impossible if the familia were divided (Noyes, 1936). With the development of Roman society, the super-familia government and law was greatly strengthened and began to influence within the familia. The classic Roman law included two kinds of power over persons according to their status as was within or without the family (Deng, 2009).

Under the original feudal system the tenant’s fee was not heritable since the tenure between lord and tenant was very much a personal affair which came to an end when the tenant or lord died (Simpson, 1986). The heirs of a tenant needed to buy back the lands. However in Glanvill’s time the fee (or fief) had been firmly regarded as heritable. Meanwhile primogeniture was adopted as the rule of inheritance first in military tenures and later in socage. By Edward I’s time primogeniture had become the common law of all tenures. A set of complex rules were developed to specify the sequence of inheritance depending upon the lineal and collateral relationships. A distinguished feature of the law in Glanvill’s time was that will as well as death-bed gift was excluded. In Glanvill’s time the free alienation of land was not yet possible. The gradual change in practice led to the statute of Quia Emptores (A.D. 1290), which had that from henceforth it shall be lawful for every freeman to sell at his own pleasure his lands and tenements. Transfer of the land was carried out by substitution instead of subinfeudation. Then there arose the concept of the fee simple, which was both alienable and heritable. In 1285 the strong protest from the nobles made the statute De Donis Conolitionalibus drafted in purpose of preventing the alienation by holders of conditional fees. Nevertheless the statute of De Donis brought forth the doctrine of estates, which “involves a recognition not simply that the sum of possible interest – the fee simple – may be cut up into slices like a cake and distributed amongst a number of people, but that all of them will obtain present existing interests in the land, though their right to actual enjoyment, to seisin in land, may be postponed (Simpson, 1986).

In 1540 the Statute of Wills allowed landowners to devise two-thirds of their lands held in knight-service, and all their lands held in socage (Simpson, 1986). In this way the King could still obtain the feudal dues. Nonetheless by intelligently applying a device made up of the combination of the use and the will the landowners could eventually evade the Crown’s dues. Again, in order to overcome the seemingly insuperable entails, new rule was found. In the Duke of Norfolk’s Case, landowner was not allowed to settle the devolution of land too far into a future which he could not foresee. In return, the settlers devised more complex form of settlement to keep the land in the family perpetually. In spite of all these controversies a trend toward a free land market could be clearly observed (Robert, 2009).

From the 15th century on the copyhold tenants’ position began to improve. They were protected by both the common-law courts and the Chancellor. Free alienation of the copyhold land was gradually permitted. In retrospect of the post-medieval land law, it is obvious that complex forms were abundant. On the other hand, all these complexities and peculiarities reflected the actual development of landownership in practice as well as how difficult it was for the old legal framework to adjust to the needs of social and economic development. Hence from the seventeenth century and in the nineteenth century at its peak, there arose the movement for reform. The British legislation implemented some of the reform proposals in the middle of the 19th century and in 1920s. Although much of what those new laws did was to regularize or slightly simplify some practical rules which already existed, it was until then that the evolution of the system of landownership from feudalism to capitalism had been completed (Deng, 2009).

 Land Ownership: Present

One can identify the following trends in UK land ownership over the past century: the growth of home ownership, the survival (mainly in the countryside) of concentrated hereditary land ownership, the decline of leasehold tenure, the expansion (and then contraction) of state land ownership, and the growth of legal forms of communal ownership (Robert, 2009).

Home Ownership               

The biggest change in UK land ownership in the 20th century was the growth of home ownership, mostly of separate dwellings on small land parcels of less than 0.1 ha. The largest single categories of registered land owners are private homeowners, representing perhaps two-thirds of the registered land titles (although the statistics are complicated by multi-storey ownerships, buy-to-let property and other factors). Owner-occupiers increased their share of the housing stock in England and Wales from 10% in 1914 to 71% in 2000 (Social Trends, 2000). Councils controlled a third of the housing stock in the 1970s, but right-to-buy legislation by the Thatcher Government resulted in 1.6 million homes switching from council to home ownership in 1980–94 (Balchin etal., 1998). During the 20th century the total dwelling stock grew by some three times, from 7 million to 20 million. Four million houses, 2.9 million of them private, were built in the 20 years between the two World Wars (Saunders, 1990). This growth was accompanied by a fall in average household size from 4.6 persons per- household in 1901 to 2.4 a century later (England and Wales). That fall reflected smaller family sizes, a contraction in the active period of child-bearing, and also the decline of non-family household members, such as resident domestic servants and lodgers (Balchin etal., 1998).

Private Land Ownership

Through the 19th and into the 20th century the ‘land question’ (basically feudal tenure and the concentration of landed wealth) was a major political issue, contributing to the Liberal election landslide of 1906.When a comprehensive survey of land ownership was undertaken in 1873, 7000 individuals were found to own some 80% of the land area of Britain. After the First World War, however, land became a ‘forgotten controversy’ (Packer, 2001), following the rise in home ownership, the break-up of many large estates, state provision of housing and small-holdings, and the land law reforms of 1922–25. At the beginning of the 21st century, notwithstanding the growth of home ownership, landed wealth is still concentrated in relatively few hands (Blinkhorn etal., 1991). An estimated 200,000 individuals (mostly comprising the monarchy, aristocracy and gentry) own about two-thirds of the land, and Norton (1982) estimated that some 1700 individuals owned a third of all land.

State Land Ownership

The 20th century saw the expansion, and then contraction, of state land ownership in the UK. At its peak, during the Second World War, the state owned a sixth of the UK land area (Northfield, 1979). In reaction against the post-war socialist land redistribution in many countries, neoliberal ideology has promoted the transfer of much state land into private hands and greater transnational capital flows into property. In the 1970s, there was academic research (Massey etal., 1978) into land ownership, linked politically to post-war Labour governments’ attempts to control development land. But the Conservative government of 1979–97 drove land ownership off political and academic agendas in the UK, and the subsequent Labour governments after 1997 did not restore it. Massey and Catalano (1978) estimated that the state then owned some 19% of all land in Great Britain (including central government 7–9%, and local authorities 7%), while Clark (1981) separately found that 17% of the land area of Scotland was owned by public bodies (mostly central government, the largest being the Forestry Commission). In 1984 registers of public agency land recorded 43,000 ha of potential development land, much of which was transferred to the private sector in the 1980s. Currently the largest government owners are the Defense Estate and the Forestry Commission (Howes, 1984).

Communal Land Ownership

Customary or communal land was until recently regarded in global discourses on land as a vestige of the past bound for extinction. But it is now being rediscovered and promoted. In recent years there has been increased UK policy interest in community ownership or management of land and buildings, and the Quirk Review (2007) recommended that community development trusts should become more mainstream. Common land, while mostly privately owned, has legal protection, with statutory registers maintained by local authorities (Clayden, 2003). Large communal land-owners include the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Wildlife Trusts. Recent legislation is facilitating forms of communal ownership and management. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 increased public access to land (Shoard, 1987); the Scottish Land Reform Act 2003 abolished feudal land tenure and empowered communities to acquire land with the benefit of charitable status and stamp duty exemption (Wightman, 1996) and the Common hold Act 2002 introduced condominium ownership, mainly intended for apartment buildings (LREW, 2008). These new tenure forms are making limited impact upon land-ownership patterns, but can be expected to grow.

Table 4.2: Some Large Land Owners in UK


Hectares (000s)

Common Land


Aristocracy (26 Dukes)


National Trust (inc Scottish NT)




Forestry Commission (England)


Defense Estate


Pension funds


Royal Society for Protection of Birds


County farms


Wildlife Trusts


Local authorities


Woodland Trust


Sources: Cahill (2005), Massey etal., (1978), Norton (1982), institutional websites. Note: Common land is privately owned but protected.

Tenure Shifts

The 20th century saw a decline in leasehold tenure in different sectors of landed property, and there have been more purchases of land by property companies, insurance companies and pension funds, including foreign investors (Lizieri etal., 2006). Business property has generally been provided through medium-term leases from specialist property companies (Scott, 1987). Recently the large food retailers have expanded by acquiring land and owning their own stores, using their cash resources to find suitable out-of-town sites, obtain planning permission, and provide infrastructure. Tesco now owns 70% of its sites, and J Sainsbury 50%, while Marks and Spencer has always had a policy of owning rather than renting. In the housing sector, leasehold enfranchisement allowed flat lessees to acquire freeholds and superior interests (a million private flats were still held on long leases in 1991), while the introduction of short hold tenancies in 1996 encouraged the construction of buyto- let flats. By 2009 there were 2.6 million privately rented homes (DCLG statistics). In the agricultural sector, tenant farming declined from 90% of the land area in 1873 to 35%in 1994, and the total number of farmers and farm businesses is falling, with exit rates exceeding entry rates. This trend reflects the long-term restructuring of agriculture and short-term problems of low profitability and uncertainty (ADAS, 2004; Northfield, 1979).

Land and the Planning System

The land use planning system, a creature of the 20th century, has no direct role in land ownership, yet its statutory responsibility for allocating land use, and hence land value, is central. Its concern with land ownership is limited to matching allocation to the supply of development land (Goodchild etal., 1984), but compulsory acquisition under planning powers is rare, constrained by compensation costs and public disapproval. There is little political pressure for redistribution of land ownership, although large land-owners can enjoy huge windfall gains from growing development land values. There is little political pressure to change land ownership structures at present, but this may not continue. Powerful forces are shrinking available development land, including the presence of large private owners, the need to protect countryside and habitats, and the management of flood risk (Lizieri etal., 2006). Conflicts over land use allocation are increasing, and the planning system struggles to mediate in these disputes. Future population pressure and the accelerating impact of climate change may force drastic measures, such as increased state intervention to control and manage that scarce and dwindling basic resource land. Such intervention may be a prerequisite for the successful management and security of other basic social needs: housing, food, energy, water, waste, ecosystems, transport and utilities (Goodchild etal., 1984).

 Rural-Urban Ownership

Urban land which is available for development, either because it is derelict or vacant or because it is designated for redevelopment, is an important part of the urban fabric. Data limitations and the absence of any overall and coherent database on land ownership present considerable problems in sourcing data on urban land (Office of Fair Trading, 2008), however, at the same time, the classification of urban land for residential development has become more complex. Historically, land for housing development has fallen into two main categories: strategic land, which has not been allocated for housing (Monk et al., 2008), and land ripe for development (Callcutt, 2007). Despite this complexity there are several data sources which have been used to obtain an estimate of urban development land ownership patterns within the UK as a whole (Callcutt, 2007; OFT, 2008).

This general pattern is supported by work from London Development Research (2006) for the London Plan, which found that while private developers owned about 40% of potential housing supply in the capital, other landowners owned the majority (about 55%) with Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) owning about 4 per cent. This is an important change in the market, with RSLs already starting to land bank for the future delivery of homes (Hometrack, 2007).

More generally, the financial and political pressures brought upon these owners since the 1970s mean that they now have a much clearer sense of the value and purpose of their estates, whether for income generation, capital gain or environmental enhancement (Hamnett, 1987; Spencer, 1998). Even those owners that have not changed the area of land they own by much since that time have often been managing their properties very actively. Most, and the Crown Estate is a good example, have sought to up-grade their estates through selective purchase and disposal. Spencer (1998) warns, however, that not all institutional owners have followed a consistent strategy across their estates, often treating individual properties on their local merits. Of the 80 per cent-plus of rural land currently owned by private individuals, family trusts and corporations, a significant proportion remains in the hands of a few owners (Cahill , 2001) Much of this land is held in large rural estates, usually in the form of family or non-family trusts, managed mostly under the landlord–tenant system. The market in rural land is highly differentiated, and increasingly so as property owners respond to a widening range of potential land uses. The public now expects rural land to produce a wide range of products. Inevitably there are disputes as to which should be produced where, how– often in what combination and priority – and at what price. These differences of view have led to extensive interference in the markets for its products, and to a range of controls over land management practices.

Land Ownership in China

In China, land ownership means that the land owner has the right to possess, use, benefit from and dispose of land. Land ownership is divided into two categories: state-owned land (or state land) and collectively owned land (or collective land). In China, urban land is owned by the state, and rural and suburban land, which is stipulated otherwise by law to be state land, is owned by the state too. Collective land is owned by the rural collective economic organization, which is roughly tantamount to the entire rural land and most of suburban land.

Land Ownership: Past

China has probably the longest independent history in the world, as well as a wealth of written materials. As to information regarding land issues before Qin Dynasty (221 BC -207 BC), however, there are many controversies and moot points due to shortage of written documents. Nevertheless we have to trace back beyond Qin Dynasty for two reasons: (1) Confucianism originated from that period of time; (2) the ‘ideal’ model of landownership in the minds of ancient Chinese scholars throughout the recent two thousand years, namely the Well Field System, only existed at that time (Deng, 2007). In the Zhou Dynasty (1100 BC-256 BC) the political system was similar to the feudal System. The King distributed lands to relatives and vassals and thus set up a patriarchal hierarchy. This structure was constructed according to the rule that ‘those with the same surname were related by kinship while those with different surname were related by marriage’ (Cheng, 1984). However the system of landownership was different from feudal system. In this system people believed that all land under the sky belong to the King (Jing, 1991). The distribution of land to the peasants followed the rule known as the Well Field System. “Each well had nine hundred mu, in the middle of which was public land. Eight families each cultivated one hundred mu of the other fields while they cooperated in tilling the public land. Only after tilling the public land could they till on their own lands’ (Wu, 1985). In spite of the divergent interpretations about this system, some common features could be recognized: (1) the land belonged to the King, but it was distributed to each family to cultivate; (2) there existed public land, the product of which went to the King; (3) peasants had to pay rent; (4) alienation of land was forbidden.

After the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty, the following ChunQiu (BC 770 – BC 476) and the Warring States (475 BC-221 BC) period experienced an accelerating process of strengthening private ownership. For example, Shang Yang, the prime minister of the Qin State, ‘abolished the Well Field System, cultivated new land, permitted people to buy and sell land (Jing, 1991). Meanwhile, the society had undergone great changes. Gu, an ancient Chinese historian, commented in his book Ri Zhi Lu that ‘in the ChunQiu there were still memorial ceremonies and strict rituals while in the Warring States nothing of those remained; in the ChunQiu patriarchal clanship was still mentioned while in the Warring States no words about those; all these happened during a period of 133 years’ (Cheng, 1984). All these developments should be at least attributed to the strong competition among the warring states and they eventually led to the first unified dynasty, the Qin Dynasty.

When and after the Qin State unified China, it began to force large scale migration, especially former nobles, to cultivate frontier land. As a result, the old system was destroyed and some kind of private landownership was established, though land was still said to belong to the emperor. In BC 216, the Qin emperor ordered all people to declare the actual quantity of land they possessed so that rent could be calculated (Jing, 1991). This showed that free alienation and inheritance of land were legally supported. At this time peasants were required to submit rent and tax to the central government as well as military service and labor service. Since the Qin Dynasty the basic system of landownership had remained almost unchanged. During this long period of time, in spite of some new changes brought into China by the invading nomadic nations, the basic features of landownership were stable. This stable state was accompanied with cyclical land reform and peasant uprisings. Though landowners changed after those cyclic events, the form of landownership in the new dynasty was almost the same as in the old dynasties. However, besides the general stabilization of the system there were some important trends in the two thousand years’ development (Chao, 1986).

Although private landownership spread rapidly during the period of the Warring States (475 BC-221 BC), slavery, tenure and private ownership had since then co-existed for two thousand years. In this process slavery gradually disappeared, while the tenure system had greatly developed. In the Song Dynasty many peasants became tenants and the tenure system had spread to a large scale. Then the landlords who constituted 1% of the population occupied 70% of cultivated land, while tenants and half-tenants (people who rented land and still owned a little) who constituted more than 80% of population owned less than 20% of cultivated land (Jing, 1991). Even government-owned land could be leased out. The structure of tenure became more complicated and some people began to earn money by subleasing land to peasants. This was called bao dian. From the Song Dynasty and through the Ming Dynasty, perpetual tenure system (Yong dian) was developed. The tenant then had both the right of perpetually cultivating the land and the right to alienate or sublease this right. The tenant’s right was called tian mian quan while the landlord’s was called tian di quan. In this way several people could simultaneously have interests on a parcel of land. The large-scale development of the tenure system had important consequences in the history. The spread of tenure implied the growth of land accumulation and the bankruptcy of small landowners who cultivated land themselves. Since these small landowners shouldered the heavy burden of national rent and tax, which was vital for a strong central government, and since land distribution was also a politically sensitive issue, government responded to this problem repeatedly throughout the history. The land policy of almost every dynasty focused on encouraging and fostering small landowners. In the Han Dynasty (BC 206 – AD 220), Emperor Wang Mang issued the order Wang Tian Ling which ‘forbade any alienation of land and forced any family who possessed land more than one well and had less than eight male family members must give part of their land to neighbors’ (Cheng, 1984). Three years later this order was revoked because of the social disturbance it caused. Another famous land reform policy, known as Jun Tian Ling, was carried out by the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – AD 907). Under that law, government would give each adult male perpetual land of twenty mu, called yong ye tian, and kou fen land of 80 mu. Yong ye land could be inherited forever, while kou fen land was returned to the government after the man died or reached 60 years old (Jing, 1991). Behind these two typical land reform policies and the others adopted by each dynasty we can easily see the shadow of the Well Field System, which was regarded as the ideal model by scholars in almost every dynasty. Nevertheless, all these laws soon failed or gradually became loosened. Another trend in the history that had significant impact on landownership was the development of patriarchal clan system. Although the original patriarchal clan system had been quite loosened since the Warring States, from the Song Dynasty (AD 960 – AD 1279) it had been strengthened and expanded. Usually land within a patriarchal clan could not be bought or sold. Even if it must be sold, the relatives within the clan had the priority to buy (Jing, 1991).

As mentioned above, it had been established very early that land could be inherited. In Chinese history partition of the heritage as the hereditary custom prevailed. After the Tang Dynasty the law explicitly stipulated that land, house and chattel must be divided among brothers (Jing, 1991). In the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644 – AD 1911), the law Da Qing Lu Li ordered that as to the partition of land and property, it could be equally inherited only by sons no matter his mother was the wife, concubine or maid (Jing, 1991). Now in the countryside or even in the city, this rule is still applicable. Will and primogeniture were never dominant in Chinese history, except for the inheritance of the Crown. The rent and tax also underwent a process of reform. Before the middle of the Tang Dynasty, rent and tax collected by the government were combined together and they were levied on persons instead of land. Later the Tang Dynasty reformed the law to separate capitation from rent and tax. In the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368 – AD 1644) all rent, tax and service were combined together according to the Whole Whip Act (Yi Tiao Bian). Finally in 1727, the Qing Dynasty made the poll tax fixed and levied the amount of rent and tax from the increased population on land. Throughout these reforms an obvious trend was that the rent and tax levied on land and property became more important, while those levied on person and household became secondary (Jing, 1991).

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the invasion of the industrialized countries had forced China to change its historical trajectory. Since then the Chinese people have experienced various political, social and economic changes. On the one hand, it is still difficult to fit Chinese society into standard Western academic taxonomy such as feudalism or capitalism; on the other hand, it is easy to see that some basic features of landownership remained the same. Later we will analyze how these historic developments were affected by the culture and social structure of China.

Land Ownership: Present

The Property Law of the People’s Republic of China is a property law adopted by the National People’s Congress in 2007 that went into effect on October 1, 2007. The law covers the creation, transfer, and ownership of property in the mainland of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and is part of an ongoing effort by the PRC to gradually develop a civil code. In developing civil law in the PRC mainland, the PRC government has used the German Pandectist[2] system of classification under which the property law corresponds to the law on real rights, which is the term used in Chinese for the official name of the law (Wikipedia, 2011).

The drafting of the law involved considerable controversy. The proposed bill caused quite a stir since it was first published in 2002, was subsequently deferred, and yet again failed in its reading at the National People’s Congress (NPC) of 2006 because of disputes over its content. It finally went through its eighth reading in 2007. Many in the Chinese legal community feared that creating a single law to cover both state property and private property would facilitate privatization and asset stripping of state-owned enterprises. The draft law was subject to a constitutional challenge. Legal scholars, notably Gong Xiantian of Peking University, argued that it violated the constitutional characterization of the PRC as a socialist state. The law was originally scheduled to be adopted in 2005, but was removed from the legislative agenda following these objections. The final form of the law contains a number of additions to address these objections. On March 8, 2007, the Property Law was formally introduced at the NPC. Vice-Chairman Wang Zhaoguo told the Congress that the law will safeguard the fundamental interests of the people’, and the law is an attempt at adapting to new ‘economic and social realities’ in China. The law was adopted on March 16, the final day of the two-week session of congress, with the backing of 96.9% of the 2,889 legislators attending, with 2799 for, 53 against, and 37 abstentions.  In his final address to the 2007 Session, NPC Chairman Wu Bangguo declared ‘the Private Property Law and the Corporate Taxation law are two of the most important laws in the new economic system of Socialism with Chinese characteristics; we must attempt to learn these laws fully through various methods’. Article 9 requires that creation, transfer, and destruction of immovable property rights require registration to be effective. The law covers all of the three property types within the People’s Republic of China, which are state, collective, and private which are defined in Chapter 5 of the law. Chapter 4, Article 40 of the law divides property rights into three types: ownership rights, use rights, and security rights. The law goes into detail about the legal rights associated with any of these three types. Some press reports have characterized this law as the first piece of legislation in the People’s Republic of China to cover an individual’s right to own private assets,although this is incorrect as the right to private property was written into the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China in 2004. The amendment states ‘Citizens’ lawful private property is inviolable. The 2007 Property Law itself is directed at defining all forms of property in the PRC. The law does not change the system of land tenure by which the state owns all land. However, in formalizing existing practice, individuals can possess a land-use right, which is defined in Chapter 10 of the law. The law defines this land-use right in terms of the civil law concept of usufruct (Jing, 1991).

Rural-Urban Ownership

Unlike many other rapidly developing nations, China is still relatively non-urbanized. In 2000, approximately 36% of China’s population lived in urban areas, and no single metropolitan area dominated the urban hierarchy. Among the many reasons for this pattern is the government’s regulation of rural-urban migration through a household registration system, or hukou. Every Chinese resident has a hukou designation as an urban or rural resident. Hukou is an important indicator of social status, and urban (chengshi) status is necessary for access to urban welfare benefits, such as schools, health care or subsidized agricultural goods. Without urban hukou status it is very difficult to live in cities. By limiting access to the benefits of urbanization, the hukou system ostensibly served as the world’s most influential urban growth management instrument (Wikipedia, 2011).

As land and housing markets have emerged, the hukou system has weakened. Rural peasants now account for a significant portion of the urban population. As a result, China has been forced to manage urban growth, like other nations, through the conversion of land from rural to urban uses. Today, this can occur in one of two ways: work units and municipalities develop land acquired from rural collectives through an administrative process; and municipalities acquire land from rural collectives and lease it to developers. While providing local governments with new sources of revenues and introducing market rationality, this dual land market has introduced other complexities in the urban development process. Black markets have been created, for example, by the difference in price between land obtained virtually free through an administrative process and land leased to the private sector upon payment of fees. Work units have undertaken developments incompatible with municipal plans. And, urban sprawl has arisen in the special development zones that have proliferated in the rush to attract foreign investment (Wikipedia, 2011).

To address these problems, the 1999 New Land Administration Law (which amended the 1988 Land Administration Law) was adopted to protect farmland, manage urban growth, promote market development, and encourage citizen involvement in the legislative process. Besides strengthening property rights, the law mandates no net loss of cultivated land. It stipulates that ‘overall plans and annual plans for land utilization take measures to ensure that the total amount of cultivated land within their administrative areas remains unreduced’. This means that land development cannot take place on farmland unless the same amount of agricultural land is reclaimed elsewhere. As reclaimable land is depleted, urban land supplies will diminish, the cost of land reclamation will rise and ultimately that cost will be passed on to consumers. Since its implementation, the law has drawn widespread criticism for stressing farmland protection over urban development. Due to rising incomes and larger populations, the demand for urban land will continue to increase. Given the fixed amount of land, development costs will certainly rise and gradually slow the pace of urban development (Wikipedia, 2011).

 Land ownership in India

Land Ownership

Land problems in India continue to attract equal attention from policy-makers and academics. The renewed interest in land issues stems from the perceived impact of liberalization and opening up the economy. Tenancy, land ceiling and land administration are being revisited with a new perspective. Among the issues under renewed focus, legalizing tenancy, revising the ceiling limits, quality of land, meeting the challenge of miniscule holdings that are a consequence of marginalization and land administration are dominating the debate.

Land Ownership: Past

During the two centuries of British rule, India’s traditional land ownership and land use patterns were changed. The concept of private property was introduced, de-legitimizing community ownership systems in tribal societies.  The British introduced the ‘zamindari’ or ‘permanent settlement system’ in 1793, whereby feudal lords became owners of large tracts of land against fixed revenue payments to the government. Peasants became tenant farmers and had to pay rent. This system prevailed in most of northern India. In the south and west, the ‘ryotwari system’ was followed. Individual cultivators (ryots or raiyats) were proprietors of land against revenue payments, with rights to sub-let, mortgage and transfer land. A third system under British rule was the ‘mahalwari system’ whereby entire villages had to pay revenue, with farmers contributing their share in proportion to their holdings (Appu, 1996).  By the early 1970s, after extensive legislation, large absentee landowners had, for all practical purposes, been eliminated; their rights had been acquired by the state in exchange for compensation in cash and government bonds. More than 20 million former zamindar-system tenants had acquired occupancy rights to the land they tilled. Whereas previously the landlord collected rent from his tenants and passed on a portion of it as land revenue to the government, starting in the early 1970s, the state collected the rent directly from cultivators who, in effect, had become renters from the state. Most former tenants acquired the right to purchase the land they tilled, and payments to the state were spread out over ten to twenty years. Large landowners were divested not only of their cultivated land but also of ownership of forests, lakes, and barren lands. They were also stripped of various other economic rights, such as collection of taxes on sales of immovable property within their jurisdiction and collection of money for grazing privileges on uncultivated lands and use of river water. These rights also were taken over by state governments in return for compensation. By 1980 more than 6 million hectares of waste, fallow, and other categories of unused land had been vested in state governments and, in turn, distributed to landless agricultural workers (Behuria, 1997).

According to PACS’s report ‘Land distribution under these systems became extremely unequal and rural society got polarized into landlords and rich peasants versus tenants and agricultural laborers. Land transfer was institutionalized under British rule and moneylenders secured land against loans. Combined with high revenue rates, this led to growing indebtedness, dispossession of land, rising tenancy, and a widening of the income gap between rich landlords and poor tenants and agricultural labourers. By Independence, about 40% of India’s rural population was working as landless agricultural labour.’ Thus India has inherited a semi-feudal system of land distribution that followed the social hierarchy. Most landowners belong to the upper castes and cultivators to the middle castes; agricultural labourers are largely dalits and adivasis.

After the independence, India brought in legislation for land reform that included: Abolition of the zamindari system, abolition of intermediaries, protection to tenants, rationalization of different tenure systems and imposition of ceilings on landholdings. However, legislation did not lead to substantial progress towards equitable land distribution. Most studies in fact show that inequalities have increased rather than decreased. The number of landless in India has progressively increased (Appu, 1996).

Land Ownership: Present

Out of 304 million hectares of land in India for which records are available, roughly 40 million hectares are considered unfit for vegetation as they are either in urban areas, occupied by roads and rivers, or under permanent snow, rock or desert. Of the remaining 264 million hectares of land that have some potential for vegetation, 142 million hectares are cultivated, 67 million hectares are classified as forestland, and 55 million hectares as fallow or wasteland, or land with pastures or groves (Behuria, 1997).

The Central Statistical Organization puts the percentage distribution of the country’s total land area by land use (1992-93 figures) as follows:

Table: 4.3: Land use Distribution of India

Types of Land

Amount (%)

Cultivable Land


Forest Land


Uncultivated Land


Rocky and Barren Land


Urban/Non-agricultural Land


Source: Behuria, 1997

Landholding distribution too has become skewed. According to government data compiled from sources such as the All India Report on Agriculture Census 1991-2000, in 1995-96: 1.2% of landholdings in the country accounted for 14.8% of the total operational holdings with large holdings of 10 hectares and above (average holding: 17.21 hectares). 6.1% of holdings accounted for 25.3% of the total operational holdings with medium holdings of 4 to 10 hectares (average holding: 5.8 hectares). 12.3% of holdings accounted for 23.8% of the total operational holdings with semi-medium holdings of 2 to 4 hectares (average holding: 2.73 hectares). 18.7% of holdings accounted for 19.8% of the total operational holdings with holdings of 1 to 2 hectares (average holding: 1.42 hectares). 61.2% of holdings accounted for only 17.2% of the total operational holdings. On average, the size of these marginal holdings was 0.4 hectares. According to the India Rural Development Report of 1992, 43% of the country’s rural population was absolutely or near landless. Landless agricultural labour makes up almost half of those living below the poverty line in rural India. A majority of the economically and socially weaker sections of society, such as scheduled castes and tribes, dalits, adivasis and women, make up the majority of landless population working as labour.

Landlessness has been steadily rising among the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. According to a government Rural Labour Enquiry report (2006), the percentage of landless households among scheduled castes increased from 56.8% in 1977-98 to 61.5% in 1983, while among adivasis it increased from 48.5% in 1977-78 to 49.4% in 1983. Even among those who own land, a majority own marginal plots that provide them little or no food security. The government describes such marginal landowners as ‘mere landless’ (those who own less than 0.002 hectares) and ‘near landless’ (those who own between 0.002 and 0.2 hectares). According to the draft paper of the Ninth Five-Year Plan, 77% of dalits and 90% of adivasis are either ‘absolute landless’ (own no land) or ‘mere landless’.

Rural-Urban Ownership

India has entered the 21st Century with urban population of 285 million, which is even greater than the total population of United States of America. The million plus cities have also grown substantially in terms of number, size and area. As per 2001 Census there are 35 million population plus cities, which account for about one third of India’s urban population. The urbanization scenario reveals that the percentage of urban population which was about 20% in 1971 may increase to about 41 to 45% by 2021. In absolute terms it may increase to about 550 million by 2021. Ahmedabad is one of 35 million population plus city, which is ranked seventh largest city in India. Urban governance encompasses institutional strengthening and capability building, decentralization, community participation, and involvement of the private sector. Community participation has increased in urban development through the involvement of non-government organizations (NGOs), cooperative societies, Non Trading Corporations, business associations, associations of slum dwellers, and other community-based organizations. Such groups may become involved in local planning initiatives, taking responsibility for infrastructure improvement and maintenance, collective ownership of land and development of housing and allotting units to their members, obtaining innovative means of credit, participating in the provision of basic services and providing stable socio-economic means. Land management is vital issue in urban governance (Sapovadia, 2007).

India is a land of small farms, of peasants cultivating their ancestral lands mainly by family labor and, despite the spread of tractors in the 1980s, by pairs of bullocks. About 50% of all operational holdings in 1980 were less than one hectare in size. About 19% fell in the 1-2 hectare range, 16% in the 2-4 hectare range, and 11% in the 4-10 hectare range. Only 4% of the working farms encompassed 10 or more hectares. Although farms are typically small throughout the country, the average size holding by state ranges from about 0.5 hectare in Kerala and 0.75 hectare in Tamil Nadu to three hectares in Maharashtra and five hectares in Rajasthan.

Many factors- historical, political, economic, and demographic have affected the development of the prevailing land-tenure status. The operators of most agricultural holdings possess vested rights in the land they till, whether as full owners or as protected tenants. By the early 1990s, there were tenancy laws in all the states and union territories except Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram. The laws provide for states to confer ownership on tenants, who can buy the land they farm in return for fair payment; states also oversee provision of security of tenure and the establishing of fair rents. The implementation of these laws has varied among the states. West Bengal, Karnataka, and Kerala, for example, have achieved more success than other states. The land tenure situation is complicated, and it has varied widely from state to state. Independent India inherited a structure of landholding that was characterized by heavy concentration of cultivable areas in the hands of relatively large absentee landowners (zamindars), the excessive fragmentation of small landholdings, an already growing class of landless agricultural workers, and the lack of any generalized system of documentary evidence of landownership or tenancy (Wikipedia, 2011).

 Land Ownership in Bangladesh

 Land Ownership

Unequal distribution of privately owned land is one of the critical agrarian problems in rural Bangladesh (US country studies, 2005). This inequality is a typical situation created through a common process. During landlord tenure until 1950, a few elite households used to own much of the land in most of the villages. There were also a large percentage of households with a small amount of land or without any land. This land ownership evolved for land transactions through purchases, sales and sub-divisions among uneven number of heirs of deceased households (Banglapedia, 2011)

 Land Ownership: Past

Bangladesh has a very complex but a dynamic pattern of land ownership. Like some other developing countries, the history of land reforms in Bangladesh is a long one; spread over centuries. Feudalism in its worst form took its deepest roots under the British colonial rule. A chain of struggle by peasants spread over a century gave them their stable rights to tenancy through Bengal Tenancy Act, 1885. Since then changes came in bits and pieces. Feudalism was legally abolished through the implementation of State Acquisition and Tenancy Act, 1950 (Rahman, 2009). The importance of recording the extent and ownership of the land cannot be over emphasized. All Lands in Bangladesh are ultimately owned by the Government, but since the abolition of Zamindery system in 1950’s all ground tenants have come directly under the control of Government. The tenants have the right to buy, to sell or to mortgage their land as they seem fit. The State Acquisition and Tenancy Act 1950 provided for abolition of Permanent Settlement created by the then British Rulers whereby collection of revenue was left with the Zaminder (Big land lord) or their intermediate collecting agents. But after 1950 the act quoted above, come into the force and direct relationship between the Governments has been established. All these measures required the Govt. to update and maintain its record of rights. The government feels the necessity to maintain and updated some Rules, Regulation and Reformative decision on his part (Banglapedia, 2011).

Land Ownership: Present

There is an acute shortage of land in Bangladesh with almost population of 143 million and still growing at an annual rate of 1.34% makes Bangladesh the 7th most heavily populated country in the world, as of the 2001 Population Census. With a land area that is just a little over 15 million hectares, its population density (964 persons per square kilometer) is also one of the highest in the world. 60%of the country’s land, about 9 million hectares, is devoted to agricultural use, and 56% of this land, some 5 million hectares, is privately owned. It is estimated that households own an average of 0.3 hectares of land (BBS, 2001) 

Table 4.4: Landownership Structure of Bangladesh (1960–2000)






% of HHs

% of Land

% of HHs

% of Land

% of HHs

% of Land

Landless (0-0.19)







Marginal (0.2-0.9)







Medium (1-2.9)







Large (3+)














Source: BBS, 2001

In 1960, 10% of households owned 37% of the country’s largest parcels of land (3 hectares and above). Thirty-six years later, in 2000, the percentage of owners of large landholdings had dwindled to 2.1%. Meanwhile, the percentage of landless households (or those owning 0–0.19 hectare) rose from 19% in 1960 to 56% in 1996 (BBS, 2001). According to a recent report of the Center for Policy and Dialogue (CPD), over 48.5% of the rural population of Bangladesh lives below the lower poverty line, and 53.1% below the higher poverty line. The report also indicated a strong association between landownership and poverty, i.e., poverty is reduced with increased landownership. The risks and challenges of land ownership in Bangladesh are stated in below:

Lack of Political Will

Successive governments in Bangladesh have not prioritized land reform policies, primarily because government and political party leaders come from rich, landed families, which may or may not have had a hand in grabbing state owned land and water bodies. But even if the leaders may not themselves have been involved in such activities, they are reluctant to prosecute the land-grabbers, who are usually loyal and generous supporters.

Shrinking Space for Land Rights Advocacy

Due to political instability and the “state of emergency” currently imposed on the country, the activities of land rights activists and other social movements have been seriously restricted. Changes in government and the attendant changes in policies and programs have also made it difficult to sustain a dialogue with government.

Insufficient Capacity of Land Rights Organizations and NGOs

Organizations working on land rights and other NGOs are still ill-equipped to clearly articulate their objectives and strategies, mobilize resources, engage in participatory planning, and communicate effectively with government. This lack of capacity has hindered the progress of the land rights movement in the country. These groups also have limited ability to analyze the issues related to land rights, and have therefore failed to communicate with other stakeholders. Pro-poor land reform advocates must have the ability to think strategically and to form strong alliances among other groups.

Lack of Livelihood Support for the Landless

One of the challenges facing the land rights movement is the need to provide for and sustain the families involved in the movement. The land rights struggle is protracted; at the same time, the needs of the affected families are immediate. The challenge therefore is how to strike a balance between meeting the immediate needs of the people and their strategic (i.e., long-term) goals.

Unsupportive Donor Policies

Donor policies and priorities sometimes change so quickly that land rights organizations find their funding source drying up all of a sudden. Moreover, many donors support project based activities following an inflexible timeframe, which is inappropriate for conducting movements. The neo-liberal and market-oriented policies adhered to by many donors also work against the interests of tenants and landless farmers.

Legal Framework for Access to Land in Bangladesh

The following is a summary of the features of laws and programs that have been instituted by successive governments in Bangladesh to address the need for land reform.

East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act (EBSATA) of 1950

  • Aimed to make peasants direct tenants of the Government, with rights to transfer, inherit, and cultivate their land as they saw fit;
  • Sought to eliminate rent-seeking interests and absentee landownership, by prohibiting the subletting of land;
  • Fixed a ceiling of 13.3 hectares of cultivable land per family. (This ceiling was raised to 50 hectares per family in 1961); and
  • Guaranteed the rights of tenants and of their successors to land lost to erosion during the period when the land is flooded or under water, but not exceeding 20 years (Sec.86).

Land Reform Policy of 1972

  • Restored the ceiling of 13.3 hectares of cultivable land per family;
  • Gave government the mandate to acquire surplus land and to distribute it to landless peasants;
  • Authorized the government to acquire flooded and accreted land, and to treat these as khas land; and
  • Exempted landowners holding less than 3.33 hectares from paying land tax.

Land Reform Ordinance of 1984

  • Reduced the ceiling for landholdings from 13.3 hectares to 8 hectares;
  • Prohibited the purchase or transfer of land in the name of another person to conceal the identity of the true landowner;
  • Fixed the minimum wage of agricultural laborers at equal the value of 3 kilograms of rice;
  • Prohibited the eviction of peasants from their paternal homestead;
  • Instituted a three-way sharing of farm produce: 1/3 to the landowner; 1/3 to the sharecropper; and the remaining third to be divided proportionately between the landowner and the sharecropper on the basis of expenses incurred by each one;
  • Weaknesses/problems in implementation:
  • Despite lowering the ceiling for landholdings, the government failed to recover surplus land, estimated at 1 million hectares, because of the lack of political will.
  • The sharing of the produce proved to be inequitable. Sharecroppers bore all the costs, including input, while the produce was divided 50/50 between the landowner and the sharecropper, with the former taking most of the by-products.
  • The minimum wage (equivalent to the price of 3 kilograms of rice) could not support the needs of an average family of five members.

Vested Property Restoration Act of 2001

  • Abolished the Vested Property Act (VPA)—formerly the Enemy Property Act (EPA)—which dispossessed the Hindu population of their ancestral land during the war between Pakistan (of which Bangladesh used to be part) and India in 1965. Even after Bangladesh had declared its independence from Pakistan in 1971, the EPA was retained—renamed as VPA—and resulted in the confiscation of some 800,000 hectares of Hindu property. Around 0.75 million Hindu households were reportedly victimized by this law.
  • Weakness/problems in implementation: Even after the abolition of the VPA in 2001, the situation of Bangladesh’s Hindu population remains unchanged. Studies show that over a third of Hindu households have become landless and/or marginal landowners. Statistics also show a marked decline in the size of the Hindu population in Bangladesh: from 18.4% in 1961 to just 9.2% in 2001.

Land Rights and Land Management Projects

Cluster Village Program (1988)

  • Aimed to rehabilitate landless families by providing them with homesteads on state land and by improving their socioeconomic status. In some cases, plots of land were awarded to families, under the name of both the husband and wife. During the periods 1988–1997 and 2000–2007, European financing helped to resettle more than 50,000 households on public land with 65% of these receiving land titles.

Char Development and Settlement Project (1987)

  • Started in 1987 in the char areas in southeastern Bangladesh;
  • Aimed to settle landless persons on newly accreted land by providing support to the settled households. The project distributed some 40,000 hectares of khas land to 50,000 landless families in the greater Noakhali districts.

Computerization of Land Records Project

  • Implemented as a pilot project to computerize land records in particular areas in Dhaka.

Modernization of Land Administration Project (1995–2003)

  • Implemented through technical assistance from the Asian Development Bank (ADB);
  • Aimed to (1) identify the technological and human resource constraints to efficient land administration; (2) computerize property records; (3) improve the speed and quality of the production of printed maps; and (4) automate the administration of the land development tax;
  • The project showed that technical solutions alone are not enough to create a modern, transparent and efficient land administration system and that fundamental legal and institutional changes are necessary to operationalize the desired system.

Rural-Urban Ownership

In urban areas, land use is regulated by the Pourashava Ordinance, 1977 and the Town Improvement Act 1953 (Islam, 2000). Both laws provide that master plan must be drawn up for the urban areas for which the laws apply. However, many towns do not yet have such master plans and those which do are rarely implemented. Founder-Honorary Chairman of the Centre for Urban Studies (CUS), Dhaka denotes that the process of dealing with land through Bangladesh’s laws is complex, time consuming and extremely expensive. As such, laws have no meaning or relevance to the urban majority – the urban poor.

Land for housing and other urban development purposes is in extremely short supply. As a result, marginal lands need to be developed at great cost. Within DCC, land for housing at market price is affordable to no more than 5% of the city.s households. Even in locations outside DCC, land is beyond the means of more than 80% of the city.s population. Ownership of urban land is highly unequal, with only 30% of the population controlling ownership or access to 80% of the residential land, while the other 70% have access to the remaining 20%. The Land Reform Committee of 1983, headed by Mr. A.Z.M. Obaidullah Khan, for the first time had set an urban land ceiling, but this recommendation was never approved or implemented. As a result, inequality is increasing (Islam, 2000).

Several re-distributive Land Reforms were undertaken to balance landholdings in favor of the land-poor under ‘landlord biased’ agricultural policies in Bangladesh (Griffin, et al, 2002). Those reforms were ineffective, not only because of problems in implementation but also decrease in owned land per household after sub-divisions among heirs (Rahman, 1998). Meanwhile, the ‘landlord biased’ policies were run out from a cut of subsidy-oriented programs and expansion of NGO (Non-government Organizations) programs. This transformation under a land decreasing condition has even caused some adjustments in land markets.

Some previous research focused on the changes in land ownership using macro-level data. Hossain et al (2003) identified the inequality of land ownership as a key factor for farm income inequality. Islam and Omori (2004) also identified this inequality as a major factor for income inequality. In land market analysis, Hossain, et al. (2003) observed a decreasing trend of land transactions through purchases and sales during 1987 and 2000. This was because many farmers facing a hazard, tried to overcome it by engaging in non-farm activities rather than selling land. However, land purchase was found negative for land-poor farmers. Griffin (1974) stated that land-rich farmers could buy-out lands from land-poor farmers using their surplus production. However, Griffin, et. al (2002) reported that the inequalities of land ownership were not changed at all in rural Bangladesh during 1991 and 1995.

There are many newspaper articles suggesting redistributive land reform to reduce the inequality of land ownership. However, there was no field-level study found to explore the sequential creating this inequality and the effectiveness of earlier reforms. This research attempted to analyze the changes of both land ownership and its market in sequence to evaluate the necessity of any re-distributive Land Reform under a situation of increasing land scarcity in Bangladesh. The specific objectives of this research were to explore the process of creating inequality in land ownership and corresponding development in land market, and to identify the factors influencing land transactions among unequal landowner groups of farmers and non-farm households (Hossain, 2010).