Abdul Malek is a landless labourer in Bangladesh who has to leave home every morning to search for work for the day ahead. If he succeeds he will be able to buy about two pounds of rice with his day’s wage, although he himself will have to eat about a pound of this to be strong enough to continue working. So, even on a good day there is not much to share with his family. If nobody wants him to work there will be almost nothing for any of them.
In 1974 the village was flooded, the crops were destroyed and there was no work for the landless labourers. Abdul wandered the fields looking for wild leaves to chew but when the hunger became unbearable he left the village and walked some thirty miles in search of work. There were so many others in the same position, however, that when he did find work the wage had dropped to half a pound of rice per day.
Back in the village his wife and children suffered terribly and his youngest child died. When he came back, having saved nothing, his father reproached him for abandoning his family. But Abdul replied: ‘Father, how could I have stayed in the village? You know the rich landlords do not assist the poor.’
Abdul’s father has no land either, but when he was younger he was at least a sharecropper. He farmed two acres of land and had to pay over half his crop to the landlord. From his share of the crop he had to pay for the pesticides and reserve the seed for next year.
But when he grew old the landlord decided to give one of those acres in sharecropping to Abdul’s older brother and sell the other acre, pretending that he needed the money. Abdul was furious when he found out because he had hoped to get land too: ‘That fat bastard does not need any cash. He sells land because he is afraid that it will be taken from him and distributed among us’. But his father snapped back at him: ‘Keep quiet and let your brother be a sharecropper’. Abdul kept quiet.
The landlord in that village is a powerful man and controls 150 acres of land. The average family holding in the village is only about four acres - and of course many people like Abdul are landless. And the landlord is well-connected with the local officials. The government agricultural officer is said to spend most of his time serving the landlord, although he is supposed to advise everyone in the area.
When the landlord himself held a local administrative post a scheme was approved to sink four deep tubewells on his land, paid for by the Government. To qualify, however, the recipient of each well had to be a co-operative. So the landlord set up four co-operatives under the names of fictitious persons and of people directly dependent on him. But there was only one real member: the landlord himself.
There is, officially at least, a land reform policy in Bangladesh. According to a Presidential order of 1971 no family is allowed to own more than 14 hectares. A similar order had been passed twenty years earlier. But the practical results of both orders have been negligible.
President Zia’s regime in Bangladesh has succeeded in eliminating the worst excesses of the past. There is less chaos in the country than before and the price of rice is lower. But the changes he has made do not touch the fundamental social structure of the country - and there has been no sign that he will effectively execute the land reform orders.
The response of the landlord in Abdul’s village to the land reform orders was predictable. He did not lose control over any of his excess land. He simply transferred formal ownership to his married sons, to his sister and to other members of his family. Abdul remains landless.