Vegetable farmers’ rights in Bangladesh during Covid-19 lockdown
There may be an unending debate on which profession serves Bangladesh the most but the unflinching contribution of farmers can never be underestimated. Generally, farmers serve the society through toilsome labour all over the year, cherishing a fair share of profit for their investments in cultivation of crops and vegetables. But, amid the country-wide lockdown in several phases for the last two years, due to the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, the hopes and aspirations of farmers, especially the vegetable farmers have turned into despair.
According to a report published in The Daily Star (August 7), there are eight million vegetable farmers across the country, struggling to get fair price for their products because of disruption in the supply chain during the lockdown. The farmers are bearing the brunt of selling their products at enormously low prices- less than 50 percent of the pre-lockdown prices; however, the traders in urban kitchen markets continue to gain fat profits.
On the other hand, the wholesale traders have to count three-fold transportation costs in bringing vegetables to Dhaka and its outskirts, resulting abnormal retail prices, though they buy vegetables from farmers at dirt-cheap costs. The lower middle and poorer classes of buyers are also the sufferers of unusual price hike in urban kitchen markets. The severe income loss caused by the Covid-19 inflicted lockdown has triggered hesitancy, anger, and frustration among the vegetable farmers to grow products in the upcoming winter season. Many of them are now trapped in debt, amid fear of losing their original capital.
In 2016, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) listed Bangladesh as the third largest vegetables producer, next to China and India. The country produces 60 varieties of vegetables out of some 500 global kinds and also exports 50 types of vegetables to around 118 countries. Another data shows, nearly 50 percent of the total population is employed in the agriculture sector and more than 70 percent people depend on this sector for maintenance of their livelihoods.
In Bangladesh, more than 70 percent land area is devoted to growing crops and some 87 percent of rural households depend on the agriculture sector for a shared part of their earnings. Agriculture sector contributes around 15 percent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Rural women are also engaged in cultivating vegetables in homesteads or adjacent land, but they do not claim rights usually.
The contribution of farmers in the liberation war is well acclaimed. Nevertheless, the vulnerable farmers remain silent during lockdown as there is little representation to voice their demands to the government. The mainstream print and electronic media expose very little of their sufferings. Are the poor not in the priority list of the government during the pandemic oriented lockdown? The government initiatives on farmers, garment workers, and returnee migrants paint a different picture. However, in a modern society, every profession is inevitable to shaping up an integrated unit and people in all strata of life are interdependent in shaping the society as diverse and inclusive, reducing segregation and discrimination.
The Bangladesh Constitution, in its preamble pledges exploitation-free socialist society amid rule of law, basic human rights, freedom, equality and justice for all citizens. Though, there is no direct mention of the word farmer, the phrase toiling masses can cover up the farmers' community in attaining their core human rights in true sense.
In fact, farmers are dedicated for the proliferation of agriculture, cherishing the welfare of the country and its people. A series of lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic have increased the numbers of poverty stricken people at an alarming rate. The vegetable farmers are the worst victims of such lockdowns to sell their products by getting worthy price to selling the same to vendors. If the vegetables farmers remain underpaid and incur losses, this will not only harm them but also the entire rural and urban population of the country, paving the way for nutrients deficiency syndrome. Urban people are like pet cats of rural farmers who feed them for little benefits.
However, the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA), 2019 delineates certain legal provisions to vanguard the rights of farmers, including traditional farming. But the law is akin to the Indian law titled the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, 2001 in respecting and safeguarding the rights of farmers. Also, the National Agricultural Extension Policy, 2020 aims at ensuring the production of safe, nutritious and profitable crops for farmers and entrepreneurs.
Our government is in dilemma in imposing and lifting lockdown during the first, second and third waves of novel coronavirus. The WHO recommended lifting of restrictions when infections rate is fewer than 5 percent but Bangladesh's infections rate is now hovering around 20 to 25 percent.
Amid all these, farmers' rights are overlooked. As human beings, they are entitled to live with dignity as part of commitment of Bangladesh Constitution along with national and international instruments pertaining to human rights. So, the government should adopt a focused plan, along with adequate measures including due compensation for the victim farmers for now and in future before imposing any lengthy lockdown. Apart from the government, the civil society organisations (CSOs) including micro-credit ones can ameliorate their economic wounds through easy credit facility and grants.
The writers are an Associate Professor and Head of the Law Department at Daffodil International University, Bangladesh, and an Independent Human Rights Researcher and Freelance Contributor based in Dhaka.