Despite the doubling of the population since independence, Bangladesh has moved from a food deficit nation to a food surplus nation. M. Abdul Latif Mondal explores the hurdles that the farmers have had to overcome in order to attain this magnificent achievement.



Feeding the nation:
In praise of our farmers

Agriculture has always been the main source of livelihood for the vast majority of the people of Bangladesh. A look into the pre-historic period of the Indian sub-continent suggests that palaeolithic and neolithic man was the original settler in the sub-continent. According to famous historian RC Majumdar, palaeolithic man, the earliest settlers, had no idea of agriculture, but lived on the flesh of animals and such fruits and vegetables as grew in wild jungles, while his successors, neolithic man, dating back to roughly 10,000 years ago, cultivated land, grew fruits and corn, and domesticated animals like the ox and the goat. Even with the advancement of civilization and changes of rulers, agriculture continued to be the mainstay of most of the people in the Indo-Pak-Bangladesh sub-continent.

Agriculture has continued to be the lifeline of the economy of independent Bangladesh. One important factor responsible for excessive dependence on agriculture is that the British made almost no effort to industrialise the area that now encompasses Bangladesh. Available information reveals that when the British left the sub-continent in 1947 and Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) became a province of Pakistan, she inherited a very small share of the industries of the undivided Bengal. Available data reveals that she got not one of the 108 jute mills, 18 iron and steel mills, and 16 paper mills of Bengal. Only 90 of Bengal's 389 cotton mills, 10 of its 166 sugar mills, and 3 of its 19 cement factories fell in the territory of the then East Pakistan. The government of Pakistan also followed a discriminatory policy. It favoured West Pakistan in industrial development and drained resources from the then East Pakistan for the purpose. Thus, till the liberation in1971, Bangladesh continued to be deprived of industrial development.

The important potential that exists for agricultural development in Bangladesh may be summarised as follows:

Availability of cheap agricultural labour: Crop production system is highly labour intensive and there is an abundance of cheap agricultural labour in the country throughout the year. Although with the expansion of education and urbanization there is a declining trend in the employment of labour force in agricultural sector, yet it is still the largest source of employment for skilled and unskilled labour. According to labour force survey (LFS) Bangladesh 2002-03, agriculture employs 51.7 percent of the country's labour force of 15 years and above. In1995-96, out of a 56 million labour force, 34. 5 million (63.2 percent) were engaged in agricultural activities. What is to be noted is that full time housewives who are not included in the aforesaid LFS carry out a lot of agricultural activities in the rural areas.

Abundance of alluvial soil: The Soil Resources Development Institute (SRDI) has identified about 500 soil series in Bangladesh. Although about 500 soil series have been defined, the flood plain soils are the most common and are formed from river deposits. The pride of Bangladesh is its rivers, with one of the largest networks in the world with a total number of about 700 rivers including tributaries. The river system brings every year a huge volume of new silt to replenish the natural fertility of the agricultural land. Flood plain soils can be found throughout Bangladesh, with the exception of the hill tracts. These soils are highly suitable to the growth of a wide variety of crops.

Abundance of water: Abundant water (rainfall and groundwater) is one of the most important resources for agricultural development in the country. The entire country has a tropical climate and receives rain during the summer monsoons. The rainfall during monsoon (June-September) varies between 125 cm in the northwest region and 400 cm in the east. One-third of Bangladesh's physical space of fifty-five thousand square miles is comprised of water in the dry season, while in the rainy season up to 70 percent is submerged.

The use of modern irrigation methods such as low lift pumps, deep tubewells, shallow tubewells and canals introduced in 1960s with a view to growing extra rice during the dry season is rapidly increasing. At present 32 plus percent of the total cultivable land is under irrigation. Potentiality of irrigation has been increasing as a result of high yielding varieties of rice and rabi crops.

Favourable climate and wide range of bio-diversity for crop diversification: Bangladesh is endowed with a favourable climate and a wide range of biodiversity for the cultivation of a wide variety of both tropical and temperate crops. This helps grow in the four agroclimatic zones nearly 100 different kinds of crops including cereal crop (rice, wheat, maize), fibre crop (jute, cotton), pulse crop (lentil, soybean), oilseed crop (rape-mustard, sesame, groundnut, sunflower), sugar crop (sugarcane, date palm, palmyra palm), narcotic crop (tobacco, betel leave vine, betel nut), beverage crop (tea), root and tuber crop (potato, cassava) and vegetable crop (brinjal, cabbage, cauliflower, tomato, carrot) in the country.

It is a fact that Bangladesh has more than doubled its rice production since independence in 1971. However, Bangladesh needs a more diversified cropping pattern, including an increase in the contribution of non-rice crops to output ratio to attain higher agricultural growth rates. Besides enhancing growth, diversification also contributes to nutrition, poverty alleviation, employment generation, and sustainable natural resources management. Availability of resources such as land, water, labour, and sunlight are critical for crop diversification schemes. Fortunately, Bangladesh is endowed with these natural resources to help crop diversification.

Existence of a sound base for agricultural education and research: Bangladesh has got a sound base for agricultural education and research. There are a number of agricultural universities in the country for imparting higher agricultural education. There are a number of research institutes for undertaking research on various crops. These are Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, Bangladesh Jute Research Institute, Bangladesh Sugarcane Research and Training Institute, Bangladesh Tea Research Institute, etc. As stated above, for researches on soils in the country, there is the SRDI..

Agriculture is a key contributor to GDP: Although contribution of agriculture sector to gross domestic product (GDP) is on the decline, yet it is a key contributor to the GDP of the country. At current prices, the contribution of agriculture sector to the GDP is 30 percent.

Higher value addition: Agricultural commodities have comparatively higher value addition than non-agricultural commodities.

In spite of the aforementioned potentials, there has not been satisfactory agricultural development in the country. Some important constraints and problems faced by the country for achieving the desired agricultural development are discussed below:

Dependence on the vagaries of nature: Agriculture in Bangladesh is still dependent upon the vagaries of nature. The farmers can expect a good harvest in the absence of drought and devastating floods. For instance, in Bangladesh the staple crop is rice. It is cultivated as aus, aman, or boro. Aman is the main rice crop and a good harvest is possible if there is no drought during the period of its transplantation and no devastating flooding after the transplantation. In the coastal areas, cyclones and tidal surges cause heavy damage to the standing crops. River erosion is another cause for the loss of standing crops.

Decrease in agricultural land: The country loses about 80 thousand hectares of land annually from agricultural use due to human settlements, rapid growth in urbanization, erosion of rivers, construction of new roads and broadening of the existing ones and for various other developmental activities. Scarcity of agricultural land is a constraint on crop diversification. Practically no extra land is available for cropping.

Uneconomic farm holdings: According to the report on Census of Agriculture 1996, out of the total farm holdings of 19.96 million, the small holdings (0.05 - 2.49 acres) account for 79.87 percent against 70.34 percent in 1983-84. Medium holdings (2.50 - 7. 49 acres) stand for 17.52 percent against 24.72 percent in 1983-84. Large holdings (7.5 acres and above) account for 2.52 percent against 4.94 percent in 1083-84. Because of overwhelming prevalence of small farm holdings, the farmers do not generally use modern farm implements.

Fall in soil nutrients holding back agricultural growth: According to the SRDI source, soil nutrients in most of the 7.85 million hectares of arable land in the country have depleted alarmingly, posing a threat to agricultural growth. Research conducted by the SRDI shows an acute deficiency of nutrient nitrogen in most arable lands and various degrees of deficiency of nutrients like phosphorus, potash, sulphur, boron, and zinc. The SRDI attributed the deficiency to persisting production of the same crop in the same lands, intensification of cropping, cultivation of modern crop varieties without required land and soil tests and unbalanced use of chemical fertilisers.

Crop damage due to pest attack: Studies show that the annual loss of crops due to insect pests alone is 16 percent for rice, 11 percent for wheat, 20 percent for sugarcane, 25 percent for vegetables, 15 percent for jute and 25 percent for pulse. Our farmers use both traditional and modern methods to control pests. The continued use of chemical pesticides is now being challenged. These include growing public concern about the effects of the chemicals on human health, wildlife and environment; the increasing genetic resistance of insects to chemicals; and the disruption of naturally occurring biological control agents.

High costs of agricultural inputs including fertiliser: It is a fact that the policies of the successive governments for liberalisation of different agricultural input delivery systems, such as (a) liberalisation of trade in minor irrigation sector and encouragement to the private sector for supply of minor irrigation equipment; (b) privatisation of trade in fertiliser; and (c) liberalisation of production, processing, distribution and import of seeds to ensure the participation of private sector seed dealers in seed industry development have had salutary effects on the agriculture sector. But the poor farming community is hit hard by the high costs of agricultural inputs including fertiliser and occasional increases in the price of diesel required for operating irrigation pumps. Further, there is often scarcity of fertiliser during the cultivation of boro which is the second main rice crop in the country. All these adversely affect agricultural production.

Inadequate subsidy to agriculture sector: Although the government has in the recent years adopted the policy to increase the subsidy and assistance to agriculture sector, the amount of subsidy and assistance is insufficient for the growth of this vital sector (the government increased subsidy and assistance to agriculture sector from Tk 300 crore in 2003-04 to Tk 600 crore in 2004-05 and Tk 1200 crore in 2005-06). Available information reveals that farmers in Switzerland are now given 69 cents subsidy to produce crops worth one US dollar, in the US the amount is 45 cents, and in European Union countries 35 cents.

Underdeveloped marketing system: In the absence of a properly organised marketing system, particularly a co-operative system for agricultural products, the grassroots producers are not getting due prices of their produce. Traders and exporters are reaping the real benefits.

To conclude, Bangladesh is basically an agrarian economy and development of agricultural products will ensure food self-sufficiency, provide raw materials for the growth of agro-based industries and bring valuable foreign exchange through their exports. So, all efforts are needed to overcome the constraints and problems that stand in the way of development of agriculture sector in the country.

M. Abdul Latif Mondal is a former Secretary to the Government.

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