Democratising agriculture to end pauperisation of peasantry

By Tanim Ahmed*, NewAge, Anniversary Special, 8 September 2009

ONE of the sure signs of Bangladesh’s progress has been the increasing share of industries in the GDP and a steady decline of agriculture. From over 80 per cent, the share of agriculture has come down to about a fifth of the gross domestic product and is likely to decrease even further. But that is only part of the picture. In terms of employment agriculture is still the largest employer in the country and the driving force behind the rural economy. It employs about the half the labour force directly while almost two-thirds of the population, if not more, depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

According to projections, and despite increased migration from rural areas and agricultural vocation, the farm sector directly provides for the livelihoods of at least three crore people. A little more detail would clarify things even further. About 85 per cent of the farmers have holdings smaller than 2.5 acres (250 decimals) while it is said that 10 per cent of the people are landless, most whom find work in the farms. Again, and not surprisingly at all, concentration of agricultural land holdings is in the rural areas where almost three-fourths of the population live. Thus, in case of Bangladesh, but not at all unlike many other developing and least developed countries, agriculture could very well be the one sector that could bring benefits to the most deprived, downtrodden and poorest. If reforms and changes in the agricultural system beginning with the inputs to selling the produce generates benefits, then it could very well be presumed that those benefits are being accrued mostly to people who deserve them more than others.

To further make the case for agriculture, one need only look into the development paths of almost any developed or advanced developing country to see that the role that small-scale agriculture has played in those economies. It would also hold true for those economies that agriculture’s contribution decreased gradually as industrialisation took hold there. And even after they have become industrialised, agriculture continues to play a significant part of those economies, which is evident from the importance of trade negotiations in agricultural products under the World Trade Organisation, where developing countries like and India and Brazil as well as European Union and the United States are prepared to walk away risking blame when they don’t see any benefits for their farmers, or at least so they claim. Nonetheless, what becomes quite clear is that agriculture remains a very crucial part of the economy regardless of how matured it is. It remains a very sensitive part both politically and strategically for countries, because this sector provides the primary means towards food security without which everything else would amount to little.

There should be little debate that Bangladesh’s rules, regulations, policies or the administrative system related to agriculture needs substantial improvement, if not a complete overhaul. That there needs to be radical changes in the state’s policies governing the farm sector, should become obvious from the single fact that the 30 million people directly engaged in this sector are not even recognised as labour! The country’s labour laws concern themselves with industrial labour only. Consequently, there is no mechanism through which farm labourers or farmers themselves may expect some support from the government to ensure that their livelihoods are protected, except for some subsidies in fertilisers and sometimes in diesel.

That there should be changes, because the current system is not nearly good enough, should be quite evident. These changes, however, should have one overriding principle if the small and marginal farmers are to derive tangible benefits from agriculture. While some changes require sincere government efforts, other changes would best be articulated by the stakeholders, or farmers themselves. In order for this to happen, the problems faced mostly by the small and marginal farmers must be discussed. But even before that, the graver problems of increasing landlessness and unrelenting spread of corporate-style agriculture must be grappled with.

There is a strong contention that small-scale agriculture will never be able to compete with the economies of a scale that corporate agriculture could achieve. There are also counterarguments and debates regarding this. However, the reality is that Bangladesh’s agriculture is gradually, but surely, hurtling towards corporatisation. Already there are large patches of land in northern Bangladesh concentrated in a few hands, owing to the pervading poverty there. There are also increasing instances of companies or corporations leasing large tracts from the farmers and cultivating what they please, virtually turning small farmers into farm labourers. Sharecroppers find that the owners are turning their lands into fruit orchards because that means less hassle. Small-scale agriculture is gradually being threatened and that trend will all the more increase in future.

While this may be an inevitable fallout of industrialisation and a proliferation of food processing companies, it does seem that quite like other matters, the government is much late in reacting to trends triggered by private enterprise. Any casual observer would realise that agriculture is going through a transformation from the number of companies and brands selling such things as packed spices to fruit candies, from branded, packed and milled flour to locally produced and packed mustard oil. Urban consumers nowadays, and will increasingly in future, ponder over which brand of mustard oil is most fragrant and competition among spice brands are already evident in the television commercials. Increasingly less people will worry over where to get their mustard crushed or wheat milled. These trends only suggest that the entire agriculture sector is gradually becoming streamlined into a corporate system where farmers will have less and less option to sell their produce.

The existing system is such that the marginal or small farmers will invariably fail to secure a decent living from agriculture only. As a result, people who have been farmers for generations are compelled to change their vocations, or in the least have an alternative means of support besides agriculture. Needless to say, those who cannot are gradually reduced from small to marginal and from marginal to landless farmers. Factoring in corporate ventures in agriculture only suggests a faster rate of pauperisation of the peasantry.

But the millions of small farmers are not going to be transformed into agriculture labourers overnight. This process will take years, if not decades, to fully take hold of the sector. In the meantime small and marginal farmers are faced with myriad different obstacles to their livelihoods.

The first requirement for agriculture is land. But as of yet there are no land use policies that govern the future of arable land and its redistribution. There is a perceptible concentration of arable land with increasing investment in agribusiness. One study finds that if all government khas land is distributed among all the landless people in Bangladesh, it would ensure ownership of up to 100 decimals of land per head.

Although land reforms in the neighbouring West Bengal has seen marked improvement in agricultural productivity, this is a topic that would be frowned upon here since the very concept goes against a social fabric rooted on medieval feudalism. Ruling establishments, being an extension of that very feudal class, would instead turn to the second best option. But even on that front there has been little progress. In an open market, especially the predatory type that the governments generally practise in Bangladesh, the authorities are unlikely to initiate land reform or redistribution of government lands among the landless.

Moving on to agricultural inputs, mainly seed, fertiliser and pesticide, there is a constant shortage at the farmers’ end, especially in case of fertilisers. One thing to note here is that the country’s agricultural system has gradually become seriously dependent on chemical inputs and it appears that even in case of seeds, farmers will very quickly shift from traditional or high-yielding varieties to terminator seeds and then on to genetically modified seeds. Whether it was by design or default, whether it is a matter of conscious policy choice or not, the fact is that although the agricultural system is moving away from its traditional and natural roots to one dependent on artificial inputs, the government is losing its ability of effective intervention. Private quarters are gradually taking up the market of seeds and pesticides, often with little quality control or assessment of environmental impacts of pesticides.

In fact, the government machinery is increasingly being used in favour of private companies selling certain brands of products. Although there is substantial debate about unquestioned acceptance of terminator technology the policymakers have not engaged in consultation with the experts, scientists or farmers’ representatives to hear their opinion. On the other hand, the government has not scaled up its activities and initiatives appropriately to ensure that input supply matches with that of the rising demand.

It is widely recognised that chemical pesticides and herbicides destroy soil fertility severely and runoff from these lands ending up in nearby rivers and canals often kill off entire fish populations. Use of chemical pesticides has also severely limited fish production, which is part of the traditional rice farming system growing in the stagnant waters of paddy fields. Yet, there are no bars on sales of chemical pesticides, nor effective stress on use of natural and integrated pest management system.

That the farmers do not have access to sufficient finances is only evident from their desperation at the end of every harvest season when farmers are compelled to sell their produce, often at rock bottom prices only to be able to repay the local moneylenders charging exorbitant interest. In fact, there are no genuine agricultural loan packages from the government and the criteria applied by even the state-owned nationalised banks for agricultural loans automatically exclude the marginal farmers. The only mechanism meant for providing small farmers with some funds is the small loans of Tk 5,000 riddled with irregularity and corruption but even that is hardly an agricultural loan.

Compared to the loan packages, for instance ‘marriage loan’, ‘education loan’, ‘housing loan’ or ‘holiday loan’, meant for the urban consumers, of private banks the so-called agricultural loans do not take into consideration the crop cycle, its profitability, it growth cycle or its vulnerability. On the other hand, the urban consumer’s education loan factors in all those considerations. Besides this small loans programme there are no other policies or regulations that stipulate lending to the small farmers from any other financial institution or bank, private or public.

With increasing instances of extreme weather events such as floods and cyclones and droughts, apparently fallout of climate change, the small farmers’ vulnerability is also increasing. In this regard, there has been much talk about crop insurance but no effective initiative has followed.

It is a general complaint that the local agricultural extension office is not active enough and cannot really be relied upon. There is quite understandably a serious constraint of resources in the extension services but at the same time agricultural services could be strengthened and activated. Apparently, there are over 20 different services at the upazila level from the government including agricultural marketing, information, extension and veterinary services besides a host of others. Only a handful of these services are actually active so as to benefit the farmers.

The farmers might benefit substantially from increased services and information through the agriculture department. Before that concrete and meaningful roles of each different department must be ascertained and duly assigned in consideration of farmers’ demands, needs and consultations with them. The agricultural services set a classic instance of gradual withdrawal of the state from providing services. Its revival will require substantial mobilisation of resources and sincere effort from quarters concerned.

Finally, all efforts would come to nought if the small farmers’ ability to effectively participate in the market spurred by the ‘invisible hand’ is not ensured, as long as the uncontrolled free market prevails. The small and marginal farmers can hardly participate effectively in the market selling their produce to the highest bidder. It is a commonplace scenario that marginal farmers are compelled to sell their produce to a certain party without any negotiations, which turns it into a buyers’ market at the periphery and a sellers’ market at the centre, where the urban consumer is almost hostage to the suppliers and the prices they fix. Farmers’ access to the urban market, or even the local market, and providing them with the opportunity to sell their produce could benefit the farmers as well as the urban consumers.

There might be initiatives from the government to set up a high-powered committee with experts and bureaucrats deciding upon the nature solutions. If precedents are any indications, the committee would not involve small and marginal farmers or their representatives and there would be a set of solutions, presumably vetted by the self-styled ‘development partners’. However, this would become much simpler if there were countrywide farmers’ associations in every district and also at the central level. The few farmers’ organisations there are are only wings of different political parties. But there are no farmers’ trade unions as such, which would effectively be able to articulate farmers’ demands and put forward their suggestions to solve the kind of problems that they face.

Formation of such organisations would have also solved the problem of deciding upon a minimum wage and compensation packages for agricultural labour, which would surely see an increasing need in the future as agribusiness corporations begin to expand their operations and employees. But the potential of such an organisation would be huge and this would give rise to the hitherto latent political significance of the peasantry simply because they are unorganised and scattered. But if farmers can be organised, without partisan inclination or motives that is, then these people could very well become empowered. Hand in hand with that empowerment would come negotiating leverage not only with the governments but also with the corporations, which would most likely lead to a more sustainable evolution of agriculture in a market economy.

*Tanim Ahmed writes for the NewAge, a leading daily newspaper in Bangladesh. Contact: tanimahmed@gmail.com

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