How should one explain the development now taking place in vast rural areas of the country?
Should he or she refer to newly built roads or power connections to rural houses or disappearing thatched houses or kids going to school wearing colourful uniforms?
Some people tend to explain development or eradication of poverty pointing out availability of coke bottles, Benson &Hedges cigarettes and other expensive items at groceries in rural areas.
They would say rural people's purchasing power has improved remarkably and so has their living standard.
There is no denying that, on an average, the people are now better off than before and none is dying of starvation. Most villagers do not anymore wear the emaciated look as described in Bengali novels and short stories written by famous writers of yesteryears.
But, despite relative affluence and so-called development, why are people in their thousands still migrating to urban areas almost incessantly?
Some rural families are coming to cities for enjoying better life or for the purpose of better education of their children. But most others being poor are migrating to urban areas seeking employment or some sources of earning. They usually end up in city slums.
Despite its declining share in the country's gross domestic product (GDP) agriculture still employs a big chunk of the workforce. The wages of day labourers, no doubt, have gone up in recent years. Yet agricultural employment has become unattractive to rural people because of its seasonal nature. The labourers have to remain without work during 'off' seasons that turn out to be difficult periods for them.
The government claims to have introduced a large safety net programme for the physically and financially distressed people. But the programme being a targeted one does not cover a large number of poor rural people who remain unemployed seasonally. Moreover, the safety net programme though sounds big has some built-in deficiencies. A large part of resources meant for the programme is pocketed by some unscrupulous political and administrative middlemen. Thus, only part of the resources does reach the target population.
The problems have been highlighted time and again by local and foreign agencies and experts, but those are yet to be removed. The policymakers have also admitted the presence of unwanted 'middlemen', but no effective measures have been taken to eliminate them from the much-publicised safety net programme.
The fact remains that the safety net programme of the government is meant to help partially the vulnerable population. Since the progarmme is not employment-oriented, it can hardly resolve the problem of unemployment. But the rural Bangladesh is in dire need of employment opportunities throughout the year.
The ruling Awami League in its election manifesto, unveiled prior to just-held 11th parliamentary elections, said it would try to create 12.8 million jobs in the country. Most of these jobs needs to be created in rural areas.
The Prime Minister has time again said her government would make available modern civic amenities in every village of the country. The availability of modern living facilities would be most welcome. But, the rural people would want employment opportunities more than anything else.
Once employment is available in rural areas, migration of rural people to urban centres, including Dhaka, would come down to a minimum level. There could be even a reverse flow.
But the creation of a large number of jobs in rural areas might prove a Herculean task for the government for practical reasons.
The successive governments have said volumes about rural development, but they never have attached importance to the task of developing the upazilas, the lowest administrative tier, as 'growth centres'. Had those been developed that way, a large number of jobs could be created there.
General Ershasd, after taking over power in 1982 in a bloodless coup, renamed thanas as upazilas and tried to transform those as an effective administrative tier under the control of an elected body, named as Upazila Parishad. He ensured representation of all major ministries at the upazila level and set up some lower courts there to help expeditious delivery of justice. However, his so-called administrative decentralisation move was guided by one ill-motive; he wanted to create his own political clientele at the grassroots through the upazila parishads.
Yet, had the upazila system been allowed to function without any interruption, some positive outcome, in terms of employment opportunities, would have been possible.
The policymakers should now devise appropriate plans to develop upazilas as growth centres with prime objective of creating jobs in maximum numbers. The government's development works offer temporary job opportunities while the rural people are in need of jobs throughout the year.
The solution to rural unemployment problem lies in developing farm-based activities, including large-scale fish farming, poultry and horticulture. Moreover, skill development programmes for both educated and uneducated rural youths need to be taken up extensively in keeping with the local requirements.
It is not a good idea to transform villages into urban centres. They should be allowed to contain all the rural qualities and flavour. However, villagers would not mind having minimum civic facilities as promised in the ruling Awami League's electoral manifesto. But what they want desperately is a greater number of on-farm and off- farm employment opportunities round the year.
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