Farmers of Bangladesh cultivate their land in three different seasons each having its own characteristics. Once agriculture in this part of the world was rain-dependent, then turned into a mechanised system of lifting water from the underground.
The distribution of cultivable land, in other words farm size, in different seasons appears to show that the aus season - once dominant and spanning from March to August - almost lost its historic importance. This is reflected by a drastic deceleration in the share of land in that season. There was a time when the proportion of land in aus season was almost at par with boro or rabi season (November-May). In subsequent periods, the pendulum swung rapidly, and only about one-fifth of the land was cultivated in the most recent period, say, in 2014 as against more than four-fifths in boro season. But all said, we also observe a resurgence of the aus season between 2000 and 2014 with a rise in acreage under cultivation. Possibly this has been prompted by the food crisis during that period. However, we reckon that farmers have revisited their land use for two important factors: (a) access to timely water in boro season and (b) higher profitability of the crop grown with water. That is why land under irrigation increased with rapid pace in boro season. This particular season also appears to have claimed some land from deep-water aman -- a crop historically harvested in late Autumn. In consequence, the proportion of land used in this season dropped significantly - from four-fifths in the base year to two-thirds in recent periods.
The trend of seasonal utilisation of land clearly signals that farmers had increasingly opted for mechanised irrigated crops - pervasive in boro season - by gradually withdrawing from Nature-dependent crops. Finally, we observe that the amount of cultivated land had been declining roughly by one per cent per annum which is quite in line with the observation from other studies. But the "missing land" also points to some policy directions, specifically reminding us of the need for new technology and more allocations for agricultural research. Thus, the time has come before us to think about the introduction of a second generation of "green revolution.
Another interesting development to record is the changing use of owned land by rural households. The share of owned land for homestead has gone down from roughly 12 per cent to about 8.0 per cent in comparable periods. Driven by economic hardships, rural residents possibly went for the production of homestead-based horticulture and vegetable crops by downsizing the area under homestead. On the other hand, areas under ponds and gardens significantly increased to allow the productions of fish, flowers, and vegetables. Thus, in the face of shrinking cultivated land, rural households have somehow managed to compensate for the loss of output to keep them on an even keel.
To reinforce the observations made earlier, we can now throw our attention on the utilisation of irrigation-based land. Since irrigation is mostly related to modern varieties, the closer link between water and crops is quite clear. By this we intend to imply that by diverting land towards boro season farmers, in fact, moved towards growing more of HYV crops at the expense of the traditional varieties. To drive home the point, we can take the help of few statistics. About three decades back, only 36 per cent of the cultivated land could be brought under irrigation. The rapid growth of irrigation since then continued unabated and covered 85 per cent of the cultivated land in 2014. This shows that Bangladesh was able to achieve praiseworthy progress in terms of increasing irrigated land. And since irrigation is needed mostly for HYV paddy, it can also be argued that Bangladesh performed remarkably well in the production of this crop. Admittedly, the widespread cultivation of HYV paddy over time helped Bangladesh reduce its food deficit and, at the same time, save foreign exchange spent on import of food grains.
But it is only a part of the whole success story. Bangladesh witnessed another spell of success in management and distribution of irrigation equipment. The strategy and the modes of irrigation have undergone a radical change over time. For example, shallow tube-wells (STWs) were used to irrigate about half of the total land in the 1980s, and the share shot up to two-thirds in recent periods. This indicates to the pervasive use of the equipment in rural areas. The use of Low Lift Pump (LLP) also expanded over time. The reason for the rise of STWs and, to some extent, of Low-Lift Pumps (LLPs) could be attributed mainly to a liberalised import regime enunciated by the government to promote irrigated agriculture. As various research documents show, in the early 1980s and 1990s, the government removed or reduced import duties on irrigation equipment and accessories for a greater participation of the private sector in irrigation facilities. Such a policy change was brought forth with a view to encouraging farmers to grow more HYVs so that increased food production can help food security for the nation. Added to that is the multifarious use of shallow machines, especially in transport. It needs to be mentioned here that shallow machines have three important advantages: (a) small investments are required in procuring the equipment; (b) farmers have control over irrigation with ownership, and (c) the equipment can very easily be moved across plots or places. However, the second important mode of irrigation in the past was indigenous methods that are now almost on the verge of extinction. This is partly due to construction of dams for flood control and partly due to a reduction in water flows in canals. But along with shallow machines, we also observe significant increase in the use of LLPs over time. By and large, utilisation pattern of land thus depends on access to irrigation water but access to market is another important determinant. Of late, a growing proportion of land is put to the production of high value agriculture including vegetables keeping in view the market signals.
Beside seasonal variations, emerging climate change is also having impacts on cropping pattern and land utilisation. The future might witness a decline in many traditional crops and growth of non-traditional ones. The most important challenge awaiting Bangladeshi farmers is climate change - a serious matter to be taken up by policymakers.
Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.
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