One can't bypass the context of agrarian structure while talking about rural transformation. The question of agrarian structure in the 1970s and the 1980s raised storm among academics who often argued that the prevailing agrarian structure would constrain development of productive forces in agriculture. In other words, existing disparity in land ownership would not lead to improved distribution of income due to agrarian progress. This logic led the critics to argue that the advent of MVs (HYV package) would make the rich richer and the poor poorer. To them, radical redistributive land reform was the answer.
The oral history discourse that we carried out across villages had little to support this hypothesis. Regret over lack of land was little. Maybe land is no more the only ladder of rural progress. By and large, landless, marginal and small households constitute roughly four-fifths of all rural households. Thus, it's a syndrome of pauperisation - and not differentiation. That seems to be the trend in agrarian structure of rural Bangladesh.
The use of MVs (modern varieties) even by small and marginal farms was widespread. Early critics of the Green Revolution contended that access to expensive HYV (high-yielding varieties) package would mostly benefit the rich land-owning class because of their easy access to land and financial and social capital. Conversely, the poor farms would be laggards resulting in income inequality and poverty. However, the oral history rejected the frightening forecast of the early critics regarding backwardness and obstacles to modernisation. In the favourable ecological regions, almost all lands have been brought under MVs with most of the landless and small peasants now adopting improved technologies. It's, of course, true that in the beginning of the journey to modern agriculture, the poor lagged behind the rich owing to risks, lack of credit and knowledge gap, etc. But over time they caught up with them. Farmers now wait to see whether new varieties have arrived in the market and assess yield of new crops, time of planting and harvesting, taste, etc., so that they could adopt them after entrepreneurial farmers evaluate their suitability to local contexts and socio-economic situation.
As far as the nexus between land and livelihoods is concerned, there is another point to ponder over. People reckon that non-land sources of income have overtaken that of the land. Households have multiple occupations. The perceptions seem to fit the empirics. In the 1970s and 1980s, land was the main source of income for rural households. At that time, rice farming contributed to about one-thirds of the household income that has dropped to about 10 per cent in recent years. With the blessings from MVs, lesser quantity of land is now required to meet the given amount of food demand. Rich or poor, none seems to cling to land for eking out a living; rather they are moving to non-crop agriculture and non-farm activities for a better living. The large and medium farms have shifted surplus to more remunerative non-farm activities leaving their lands to the hands of their former agricultural labour or poor relatives. The poor now have become de facto owners of land; they till the land and pursue other non-farm activities.
The tenancy market thus has expanded and transformed in rural areas with remarkable changes in terms of tenancy. First, roughly 60 per cent of households rent land and 45 per cent of cultivated land is transacted through the tenancy market. The shares were respectively 44 per cent and 23 per cent in 1988. Second, the proportion of pure tenants shot up from 13 to 30 per cent indicating access to land by this group that was once deprived of the access. Third, in the past, almost all lands were transacted under sharecropping system (50:50) which is considered to be an inefficient and exploitative arrangement. Now, sharecropping accounts for about 60 per cent, yielding space to fixed rent, mortgaging and leasing arrangements.
The ramifications of expanded tenancy market are far-reaching both in terms of poverty reduction and power structure. First, landless and agricultural labour households have access to land. Second, land owners run after tenants to rent out parcels whereas the opposite used to happen decades back. Third, tenant households have been switching from risk-less sharecropping to other risky arrangement, thus revealing growing resilience among poor households.
To the bewilderment of the early critics, the Green Revolution has killed many birds with the same stone. For example, labour demand has gone up as farming is labour-intensive, requiring more labour per unit of land than transplanted varieties (TVs). On the other hand, the Green Revolution is touted as the linchpin of the expanded non-farm activities through generating demand for transport, storage, business and trade. Besides, to meet the increased demand in urban areas for income-elastic commodities, the Green Revolution has helped release lands for cultivation of non-rice crops.
The writer, a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University, is Chair, Eonomics and Socail Science Department,
BRAC University. [email protected]