Land is the most important asset or factor of production in Bangladesh, particularly in rural areas. In fact, land is the only source of agricultural production; other inputs are complimentary to it. Land in rural areas is also a sign of wealth and power; of economics and politics. However, the link between land ownership and power weakened over time when large and medium owners decided to embrace non-agricultural operations and thus leaving their land to the landless agricultural laborers. While literature on land ownership pattern in rural areas and its impact on power and inequality is in abundance, not much is said about the quality of land which this write-up seeks to address today.
Not all land is of the same quality. Land at higher elevation may suffer from infertility and be exposed to droughts and hence may not be as productive as a parcel of land at lower elevation which may benefit from the deposit of silts from flooding. But the low-level land may be less intensively used as it might be kept fallow during the time of flooding. Apparently unproductive looking deserts could be turned into productive assets if water could be made available to grow crops there. Access to infrastructural facilities such as irrigation could turn barren land brisk by allowing adoption of modern high-yielding crops. In fact, it is the introduction of irrigation system that brought about a revolutionary change in the strategy of land-based livelihoods in rural Bangladesh. For example, we observe that about 70 per cent of the households now use ground water for irrigation purposes. The share was only one-third in the 1980s. The land with access to groundwater-irrigation infrastructure has increased three-fold over time. On the other hand, the trend of using surface-water irrigation has also been rising. Overall, considering all the methods of irrigation, four-fifths of rural households are reported to have access to irrigation covering more than three-fourths of the land.
A question posed earlier in the literature on rural economy was whether the land-poor households would have access to irrigation and benefit from green revolution on the ground that the modern technology-led agricultural practices are expensive and cash-driven and, hence, only the large and medium farmers could afford to use the improved technologies. The argument was that profit-hungry large and medium farmers would raise productivity of their land through irrigation and would take back the rented-out land from tenants in the hope of making more profits. In consequence, tenant farmers would go broke. On the other hand, small and marginal farmers would be marginalised in the absence of the finance needed for installing a tube-well or a power pump for irrigation. These perceptions of the critics can be analysed on an empirical plane.
The data obtained from one repeat household survey fail to validate the positive relation between farm size and access to irrigation when even the very poor farmers (owning land up to 0.2ha) substantially increased their participations in irrigation facilities over time. Small and marginal farmers were once laggards in adopting this modern technology but; over time, they have covered up and even overtaken large farmers. Presumably, at the early stage of the introduction of a new technology, large farmers depict intense desire for risky adoption by virtue of their asset endowments. The inherent risk element in the new technology always deters the smaller ones; over time, these groups tend to 'learn by watching' and slowly become interested in the technology. This is just what has happened in rural Bangladesh over the last decades. Once there is a level-playing field implying that access to all technologies become certain for all, small farmers prove that they can be more efficient and productive than others - an observation made long ago by Nobel Laureates Theodore Schultz (poor but efficient farmer) and AmartyaSen (smaller farms are more productive).
Such 'good news' about irrigation has been cast in the light of land ownership groups. But we do not presume any deviation from the conclusions even when the observations are pitted against farm size groups
Again, a household would have different types of land in portfolio - homestead, orchards, ponds etc. - that are used for growing seasonal and permanent crops. We shall now take up issue of changes in the portfolio of different types of land. First, it could be observed that the average size of homestead land has declined over the past decades. This might have happened for two reasons: division of households and the growth of homestead-based agricultural crops. Second, the cultivable land had shrunk at a rate of 1.0 per cent per annum over the entire period. The reasons behind the loss are, for example, demand from non-agricultural uses and building of infrastructure, growing urbanisation etc. And third, the share of land under pond/water bodies has increased over time substantially, signifying growth in pond aquaculture at household level. On the other hand, land for garden and orchard has also increased substantially indicating growing importance of horticultural crops. In fact, the proportions of households owning pond and gardens have increased roughly four-folds overtime. It thus appears that in the face of rising person-land ratio and declining cultivable land, rural households are engaged in optimising the use of limited non-agricultural land for earning a living.
A few policy tips may be well in order. Since the use of land in rural Bangladesh had been increasing for producing perishable crops, provisions for facilities for marketing, storage and information should be increased. Besides, the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) or NGOs should come up with training programmes, especially for women, as homestead-based horticulture and aquaculture activities are gaining importance. And finally, credit arrangements should be made available for homestead-based agriculture.
The exercise on the Perspective Plan prepared by the Planning Commission seemingly suggests that per capita consumption of rice would decline in Bangladesh gradually (in fact it has started to go down) and Bangladesh will have rice surplus by 2040. But things would not be as rosy for non-rice crops unless policies are tuned to promote those income-elastic commodities. Obviously, agricultural policies in coming years should take the observation seriously.
Abdul Bayes is a Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagr University.email@example.com
from: Abdul Bayes