In a land-scarce country like Bangladesh, losing arable land is one of the common worries that frequently gets in the way of achieving many development objectives. There is an element of confusion over the pace at which arable lands are getting lost. Conflicting, at times exaggerated estimates make it difficult to be informed about some of the basics -- actual lands under cultivation, those under industrial use and human habitation and so on. While losing arable land is a reality one has to live with, the important aspect is the availability of credible data in order to facilitate the planners to plan and address a multitude of issues, not all of which are necessarily related to food production. However, authentic information is crucial for the simple reason that food security hinges on the availability of land under cultivation.
Studies conducted in the past revealed that the country was losing around 1.0 per cent of its agricultural land annually. According to an agricultural census conducted in 1983-84, the country's total agricultural land was estimated at 9.2 million hectares. A subsequent study done in 1996 showed a considerable decrease in the farm lands amounting to 8.2 million hectares. This went to show the annual loss at 1.0 per cent. But findings of a study conducted a while ago by the country's lead NGO BRAC revealed a somewhat relieving picture. Between 1983 and 2008, the study says, decrease of cultivable land was to the tune of an annual rate of 0.3 per cent instead of what many considered alarming, counting on 1.0 per cent annual loss.
However, one important issue that needs to be worked on is a database of the size of agricultural lands in order that planning at the macro level is rendered easier. Besides, there is also the need for accurate data about the reclaimed lands that the government has been announcing for some time now but not providing precise information on their size.
There is an apparent note of complacency in recent times due to bumper harvests of paddy, but the matter of food security, anticipated as a result of increased production of the staple food, does not seem to hold strong ground as decrease in farm lands is accompanied by a considerable decrease in the number of rural population engaged in the agro profession.
Now, while credible data are important, it is equally important to know the reasons for the losses. The known reasons are not many, but how these impact on the loss and measures to check are matters that require urgent attention from the concerned quarters. Offsetting the losses, to the extent possible, through adoption of a combination of policies and actions could be the right way to address the situation.
It need not be mentioned that at the root of the loss, the number one factor is the increased demand for land as a result of increasing population. More and more lands are required for raising homesteads, and the requirement is met mostly by agricultural lands. According to the 2001 population census, the total number of homesteads in the country was 24.85 million which rose to 28.66 million as per 2008 agricultural census - at a growth rate of more than 15 per cent. Subsequently, as per 2011 population census, the number of homesteads stood at 32.18 million. The total land area occupied by homesteads between 1996 and 2008 rose from three hundred fifty three thousand acres to six hundred seventy seven thousand acres.
Similar is the case with the requirements of roads that come with increased population and decrease in agricultural lands. Coupled with it is the recurrence of river erosion that takes its toll on farm lands. Estimates of the Centre for Geographic Information Services (CGIS) show that river erosion cost 1655 hectares of agricultural land in 2010 which was even higher in 2009 at 2178 hectares. Beside these, the menace of brick fields coming up mostly on farm lands have been a cause for serious concern for quite sometime.
Looking at the overall scene, it appears that loss of farm lands could have been partly protected had there been any legal bar on the use of agricultural lands for purposes other than cultivation. There were opinions many a time from concerned quarters in the past to bring some legal instrument in force so that agricultural lands could be protected.
While the loss of farm land is an issue of serious magnitude, there is also the need to examine a number of allied matters that need important findings by way of intensive research. For example, the need to examine economic returns of farm lands being used for non-agricultural purposes is one such. There is thus the need for research not just to update information on the available farm lands including those being reportedly reclaimed, but also to disseminate findings on a host of inter-related matters to facilitate macro planning.