Professor Rehman Sobhan's passion for a just society is very old. We recall as his former students that in the 1960s when he was a Reader at the Economics Department of the University of Dhaka, he raised his voice and used his pen against the socio-economic disparity impinged on the then East Pakistan. In fact, he was against all sorts of exploitation to human beings. After independence, and as a member of the first Planning Commission, he left no stone unturned to put his ideas of justice in the Plan document.
Since then Rehman Sobhan, the ace social scientist of the country, has continued to serve as a 'civil soldier' for the establishment of a just society.
A few years ago, he completed a book titled "Challenging the Injustice of Poverty: Agendas for Inclusive Development in South Asia". This seminal book is based on research inputs from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. What is more important is that the author has prepared a Work Programme for Promoting Inclusive Development by pinpointing the pockets of interventions and implementations in a journey towards a just society. To this effect, the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) invited stakeholders - representatives from government, donors, civil society, business community, etc. - to a dialogue on how to put the recommendations into parctice.
The premise of Rehman Sobhan's research work, mostly paraphrased below, argues as follows: (a) poverty originates in an unjust social order which creates and reproduces it; (b) traditional agendas of poverty reduction while recognising the structural sources of poverty, addresses them inadequately; (c) contemporary interventions ingrained to promote inclusive growth have tended to emphasise only inclusion in the outcomes of development - with an eye on social safety nets - at the neglect of interventions in the process of the growth of poverty; (d) ipso facto, principal interventions for poverty reduction end up dealing with symptoms at the cost of the sources; (e) those efforts could reduce income poverty and increase human development at varying degrees across South Asia but inequalities would aggravate, injustice would remain pervasive and social disparity would widen. On the other hand, the structural sources of poverty are as follows: (i) unequal access to assets; (ii) inequitable participation in the market; (iii) inequitable access to human development and (iv) unjust governance.
Since the objective was to set out concrete proposals before policy makers - 'movers and shakers' and civil society activists who could acted upon them, it was imperative to test some of these ideas through more focused work , drawing upon ground-level experience before they could be taken to scale as a part of national agenda for inclusive change. Programme of actions revolve round six key areas such as 1) promoting agrarian reforms, 2) enhancing market power of the excluded through sharing in the value addition process, 3) democratising educational opportunities, 4) establishing accountability and transparency for poverty eradication through budgetary policy, 5) financing policies for poverty eradication, and 6) broadening ownership of assets through collective actions.
For agricultural development, under the upcoming scenario of changes in the sector, the recommendations placed by Professor Sobhan are just and quite within the reach of a government apparently committed to inclusive development.
While we don't have sufficient space in this column to deliberate on each of the action areas separately, it would perhaps be pertinent to dwell on a few, especially agrarian reforms. To turn those general areas of interventions into specific work programmes, the author suggests the following for promoting agrarian reform: (a) Reforming land administration; (b) identifying, recovering and redistributing khas land to landless farmers backed by provisions for the viability and sustainability of beneficiaries, and (c) establishing a national task force to address the need and possible agenda for agrarian reform relevant to the concerns of Bangladesh today.
There are some immediate actions that could be undertaken without much complexity. The agrarian reform has five planks - (a) implementing the existing land reforms, (b) promoting tenancy reforms, (c) distributing state-owned land to the landless, (d) collective actions, and Institutional mechanisms. As far as implementing the existing land reform programme is concerned, a land ceiling enacted in 1972 would have to be redefined in relation to the current heirs who hold title to such land. In fact, establishment of a national commission for agrarian reform can help facilitate the process of implementing the existing land reforms. Likewise, promoting tenancy reforms could address the issue of vesting ownership rights on sharecroppers and tenant farmers with a view to minimise the principal-agent problem in the tenurial arrangement. An attempt at accurate estimate of khas land should be made to distribute them to the landless households. Collective action can be a central part of the process which seeks to eradicate poverty through the empowerment of the rural poor, for example, a group of landless households could be provided with credit and incorporated to own and operate tube wells. Finally, a national commission for agrarian reforms (NCAR) should be set up by the government and in case of reluctance by the government, the civil society could take the initiative. However, it is easier said than done as political support is key to the success of any commission, especially working for agricultural development.
Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.
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