In the realm of land management in rural Bangladesh, one important question often raised is how the farmers use the meagre amount of land that they have, and what factors determine their decisions about which crops to grow and on which land. That is to say, we need to know whether there has been any change in cropping patterns over time.
But before coming to that analysis, it would be pertinent to explain why such analysis assumes importance. First, land is the scarcest of all assets. The existing high man-land ratio demands that limited land resource be used optimally or, the highest profit maximising use of land should be ensured. In a society where population is increasing in tandem with falling amount of land, optimal utilisation of land holds the key in that society for making lives and livelihoods more welfare-oriented. Admittedly, expansion of infrastructural facilities, and change in expenditures in consort with incomes, induce the farmers to eke out the maximum from the meagre amount of land. Second, land is the most important asset that affects the livelihood system of the rural households. Therefore, an idea about farmer's decision and its change related to land utilisation would shed some light on the rural way of lives.
First, in the 1980s, traditional aman paddy occupied more than half of the total cultivated land. This was followed by aus paddy claiming about one-thirds. Therefore, four-fifths of the total cultivated land was captured by traditional varieties (TVs) at that time. This indicates that these crops dominated the decisions of the farmers in the past. On the contrary, less than one-fifths of land was devoted to high-yielding variety (HYV) boro and aman (modern) paddy. The problems with TV paddy are that, they have lower yield and, to feed the growing family, the farmers have to cultivate more land. This is just the opposite to HYVs that provide more output per unit of land. So, faced with limited land and subsistence pressure, a rational farmer would always look for HYVs, and not TVs. Were then our farmers irrational in the past? The answer is possibly no. It now appears that, the wider acceptance of TV paddy - for that matter hesitance towards HYV - in the past was a matter of force and not of choice. And needless to mention that it was the acute shortage of water - considered as the lead input for HYVs - that forced farmers to go for low-yielding TV crops.
But the pendulum swung soon and sharply when cultivated land under HYV boro tripled and that of HYV aman doubled within a short span of time. By and large, HYV boro and aman now claim four-fifths of the cultivated land to capture the dominance earlier held by TV paddy. The most dramatic development, however, could be evidenced in the most recent periods: over 90 per cent of land is operated under modern paddy. More prominently, cultivation of TV aus-season crops was shown the doors to almost extinction although the condition of TV boro remained as it was before. By and large, the time span of three decades could be considered as the "golden" period for modern paddy in this country. The economics of HYVs is very simple and straight forward: more production with less land and, hence, it is the savings of land for the farmers. In other words, it is as if the amount of land under the farmers tends to go up. Researchers reckon that the expansion of modern paddy and its adoption by the rational farmers contributed significantly in ensuring our food security over time.
But we must also point out the clouds cast on the horizons of hopes and happiness. We must mention them since the cumulative clouds have become constant eyesores to the critics. For example, the critics argue that cultivation of various non-rice crops - once occupying a respectable share of the cultivated land - has been swept away by the 'tidal surge' of the modern-variety (MV) paddy. That means, possibly led by the profit-spree, farmers are now growing more of HYV paddy at the cost of other minor crops. In other words, crop diversification has been replaced by mono-cropping system. In this context, special mention may be made of dal (lentil) occupying one-tenths of the cultivated land in the past but now claiming only half of the base period. Likewise, marginally though, jute cultivation has also surrendered to paddy cultivation.
We share the views of the critics on two sides. First, and to reiterate, mono-cropping system adversely affects soil fertility and conversely, multi-cropping help maintain the fertility balance. Second, for a balanced diet in our everyday life, we need both rice and dal. While the growth of paddy output went to reduce the price of rice, at the same time, a reduction in the output of dal went to raise its price over time. That means, the lack of crop diversification has been leading to the lack of consumption diversification, especially for the poor households.
But to simmer down the critics, we can possibly highlight some improvements on this front also. We find that in recent years, farmers have growingly become interested in the production of non-rice crops as reflected by greater emphasis placed in the production of oilseeds, vegetables, spices, etc. It is definitely good news as a ring of hope seems to be lurking with a marginal deviation from the two-decade- old pattern.
A further piece of good news is that farmers have been taking up new crops unseen ever. For example, maize crop occupied roughly 7.0 per cent of land in 2007 crop season. This crop emerged on the heels of increasing market demand for poultry feed. Second, in aus season, farmers have taken up fish culture. Special mention may be made of prawn cultivation that claims some amount of cultivated land. Third, among the old crops, non-rice crops like potato, pulses, and spices and chilly have been demanding more land than before. That means, farmers have been responding to market signals over time.
From policy point of view, however, the most disturbing trend could be the decline in cropping intensity over time: from 168 in the base year to 153 in recent years. But much of the decline could be adduced to a drop in paddy cropping intensity. This means that, farmers are no more using the land for paddy as enthusiastically as they did before, and if that is so, one could naturally cast a serious doubt on the siren song of the "self-sufficiency" paradigm. But we reason that a fall in cropping intensity over time is due to three factors: first, the fall in paddy prices, and hence of profitability, over the years have constrained cultivation to a certain extent; second, the drastic reduction in the cultivation of deep-water aman has lowered cropping intensity; third, the expansion in rural non-farm activities with better returns for households might have lured farmers to other sources and away from farming and finally, there could have been minor shifts in land allocation towards non-rice crops which were yet to impart visible impacts on intensity.
Therefore, to raise cropping intensity, we should emphasise on growing substitute crops of deep-water aman or encourage farmers to grow more of non-paddy crops. Of course, the latter option requires that farmers have due access to seed and technology for these crops to be grown.
The writer, a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University, is Chair, Department of Economics and Social Science (ESS) at BRAC University. [email protected]/