No other head of government in post-liberation Bangladesh has ever taken note of fast depleting farmlands as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina does. She loses no time in calling for preserving arable lands, keeping food security in view. It is against this backdrop that she made it clear that her government will not allow anyone to set up industries indiscriminately destroying farmlands and forests. "Indiscriminate setting up of industries destroying our cultivable lands and forests won't be allowed anymore," she said. Industries could be set up on 100 special economic zones (SEZs) being established across the country by the government. The prime minister let her firm decision known while addressing a discussion meeting marking the founding anniversary of the Bangladesh Krishak League.
In fact, Sheikh Hasina is a hardcore realist. She has found a down-to-earth minister in Begum Motia Chowdhury having vast knowledge of the country's soil and farming. She said the country will surely go for industrialisation, but not at the cost of agriculture. If arable lands are destroyed, where the raw materials for industries will come from, what the industries will produce, she questioned. It is a fact that some people purchase lands indiscriminately and set up industries. And this is how farmlands and forests are getting affected seriously. To prevent this, her government has decided to set up these SEZs.
But then, there is not yet follow-up action from the government to enforce the Prime Minister's directive although it is not tough to stop the rot. The country has duly elected union parishads (UPs) at the grassroots level which can effectively monitor destruction of arable farmlands. The government can easily ask the UPs to have a look at who is doing what with agricultural lands twice a week. Filling up of such lands should have permission from the UP Chairmen who will send weekly reports on the issue to the Deputy Commissioners through the Upazila Parishad Chairmen and the Upazila Nirbahi Officers. Any violation of the decision to preserve farmlands must be dealt with sternly.
The need for food security for the entire nation must prevail over any person's whims that destroy agricultural lands. We still remember how Bangladesh had to frantically mobilise food for its food go-downs in 2007-8 to meet exigencies. In fact, the main challenge before food security lies in continuing growth of population. The progress in reducing population growth, from 3.0 per cent per year at independence to about 1.2 per cent now, is laudable. But there are indications that the progress made in fertility reduction has slowed down in recent years. Strong traditional norms and socio-cultural conditions contribute to low acceptance of family planning that will not be easy to overcome. The population is still increasing by 1.8 million every year. Of late Dr Mahabub Hossain, a leading researcher, estimated that rice production has to increase by 0.4 million tons every year to meet the need for staple food for the growing population. The increase in domestic production at that rate would be difficult due to several supply side factors.
Researchers have figured out that the arable land has been shrinking by 0.6 per cent every year due to demand from housing and industries, and infrastructure, as well as loss of land from river erosion. About 100,000 hectares of productive agricultural land is being lost per year through non-agricultural use i.e. roads, housing and other 'development' projects. On the other hand, erosion of river banks affects about 150 upazilas of 50 out of 64 districts of the country. About one million people are affected by this calamity annually. They lose everything -- homestead, land other structures making them virtually beggars. Some of them take shelter in the shanties of towns and others try to make a living out of occasional shoals formed in the river beds. Immediate steps to reduce river erosion through river training and partial taming must be launched as well as all-out research and extension programmes be initiated to augment productivity of 'charlands'.
What is alarming is that the on-going climate has made the monsoon more erratic raising risks in sustaining the growth in food production. The soil fertility has been declining due to overexploitation of soil nutrients, and unbalanced use of fertilizers. The ground water aquifer has been going down due to over-mining for irrigating dry season irrigated rice (Boro rice) that was the predominant source of growth of rice production over the last two decades. Due to all these factors the potential for further increase in production is getting limited.
Farmlands have to be preserved by all means. Its gross misuse in the absence of any punitive measures leads to wanton destruction of the most important natural resource base of agriculture. If not checked now, the country will be left with very little fertile and productive land in the near future. Therefore, immediate promulgation of a well-thought-out land policy is needed to save prime cultivable land from further shrinking.