Bangladesh was recently termed as the "South Asian Miracle" in a top Indian daily. Clocking a GDP growth rate of 8.15 per cent in FY 2019, it was ahead of not only its giant neighbour, India, but also Pakistan. However, the unprecedented pandemic situation has led to a disruption in this ascent of Bangladesh, generating a havoc in the economy. All sectors of our economy have been badly affected and the GDP growth rate has fallen sharply. For tens of thousands, their worst nightmares have come true - that of being rendered jobless. The harshest effect has been on those in the informal economy, who live a hand-to-mouth existence and many have resorted to begging as a last resort for a livelihood.
One sector that has demonstrated relative resilience to the disruptions accompanying the pandemic is the agriculture sector. This sector has steadfastly stood by our side during our worst times, ensuring primary food production. While other sectors halted their activities, agricultural production has continued, even in the face of huge losses, since its nature is such that it cannot simply stop producing at any time. In fact, the Planning Minister was recently quoted as calling this sector, the country's "new hero". However, the sad part is that despite ensuring production, the farmers have not been able to reap the benefits. Many have had to either sell their harvest at throwaway prices or have been forced to dump their produce, particularly perishable ones, in the absence of credible marketing opportunities. Thus, even though our farmers have delivered, they have not been delivered back. Their woes have been further compounded by the recent spate of rains and consequent floods.
The priority accorded to agriculture in the latest budget and the Tk 50.0 billion stimulus package are the most recent manifestations of the government's recognition of the critical importance of the farm sector. It has pledged to provide much-needed credit to small and medium farmers at low interest, in addition to other concessions such as distributing inputs among poor farmers and increased public procurement in the affected season. Initiatives towards introducing some agricultural mechanisation have also been taken. While these are commendable efforts by the government, there are some inherent weaknesses which need to be addressed for lasting benefits to accrue from the measures to promote this sector.
First, farmers will be sceptical of taking loans to diversify and/or intensify production, unless they are confident of being able to market their produce at viable prices. The dearth of marketing facilities has compelled our farmers to dispose their marketable surplus at rock-bottom prices, if not just dumping them!
Second, farmers will not be willing to experiment with high-value, nutritious crops, many of which are highly perishable, unless they have proper access to reliable storage and transport facilities including an adequate number of cold-holding ones. With Bangladesh currently producing surplus rice, increasing diversification into other non-staple crops while maintaining staple supplies has become important. The pandemic has driven home the fact that we should aim to satisfy basic food and nutritional needs domestically.
Third, farmers look for a guarantee for the availability of high-quality inputs including seed, fertiliser and pesticides at affordable prices and, unless they are assured of these, the risk-averse farmers will not take chances. The World Bank's Enabling the Business of Agriculture 2019 report, which covers 101 countries, has put forth some numbers which we need to seriously reckon with. The report assesses how the regulatory environment affects agriculture and has computed Bangladesh's score on account of supplying seed, fertiliser quality, securing water and quality of veterinary medicinal products at 18.52 (out of 100), 3 (out of 6), 2 (out of 10) and 2 (out of 6) respectively. With an overall score of 44.47 on a scale of 100, Bangladesh is ahead of only Afghanistan, in the region. Notwithstanding the difference of opinion regarding the report, the numbers do provide a rough idea about the agricultural inputs market in the country.
Fourth, farmers must have knowledge about new varieties of crops that are available and their growing techniques. It is the dependable access to extension services that instills a level of confidence among in the farmers.
Finally, nation-wide campaigns are needed to generate awareness amongst the farmers about the intentions of the government to help them. The procedure to avail the assistance must be easy and very simple, keeping in mind their lack of collateral and education. An overwhelming majority of farmers in Bangladesh have not had access to formal education and complicated banking procedures can be daunting for them and can even become a deterrent. The efforts of the government will, then, become self-defeating.
While the farmers have not received a fair price for their produce, the consumers at the other end of the food spectrum have been bombarded by rising food prices. This, despite the fact that there is no food shortage in the market. From the perspective of food security, these are two contradictory phenomena. Of course one can attribute this to the disruptions in the supply chain brought about by the virus but such contradiction had been manifest in pre-pandemic times also. Producers and consumers are largely different sets of people and food security implies that the available food is accessible to both groups. The poor masses, who spend most of their income on food have had to substantially cut back on their food consumption in the face of rising prices. Needless to mention that such cut backs can have long term consequences, particularly in terms of compromised physical and cognitive development for children and reduced energy levels for adults and even higher morbidity.
The sphere of access to information for farmers generally revolves around agriculture extension workers. A 2018-19 nationally representative survey conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute revealed less than 10 per cent of the farm households were visited by an extension worker in the preceding 12 months. Infrequent interaction of frontline extension workers with farmers perpetuates the latter's limited existing knowledge which results in a limited application of technology. For instance, the recent destruction of Aman rice resulting from heavy rains and floods may have been checked, had farmers sown submergence-tolerant Aman varieties such as Sub1 rice varieties, BRRI Dhan 51, BRRI Dhan 52, BRRI Dhan 79, BINA Dhan 11 or BINA Dhan 12. There are many stress-tolerant varieties that our research organisations have developed. Climate change and food security are inextricably linked and agriculture extension has a critical role to play in familiarising farmers with sustainable agriculture and adaptation techniques to confront challenges to productivity.
Bangladesh has consistently been improving its ranking based on the Global Hunger Index (GHI), going up 13 notches in 2020 from 2019. But with a score of 20.4 out of 100, we are still in the "serious" hunger category. Given that hunger in the GHI considers both deficiencies in calories as well as micronutrients, an obvious implication of our score is that increased food production is not translating into food security. We are in the midst of an anomalous situation. On one hand, we have bumper harvests while at the same time we have a high hunger level. This year we have had a good harvest of many essentials including rice, potato, onions and vegetables, yet we have seen food prices soaring. Despite adequate production, the poor are getting deprived of food - both in terms of calories as well as micronutrients.
Tackling this anomaly will mean policy decisions that take a sector-wide approach alongside comprehensive investments to support the policy decisions. The past decade has seen a stagnation in agricultural growth rates, which does not auger well for an agrarian economy like ours. Growth in this sector can be a cushion for the economy. To cite an example, recent statistics of state GDPs released by India Ratings and Research show that the GDP of Indian states having a higher share in agriculture have experienced significantly lesser contraction compared to other Indian states during the pandemic. In Bangladesh, agricultural growth, that is both producer- and consumer-friendly and benefits all sections of the society has become imperative now. This will play a key role in sustaining the "South Asian miracle" image. The Corona virus has reinforced this reality.
Firdousi Naher is a professor of economics, University of Dhaka.