Agriculture is the major economic activity in Bangladesh. But this economic activity has been on the decline for the past few decades due to depletion of arable lands to non-agricultural output.
The arable land covers an area of 9.762 million hectares, or 75 per cent of the total land area. Out of this, about 97 per cent, or 9.7 million hectares, are regularly cultivated.
About 60 per cent of the rural population is classified as functionally landless and 70 per cent of the landholdings are small. In addition, over 80 per cent of the poor population, estimated at over 50 million, is concentrated in the rural areas. Encroachment is increasing in forest and marginal lands and about 50 per cent of the forestlands are being cultivated following illegal occupation.
About 75 per cent of people in the country are directly involved in agricultural activities. Due to unplanned urbanisation, industrialisation and the implementation of habitation projects, the area of arable land is dwindling. A recent estimate suggests that about 68,760 hectares of arable land are being transferred to the non-agricultural sector per year since 2000.
The quantity of arable land in Bangladesh in 1976 was 9.762 million hectares. Over 47 years, the quantum of such land has declined by a margin of about 1.242 million hectares.
It is believed that the decline in arable land is caused by the increasing population. But practical and realistic analysis point out that unplanned urbanisation and industrialisation are the reasons behind the transfer of arable land to non-agricultural use. If the current pace of decline in arable land continues, the livelihood of 68 per cent of the population will be threatened.
Currently there are more than 17.6 million families involved in agriculture sector in Bangladesh. From this total, 60 per cent are marginal farmers.
These farmers and their families live on the income derived from sale of paddy that they grow. As a result, this segment of the population is facing extreme difficulties as they continue to lose lands to non-agricultural objectives.
Moreover, the gradual transformation of arable land to non-agricultural pursuits is triggering unemployment among the rural labour force of the country. A statistic has revealed that out of 25.1 million people who are capable of being in the rural workforce, 24 million are employed and the remaining 1.10 million are unemployed.
For example, the rate of 15-year-olds and above labour engaged in agriculture sector in 1995-1996 was 63.2 per cent. This decreased to 51.3 per cent in 1999-2000, 51.7 per cent in 2002-2003 and 48.1 per cent in 2005-2006. However, in advanced industrialised countries, the total workforce employed in highly mechanised agriculture sector is much below the Bangladesh level of 48.1 per cent. But Bangladesh is basically an agrarian economy where industrialisation is still at a growing stage. That is why agricultural experts are concerned about the rapid decline of agrarian work opportunities due to decline in agrarian land. On the other hand, industries cannot absorb the surplus rural workers as the industrial sector is still not that big.
The number of brickfields is also increasing due to increasing urbanisation. The brick-fields are set up on arable lands within the periphery of small and big cities and towns all across the country.
Due to rampant pollution in urban areas, fruit-bearing trees are facing diseases especially in greater Dhaka, the southern parts of Mymensingh and Tangail district. Moreover, chemical and oil industries in Bangladesh have come under fire for spilling their waste into large and small rivers. It is believed that such actions have been causing serious problems to the soil in Dhaka and other areas, thus preventing farmers from growing crops.
Bricks are being made by slashing hills in Chattogram. Currently the Barendra region of northern Bangladesh is one of the granaries of the country. Brick-fields being set up around agrarian lands are hampering fertility of these lands.
It is necessary for the government to pay urgent attention to the conservation of agricultural lands by drafting necessary agrarian land use policies and enacting appropriate laws to bar or discourage indiscriminate use of agrarian land for non-agricultural purposes.
Sarwar Md. Saifullah Khaled is a retired Professor of Economics, BCS General Education Cadre.