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News Analysis: What needs to be done to avert agricultural catastrophe

  • Published at 07:27 pm April 18th, 2020
Photo: Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Tk5,000 crore credit and subsidy is a good first step, but not nearly enough

Come May farmers will reap the Boro rice harvest, the seeds of which they sowed in December last year.

With an expected yield of over 20 million tons of rice, Boro will contribute nearly two-thirds of the grain’s yearly output that Bangladesh produces in three rice seasons – Aus and Aman being the two others.

Our chief cereal crop – rice – a staple for 170 million people in Bangladesh is the mainstay of the country’s agrarian economy.

Now the question to ponder is what policy interventions and actions the government in Bangladesh has so far conceived or contemplated to offset the fallout due to the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic.

Will bankrolling TK 5,000 crore as low-interest farm credit and subsidy to procure costly farm machinery do?

While the above measures can be seen as crucial first steps, they are necessary but not sufficient to address the crisis. 

Given the scale of the potential crisis, policy planners may consider the following steps in addition.

Free movement of farm labour

When farmers across Bangladesh will start harvesting the Boro crop in two weeks’ time, their peers in the Haor region have to do it now. Nearly a fifth of total Boro rice is grown in seven Haor districts where early harvesting usually saves rice from the risk of getting damaged by seasonal storms and flashfloods.

Harvesting in the vast Haor zone still remains largely dependent on manual reapers in the absence of farm machineries like harvesters and reapers. Growers in the Haor zone largely depend on seasonal farm labourers for harvesting their produces and these labourers mostly come from the northern and northwestern districts.

Amidst current nationwide lockdown there has been very little movement of public transports that such farm labourers generally avail to reach the Haor region and harvest rice.

The government now, on a priority basis, needs to facilitate free movement of farm labourers to ensure Haor Boro paddy is fully reaped and doesn’t get damaged by flashfloods or storms.

The ministry concerned has given directives on this but this is not enough. Only a ground-level proper follow-through can ensure it.

Ensuring supply chain of agro-input

During this extended period of shutdown when government and most private offices, saving essential ones, have been kept shut and transport movements are also largely on halt, the official position of allowing agro-input transports to operate and allow pesticide, fertilizer, and farm equipment dealer shops to remain open, has to be pronounced loud and clear.

In many cases a tough stance on the part of the local government administrations and the law enforcers in putting in place the lockdown restrictions has already created an environment where the agro-input supply chain is being greatly hampered.

Traders are feeling intimidated into keeping their input shops closed while transportations of farm inputs are facing severe challenges too.

The situation has forced farm input companies to write to the Agriculture Ministry and different district administrations late last week asking for help. They fear the production of standing Boro rice and summer vegetables ahead of the Muslims holy month of Ramadan would suffer a severe negative impact unless government creates the climate right for traders to reach the crucial farm inputs to growers in right time.

Procure more and ensure fair price

If last year’s experience is anything to go by, the government need to ensure the farmers get a fair price for their crops this season.

Unless they get a good price, well compensating the previous loss and huge investment in Boro, the farmers will be able to ill afford further investments to grow good crops during upcoming Aus and Aman seasons and also during the next winter crop season.

Last year a poor market price forced many Boro growers to even leave their fully ripened paddy unreaped. Media carried news and pictures of farmers burning paddy in the field. Due to low returns for investment on highly irrigated Boro rice, many growers even could not afford employing farm labourers to cut their paddy.

It was only thanks to a good government move of buying a relatively higher volume of rice from the farmers in the subsequent Aman season that the rice growers in Bangladesh managed to recoup some of the previous losses and again invested in this year’s Boro.

Now the government again needs to make sure it procures more rice directly from growers – and that again in paddy form (not much in rice form, price benefits of which largely go to millers and traders). Otherwise, farmers will not get enough cash in hand to reinvest in the upcoming crop seasons of Aus, Aman, winter vegetable, maize, and potato.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has recently rightly indicated that the world may experience a looming food crisis in consequence of a Covid-19-led prolonged worldwide lockdown and she made it clear that policy supports must be ensured to help farmers in Bangladesh grow enough to offset any future food shortage.

And now that government is doling out a substantial volume of rice from public granaries to 10 million rural and urban poor, it would do well to replenish the government food stock with sufficient public procurement in the months of May, June and July.

This will be doubly beneficial – it will give farmers the required cash in hand and at the same time help government rebuild a good food reserve from where it can provide the poor and the marginalized rice either free or at a nominal price (Tk. 10 to be precise).

And given the protracted nature of current virus pandemic, one can’t be so certain how long government may require to continue the support to this particular segment of population, who can’t earn their daily wages in lockdown scenario.