The agricultural sector is developing, but at what cost?
Now that the country is in the process of celebrating “Mujib Borsho,” I am fortunate to be able to look back so many years. It is a privilege to have been able to follow Bangladesh since its birth in 1971.
I had actually heard how the Pakistani authorities had tried to starve Bengalis to death after the cyclone of November 1970, and in 1971, in the refugee camps in India, I assisted the struggle for the refugees to survive in appalling conditions where malnutrition and death were widespread.
I saw in early 1972 to what extent the infrastructure and the economy of the country had been shattered. Later on, in 1974, during the famine conditions of Rowmari, Kurigram, I heard how, on one occasion, 6,000 local people waited all day for the 400 chapattis being made every day at a particular gruel kitchen.
There have been so many changes -- many positive -- since those very difficult days in the early 1970s. Ten years ago, my work often took me to Rowmari, and though still a relatively poor area, I know that all communities ensure that nobody ever starves to death.
Especially during the lean months of September to November, many people may not eat three times a day, but relatives and neighbours ensure that all eat at least once.
Bangladesh may now have more than double the 1971 population of 70-75 million, but it is now in a position of being self-sufficient in staple food to feed about 170 million people.
The big challenge that still remains is that many do not have the purchasing power to obtain that food.
I am often asked what has changed the most. Obviously food production, but also the huge contribution that the RMG industry has been making to the country’s economy.
Communications too -- especially roads and telecommunications -- have dramatically changed how the country works. Mobile phones have revolutionized how people lead their lives, even in remote areas.
While road communications to and from Dhaka have transformed the way business is run, it is unfortunate that the mass transit facilities for Dhaka have, until recently, been completely neglected by successive governments and the great city seems to be grinding to a halt.
This, in turn, is likely to have a great negative effect on businesses and livelihoods all over the country. It is expected that the mass transit schemes currently being built will dramatically transform the situation in the near future.
However, probably one of the biggest changes I have seen is the position, presence and visibility of women. What struck me when I came to Dhaka in January 1972 was the absence of women in the streets and in most offices I then visited. Though there may still be a long way to go, particularly in the rural areas, this positive change is a significant one.
Change, however, often comes at a great cost. The largely mono-culture agriculture, with hybrid seeds and agro-chemicals, has and is slowly taking a toll on the land in some parts of the country.
Soil fertility is being adversely affected and, as the older generation points out, the diet of most people is less “balanced” than 40 or 50 years ago. Many local varieties of indigenous rice have been lost, varieties that had over hundreds of years adapted to local soil types and climate.
Some years ago, I went to an area in Tangail that I first visited nearly 25 years before, when I had visited the villages and studied the agriculture and peoples’ livelihoods. Talking to the local people, especially farmers, 25 years later, was both interesting and depressing.
They said that as there were no more “birds of prey,” such as kites, hovering up in the sky, it was clear that the “food chain” had broken and that we were heading for some sort of catastrophe.
In the old days, they said, the fishes and frogs in the paddy fields would eat the insects and the kites would eat them, mice and rats. There are no fishes in the paddy fields now and there are far, far fewer frogs.
This is all to do, they said, with poisoning the land with fertilizer and insecticide. These farmers may be illiterate, but they are highly knowledgeable experts whose voices fall on deaf ears.
The same illiterate farmers were telling us about “global warming,” now called “climate change.” 25 years ago, they were saying that the level of the Jamuna River was beginning to rise a few days earlier each year as a result of the earlier melt of the Himalayan snows.
Getting better over time
Compared to the early 1970s, Bangladesh is much better organized to react to natural disasters. I have been involved in relief and rehabilitation activities related to the floods of 1987, 1988, 1998, and 2007, as well as the cyclones of 1970 and 1991.
Therefore, I have seen how reactions to disasters by government and NGOs have improved considerably. There is still much, much more to do, however, as the effects of “climate change” are affecting the seasons, the patterns of rainfall, and therefore food production.
What about other changes?
There have been significant and visible improvements in health and education centres run by the government and some of the many NGOs that have sprung up since independence.
However, not nearly enough has been accomplished by successive governments and everything has progressed far too slowly. Communities in remote areas such as the island chars, where I used to work, are ill-served and are lacking in most of the basic services.
Even the big NGOs do not find it cost effective to work in these remote areas and government extension services do not have budgets to move across the difficult terrain.
In the 1980s, those of us involved in rural development were very much encouraged with the recommendations of the Land Reform Commission:
That all khas land (government land to which no one has title) should be distributed amongst the landless as quickly as possible,
That sharecroppers should have legal protection and a just share of the crop grown on the land they till
That the government should fix a daily minimum wage for agricultural labourers
Another proposal to fix a ceiling of ten acres per family, would have involved land redistribution, but it failed to pass a later committee stage.
In 1984, two laws were enacted. One set the minimum agricultural wage rate at 3.5 kilos of rice or cash equivalent and the other was that all government land should be released to the landless.
However, after the passing of more than 25 years, it is clear that successive governments do not have the courage or political will to pass further laws to enable that these proposed benefits can reach the very poorest, particularly the extreme poor.
Khas lands mostly remain unregistered and are controlled by mastaans and lathiyals supported mostly by strong local political backing.
If governments are really serious about assisting the extreme poor to move above the poverty line, they have to become serious and distribute khas land to the landless on an urgent basis.
The people of Bangladesh have the strength to succeed, but they need the support of a strong and courageous government.
A strong and courageous government is also required to reduce the amount of leakage or corruption which affects all development processes.
I remember learning that even during the Rowmari famine of 1974-75, the chairman of a local co-operative association was systematically smuggling priceless food supplies over the border to India.
Sadly, now, a certain amount of leakage is the norm, not the exception. I am told that a PWD Contractor, for instance, normally pays out, for bribes, at least 30% of each contract’s value. Therefore, most contractors inflate their tender quotations by at least 30%.
To overcome this, we need a “sea-change” in the way work is done. If nothing changes, the culture of corruption will continue.
In recent months, the government ministers led by the prime minister have been clear that corruption will not be tolerated. It is most important to punish those who are corrupt -- no matter who they are.
In this “Mujib Borsho” year, it is important to be reminded what Bangabandhu said in his homecoming speech of January 10, 1972. He said: “I want to say, not a single employee should take bribes. Remember, it was not an opportune moment then (1971), but now, I will not forgive those who take bribes.”
Another major form of corruption is carried out by rich people avoiding the payment of income tax. Those who avoid paying income tax, including foreigners, are breaking the law and should be strongly and urgently prosecuted.
Having a brother and a son, both with severe learning disabilities, I have always been very close to people with disabilities and disability issues. Since 1971, but more so in the last few years, the government and donors are giving this sector much more attention -- never enough, of course -- and many dedicated NGOs are breaking new ground.
This is encouraging and long may it continue. People with disabilities are showing that they can be assets for the country if they are provided with a few opportunities, but there is still so much more to do!
What about my dreams for the future of Bangladesh? Having lived through the tumultuous movement to bring back democracy in 1990, like many others, I am bitterly disappointed that the Jatiyo Sangsad has never been able to function properly.
An opposition giving robust constructive criticism is a “must” for a fulsome democracy. Successive oppositions of both major political parties have boycotted parliament on account of issues that should have been easily settled.
By not contributing to the work of parliament, the MPs can be accused of cheating the people who elected them.
This state of affairs saddens many citizens very much and I do not know who has the key to unlock this very serious problem, but this problem must be overcome for the sake of the country.
In recent years, the economy has been growing at a very good pace, but only if confrontational politics is overcome, Golden Bangladesh will have a truly golden future.
These are a few thoughts as I look back over the years I have known Bangladesh, as well as daring to dream of a more peaceful and prosperous future.
In conclusion, I know how fortunate I have been to live amongst such warm, committed, and passionate people who certainly have the will and strength to succeed, and I am sure that they will.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971, and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.