Life in villages continues to transform and modernize in unexpected ways
Earlier this year, I came back to Bangladesh after an absence of more than five years, and stayed for more than a month.
During the stay, I had the opportunity to visit rural and small-town parts of the country in two forays out of Dhaka. A visit to my ancestral home in the northern parts and another to the southwestern parts. These visits were my first into rural Bangladesh after more than a decade. Therefore, they provided very stark experiences of the rapid but gradual change that has been occurring for several decades.
The first thing that caught my eye was how drastically the utilization of resources has increased over the last decade. A decade or so ago, in Northern parts, you would mostly see cultivated fields expanding miles to the distant horizon. Now, people have planted so many trees everywhere that it almost gave me a claustrophobic feel.
Every pond is utilized for fish production and every square metre of the land is cultivated for year-round value addition. Bangladesh is, reputedly, among the leading developing countries with the fastest agricultural productivity growth in the last two decades. The dramatic physical transformation of the village landscape is clearly strong evidence of that growth.
I saw yet another striking change in the transportation scene. A decade ago, manually driven rickshaws and rickshaw-vans were ubiquitous. Now I could mostly see electric and mechanized transports. It seemed to me that people in the village were now looking down upon manual transports as archaic. Also, I rarely saw buffaloes and oxen traditionally used for plowing the fields -- tractors and power-tillers had taken over that role.
What are the reasons for such remarkable growth in rural productivity and economy? Undoubtedly government policies and infrastructure development played important roles, but I believe that one of the biggest drivers of this change is unappreciated but right before our eyes. In the villages, I saw everybody with mobile phones and phone-related service shops everywhere.
Economists in the last decade have begun to appreciate the transformative role mobile phones and the internet have been playing in the developing world. Unlike previous models, where heavy government investment in communications infrastructure was critical in economic development, mobile infrastructures grew almost entirely because of the private sector, and brought far greater connectivity with far fewer costs.
Developing countries went from less than 1-2 landlines per hundred people to 70-80 mobile connections per hundred in just 20 years. The poorest people in villages are now able to talk with anybody in the country, but also send and receive payments and access the internet and government services through mobile phones.
People in villages are using phones to be constantly updated about prices of agricultural inputs and outputs and get the best deals possible in the market. The increased competition and undercutting of middlemen have increased efficiency greatly. Coordinating all kinds of complex tasks, like contracting day labourers for planting or harvesting, have become much easier.
But there is a flip side to agricultural productivity growth that has taken place all over the world. Prices of easily tradable products like grains, consumer oil, milk products have been low for more than a decade and that low price has hit small farmers the hardest.
Like everywhere in the world, small farmers of bulk products like rice in Bangladesh can only be economically sustainable by massive government support. However, unlike India and other developing democracies, farmers in Bangladesh have little political power, as there are no competitive elections. I do not think the government in Bangladesh is as sensitive about rural unrest as it is about urban discontent.
Paradoxically, in spite of the economic and productive growth, I found the villages to be much less populated than they were 10 years ago. Like everywhere in the world, I think Bangladesh also is experiencing rural depopulation, and this will only accelerate in the future. I think the main reason is that people are reluctant to live in actual villages. Like everywhere, people aspire to live in more complex societies with more modern services.
Those who are able, move to upazilla towns where there are schools, banks, hospitals, police stations. More better-offs move to zilla cities, and the most propertied go to Dhaka and Chittagong. Village girls probably also think that working in a mind-numbing factory job for subsistence wage in a big city is preferable to the daily monotony of a village household.
Finally, one of the most inspiring sights I saw in villages was young girls riding huge motorbikes as part of their daily commute to work or study, a sight you rarely see even in America. I think that the prospect of Islamization of Bangladesh society is exaggerated. People of Bangladesh are very religious, and religious identity is very important for them. However, they are also very aware that religious and secular activities belong to different spheres, and they are not letting religion dictate their economic life.
The pragmatic and opportunistic nature of Bangladeshi people has been the saving grace of a country facing immense structural hurdles right from its birth. Nowhere is this more evident than its rapidly changing villages.
Shafiqur Rahman is a political scientist.