Cooperative-friendly policy can greatly aid rural development
The implications of the Covid-19 crisis have given us a second chance to rethink and refine our agro-based rural economy. When lives and livelihoods were jeopardized owing to the Covid-19 outbreak that affected societies and economies at their core, agriculture was the only means to live. Despite this, agriculture is not at the centre of growth-oriented development concepts.
The garment industry and remittance income have made significant contributions to the country’s economy over the past few decades. Currently, both the sectors are in severe crisis due to the global economic downturn. As a result of the persistent crisis, a large number of people have lost their jobs and livelihoods during the lockdown period.
Big portions of the urban poor population are going back to their village homes for survival. In this context, we should bring back the concept of the agricultural cooperative and land reform into discussion for the development of a robust rural economy and food system. The cooperative movement in Bangladesh has a rich and long history, though it has faced various ups and downs for over 100 years.
Cooperative is a globally recognized development strategy that has achieved great success throughout the world. It is a tested way of social inclusion, poverty alleviation, economic development, and caring for the environment. It is one of the most successful means of collective farming of lower-income groups of the society and marketing their products without any intervention by middlemen. Cooperatives have a crucial role in reducing poverty through savings, capital formation, investment, profit distribution, and creating employment to achieve a common goal -- development.
The history of the cooperative movement in Bangladesh is not a new concept. Lord Curzon, a British General in the then Indian sub-continent, first enacted the Cooperative Societies Act in 1904. The cooperative movement began its journey in the Khulna district, led by Sir PC Roy after the law was enacted. He introduced the cooperative banking system and set a paradigm for how rural people have been benefited economically from a cooperative bank.
Later, during the reconstruction of war-torn independent Bangladesh, the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman dreamed of socio-economic development where farmers, weavers, fishermen, and craftsmen of the country living in the rural settings would be prioritized. He aspired to work out a sustainable economic structure using cooperative strategies in agriculture, land management, industrial enterprise, and disbursement of agricultural credit.
With the effort of Bangabandhu, the constitution of Bangladesh recognized cooperative ownership as the second owner of state resources. Both landowners and farmers would be benefited through the process of cooperatives without any intervention of third parties.
Rural economic activities are changing rapidly as a consequence of emerging non-farm activities. Fragmentation of land, increasing landlessness, market syndication, and corruption are salient push factors for rural people to be engaged in the rural non-farm sector. Besides, agricultural productivity cannot increase due to small farms with scarce land.
On the other hand, farmers are struggling to meet production costs as millers and traders continue to hold the market, which is causing rice prices to decline. Despite having implementation plans and policies, farmers are being deprived of fair prices as middlemen take away a major chunk of the profit. They are often even compelled to sell paddy or rice at a loss because of the market syndicates by wholesalers/retailers and middlemen.
This has prompted farmers to prefer engaging in some other means of earning, beyond agriculture, depreciating agriculture. Many have migrated to cities in search of work and have been engaged in various informal activities. Therefore, there is an opportunity for cooperatives to play a big role in the agricultural sector, including in the marketing mechanism. Cooperatives can also play a role in the development of smallholder farmers.
In the near future, cooperatives will play a more important role in increasing agricultural production, reducing farmers’ poverty and raising their incomes, helping smallholder farmers achieve better access to inputs, equipment, and markets, ensuring their profit, and improving the quality of life of backward and disadvantaged communities, including women.
In order to achieve this desired success of the cooperative movement, people-oriented and cooperative-friendly policy is required to promote multi-faceted agricultural cooperatives in rural development.
Shanjida Khan Ripa is Program Coordinator, Association for Land Reform and Development (ALRD). She can be reached at [email protected]