Land quality and access to technologies
Abdul Bayes | Published:
April 08, 2016 17:14:00
October 18, 2017 11:16:56
Not all land is of the same quality. Land at higher elevation may suffer from infertility and be exposed to droughts and hence may not be as productive as a parcel of land at lower elevation which may benefit from the deposit of silts from flooding. But the low-level land may be less intensively used as it might be kept fallow during the time of flooding. Apparently unproductive looking deserts could be turned into productive assets if water could be made available to grow crops there.
Access to infrastructural facilities such as irrigation could turn barren land brisk by allowing adoption of modern high yielding crops. In fact, it is the introduction of irrigation system that brought about a revolutionary change in the strategy of land-based livelihoods in rural Bangladesh. For example, we observe that about 70 per cent of the households now use ground water for irrigation purposes. The share was only one-thirds in 1988. The land with access to ground water irrigation infrastructure has increased three-fold over time. On the other hand, the trend of using surface water- irrigation has also been rising. Overall, considering all the methods of irrigation, four-fifths of rural households are reported to have access to irrigation covering more than three-fourths of the land.
A question posed earlier in the literature on rural economy was whether the land-poor households would have access to irrigation and benefit from green revolution. The critics argued that the modern technology-led agricultural practices are expensive and cash-driven and, hence, only the large and medium farmers could afford to use the improved technologies. The argument was that the profit-hungry large and medium farmers would raise productivity of their land through irrigation and would take back the rented-out land from the tenants in the hope of making more profits. In consequence, tenant farmers would go broke. On the other hand, small and marginal farmers would be marginalised in the absence of the finance needed for installing a tube well or a power pump for irrigation.
Data obtained from the repeat household surveys fail to validate the positive relation between farm size and access to irrigation. We observe that even the very poor farmers (owning land up to 0.2ha) substantially increased their participations in irrigation facilities over time - from roughly one-thirds of the group in 1988 to over four-fifths in 2008. But the critics could possibly be right if we consider the conditions of the earlier periods or even of few years back. In fact, in the past, small and marginal farmers were far behind their counterparts - large and medium farmers - in terms of irrigation coverage. That difference gradually dwindled over time. In other words, small and marginal farmers were once laggards in adopting this modern technology but; over time, they have covered up and even overtaken the large farmers. Presumably, at the early stage of the introduction of a new technology, the large farmer depicts intense desire for risky adoption by virtue of their asset endowments. The inherent risk element in the new technology always deters the smaller ones. However, over time, these groups tend to 'learn by watching' and slowly become interested to the technology.
This is just what has happened in rural Bangladesh over the last two decades. Once there is a level-playing field implying that access to all technologies become certain for all, these tiny farmers can prove that they can be more efficient and productive than others - an observation made long ago by Nobel Laureates Theodore Schultz (poor but efficient farmer) and Amartya Sen (smaller farms are more productive).
The above-mentioned 'good news' about irrigation has been cast in the light of land ownership groups. But we do not presume any deviation from the conclusions even when the observations are pitted against farm size groups. For example, in terms of cultivated land, four-fifths of poor farmers in rural Bangladesh now use irrigation water. In the 1980s, only 36 per cent of this group used to do so. More importantly, the laggards of the past - the marginal farmers - have become the leaders of the present by leaving behind the earlier champions - the large and medium farmers. This again reminds us of Schultz's famous observation: small farmers are efficient. Access to technology only makes them more efficient.
A household would have different types of land in portfolio - homestead, orchards, ponds etc - that are used for growing seasonal and permanent crops. First, it could be observed that the average size of homestead land has declined during the last decades. This might have happened for two reasons: division of households and the growth of homestead-based agricultural crops. Second, the cultivable land had shrunk at a rate of 1.0 per cent per annum over the entire period. This observation supports the prevailing notion that Bangladesh loses cultivable land by 1.0 per cent per year. The reasons behind the loss are demand from non-agricultural uses and building of infrastructure, growing urbanisation etc. And third, the share of land under pond/water bodies has increased over time substantially, signifying growing pond aquaculture at household level. On the other hand, land for garden and orchard has also increased substantially indicating growing importance of horticultural crops. In fact, the proportions of households owning pond and gardens have increased roughly four-folds over time. It thus appears that in the face of rising person-land ratio and declining cultivable land, rural households are engaged in optimising the use of limited non-agricultural land for earning a living.
In this context, we can possibly put up a few policy tips. Since the use of land in rural Bangladesh has been increasing for producing perishable crops, provisions for facilities with regard to marketing, storage and information should be increased. Besides, the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) or NGOs should come up with training programmes, especially for women, as homestead-based horticulture and aquaculture activities are gaining importance. And finally, credit arrangements should be made available for homestead-based agriculture.
The writer is a Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.