Not all lands are 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 piece of land at lower elevation which may benefit from 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 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 fertile by allowing adoption of modern high-yielding crops.
In fact, it is the introduction of irrigation system that has 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 as against one-thirds in the eighties. The lands with access to ground water irrigation infrastructure have 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 lands. This compares with 42 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively in the eighties.
A question which used to be asked in the literature on rural economy in the past was whether the land-poor households would have access to irrigation and benefit from the 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 improved technologies. The argument was that the profit-hungry large and medium farmers would raise productivity of their lands through irrigation and would take back the rented-out lands 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 finance needed for installing a tube-well or a power pump for irrigation. We intend to put the perceptions of the critics on an empirical plane.
The 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 participation in irrigation facilities over time - from roughly one-thirds to over four-fifths. But the critics could possibly be right if we consider the conditions of earlier periods or even of a few years back. In fact, in early days, 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 introduction of a new technology, the large farmers show intense desire for risky adoption on the strength 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 in 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 becomes 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 Laureate economist Theodore Schultz (poor but efficient farmer) and another Nobel Laureate economist 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 distant past, 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 that small farmers are efficient. Access to given 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. This might have happened for two reasons: division of households and growth of homestead-based agricultural crops. Second, the cultivable land shrinks at a rate of 1.13 per cent per annum. The reasons behind the loss are, for example, 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, lands for garden and orchard have 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 area of cultivable land, rural households are engaged in optimising the use of limited non-agricultural land for earning a living.
The writer is Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University. [email protected]