The nexus between land and livelihoods

| Updated: October 23, 2017 06:24:40

The nexus between land and livelihoods

As pulling one's ears is to pull one's head, so one can't bypass the context of agrarian structure while talking about rural transformation.  The academics raised storm over a teacup on the question of agrarian structure in the 1970s and the 1980s. It was assumed at that time that the prevailing agrarian structure would constrain  development of productive forces in agriculture. In other words, existing disparity in land ownership would serve as a villain to foil improved distribution of income from agrarian progress. In fact, this logic has led critics to argue that the advent of modern varieties (HYV package) would make the rich richer and the poor poorer. To them, radical redistributive land reform was the answer.
The oral history collected from visits to some selected villages across the country, however, lent little support to this hypothesis. Lamenting over lack of lands was little. May be those lands are no more than  only a ladder of rural progress.  We present some empirics in support of the hypothesis. In 1988, for example, 8 in 100 households owned more than 5 acres of land (large farmer) whereas it's only 2 per cent as per the census of households in 62 villages in 2013. Lands under this group also went down during the comparable periods. On the other hand, the proportion of functionally landless households (owning up to 50 decimals) has increased from 47 per cent to 60 per cent, and lands under their command rose three times. By and large, landless, marginal and small households constitute roughly four-fifths of all rural households. Thus, it's a syndrome of pauperisation - and not differentiation - that seems to be the trend in agrarian structure of rural Bangladesh.  
Information obtained from the discourse demonstrated that use of MVs was widespread even by small and marginal farms. The early critics of the Green Revolution opined that the access to expensive HYV package would mostly benefit the rich land-owning class because of their easy access to land, and financial and social capital. Conversely, the poor farms would be laggards resulting in income inequality and poverty. The oral history rejected the frightening forecast of the early critics regarding backwardness and obstacles to modernisation. In the favourable ecological regions, almost all lands have been brought under MVs with most of the landless and small peasants now adopting improved technologies with pomp and grandeur. It's of course true that in the beginning of the journey to modern agriculture, the poor lagged behind the rich owing to risks, lack of credit and knowledge gap etc.   But over time, they could catch up. One of the elderly people compared the performance with a race between the hair and the tortoise of a story: the laggards won and the leaders lost. Farmers now wait to see whether new varieties have arrived in the market, the yield of new crops, the time of planting and harvesting, tastes etc. so that they could adopt them after entrepreneurial farmers have evaluated their suitability to local contexts and socio-economic situation.
As far as the nexus between land and livelihoods is concerned, there is another point to ponder over, and the issue cropped up in oral history discourse. People reckon that non-land sources of income have overtaken those of lands. Households now have multiple occupations. The perceptions seem to fit the empirics. In the 1970s and 1980s, land was the main source of income for rural households. At that time, rice farming contributed to about one-third of the household income that dropped to about 10 per cent in recent years. With the blessings from the MVs, lesser quantity of lands is now required to meet the food demand. Rich or poor, none seems to cling to land for eking out a living. Rather they are moving to non-crop agriculture and non-farm activities for a better living. The large and medium farms have shifted surplus to more remunerative non-farm activities leaving their lands in the hands of their former agricultural labour or poor relatives. The poor now have become de facto owners of land; they till the land as well as pursue other non-farm activities. 
The tenancy market thus has been expanded and transformed in rural areas with remarkable changes in the terms of tenancy. First, roughly 60 per cent of households rent land, and 45 per cent of cultivated land is transacted through the tenancy market. The shares were respectively 44 and 23 per cent in 1988. Second, the proportion of pure tenants has shot up from 13 to 30 per cent indicating access to land by this group that was once deprived of the access. Third, in the past, almost all lands were transacted under sharecropping system (50:50) which is considered to be an inefficient and exploitative arrangement. Whereas sharecropping now accounts for about 60 per cent yielding space to fixed rent, mortgaging and leasing arrangements.
The ramifications of expanded tenancy market are far-reaching both in terms of poverty reduction and power structure. First, landless and agricultural labour households have access to land. Second, land owners run after tenants to rent whereas the opposite used to happen decades back. Third, tenant households have been switching from riskless sharecropping to risky other arrangements thus revealing growing resilience among poor households. 
To the bewilderment of the early critics, the Green Revolution has killed many birds with one stone. For example, labour demand has gone up as it's a labour-intensive technology - requiring more labour per unit of land than TVs. It's also scale-neutral.  On the other hand, the Green Revolution is touted as the linchpin of the expanded non-farm activities through generating demand for transport, storage, business and trade. Besides that, to meet the increased demand in urban areas for income-elastic commodities, the Green Revolution has helped release lands for cultivation of non-rice crops. 
But the most important transformation has been in terms of a tightening labour market, mostly adducible to the expansion of the non-farm activities. One day's farm wage now commands 5-10 kg of rice as compared to 2-3 kg in the 1970s. Obviously, the trend has made management of farms costlier (in terms of monitoring, supervision and hiring of labour), and forcing large and medium farmers to look for farm mechanisation or renting out lands. 
The writer, a former Professor of Jahangirnagar University, is Chair, Department of Economics and Social Science (ESS), BRAC University.
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