The Rural Economy and the Agricultural Laborer’s Movement of Bangladesh

by Saiful Huq
Bangladesh Agricultural Labor Union (BALU)



Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world with an annual per capita income of US$160. The agricultural sector provides the principal livelihood of the people in the country and is the main blood vessel of the national economy. According to statistics in 1990-199 1, agriculture accounts for 46% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and 59% of total employment. Agricultural productivity (yield per acre) is extremely low though, and Bangladesh continues to be a food-deficit country. The average annual deficit ranges between 1.5 million and 2.5 million tons. To achieve self-sustained agricultural growth, several policies have been formulated. Keeping these policies in mind, agricultural management policies have been devised, and interventions have been made. However, these have not necessarily yielded the anticipated results.

In Bangladesh, the vast majority of people are landless and work as agricultural laborers (66% of the rural population are landless, agricultural laborers, according to the latest statistics). Although they are the single largest portion of the total population, they are the poorest, most deprived, helpless and neglected. Presently 45% of agricultural laborers have no work at all, and those who do get work have no job security or reliable income; there is no period of employment specified, no fixed wage. Most of the time they are poorly paid. They are not registered and do not have any trade union rights, no chance of bargaining.

Agricultural laborers in Bangladesh also have no basic human rights. A large percentage of them have inadequate or no housing, no educational opportunities and no rationing facility. Administrative and social oppression upon the land laborers is a common phenomenon.

Rural life in Bangladesh still revolves around the agricultural cycle. Traditionally, there has been two major periods of seasonal deficits: one in late September to early November and the other in late March to early May. Particularly in these two lean seasons, there has always been the bane of the rural poor - seasons of half meals and bondage to debt to cope with the deficit. Thus, the challenge for the rural poor is not just to tide over a seasonal deficit but to pull the economy out of its crisis and to initiate a growth process which will render the bane of crisis as a thing of the past.

In addition to these concerns, Bangladesh is now facing various types of socio-economic and political problems. Among these, the most difficult, complicated and probably the most important issue is the agrarian question. One of the fundamental features of the economic backwardness of the agrarian question is very relevant for Bangladesh like any other poor country of Asia. If the agrarian question is addressed properly, the path of national economic development can be found. Land, no doubt, constitutes the most significant basis of sociopolitical power and the common factor of production for the overwhelming majority of the people.

The Land Issue

Today in Bangladesh the land problem remains as the main social problem: it is the main problem affecting the greatest number of people. Ownership of the land, its possession and cultivation, has sociopolitical overtones and economic implications, both simultaneously and mutually reacting around and reinforcing each other. Thus, an approach to locate the problems relating to land and their solution has to be, of necessity, comprehensive, multidimensional and dynamic.

Though Bangladesh is an agrobased country, agricultural productivity is very low. Only one crop is grown in 55% of the net cultivated area; as many as three crops are grown per year in only 8% of the net cultivated area.

There are valid reasons for implementing a genuine land reform program, from economic and moral to political and environmental arguments. The most important rationale for an effective land reform policy is the "productivity issue" since land remains our most important national resource and its optimum utilization constitutes a key national priority. When productivity increases, the income and the purchasing power of the rural poor also increase, and thus, it enlarges the domestic market for industrial goods and strengthens the agricultural base for the growth of the national economy.

In Bangladesh, we still do not have a particular land policy. Land management is also a great problem. Reforms and the upgrading of land management should be accepted as one of the cornerstones of land policy. The present system of recording land ownership and land transfers is very complicated. Presently the government has no particular agrarian policy, although various governments of Bangladesh have issued laws and ordinances during our post-independence period for the last 21 years in regards to land ceilings, fallow lands, etc. All of these laws and ordinances still remain on paper.

Deregulation Measures in Agriculture

There have been some major deregulation measures in agriculture in Bangladesh. The policy framework of the Bangladesh government has been predicated on donor imperatives for privatization (for the avowed goal of increasing allocative efficiency). The policies affecting the agriculture sector include the withdrawal of subsidies and the privatization of fertilizer distribution and the withdrawal of ownership restrictions and the privatization of minor irrigation schemes.

Governmental privatization policies have clearly indicated a mechanism through which a redistribution of income in favor of the rich is being effected. The distribution of fertilizer has been privatized along with price deregulation, implying the creation of a trading class having control over pricing. Such policies have led to price increases and decreases in the use of fertilizer (because of the high elasticity of demand for fertilizer), which translates into lower food grain production.

In terms of irrigation policy, the government’s actions have also been propelled by goals of privatization. The rationale for such policy shifts have also been based on efficiency-productivity arguments, but the resulting impact on the rural poor has been unsatisfactory. Richer farmers with access to cheap institutional credit have opted to purchase irrigation equipment; water is sold to poorer farmers at higher, unregulated prices. In some cases, the impact on productivity is not always negative, but the equity implications have been serious. The input costs for poor farmers have increased drastically. For tenants, the surplus-expropriating landlord has been joined with the new "waterlords."

The whole process of privatization is reminiscent of primitive rural accumulation. This could be acceptable if it created a dynamic class of capitalists reinvesting their surplus for expanded production, but the scope for this remains limited by the easier options of plundering state funds. The failure of the State in recovering the massive defaults of this group only points to a furthering of impoverishment and polarization in rural Bangladesh.

The Green Revolution and Its Implications

Traditionally in Bangladesh there has been a link between agricultural producers and their customers in urban markets, but this role of rural producers and urban consumers is being transformed as many farmers who have planted new varieties of seeds require inputs that are provided now by private companies and merchants in the city.

After the Green Revolution when agricultural technology was introduced to Bangladesh, it seems that the gross production of the main grain - rice - has increased. However, it has created a large negative impact in the rural areas that is very serious for farmers and the natural environment.

Chemical use in agriculture is only oriented towards economic growth and profit without calculating the costs to the environment. It does not consider ecological and social factors. From the ecological perspective, it is totally anti-natural and destructive. Consequently, this agricultural technology creates many other problems, such as degradation of the soil; increasing pest problems; poorer food quality; pollution of the soil, water and air; health hazards; and the disappearance of local varieties.

An additional problem is the reduction of ground water. If the intensive use of ground water continues for a long time, this will create a serious problem for our agricultural production and environment in the future.

In a recent study entitled "Trends in Agricultural Production in Bangladesh after the Introduction of Modern Rice Technology," Gunter Hemerich has found that the average yield of high yield varieties (HYVs) are declining. There has been an increase in total food grain production because traditional varieties have been continuously substituted by HYVs with comparative higher yields. For sustaining the growth of food grain production, the danger arises that, once it is no longer possible to substitute HYVs for local varieties, a decrease in overall food grain production will result.

As the agricultural sector in Bangladesh has already experienced, these problems, and very recently the path and methods of alternative agriculture, are being talked about. This alternative thinking is often called "regenerative," "sustainable," "ecological," "organic" or "natural agriculture," which are more or less based on the following principles:

  • Ensure as much or more productivity as chemical agriculture;

  • Do not disturb the natural environment;

  • Ensure sustainability;

  • Put less dependence on external inputs.

Problems and Crises of Agricultural Laborers

To be out of work is the main problem of agricultural laborers. Most of the time they have no work. For this reason, they are constantly in search of other forms of work and pass endless days in hunger and despair. Presently, no government has been able to do anything effective to solve this problem, and it seems they no longer care about it.

For a very long time, agricultural laborers have been demanding fair wages in relation to the existing market price. After the Bangladesh Agricultural Labor Union’s (BALU) prolonged movement, the previous Bangladesh government fixed the minimum wage for agricultural laborers at 3.27 kilograms of rice or money equaling the cost of the rice, hut still this ordinance has not been implemented and enforced in most of the rural areas.

Demands for an agricultural labor law, the registration of land laborers and the acceptance of trade unions has not yet been implemented by the national government. BALU has

logically sought those rights and privileges that conform to the decisions of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention. We have to consider, however, that the movement of the land laborers of Bangladesh is not like that of trade unions because of the social site of our land laborers, their particular form of unemployment, less bargaining power, etc.

As a result of the agricultural laborer’s movement, the government has given recognition and acceptance to some issues concerning the laborers and landless people’s legal rights, but presently the government has not taken any necessary action to transform this acceptance into reality nor is there any hope of such a reality to be realized in the near future.

Above all, the issue of alleviating poverty is the most crucial question for the vast rural poor of Bangladesh. During the last 21 years, several governments have taken some initiative in this regard, but the lives of the rural population have not changed at all. The number of poor people is still increasing.

In addition, the communal and anti-liberation, Islamic fundamentalist forces have been expanding their reactionary and dishonest political network among peasants and land laborers for the last few years by using the natural religious feelings of the rural poor. They are also using the mosques. They are creating communal provocations among the rural masses.

To address these concerns, BALU has been struggling for the last 10 years for a genuine agrarian policy that includes comprehensive land reform, alternative agriculture, the alleviation of poverty and, above all, the restructuring of our rural economy and rural life. At the same time, we are struggling for the immediate basic demands of the agricultural laborers. To ensure their needs, we have been demanding a separate allocation in the national budget, but this demand has yet to receive the recognition of the government.

To formulate the above-mentioned policies, there should be proper participation and representation of the peasant’s and agricultural laborer’s organizations, from the national Parliament to every level of government.

Through the course of their movement, agricultural laborers have become a distinct and independent social class. From the beginning, we have made an effort to build a nationwide agricultural labor movement based on their burning economic, social and political rights.

Although this movement primarily began as a campaign, sometimes it has taken a militant form. In many parts of the country, these struggles against the government’s autocratic policies, the local administration and local elites have become very sharp. Class struggle in rural Bangladesh is also taking a definite shape and polarization. Our agricultural laborers also played a very important role during the nine-year autocratic regime of Gen. Ershad from 1982 to 1990. In this whole movement of the rural poor, BALU has been playing the leading role.

Concluding Remarks

In all of the Asian countries, landlessness is increasing at an unchecked rate as a result of a number of factors. Most of the Asian countries are still facing the crucial problem of starvation. The state apparatus remains vigilant to serve the interests of finance capital and local elites. The unequal relationship between the developed countries and the so-called developing countries has now taken a new shape and dimension. The developed countries still control financial, technological, trading and other resources and their monopolistic exercise of prerogatives for profit making at the expense of the poor countries, particularly the vast majority of the rural population of the Third World. There are also serious burdens on the rural population in the name of structural adjustment programs of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as various other terms imposed by transnational banks (TNBs) and government aid agencies. These are inimical to the rural poor of the Asia-Pacific region as well.

In most of Asia, these are the common concerns. Thus, there are strong grounds for the unity of will and action of peasants, agricultural labor organizations and other mass organizations of the rural poor. Asian peasants and agricultural laborer organizations can facilitate:

  • The sharing of experiences, ideas and aspirations;

  • The coordination of campaigns against common oppressors at the national, regional and global levels; and

  • Common initiatives for genuine agrarian reform, for a comprehensive path of sustainable development in agriculture and for a poverty-alleviation policy on the basis of people’s creative initiatives.

(Ed. note: This article was presented at the Asian Consultation on the Rural Economy, November 1992, Manila, Philippines.)