It is heartening to see that there has been a positive shift in the government’s mindset in recognising the need for establishing a synergy between agriculture and rural development in the proposed budget. Components under rural development infrastructure, water resources and different aspects of livelihood have been brought under a common roof, which promises to produce better results. This aspect of policy shift, if supplemented by careful planning, implementation and other interventions and above all good governance, could have a positive impact on overall development of the country.
The cardinal aim of this policy shift appears to attain food security. It is unclear, though, whether this is part of a bigger plan on sustainable security in the context of a long-term perspective. The finance minister’s budget speech mentions development of small and medium enterprise (SME) as a vehicle to facilitate growth in the agriculture sector as a whole. It would be reassuring if SME development includes action plans on improvement of farmers’ direct access to the market. We would have been happier if this need was specifically mentioned as the missing link. The matter has always been side tracked, which, in turn had often caused volatility in price of commodities, especially in urban areas. Market intervention seldom recognised the fact that farmers’ access to market could be a better way of motivation and hence food security and indeed improvement of safety net through reverse transfer of funds to the rural areas. One would have been happier to find such a statement explicitly mentioned in the speech, and not buried in fine prints. The budget speech refers to the use of infrastructure facilities already in place or being built, especially in the north-west of the country and the central markets in Dhaka to improve the access. The backward linkage is to be provided by the farmers’ groups. An additional component, namely, addition of smart information set up is equally important. It is imperative that the network should be extended to cover the whole country.
In spite of the best of intentions, it is hard to rule out the fact that the weather-related vulnerabilities could seriously hamper output. Even technological interventions could fail to fully mitigate the consequences. Import of food grains could become compulsive in similar cases. It would have been useful if there had been a mechanism in place to monitor international grain market situation for ensuring food safety under different types of stresses.
The innovative idea of introducing crop insurance is definitely a positive step forward. The time line for its introduction has not been delineated. Such an insurance scheme entails many uncertainties. It’s not clear how the risks are to be effectively covered under such a scheme and how these are to be reflected in the premium. Policy framework is needed so that the burden on the farmers is not increased beyond tolerable levels.
The statement on reducing price of fertilisers and other inputs at the farm gate is refreshing, which would help motivate the farmers to grow more crops. On the other hand, the subsidy on such items has actually been slashed by about 24 percent (down from Tk 49.50 billion last year to Tk 40 billion this year). It’s difficult to accept that the price at the production level will also have decreased to that extent. Introduction of agro-input assistance cards for buying diesel for irrigation is a noble idea. The same cards can be turned into smart cards so that these could be used for buying other inputs, including fertiliser and also for accessing credit from the formal market. These measures would have helped facilitate the benefits reaching the farmers directly.
It’s widely accepted that agriculture faces numerous difficulties, especially because of diversion of land for non-agriculture uses, including that for industries. It’s futile to assume that such diversions can be stopped altogether unless they are instituted through a thoughtful planning and action plan. Innovative ideas like zonal planning on apportioning land for various types of uses may be considered. It’s heartbreaking to see top soil along with vitally important micronutrients lost irreversibly to brick fields and earth filling. A policy intervention could ensure that in the event of such diversions of land, the top soil is saved for use in agriculture lands. In the ultimate analysis, given the dwindling availability of land, we have no viable alternative to penetration high yielding varieties and ultimately the introduction of hybrid crops, i.e. reaching the goals of food security through vertical expansion of production.
The stress on quality seeds and the stated effort level in this respect is a good move. Public Private Partnership funds could be made available so that the two entities join hands in making quality seeds available to the farmers at affordable prices. At the same time, technologies developed locally for ensuring quality of seeds should be made readily available to farmers. This warrants serious consideration.
Haor areas have agriculture practices that differ from other areas. Since such areas basically grow one crop a year, special attention needs to be given to the practices and the vulnerabilities. As was indeed observed recently, crops were lost to flash flood, which again is not a new phenomenon. This was caused by the failure to repair the embankments in time, which is again an almost routine practice. Introduction of crop varieties responsive to adverse climatic conditions like salinity, draught and flood should be fast tracked. Same is true for varieties suitable for Monga affected areas.
It’s heartening to note the emphasis on research and development in the budget. We must recognise the untiring efforts of the scientists who have made remarkable contribution towards increasing rice production by 200 percent during the last four decades. The role of personnel linked to extension workers is also commendable. They rightfully deserve appreciation and recognition. The infrastructure needs to be strengthened. It is a sad fact that we are losing experienced scientists and extension workers owing to retirement, brain drain and lack of training opportunities at home and abroad. The budget should have emphasised on the need for continuing efforts on human resource development.
Future agriculture has to be knowledge- and technology-based. An enabling regime of synergy among knowledge, information and technology, including dissemination through focused extension could help attaining sustainable food security. Proactive plans for attaining such a platform have to be developed for this purpose.
The future of agriculture in Bangladesh is considered vulnerable to climate change. The lead time to adaptation is disappearing fast. Adaptation in the form of introduction of climate change responsive practices and varieties assumes overwhelming importance in this context. In our case, inaction is not an option—rather it’s suicidal. Mainstreaming climate change, especially its impact on agriculture is an urgent necessity, and thus the issue should have featured prominently in the budget.
There are ample scopes for mainstreaming agriculture and rural development, parts of which have been addressed in the budget. We hope that this is the beginning and other issues would be considered in future. An overall impression is that while many of the issues have been featured in varied degrees, in certain, they fall short of expectation. Of course, it is not expected that all problems can be solved overnight. If we accept the importance of three golden words “implementation, implementation and implementation” and stay firmly focused and committed, we can perhaps be on track to a regime of sustainable food security. Let’s wait until the end of the financial year. We may revisit the balance sheet to assess how and to what extent we could bridge the gap between the expectations and the achievements. Only time will prove whether we succeed or falter. Let’s better not fail collectively so as to avoid facing unkind stares from our future generations with question marks on our collective wisdom and failure to act in time.