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Farmers reap misery from mechanized agriculture

SAM SUNDAY FEATURE-BNG-03-05-2020

Agriculture is steadily and surely slipping away from the farmers and the agricultural workers. And the mechanization of agriculture has been further accelerated by the outbreak of coronavirus.

Even the harvest of the boro rice crop is out of their hands. Combine harvesters have taken over. While the farmers and cultivators suffer from the pangs of hunger amidst the lockdown, the government’s subsidies and stimulus packages have been used for this mechanization. The local agents of the big multinationals have pounced on this opportunity, while economists, researchers and other involved in the agriculture sector term this as a ‘state crime’.

At the outset of the season, the government provided a Tk 100 crore subsidy for the procurement of rice transplanters, harvesters, reapers and other agricultural machinery. The local agents of multinational companies who have been enlisted for this are G Metal, Abedin Equipments, Alim Industries, Chittagong Builders, Janata Machineries and ACI Motors.

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In the meantime, the lockdown due to coronavirus has hit the agricultural sector hard. In order to make up for the losses, the government has announced a Tk 5000 crore stimulus package at a 4 per cent interest rate. Another Tk 100 crore from there has been allocated for the procurement of agricultural implements.

In this season, the boro rice crop has been cultivated on 45 lac 80 thousand hectares of land as well as on 4,45,000 hectares in the haor region (wetlands). Then with the lockdown, shortage of workers to harvest the crops and early flood forecasts, the demand for combine harvesters grew. Those involved in the sector, however, had been insisting that the agricultural workers must be given work opportunities. They must be provided transport, in keeping with the health regulations. But those recommendations were not followed and sales of combine harvesters have shot up.

Netrakona is one of the small districts of the 7 haor region districts and the boro crop covers 40,856 hectares here. So far 75 per cent of the crop has been harvested, according to the district agricultural office Habibur Rahman. He said, 44 new harvesters were procured there this year. There had been 63 before, bought over the past 3 to 4 years. There had been 53 harvesters in Kishoreganj, and now 32 new ones were added. In Sunamganj there were 118 and now there were 64 new ones.

An officer of ACI Motors’s sales division said that their combine harvester sales target was 300. Each harvester cost between Tk 28 lac and Tk 29.5 lac. The farmers could buy these at a 50 per cent subsidy. In the haor region this subsidy was 70 per cent.

A harvester can , cut, husk, clean and pack the crop of one acre in a matter of one hour, said Sunamganj district agricultural officer Md Safar Uddin. He said that the number of agricultural workers was steadily decreasing and there was no alternative to mechanization. This also cut production costs.

Teacher and researcher Altaf Parvez dismissed such statements as ‘big talk’. He said that there was huge scope for corruption in the agricultural sector. Looting was rampant in fertiliser, seeds and pesticides, and it was the same in ‘agricultural mechanization.’ There was millions and millions of taka involved and that was what the big talk was actually all about.

Economist and researcher in rural agriculture and society, Anu Muhammad, said that ‘no alternative’ was just a ‘superfluous statement’. He said in a labour intensive country like Bangladesh, there were around 5 crore workers without employment. They were floating, always in search of work. Bringing in machines where there was supposedly a shortage of workers, was not a solution. It would simply increase unemployment and decrease purchasing power. This would have a negative impact on the economy.

Executive director of the alternative development research organisation UBINIG, Farida Akhter said 80 per cent of the farmers in Bangladesh had less than 3 acres of land each. And now the manner in which agriculture was being made dependent on capital, was a threat to the very existence of the small farmer. Many were having to leave cultivation. They are now day labourers or rickshaw pullers or earning a living in some such way. She said that the expansion of the agricultural sector which we are hearing about is nothing but a tall tale.

The use of such machinery hardly cut costs for the farmers. They have to pay workers Tk 7000 to Tk 8000 to cut, husk, clean and pack the grain of one acre of land. While it costs Tk 1500 for the combine harvester to do that, the farmer has to pay Tk 4000 to Tk 5000 to the person who is renting it out.

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Anu Muhammad questions such subsidy. He said subsidy means benefit for the highest number of people. But here the person who buys the machinery with the subsidy is not even a farmer. And do the other farmers benefit? Obviously not. That means the government is giving public money to someone who is making money out of the public and snatching away many people’s employment.

This economist blames the government lack of preparation for the crisis in workers this season. He said it was obvious from January that we would be facing a shortage of workers. An integrated plan should have been taken up from then for the season, the crops, the shortage and surplus of workers, unemployment, etc. And a separate plan was needed for the haor region. But there was no such preparation and that is why as soon as the lockdown was announced, the issue of the worker crisis was raised.

He said, even so, arrangements could have been made for the workers to avail transportation, with health regulations in place.  Now the workers will go hungry and their livelihood for the future is uncertain too. After all, many workers depend on the boro crop harvest for the entire year. Now their livelihood has been pitched into uncertainty.