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Coronavirus puts Bangladesh’s agriculture and economy at risk

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Bangladesh agriculture is in the grips of coronavirus. The poultry, fisheries and dairy sectors have been hit hard and now the boro rice crop too is at risk. With a countrywide lockdown being enforced, there is a crisis of workers to harvest the crop. On top of all that, possible floods in the haor region (wetlands) exacerbate the situation. And there is the apprehension that the farmers may not receive fair price for their crops.

The department of agriculture calculates that this season the boro crop has been cultivated on 43 lac 80 thousand (4.38 million) hectares. This crop is to be harvested from mid April till the end of May. Every year workers from all districts come to cut the crop at this time of the year.

Analysing the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) manpower survey, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) said that there is a surplus of workers in 37 districts and a shortage in 26. But the workers are unable to leave their districts because of the lockdown. Around 20 lac (2 million) tonnes of rice may be damaged because of this, according to the economic division of BRRI.

The meteorological offices of both Bangladesh and India have increased the fears with predictions of early floods. It has been predicted that in India there will be 150 to 250 mm of rain in the Borak basin of Meghalaya and Assam and 100 to 120 mm of rain in the Tripura basin.  Rain is also predicted in the northeast of the country, possibly leading to the rivers in the Meghna basin is overflow with waters rushing down the hills and causing flash floods in the haor region.

Also Read: Coronavirus: Poor income drops 80% in Bangladesh

The department of agriculture has said boro has been sown on 4 lac 45 thousand (445,000) hectares of land in seven districts. The Sunamganj deputy commissioner Mohammad Abdul Ahad has even issued a notice calling for rapid measures to be taken to protect the crop.

According to BRRI, around 84 lac (8.4 million) workers will be needed to cut the paddy in the haor region. But there is a shortfall of 15 lac (1.5 million) workers there. With inter-district communications snapped, the workers cannot reach the region. 

Farida Akhter, executive director of the development research organization UBINIG, said that special measures must be taken so that the workers can move. Agricultural produce and agricultural workers are not restricted to any particular area. This has to be activated. The unemployed workers must be given work.

Alongside their male counterparts, women workers are also facing losses. The livelihood of those who would work in rice mills and at other related jobs, is also threatened. The government has announced at Tk 5000 crore (Tk 50 billion) stimulus package for the agricultural sector, but there are misgivings as to the distribution of the funds and whether actual farmers will benefit.

Farida Akhter said, we don’t know who will get the stimulus package and when, but these people facing losses in the agri sector must be given cash immediately. Women are involved hugely in the sector, more than ever before. They too are without work. When a woman loses her source of income, the entire family suffers. Steps must be taken because there are warning sounds of hunger.

The poultry, dairy and fisheries sector have already been harmed. According to the Bangladesh Poultry Industries Central Council (BPICC), every week 1 crore 30 lac (13 million) chicks are hatched. But the poultry farms are not being able to buy the chicks because of the lockdown and in fear of coronavirus. As a result, every week around 1 crore (10 million) chicks are being culled. 

Bangladesh Palli Karma Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) has submitted a report to the Finance Ministry concerning the impact of coronavirus on the poultry, fairy and fisheries sectors. It said that around 140 lac (14 million) liters of milk is being produced in the country every day, but most of it is not being sold. And in the fisheries sector, the farmers are not being able to collect the fries.

Other threats in the economy are also looming large. Orders are continually being cancelled in the readymade garment sector. Director of the apex body of readymade garment manufacturers and exporters, BGMEA, Asif Ibrahim, said that so far orders of 3.15 billion dollars have been cancelled and this has harmed 135 factories.

Export earnings are falling short. In the first eight months of the financial year, export earnings fell short of target by 12.72 per cent and fell short of the previous year by 4.79 per cent. In March, overseas remittance was 13.34 per cent less than it was in March of the previous year. It was less that February’s remittance by 12.84 per cent.

Executive director of Policy Research Institute, Dr Ahsan H Mansur, sees the internal threats to the economy as significant. He said that the local threats to the economy are much greater than the fall in export revenue or remittance. The financial sector, the banking sector and revenue collection are all showing cracks.

He said, that this may be a health problem in the short term, but it is taking the economy to a long term recession.

Meanwhile, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) executive director Dr Fahmida Khatun has said transparency must be ensured concerning the Tk 72 thousand 750 crore  stimulus package announced by the government to tackle the economic losses. She said, as it is there is already a tendency to default on loans in Bangladesh. They must not be allowed to take advantage of this.

Both these economists spoke of the need of coordination between the government and NGO sectors. They said the government must also put the experience and networking of the NGO sector to use at the field level.

In this regard, Farida Akhter said volunteer groups are required at the field level. They will go from house to house, testing and identifying patients.  It will not be possible to deal with this crisis with physicians and nurses only.