Cooperative societies, when first introduced, were the only democratic entities in the colonial era rural Bengal. Constitutionally, those were farming people's voluntary associations owned collectively by members for their mutual befits. As such, cooperative societies had also an important social message to convey. And cooperative bodies' potential became evident when farmer members pooled funds through small contributions from their members. Thus, they could wean themselves off the moneylenders' bondage. The cooperative movement grew in strength in Bangladesh after independence. But it is yet to reach its cherished goals of poverty alleviation, job creation and economic rebuilding of rural Bangladesh. At a recent event to mark the 49th National Cooperative Day, the prime minister reiterated the importance of multipurpose cooperative societies, emphasizing their poverty-mitigating potential.
The century-old cooperative movement in this part of the world has seen many ups and downs. Meanwhile, many new ideas and practices have been brought into play to enrich it. Numerous government-owned as well as privately-run self-help groups are now operating side by side in rural areas. But something is still missing. There are too many overlaps. As a result, their creative efforts lack the synergy needed to build up a robust cooperative movement in society. So, it is hardly surprising that the cooperatives have not yet been able to deliver the expected goods in the rural economy.
The government statistics show that the country has about 190,534 cooperative societies with their 11,484,747 members. In a country of some 161.4 million people and of whom around 74.35 per cent live in villages, the numbers look rather modest. People's participation in cooperatives could be expected to have taken place on a still larger scale. However, one needs also to bear in mind that mere numbers are just one of the indicators, not the sole measure, of a cooperative movement's real strength. The kind of activities the cooperative societies are engaged in, quality of their membership, style of management and their ability to inspire others to emulate are also to be taken into account. And, for the cooperative societies to grow into a social movement of consequence, they should be able to run and grow on their own without any outside patronage. But that is yet to happen in the case of Bangladesh's cooperative movement. So, it is important to examine more closely why after close to half a century's experience since independence, the cooperative movement of the country has not come of age as yet.
To infuse dynamism in the existing cooperative societies, steps like the following may be considered. Cooperative bodies (associations) should be made more inclusive regarding membership. Especially, membership base should be expanded to include more women, poor farmers and artisans. The society meetings should be made more participatory through encouraging democracy. Given the immense potential of the cooperative sector, the government department looking after it needs to be proactive. It should ensure that all forms of rural economic activities such as farming, fishing, poultry raising, cattle rearing, weaving, pottery, metal work, etc are brought under the umbrella of the cooperatives. Also, to make the societies viable and profit-making, they should have access to easy credit. At the same time, facilities need to be developed for marketing of the commodities produced by the cooperatives. Cooperatives have been in existence since long. The need is to turn them into an engine of growth, especially in rural Bangladesh.