The rural economy had been vibrating until recently, the standard of living in the rural areas improved, road communications including internal roads and other indicators also improved dramatically. Female education got to the encouraging level, school dropouts declined. Among many facilitators, foreign remittance in the rural areas had played an important role, the country's overall economic growth, undoubtedly, helped change the rural Bangladesh also, generating employment opportunities significantly. But the most notable was our agriculture that kept the rural economy going forward alongside the proactive behaviours our farmers showed in adapting to the new technologies that modern scientific researches brought in and their boldness to replace their traditional customs with the dynamic practices, and use of the new machines. Altogether they took our agriculture and the rural economy to an extra height. The development of agriculture had been a defining factor for our rural economy.
But the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic is visible now, the total economy is declining. The family income in each household is waning. In our country not all the members of a family have a source of income, most of the families depend on one person for their income. Most private businesses have additional challenges because of the pandemic. They lose their revenue, find no fresh opportunities, with the expenses remaining unchanged they have to cut short the wages, salary, and in dire situations shed their jobs. The families take the hit. They slip into poverty. Agriculture had a similar issue. They failed to sell their crops, especially the summer vegetable as soon as the country had been under long shutdown from March 25, the sudden shutdown of the transport systems had left the farmers in a tough situation as to how they would take their crops to the wholesale market places. The wholesale markets in rural areas didn't have buyers. As there had been no transport to carry their goods the farmers had little scope to sell their crops, or whatever they sold they got just the throwaway prices. The process led the farmers' earning from vegetables to a vulnerable level. But despite that, they had to prepare for the fresh crops. The issues for the farmers are becoming insurmountable- they lost their income substantially, even they didn't get back what they had invested in the crops they lost. One farmer told me a story. He carried his vegetables to the market by a rickshaw van and had to wait for the merchants who buy wholesale, but unfortunately, he didn't get anyone as they couldn't come due to the shutdown of transport. The local buyers offered such a price and wanted so small a quantity he had become just thoughtful if he would get the fare of the rickshaw van to carry back the vegetables home; afterward, he was just lost from the market. This is not the story of a single farmer. Many farmers left their vegetables dry or rot in the fields, they did not spend on reaping the crops.
The pandemic has brought the situation to such a level that these people, once flourishing farmers, have been exposed to such vulnerability beyond our imagination. But the hardest thing is that they have to do the same job again-till their fields and sow fresh crops. Ours is the responsibility to stay beside them. But what is our pandemic response plans for these farmers who still stick to their occupation despite their livelihood is in jeopardy?
The first thing we must ensure that they do not lose their purchasing power to buy their food; their protective tools against the virus are available to them, not the PPE but the mask, glove, etc. They must have at least some medicines for their primary health care now; they must know how to guard against this virus- we must continue creating awareness against the coronavirus. All these would not take a lot of money to do, but we would need to have a concerted and disciplined approach to address these issues. If our farmers get infected gradually, the possibility of food security for us from our agriculture shall face a jolt, it must not happen. Is a vigorous health campaign in rural areas not possible? Saving our farmers from the infection should also be a priority for the Government Campaigns.
Buying them food should be a point that would need close monitoring; already we hear some messages of the government over embezzlement of food aids. The government has taken punitive measures against some local body representatives. This however would not dispel the concerns that the affected farmers, mostly the rural people get the food aid properly so that their concentration for the next crops becomes intense and their worry for their food this time wouldn't remain.
Tilling land, buying seeds, using fertilizer and pesticides, irrigation, all these cost a suitable amount of money they have to invest. They already have loans for the crops, the vegetables, but they didn't get any revenue, and the loans are falling into arrear. This is a point we need to look at. The government has announced a fund of Taka 50.00 billion for the agriculture sector to lend the working capital for the farmers at a 5.0 per cent rate of interest. If the farmers who need working capital get the fund in time and without hassle they would benefit our agriculture and the rural economy. But the farmers do not get confidence in our agri-loan disbursement and the process they follow from the experiences they had with them. This time new farmers might appear on the scene who did not took agri-loan previously. The bank officers should check and assist these farmers also, as they need loans but do not know the application process. The pandemic has made most farmers vulnerable except some few who sold Boro crops recently. Logically this fund wouldn't seem sufficient to bring all such farmers in this lending net. This fund has a share for the pisciculture or fish farming, Dairy, and poultry farms are also there. However, it would depend on our bank officers' ability who would disburse the loan. They should intensely try to understand the working capital need of the individual farmers, make an objective analysis and the farmers get what they need. The timeliness is one very important issue as they buy the seeds, use fertilizer. If the farmer receives a loan when the irrigation time has already lapsed how could the farmer save his crop?
More important than a 5.0 per cent rate of interest on this fund is the issue of loans they took for the last season. Waiving the accrued interest partly or fully or waiving at least a part of the loans should be on the agenda of Bangladesh Bank. The substitution of our import of food, grain, crops, etc. would help the public exchequer save huge foreign currency. Simultaneously, the rural economy shall flourish again and regain the momentum. If the farmers get any kind of fiscal stimulus, any rebate, any reward whatever it is would reversely reward our economy. The rural economy must thrive again.
The writer is an ex-senior banker and presently working as CEO of an agribusiness group. [email protected]