A recent report from newspapers tend to tell us that the world is utilising more than two times its existing resources and hence there is 'over shooting' of resources. This means that we are using the resources to be used by our next generations. This borrowing of future consumption is a curse rather than a blessing. Land is one of the scarcest resources of the earth and requires to be used optimally to avoid frustrations in the future.
Obviously, in a country like Bangladesh with scarce land base and abundant population, the pattern of use of agricultural land particularly assumes immense interest on the heels of cultivated land declining by 0.31 to 1.0 per cent a year. Data provided by rural land use surveys show that only one-fifths of the land is now being used in aus season (Kharif-1) compared to more than half of the land used in the 1980s or early 1990s. As high as about one-thirds of the cultivated land was devoted to aus paddy three decades back; now only 5.0 per cent of the area cover aus paddy. Likewise, two-thirds of land are being used in aman season (Kharif-11) as against four-fifths in the past. It appears that both seasons witnessed a substantial reduction in land use by households during the comparable periods. En passant, it should be noted here that land under aus has risen marginally over the last decade after a sharp fall between 1980s and 2000. This could be due to resurgence of interest following new high yielding varieties as well as campaign by government and NGOs. However, possibly to compensate for the loss of land in two seasons, land under cultivation in boro season went up from a little over half to about 90 per cent during the period under review. Specifically, cultivated land under paddy in this season went up from one-fifths to one-half. There has been another development over time. Maize crop now accounts for 7.0 per cent of cultivated land in boro season - a crop that was unknown to farmers even in 2000. Secondly, out of the land owned by rural households, the homestead size has squeezed over time while land under garden and pond increased, indicating growing land use for vegetables, horticulture crops and fish. Thirdly, only one-third of the cultivated land had access to irrigation in the past; it rose to more than four-fifths in recent years. Admittedly, it was shallow tube wells (STWs) - the leader of the 'lead input' called irrigation - that stole the march by tripling area under irrigation from only 16 per cent to about 60 per cent in the comparable periods. Indigenous method once captured one-tenth of irrigated land; now only 2.0 per cent due to drying up of rivers, canals.
The 2014 Census reinforces the argument that tenancy market in rural Bangladesh has grown thicker with land under tenancy growing from one-fourth of cultivated land to almost half of cultivated land during the last couple of decades. Of the rented lands, about three-fourths were under sharecropping system in 1980s - dubbed exploitative and inefficient- and that share fell to less than half recently. Quite surprisingly, rented land under fixed-rent/mortgage system now account for about 60 per cent of rented land (fixed rent 38, mortgage 20) as against about 30 per cent in comparable periods. This shows that tenancy market in rural Bangladesh has moved towards market-determined arrangements; farmers have shifted from risk sharing (sharecropping) to risk taking (fixed-rent) arrangements. This is an indicator of resilience of farm households. There is another change. The share of pure tenants and tenant owners - having no cultivated land and mostly having rented land respectively - increased from one-fifth to one-third over the same period of time. Especially the share of pure tenants doubled during the comparable periods from one-tenth to about one-fifth. All of these developments - increased tenancy and shifting arrangements - are the results of (a) shortage of agricultural labour and rising wages; (b) increased costs of monitoring and supervision, and (c) the exit of large and medium households towards more remunerative non-agricultural pursuits.
The most important observation to draw policy level attention is the fact that, despite modern technology, roughly 40 per cent of the cultivated land continue to be single cropped. Quite expectedly, it is the large and medium farms which have more single cropped land than small farms, and areas with rain-fed and surface water agriculture have more of this than areas with ground water irrigation. And finally, low land and very low lying areas have most of the single cropped lands (low: about 50 per cent, very low about 80 per cent). We need to think seriously how to convert those areas into multi-cropped to avert food crisis. A mapping is necessary to locate specific areas for technological interventions.
Which varieties of rice are grown in fields? In the boro season, Bridhan 28 and 29 are reported to capture almost 60 per cent of the sown areas as compared with 20 per cent in 2000. Hybrid variety was almost non-existent in 2000 but swelled about one-fifth of the area in 2014. In the aman season, Swarna variety occupies about 30 per cent of sown area compared to 13 per cent in 2000. Interestingly, BR11 topped the list in 2000 aman season capturing about 25 per cent of area but fell to only 6.0 per cent in recent years. Two important observations are worth noting as far as choice of variety is concerned. First, a total of 16 varieties of rice in aus and aman and 11 varieties in boro season are grown in Bangladesh reflecting crop diversity and thus averting a fall in yield rate. Second, farmers tend to shift to newer varieties taking into considerations many attributes. Although yield consideration comes first, period of maturity, market demand etc. are also determinant factors for choice. For example, Bridhan 28 with relatively low yield is preferred to 29 because of the former's slight edge in maturity and taste. The marginal rise in aus area as mentioned before could be adduced to the advent of modern aus variety and increased yield. Especially AC-1 and 2 provides more than 5 tons/ha and IR 50 and Chandina provides about 4 tons/ha. Finally, the policy implication is that since the future of sustainable foodgrain production depends largely on rice grown in these two low-yield and high risk seasons, serious efforts should be expended at technological innovations through research and extension. The shift should be from boro to aus and aman that need less ground water and fertilisers.
Land utilisation pattern is gradually changing but to be more productive and environment-friendly, we should revisit the idea of traditional varieties, mingled with modern ones, under traditional methods of irrigation. Unfortunately, the disappearance of canals and beels, not to speak of rivers, owing to rapid urbanisation and so-called industrialisation and housing settlements etc. points to the fragile state of overshooting a natural resource like land in the country.
Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.