Now that Bangladesh has passed more than 50 years since its independence, a prime question to ask is: what will the country look like over the next 50 years? Bangladesh remains agrarian by many indicators. Yes, agriculture as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) has declined. According to Bangladesh Economic Review 2020, published by the country’s Finance Ministry, agriculture was 50% of GDP in the 1970s, and this had declined to just 13% in 2017. But agricultural output quadrupled over the period.
This significant increase in productivity occurred alongside a labour flight from agriculture of approximately 17 million between 2010 and 2020. However, agriculture is still a significant employer. In the decade up to 2018, Bangladesh’s agricultural labour force declined from 47% to 39%.
While more than 70% of Bangladesh remains in the countryside, their mindset may not be as rural as before. The country is becoming increasingly ‘rurbanised,’ meaning the rural areas are getting more urban than ever before. This rurbanisation is happening partly because of the densification of infrastructure from the late 1980s, with hard top roads connecting national highways to erstwhile rural interiors. The increased existence of feeder roads to sub-district (locally known as upazila) headquarters is a good example of infrastructure densification.
These sub-district headquarters, alongside other growth pole centres like rural markets (called haats locally), have now become towns. And the former sharp divide between urban and rural is now blurred, aided not only by these physical communications but also by digital connectivity. Rising income levels, as well as international remittances, have fuelled visible changes. These changes entail importing urban lifestyles, including better clothes, packaged food, industrial consumer goods, automated transport and city-styled entertainment.
To understand today’s ‘agrarian Bangladesh,’ one has to examine the past. Agrarian Bangladesh has come a long way since its quasi-feudal legacy in 1971 at the hands of the dual colonialisms of the British and the western wing of Pakistan, up to and from 1947.
At liberation in 1971, today’s Bangladesh comprised a nation of small peasants in some areas like the south-eastern Dhaka-Comilla belt, with petty landlords, sharecropping tenants and landless labouring households elsewhere. West Pakistan had had a larger landlord-tenant feudal system.
This difference played a strong role in setting Bangladesh’s independence narrative, especially derived from research during the 1960s into small farm holdings, also known as minifundists, in the Dhaka-Comilla belt. Despite this, it is also important to acknowledge Bangladesh’s own legacy of quasi-feudalism in other parts of the country.
From the 1950s, in pre-independence Bangladesh, agricultural productivity in these quasi-feudal areas under mid-tier, petty landlords, locally known as jotedars and toujidars, was hampered by the depressor syndrome. This is a term coined in the late 1950s by Daniel Thorner to describe agrarian structures across pre-independence India.
…in pre-independence Bangladesh, agricultural productivity in the quasi-feudal areas under mid-tier, petty landlords, […] was hampered by the depressor syndrome.
Debates about the agricultural depressor continued among researchers until the late 1980s. In these debates, the ‘depressor’ was understood to be an amalgamation of disincentives associated with two sets of relationships: the zamindari feudal pre-reform era of sub-infeudation and the post-zamindari reform era (i.e. post mid-1950s) of continuing landlord and sharecropper relationships.
Under both sets of conditions, there was barely any incentive to increase productivity. Investment to improve yields was partially rewarded at best, with the landlord receiving more than 50%. Meanwhile, the sharecropper had no incentive to invest in land quality, given the insecurity of tenure. The sharecropping farmer was essentially motivated by consumption needs rather than profit, and hence avoided any risk.
Beyond these debates, there is a third, more contemporary, version of the depressor. This entails the ‘squared’ fragmentation of landholdings through multiple inheritance among sons. Here, each inheriting plot is divided not just by total area but also by the land quality. This is to ensure a fair land distribution among the next generation. Such fragmentation increases the transaction costs for a single owner in managing inputs and labour-related operations.
The Comilla model and landlessness
In Bangladesh, these depressor legacies in agrarian relations inhibited many structural reforms, even after independence in 1971. For example, they set limits on spreading a piloted cooperative model initiated by the Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development (BARD), located in the south-eastern district of Comilla. This cooperative model, the Krishi Samabaya Samiti (KSS), could not be replicated after liberation because of less conducive agrarian conditions. Even among the small family farms in BARD’s experimental hinterland the KSS were subject to local elite capture.
Furthermore, Bangladesh’s Land Occupancy Study of 1977 revealed the scale of landlessness in the country. Approximately half of the rural people, then 90% of the whole population, were landless in terms of self-subsistence. Policy-makers of the 1980s and 1990s and into the early 2000s had no effective strategy to engage with this challenge of landlessness.
The policy void to tackle landlessness left the challenge to the non-profit sector, which initially focused upon the dual strategies of, on the one hand, social mobilisation to improve wages and reduce both debt obligations and, on the other, service delivery. Over time, most NGOs have narrowed their focus to microcredit and service delivery.
De-peasantisation and capital intrusion
From its small peasant origins, Bangladesh’s agrarian political economy has been experiencing a process of de-peasantisation since the 1980s. This progress has happened as a result of rising agro-productivity. Understanding this phenomenon is particularly important in the context of the country’s food security imperatives. This is a familiar story among policy stakeholders.
A major expansion of capital investment in new technologies has been a key driver, entailing addition of the input-intensive, irrigation-dependent, short-stem irri-boro rice crop to the yearly cropping cycle. This became the late winter early summer season. Its crucial feature is pre-monsoon certainty. It replaced the unreliable Aus season and reduced dependency on the traditional rainfed Aman season.
Farm mechanisation was enabled by an enhanced road network during the late 1980s and through the 1990s. Meanwhile, liberalisation of both input supply and product marketing was encouraged through state policy, accompanied through a major withdrawal of subsidies. In rural Bangladesh, new sources of liquidity were added to the mix through the expansion of private banking credit and remittances from migrant workers, both at home and overseas.
In rural Bangladesh, new sources of liquidity were added to the mix through the expansion of private banking credit and remittances from migrant workers…
What have been the structural implications of this expanded intrusion of capital into Bangladesh’s agriculture sector? The opening-up of the agrarian economy to new technologies and expansion into urban markets has introduced new stakeholders via expanded supply chains and product markets. It has thus socially redistributed both the returns to agricultural production and the incentives to invest in rising productivity. These opportunities are reorganising the relations between production and land usage.
Fixed cash rents have largely replaced crop share tenancies. They have removed the post-zamindari depressor. The erstwhile family farms with scattered plots as a result of ‘squared’ fragmentation can now lease these out to other ‘contractor’ cultivators. These new owners can use land more productively without losing ownership control. At the same time, patriarchal farmers have to deal with a generational flight of labour out of agriculture because of non-farm economic opportunities for their offspring. These two drivers are consolidating land use via operation rather than ownership. They are also increasing the commodification of ‘freed’ labour.
Three agrarian trajectories
To summarise the structural changes in agrarian relations, the intrusion of capital and enhanced productivity of land means there have been three possible trajectories for Bangladeshi agriculture:
- A continuation of the family farm system. This covers petty commodity producers managing their self-cultivated scattered plots. They sell a net marketed surplus after meeting family consumption needs. However, this trajectory does not overcome the ‘squared’ fragmentation depressor.
- The steady spread of large-scale commercial farms. These may be owned by corporate agri-business. They use large-scale equipment to produce for local and even overseas markets.
- A specifically Bangladeshi hybrid ‘rentier’ system, which retains the affinity to land as a security of last resort. The owners lease out a significant proportion of their scattered plots to other cultivators. Many of these cultivators are also contractors of irrigation, power tiller, harvesting and threshing services. This arrangement enables productivity gains from the consolidated operation of land. It enables efficiency gains at all stages of agro-product development, including access to wider markets.
A grounded hypothesis
The authors predict that the third option, the Bangladeshi hybrid of cropland management, will prevail in the country. It retains the socio-cultural affinity with land by owning families, who prefer to lease out rather than sell. It also enables new agrarian entrants, fuelled by new forms of liquidity (i.e. urban incomes and remittances), access to land via rental rather than purchase. It allows the entry of new stakeholders into the agriculture sector via technology contracting, labour management, input market and supply chain functions. These conditions lead to the hypothesis that the classic ‘Bengali’ family farm is fast transforming through the intrusion of capital into agriculture. The agrarian system becomes rentier-contractor in nature.
In this hybrid option, the third productivity depressor, ‘squared’ land fragmentation, is being neutralised by the de facto consolidation of scattered plots. Landowners are increasingly leasing out their land to other operators (contractors) for consolidated land use. These contractors may themselves be cultivating farmers using services from one or more local service providers. These trends are becoming common across Bangladesh. They are being reinforced by processes of flight of family labour, ‘rurbanisation’ and remittance inflow.
Complexities in the process
There are complexities in this agrarian shift in Bangladesh.
- The small-scale, new-entrant renters with new incomes are more likely to self-cultivate.
- There seems to be an increasing hybridity of labour and time use. A labourer will switch activities and gig contracts in a single day. Hence, there will be implications for labour in agriculture.
- What are the gender implications? Is there a feminisation of the participation agrarian labour force?
- Agrarian understanding does not stop at the harvest or immediately post-harvest. One has to factor in input and output supply chain management. Are supply chain transactions driven by competitive markets or rent-seeking monopoly? Also, what will be the contribution of female labour in post-harvest work (such as cleaning, drying and husking) with the expansion of commercial milling?
‘Agrarian change’ research, necessary for policy
The complexities of Bangladesh’s agrarian change clearly demand empirical research and analysis, given the profound policy implications. A summary understanding of the hybrid cropland management hypothesis has been built by the authors. Here is what we need to know.
People’s well-being, in terms of food security for the country, is the priority. In the reorganisation of agrarian relations, policy-makers need to identify the winners and losers. There are also competing interests between regions and sectors within the country to consider. The capitalisation of agriculture inevitably introduces new stakeholders into the system. It brings a new socioeconomic risk by creating opportunities for some while alienating others.
In the reorganisation of agrarian relations, policy-makers need to identify the winners and losers.
To understand this shift, look no further than the recent fast-paced innovations in Bangladeshi manufacturing – Hyundai SUVs, fridges and washing machines. Who is to say that domestic manufacturing of pump sets, power tillers, tractors and milling equipment will not follow? Can’t we expect the manufacturing of these items to expand at the local level? This would surely need stronger regulations to ensure good standards. It would also need sound financing policies.
In this sense, capitalism intrinsically destabilises some people while opening up opportunities for others. It alienates as well as includes. The previously understood ‘green revolution’ focused only on farm-level production. But new analysis now needs to go much beyond that. Agrarian relations are now a matter for us all.
Policy-makers need to know ‘what is’ to influence ‘what ought to be.’ Only then can they support both producers and consumers. In Bangladesh, agriculture’s share in the economy may be declining but the majority of the population still embraces rurality. This sense of rurality is becoming more ‘rurbanised,’ which is not the same as urban.
Agriculture’s declining contribution to the economy and labour force can be seen positively from a productivity gains lens, especially under conditions where the sector loses land and labour to other economic activities. But a broader concept of agrarian well-being needs to be embraced. It goes beyond ensuring food security into the emerging opportunities of this ‘new rurality.’
Thus, for Bangladesh, agrarian change analysis, not just agricultural productivity analysis, is imperative to generate informed policy debates. The array of questions posed above will shape policy and investment priorities in the coming decades. Policy issues of food security, employment generation, infrastructure, market performance, climate change, changing value systems, social cohesion and inequalities will intersect with these questions.
Despite rurbanising fast, 70% of Bangladesh’s population lives outside big cities. These people will remain a vital part of the country for many decades to come. Yet the transforming agrarian picture has largely been neglected. Understanding this transformation requires investment in research if the country’s goals of inclusive growth are to be achieved.
Given the strategic significance of this transformation, it is reassuring that Bangladesh’s prime policy-making agency, the Planning Commission with the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, is now picking up this interdisciplinary agenda. Such initiatives will open up research collaborations across the board.
- Planning Commission (2020). Eighth Five-Year Plan 2020-2025. Government of Bangladesh, Dhaka.
- Mandal, M.A.S. (2017). Growth of Mechanisation in Bangladesh Agriculture: Role of Policies and Missing Links. In Mandal, M.A.S., Biggs, S. & Justice, S (Eds) Rural Mechanisation: a driver in agricultural change and rural development Dhaka. Institute for Inclusive Finance and Development.
- Razzaque, M.A. (2021, September). Bangladesh’s Agro-Revolution. WhiteBoard, 05.
- Thorner, D. (1956). The Agrarian Prospect in India Delhi. University Press, Delhi.
- Wood, G. (2022). Rentiers and Contractors, The Future of Agrarian Bangladesh: Part 1 The Agrarian Transition since Liberation. Review of Agrarian Studies, 12(1), 9-30.
- Wood, G. & Mandal, M.A.S. (2022). Rentiers and Contractors: The Future of Agrarian Bangladesh Part 2: The Disappearance of the Bangladeshi Farm. Review of Agrarian Studies, 12(2).
- Wood G. (2023). Staying the Course: The Journey of a ‘Bengal’ Civilian. University Press Limited.
 The zamindari era starting from the 1793 Permanent Settlement in Bengal entailed an extended hierarchy of tenure holders and direct landlords (known as zamindar) receiving rents from occupancy tenants (raiyats), who combined cultivation via family and landless labour with subleasing to sharecroppers (bargadar). Rents accruing to landholders were eventually paid as revenue to the East India Company, later the British government.
 Landlord and sharecropper relationships depressed productivity as a result of the disincentives in the oppressive sharing of returns favouring ownership over cultivation.
 The non-profit sector’s social mobilisation programmes dealt with wage enhancements, improved crop shares, access to fallow ‘khas’ lands and escape from loan sharks. Service delivery programmes comprised microcredit support for income-generating activities, alongside shelter home projects, basic literacy and primary health care.
 Investment led to mechanised irrigation, tillage and post-harvest operations like milling, seed improvement, enhanced fertilising and better pest control.
 ‘Freed labour’ is a reference to the untying of labour, entailing a switch from meal or kind payment to cash, also allowing for contract labour in mobile gangs.
Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu