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In response to Back to the Future

Mustakim Jony
January 9, 2022 1:28 pm
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This article is in response to an outstanding and thought provoking article, “Back to the Future” by Rezwan Hussain,

It is indeed a good sign that members of our younger generation are thinking globally, without which we cannot circumvent the complex problems that have entangled our nation as well as the whole world.

The writer has both the abilities of deep thinking and of expressing his thoughts in lucid writing, which are very much needed at this point of time.

Building up on the stories of agriculture in Texas the writer skillfully threads the beads to bring it to Bangladesh where educated youths are taking up agriculture as a profession, creating great hopes and increasing the possibility of producing high value crops for export.

However, there are complex issues that need to be taken into consideration. As someone who has seen his fair share in life, I would like to address a few points from my personal experience living in Bangladesh for a long time, that may help the young in shaping their thoughts more rationally and pragmatically.

The root of the problem

Coming back with a PhD in electronics in my late twenties, I used to think that if we could engage a large group of our people in export-oriented electronics industry, we could earn a lot with which we could import food and feed the whole nation.

However, with the experience gathered over the next few decades I realized that even if we have mountains of food stored in silos across the country, a lot of people will go unfed.

Why? There has to be a mechanism and opportunity for every family to earn enough through some sort of economic activity so that it can provide for its basic needs including food.

Leaving them without any means of earning while feeding them under social safety nets will not be able to solve the issue, rather it will create an idle population progressively lacking self-confidence while corruption and various social ills will spread their roots.

Exports drive up prices

Now, if the educated youths take over farming from the majority (almost 65%) of our people living in the villages, shall we not reach a situation when these people will simply starve?

Going for high-value crops targeted to exports will aggravate the situation further, as we have a limited land area for cultivation. As for now, at least these rural people are surviving since they can produce their own food.

As far as I can remember, in the early 1960s, a one kg Hilsa would cost about Tk1 and the price of average quality rice would also be nearly the same, about Tk1 per kg.

What are the current prices of these two items? About Tk1000 for the Hilsa and Tk50 only for rice. Clearly, the Hilsa fish has moved out of the plates of all except the high income groups, the reason being the export of this commodity.

Colonial policy still plagues us

In the US and other high-income countries the majority were provided jobs in industries in the urban areas through the proliferation of technology-based small industries. Therefore, a small number of educated farmers taking over agriculture did not have any negative impact.

On the other hand, in our region the British colonial rulers deliberately took policies that eliminated local small industry and made the majority dependent on land. Our national policies could not yet come out of this legacy for which small industry has not flourished, not even anywhere near the scale of neighbouring India, who inherited the same colonial history.

Now, taking agriculture, the only remaining means of occupation of the majority in the rural areas out of their hands will only see increasing slum population in the cities, more tragic deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, and more victims of physical torture in Middle Eastern homes.

What’s a better comparative advantage?

On the point of David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage which is being used as a basis for current global trade policies, which the writer also mentioned in relation to our garments industry, I would have bought the theory if the wages of a rice producer or of a garments worker in Bangladesh were the same as for a computer engineer in the US. With a ratio of 1,000 between the incomes, why should Bangladesh not go into making computers?

Self-sufficiency in food production

Right from the beginning our economists have been promoting exports only, a very difficult market to tap into in view of the huge technological gap that exists, forgetting that our local population is also a huge market which could have been tapped by us with our rudimentary technology.

Instead we left this huge market to importers, making Bangladesh a big consumer of foreign goods. The policies naturally favoured imports so that our local small industry in the technological sector could not make any headway even after fifty years of independence.

While mentioning the low value of agricultural exports from Bangladesh the writer should have considered the contribution of our existing farmers to the national economy, making the country of 170 million people almost self-sufficient in food.

Considering the equivalent cost of food at Tk200 per head per day, how much are they contributing to the economy? A whopping $145 billion! Compare this against the total export of $47 billion by Bangladesh in 2019.

After independence, Bangladesh could not feed its 75 million population on its own, but today it can, in spite of the fact that the population more than doubled.  This revolution in agriculture (which includes fisheries, livestock, and dairy) has been brought about by the illiterate farmers but had several favourable factors working behind it:

No tax: Historically agriculture was not taxed. So no corrupt government agents could harass the farmers. (This is a very important point since small industries in our country, which are taxed, could not flourish mainly due to such harassment. India had similar experiences and removed all taxes and registration requirements for small industries since 1991, and today it is reaping the benefit.)

Government help: Unlike the general universities which always think ‘high’ and focus on publications only, our agriculture universities had the target of improving our existing farming practices from the state they were in rather than going for highly technical solutions borrowed from the advanced countries that could not be adopted by our farmers.

The specialized government research organizations also had the same concepts. Furthermore, we had Bangladesh Agriculture Development Corporation as a facilitator and the Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE) with all its branches throughout the country where educated and enthusiastic young officers directly helped the farmers in adopting innovations brought about by the various research organizations.

While their counterparts in administration were mainly involved in creating regulations and punishing citizens for breaking them, these officers in the DAE were friends of the farmers, helping and facilitating in their activities, and that made all the difference!

It may appear that I am against the entry of the educated youths into agriculture, but that is not the case. I am as happy as the writer for this welcome change, but what I want to do is add that they should include the existing farmers as partners and work together to strengthen their hands, not displace them.

They are our roots. Unless we grow from the roots we can never succeed. I frequently say that most of our science and technology research in the general universities and specialized research institutions is being built upon gas balloons, as these do not link our roots in their respective sectors.

We build up these research programs trying to copy what we did while doing our higher studies abroad without any consideration for their relevance to our country and to our population. These require highly specialized equipment costing the poor people of this country millions and millions of dollars. As soon as something goes wrong with some of these equipment, the whole research ends.

However, we seem to remain happy with a few publications that we could make a high impact on scientific journals, enhancing our personal CVs only. As one gas balloon collapses we again bid for new funds to erect another infrastructure on another gas balloon, which will eventually collapse too.

Now we are very keen to participate in the 4th Industrial Revolution. Surely, we should go all out, but unless we compensate for our absence in taking part in the previous industrial revolutions in some way, unless we include our roots within any such programs, I am afraid, we may again be building on gas balloons.

I would be happy if the above points are considered by the writer and other young thinkers.