Despite progress toward greater industrialization, in the late 1980s agriculture still accounted for nearly 50 percent of the value of Bangladesh's GDP. Approximately 82 percent of the country's population lived in rural areas, virtually all of them making their living exclusively or substantially from agriculture. Domestic production increased at a relatively steady rate in the years following independence, but not fast enough to close the gap created by the continued rapid growth in population. According to official statistics, the real value of all crops and of agricultural production rose every year in the 1980s, but except for a 6.1-percent surge in FY 1981, the gains did not exceed 3.8 percent, and in 3 of the years it was less than 1 percent. The goal of food self-sufficiency by 1990 was asserted as part of the Third Five-Year Plan, but it could be achieved only under optimal conditions. Bangladesh was still importing an average of 2 million tons of food grains each year to meet minimum needs for the subsistence of the population. Most of the imports were on a grant or concessional basis from the United States, the World Food Programme, or other food aid donors.
The agricultural year begins in late February, when the weather is dry and getting warmer. Over a period of several weeks each field is plowed three or four times; using a wooden plow and two oxen, one man can plow 0.02 hectares in an eight-to ten-hour workday. In addition to plowing, field preparation for irrigation involves construction and maintenance of plot boundaries half a meter high, using earth and weeds from the field. These boundaries also serve to retain water in the plots when the rains come a few months later. Traditional methods of irrigation include pitcher, swing basket, and a hollowed-out log fixed on a pivot and fitted with a counterbalance. These methods have a natural grace and beauty and are still practiced in rural areas throughout Bangladesh. They offer the dual advantages of depending entirely on locally available materials and on human power for their operation. In those rural areas where electricity is available, tube wells with electric pumps are becoming an important irrigation device.
Absolute production has increased, and there has been an impressive diversification into a wide variety of seeds and new crops, such as wheat and vegetables. In fact, the patterns of agriculture have been virtually transformed. A previously self-contained and self-reliant subsistence economy has given way to one dependent on inputs, credit, markets, and administrative support from outside. But the price has been high--literally--and in the late 1980s was getting higher. Abu Muhammad Shajaat Ali, in his study of the agricultural village of Shyampur, describes the local economy as a "near-saturated agroecosystem." Continued population pressure has led in many areas to increases in output- per-unit area, but at very high rates of diminishing returns to inputs.
Shyampur exemplified the transformation going on in parts of the rural countryside affected by a modern market economy. The income of farmers in Shyampur, because of its proximity to Dhaka's high-demand urban markets, was greater than in more typical villages of Bangladesh. According to Ali, 31 percent of Shyampur's families in 1980 had a farm income greater than US$278 (Tk7,500) per year; 40 percent earned between US$93 and US$278; and the remaining 29 percent earned less than US$93. Eighty-four percent of farmers were also engaged for at least 100 days per year in off- farm work in small businesses or industrial occupations, with 70 percent of them earning between US$75 and US$295 and 23 percent receiving more than that. Virtually all of this employment was for males. As of 1980, it was rare for village females to be employed outside the household. The work they did in raising poultry, cultivating kitchen gardens, husking paddy, collecting fuel, and assisting neighboring families was not figured into calculations of income.
The ownership of agricultural land remained one of the most difficult problems in the Bangladesh countryside. During British rule, elite large landowners, many of them absentee landowners, owned most of the land in East Bengal. After 1947 new laws abolished large estates and set limits on the amount of land one person could own. Many big Hindu landlords moved to India, but the wealthy Muslims who bought up their holdings became a new landlord elite. Legal ceilings on landownership resulted in little extra land for distribution to the poor because landlords arranged ways to vest ownership in the names of relatives. As a result, in most villages a few families controlled enough land to live comfortably and market a surplus for cash, while a large percentage of families had either no land or not enough to support themselves. Studies have suggested that in the mid-1980s the richest 10 percent of the village population controlled between 25 and 50 percent of the land, while the bottom 60 percent of the population controlled less than 25 percent. The disparities between the richest and poorest villagers appeared to be widening over time. The large number of landless or nearly landless peasants reduced the average landholding to only less than one hectare, down more than a third since 1971. Because Islamic inheritance law as practiced in Bangladesh calls for equal division of assets among all the sons, the large population increases led to increased fragmentation of landholdings and further impoverishment. Inheritance, purchase, and sale left the land of many families subdivided into a number of separate plots located in different areas of the village.
The ready availability of large numbers of poor laborers and the fragmented character of many landholdings has perpetuated a labor- intensive style of agriculture and unequal tenancy relations. At least a third of the households in most villages rent land. The renting households range from those without any land of their own to those middle-level peasants who try to supplement the produce grown on their own land with income from produce grown on additional land. Sharecropping is the most common form of tenancy agreement. Traditional sharecropping arrangements heavily favored the landlord over the sharecropper, with a fifty-fifty split of the produce and the tenant providing all inputs of labor and fertilizer. After decades of rural agitation, the 1984 Land Reforms Ordinance finally established the rule of three shares--one-third of the produce for the owner, one-third for the sharecropper, and one-third split according to the costs of cultivation. Poor peasants who could not obtain land as tenants had to work as agricultural laborers or find nonagricultural jobs. The 1984 Agricultural Labor Ordinance set the minimum daily wage for agricultural labor at 3.28 kilograms of rice or its cash equivalent. Employers who broke this rule could be brought to village courts and forced to pay compensation twice the amount of back wages. However, because village courts were dominated by landowners, there was still little official redress for the grievances of agricultural laborers. In fact, the structure of rural land control kept a great deal of power in the hands of relatively small groups of landlords.
The Comilla Model, which began in 1959, has been the most successful and influential example of cooperative agricultural development in Bangladesh. Projects in Comilla District provided more modern technologies to farmers: low-lift water pumps; low-cost hand-dug six-inch tube wells; pilot research on adapting thirty- five-horsepower tractors for rice cultivation; new crop and animal varieties; testing and introduction of such inputs as chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and high-yield varieties of seeds; and new storage and processing technology. These innovations attracted resources to local rural institutions, against the prevailing urban orientation of the leadership elite. They provided some counterweight to the trend of ambitious village people seeking to leave the countryside in favor of the cities or foreign countries. Comilla, which received substantial assistance from Michigan State University and the Ford Foundation, remains a widely admired accomplishment, and the Bangladesh Academy of Rural Development, which gave broad dissemination to published reports on Comilla's progress, is world-renowned because of it.