Nothing tends to elevate an act of protest like a touch of novelty - this is a time-tested truth. The cause must be genuine, of course. It must touch people’s hearts, or vex their soul. Your own effort must be honest, any investment transparent. It’s rare that you’ll get to tick all the boxes, and to be sure, even when you do, it may not make much of a difference - most acts of protest tend to fall by the wayside of a nation’s overall agenda. But a touch of novelty will go far, maybe because protest is almost inherently always against the establishment, or the status quo at least. Out with the old, in with the new, is the message usually. So when you’re able to express whatever it is you’re protesting against in a new way, it tends to stick much better. Your chances of making an impact are radically altered for the better.
On May 13, a farmer in Tangail set a section of his Boro paddy field on fire protesting the paddy price fall and the serious scarcity of day labourers in the district. Farmer Abdul Malek Shikder enacted this unique act of protest at Bankina village in Kalahati upazila. Talking to our sister newsagency UNB, Malek said per maund paddy is being sold at Tk 500 while the cost of per maund paddy production is over Tk 1,000. The district farmers have been facing serious scarcity of day labourers and their price per day is Tk 800 to 850. A day labourer can clear one to one and half maund of paddy in a day. Following this serious issue without solution, he made this unique protest of setting fire on ripe paddy field in order to draw the attention of the government, he added. And draw their attention he did, in the process managing to train the spotlight on a serious issue in the local rice market that most of the country was ready to brush under the carpet, around the price of rice in our society, and those who farm, this rice.
Farmer suicides are not unique to India, although nowhere else is it anywhere near as common. In the 1930s, the Dust Bowl that followed the stock market crash and ravaged agriculture in the United States disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of farmers and drove not just a few of them to suicide.
Australia’s drought which started six years ago and has no end in sight, is now leading to one farmer taking his life every four days. Vidharbal district in Maharashtra has earned the dubious distinction of having the highest number of suicides in the “suicide belt” that stretches across four major states of India. Why do so many small farmers kill themselves? It’s a seasonal thing, someone declared: debt or alcohol.
According to activists, the villains range from ruthless globalization to dumping of agricultural produce by the United States and EU, to heartless multinationals that force farmers to buy genetically modified seeds. It isn’t that farmer suicides are unheard of in Bangladesh. Utterly frustrated, Shyamol Kundu took his own life on November 12 in 2017. In the same year, a small farmer in Jhenaidah named Kawsar committed suicide due to persistent losses with his crops. On April 7, a farmer in Habiganj district’s Baniyachang upazila also committed suicide as he failed to pay off his increasing debt. According to a 2016 study conducted by Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, 55 percent of the suicide victims earned less than Tk 4000 per month and most of these victims are farmers or agricultural labourers.
Due to lack of storage facilities and the government’s failure to control the market, every year Bangladesh’s farmers incur huge losses on their crop. Although prices are higher in urban markets, the growers rarely benefit from price hikes. To control the market, every year the government takes the initiative to procure rice and paddy directly from the farmers at a fixed price. Considering increasing production costs, the government also increases the price to ensure a fair price for the farmers. This year, the government is procuring rice at Tk 36 per kg.
But the problem is that the purchase the government is engaging in is not ultimately taking place directly from the farmers - said to be ‘logistically impossible’ by Dr KAS Murshid, director-general at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies who somewhat subversively has long supported a higher market price for rice, so that the farmer is able to get a better price. Of nearly 35 million tonnes offered by farmers, the government is pledge-bound to buy some 1.5 MT this year. Clearly that can create no impact on the price of rice at the national level. Not even the local.
For example, of 161,000 tons of paddy harvested in Shariatpur, the Food Division has announced it will purchase only 740 tons. A bitter twist is that while the government is procuring so little paddy, it is also buying 1,613 tons of rice from the district as well. This trade essentially cuts the farmer out of the picture as wholesale buyers and middlemen buy from farmers at low prices and sell high to the government, effectively setting up the current crisis that hundreds of thousands of farmers are living through.
Akhter Ahmed, the country head of the Washington-based food research think tank IFPRI, said, “Rice production more than tripled since the country’s liberation [in 1971], but the [agricultural] growth is slowing down.” He observed that the most popular rice varieties in Bangladesh are ageing and they require better replacements so that farmers can reap more yield from less land and go for agricultural diversity by growing other high value crops. Akhter put emphasis on the agricultural extension service’s role in demonstrating and popularising the new potential rice varieties among the farmers. As a third of Bangladesh’s total farm households are pure tenants -- who work in lands owned by others -- it’s very crucial for the state to take extension services to them, he added. The farm sector contributes about 17 percent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employs more than 45 percent of the total labour force. Currently, nearly 75 percent of the total 7.84 million hectares of arable land is being used to produce rice, thanks to land scarcity and people’s rice-centric dietary habit.
Bangladesh’s resilient farmers recouped the 2017 devastating flood-induced crop damages by growing more rice over the last few growing seasons including the current Boro. This high rice output brings much relief to the government that spent millions of Taka importing a record four million tons of rice in 2017-18 through public and private channels.
But much to the misery of growers, the prices that they are being offered for their produces in the current marketing season is non-commensurate to their production costs.
For the past one week – news and pictures of aggrieved farmers taking to the streets demanding fair price for rice and different socio-cultural and student groups rallying supports for the same cause hogged the media attention big time and deservedly so.
Farmers blocked a highway in rice-rich northern region of Rangpur – spreading paddy grains on the road – demanding the government to purchase paddy directly from farms, and ensure a fair price.
Bangladesh’s rice production is expected to increase for the second straight year in a row, thanks to good weather and increased yield due to continuing cultivation of hybrid and high-yielding varieties (HYV). Following the crop loss in 2017 due to Haor zone’s flood and crop diseases, the country’s rice growers bounced back with a higher production – nearly 35 million tons in 2018-19 making the country self-reliant in staple production again.
According to the Ministry of Food, country’s current stock of rice in public granaries is over one million tons, well above the comfortable food safety threshold level. Polash Kanti Nath heads a farmers’ organization goes by the name – Krishak Sangram Parishad (KSP). He said, “It costs around Tk700-Tk 800 to produce a maund of paddy but we can only sell it for Tk400. Even buyers are few in number.”
Another farmer said: “The government has promised to buy paddy directly from farmers, but we do not see that happening here. We are not getting a fair price for the paddy, so we are protesting.”
The country lost 1.9 million tons of rice in Haor flashfloods in 2017 and import tariff was cut from 28 percent to zero at a stroke - a drastic step to deal with a dire situation. But the government should have re-imposed tariffs on rice import thereby, giving much required protection to domestic rice growers.
Agriculture Minister Dr Abdur Razzque told reporters this week that government would export rice to ease the situation. He said government is now in a position to even export over a million tons of rice.
Dr Akhter considers entering into the rice export market is not that easy and such an intervention even if is conceived now its benefit would not trickle down to the farmers rather, it would only benefit the big millers and traders – who had purchased rice from farmers at a cheap rate and hoarded that for quite some time to make a windfall.
“Countries like Thailand and Vietnam developed a place for them in a very competitive rice export market over a period of time. It’ll not be so easy for Bangladesh to make a sudden inroad into that global rice market,” explained Dr Akhter.
A legal notice has been served to the secretaries of the Ministries of Food and Agriculture to buy paddy directly from farmers at a fair price. Supreme Court lawyer, Mohammed Emdadul Haque Sumon, sent the notice by post. But the idea of direct purchase is also dismissed by veteran journalist Reaz Ahmed, at present executive editor of Dhaka Tribune, who throughout his career has always maintained an abiding interest in issues centring agriculture, particularly rice.
Meanwhile the notice cautioned that a writ will be filed with the High Court if necessary steps are not taken within three working days. In addition, the notice asked for withdrawal of the permission to import rice and take necessary steps to facilitate export of rice in order to provide farmers a fair price. Furthermore, it suggested the government take initiative to maintain firm regulations to ensure fair prices for paddy farmers.
In the wake of what was fast becoming a fracas, Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal this week hinted about rice exports and restricting imports in a bid to bring relief to the growers hit hard by lower pieces of paddy.
“The country will export rice even though it needs subsidy,” said the minister while addressing a program at planning ministry in the capital.
The farmers were suffering by way of not getting fair price of their produce as the markets had higher amount of stocks than what was needed. Meanwhile the rice imported in recent years increased the stocks, lowering the price further. The minister, in the program, also criticized the rice import and said that the import would be banned immediately.
“The country’s farmers need to be saved and for that import must be stopped,” Lotus Kamal said. According to food ministry data, the country imported 2,00,000 tons of rice over the last 10 months of the current fiscal and 3,80,000 more tons are under process of import.
The government promoted rice imports two years ago withdrawing the import duties to meet rice supply shortage caused by 2017 flood, which badly affected crops, especially in hoar areas.
The government then had said they would require 1 MT of rice but a total of 6 MT were imported in last two years, said the Food Ministry. Besides, last couple of seasons witnessed a substantial growth in rice production.
As a result, the prices of rice were not rational with farmers’ cost of production, which caused losses to the growers. Meanwhile, boro rice has started coming to market, bringing down the rice prices further.
Rice has been selling at Tk30-50 depending on their variety, which was Tk38 to Tk65 last week, a Tk 8-15 fall per kilogram.
Experts were repeatedly calling for reducing production costs though increasing yield. Mustafa Kamal said the use of new technology could reduce the cost of production, bringing more profit to the harvesters. Hinting at government initiatives for technological revolution in agricultural sector, he said that the government would bring high-tech agriculture machineries for the farmers.
“We want to provide such machineries at subsidized rates but the farmers are not interested to buy those.”