In many people’s mind, the story of Bangladesh’s agricultural transformation is largely a story of the shift towards high-yielding varieties of rice and a few other crops
Shykh Siraj, the well-known TV personality who tells stories of exciting innovations in the villages of Bangladesh, has a YouTube channel with more than 800 videos.
The other day, as I browsed through the contents of the channel, one entry intrigued me. It was called the Power Tiller Race!
I knew that Siraj has been trying to revive the traditional boat races, once a common entertainment for villagers all over Bangladesh.
But a power tiller race, seriously? I started to watch the video.
Wearing his trademark olive-coloured short-sleeved shirt, Siraj appears on the screen with a microphone in hand, about to make an announcement.
Behind him is a muddy, circular patch of land with an inner circle marked by a set of flags.
We can see a man sitting on a power tiller, surrounded by scores of enthusiastic onlookers ready to enjoy a contest.
Siraj spells out the rules; each contestant will have to drive the power tiller along the circular patch without touching the flags that demarcate the inner circle.
He also reminds each contestant that certain gears are not to be used.
The winner will be the one who completes the most rounds within a minute. Eight young men contest. The last wins with a score of 7.5 rounds. The crowd erupts in cheers.
The power tiller race may appear an oddity.
However, in choosing this contest, Shaykh Siraj drew attention to an important new trend, i.e., the mechanisation of Bangladesh’s agriculture.
In many people’s mind, the story of Bangladesh’s agricultural transformation is largely a story of the shift towards high-yielding varieties of rice and a few other crops, aided by the spread of irrigation and fertilisers.
Rarely mentioned in that story is the other aspect of the transformation, i.e., the spread of mechanisation beyond irrigation.
Bangladesh’s noted agricultural economist Sattar Mandal eloquently captures the spread of machines in the villages of Bangladesh in one of his papers:
“Days are gone by when one would see the hapless ploughmen walking behind wooden plough drawn by a pair of bullocks tilling the fields under the scorching summer sun in Bangladesh. Now any casual observer walking through the countryside can see 80 per cent of tillage and irrigation operations and almost the entire threshing of rice, wheat and other crops is done by machines.”
Starting with baby steps in the 1960s and early 1970s, mechanisation started spreading in the agriculture of Bangladesh from the 1980s, gaining steam in the late 1990s.
The chart shows trends in the number of power tillers, tractors and power threshers.
By 2012, the number of these pieces of agricultural machinery were 7, 20 and 23 times their levels respectively in 1996.
By 2019, many agricultural activities were almost entirely mechanised.
For example, up to 95 per cent of the land was being tilled by power tillers and tractors, about 90 per cent of pesticide applications was mechanised and most of the grains, especially rice, was being threshed by machines.
Tilling and irrigation were also largely mechanised.
The machines used are mostly small-scale, powered by small engines.
This pattern is like that of many East Asian countries but in contrast to that observed in the more developed countries and land-abundant and/or labour scarce parts of the developing world, such as the Indian province of Punjab.
Machinery helps speed up the preparation of land and sowing, and, as the crop grows, it facilitates water management.
Then, when the time comes to reap the fruits, machines help in the processes of harvesting and threshing, reducing the time to harvest as well as wastage of the produce.
Quick turnaround times clear the land promptly allowing an additional crop to be grown.
Mechanisation also helps considerably to reduce the drudgery of farm work and improve processing, transportation and marketing of the products.
The beginnings of agricultural mechanisation in Bangladesh were slow.
In the 1960s, public sector bodies, such as the Agricultural Development Corporation and other agencies, promoted the use of tractors, low-lift pumps, and deep tube wells and supplied these to farmers on a small scale.
The take-up was negligible except for low-list pumps, i.e. small-scale power pumps for lifting surface water for irrigation.
Given the farming structure dominated by small farmers, it is perhaps no surprise that the larger machines, such as tractors and deep tube wells, did not have much traction in those early years.
However, two developments helped change the incentives in the late 1980s and 1990.
As the manufacturing and service sectors expanded, people started migrating out of agriculture in large numbers.
Some of them went to the cities, lured by expectations of jobs and other opportunities and taking advantage of improved connectivity, but others remained in villages taking advantage of an expanding rural non-farm sector.
Fewer people were now available for full-time farming work and the real wages of agricultural workers started to rise.
Moreover, maintaining draft animals, the traditional source of draft power for agriculture, was becoming increasingly costly.
And, as their economic conditions improved, farmers were less willing to put up with the drudgery of farming, especially in the hostile weather conditions common in Bangladesh.
The emergence of a rental market for machinery meant that even cash-starved farmers could take advantage of mechanisation by renting.
The support for mechanised irrigation initially came in the form of subsidised credits.
Later, in the 1970s, the import of diesel engines and agricultural machinery was liberalised and import duties reduced.
The government also started a process of privatisation, involving the transfer of government-owned power pumps and shallow tube wells to farmers’ cooperatives.
Reform implementation was initially slow but accelerated a decade later.
A tipping point was reached in the late 1980s when the government started in earnest to liberalise the market for agricultural inputs by removing restrictions and allowing greater private sector participation.
This movement was triggered by a slowdown in agricultural growth in the mid-1980s that had prompted an agricultural sector review by the government.
On top of this, a devastating cyclone in 1988 had caused heavy loss of human lives and draft animal.
These developments helped trigger the large-scale liberalisation of the agricultural input market in the late 1980s.
The supply of different types of machines and equipment increased and prices fell.
The acceleration in the rate of mechanisation had a spillover impact beyond agriculture as a set of rural non-farm activities emerged in the service of mechanisation, including a market for equipment rental.
The reform momentum continues. The government has recently adopted an Agricultural Mechanisation Policy to help further spread mechanisation, this time in the transplanting and harvesting of crops, two activities that had remained largely manual to-date.
The spread of agricultural mechanisation in Bangladesh is a fascinating story of synergy: how economic dynamics, policy actions and responses by economic actors come together to produce a transformation.
The author is an economist, previously with an international development agency