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close this bookNeedless Hunger - Voices from a Bangladesh Village (FF, 1982, 74 p.)
close this folderThe making of hunger
close this folder3. Who owns the land
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View the documentShaha Paikur: landlord, merchant and moneylender


The pattern of landownership in Bangladesh profoundly affects both the production and distribution of food. Although Bangladesh is often called a "land of small farmers," the reality in the villages is more complex. On the one hand, many villagers own no land at all and depend upon wage labor for their livelihoods. On the other hand are landlords whose holdings, though modest by American standards, are large enough to free them from the necessity of working in the fields.

A recent study commissioned by the United States Agency for International Development (AID) found that a "dichotomy between ownership of land and labor on it" is widespread in Bangladesh. Less than 10 percent of Bangladesh's rural households own over half the country's cultivable land, while 60 percent of rural families own less than 10 percent of the land. One third own no cultivable land at all, and by including those who own less than half an acre, the study concludes that 48 percent of the families of rural Bangladesh are "functionally landless." Pointing to the difficulties of collecting reliable data, the authors of the study note that these figures probably underestimate the actual extent of landlessness and the true level of concentration of landownership.1

Based on their different relationships to the land, the villagers of Bangladesh fall into five basic classes:

· Landlords do not work on the land themselves, except sometimes to supervise their workers. Instead they hire labor or let out land to sharecroppers.

· Rich peasants work in the fields but have more land than they can cultivate alone. They gain most of their income from lands they cultivate with hired labor or sharecroppers.

· Middle peasants come closest to our image of the selfsufficient small farmer. They earn their livings mainly by working their own land, though at times they may work for others or hire others to work for them.

· Poor peasants own a little land, but not enough to support themselves. They earn their livings mainly by working as sharecroppers or wage laborers.

· Landless laborers own no land except for their house sites, and sometimes not even that. Lacking draft animals and agricultural implements, they seldom can work as sharecroppers, and must depend upon wages for their livelihoods.

A villager in Katni told us, "Without land, there is no security." Indeed, without land there is often no food. An International Labor Organization study reports that landless laborers consume only 78 percent as much grain as those who own over seven and one-half acres of land, despite the fact that the landless need 40 percent more calories because they work harder.2 As we shall see, landownership not only determines who will have enough to eat, but also affects how much food is actually produced.

Not surprisingly, the small minority of rural families who own over half the country's farmland are, in the words of the AID study, "at the apex of the structure of power in rural Bangladesh; the political economy of the countryside is controlled by them."3 Land is the key to their power, power which in turn brings them control over other food-producing resources such as irrigation facilities and fertilizer. Since these agricultural inputs are often highly subsidized by the government, they are all the more desirable to the rural elite.

“Land, the ultimate source of wealth and power in rural Bangladesh, is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.”

Similarly, the large landowner is better able to receive low interest loans from government banks. His land serves as collateral, and he knows how to deal with the bank officials: how to fill out the necessary forms and when to propose a snack at the nearest tea stall. The large landowners also usually dominate village cooperatives which have access to government credit.

The rural poor meanwhile must turn to the village moneylender when they need cash, often paying interest rates of more than 100 percent a year. Not coincidentally, the moneylender and the large landowner are often one and the same person. Since Islam, Bangladesh's main religion, condemns the taking of interest, moneylenders ease their consciences through such simple expedients as buying a peasant's crop before the harvest-at half the market rate. To get credit small farmers frequently mortgage their land, forfeiting the right to cultivate it until they repay the loan.

The large landowners' control of food-producing resources- land, inputs and credit-allows them to appropriate much of the wealth produced in the countryside. As a result, they are able to buy out hard-pressed smaller farmers, driving them into the ever growing ranks of the landless. One study found that peasants who own less than an acre of land sell half their remaining land every yearn Land, the ultimate source of wealth and power in rural Bangladesh, is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Shaha Paikur: landlord, merchant and moneylender

Shaha Paikur lives with his four wives in a cement house in Dosutari, a village adjoining Katni. He is typical of the local merchants, for he is also a landlord and moneylender. He deals in jute, rice and mustard seed, and his warehouse is large enough to hold the produce of many local peasants as well as that of his own extensive landholdings. When he sells his jute, a caravan of 50 oxcarts carries it to town. Villagers often speculate about his riches, and some claim he buries gold in his courtyard.

Shaha Paikur's moneylending has earned him an unsavory reputation. "He began life with nothing but a sharp eye," recalls our neighbor Aktar Ali. "First he married an orphan girl who had some land, and then he worked himself up by moneylending, charging interest rates so high that borrowers could seldom pay him back. When we first came here, he took some of our land too. Now we have learned never to borrow from him; when in need, we borrow from our relatives.

"Shaha is clever, though. When a man falls on hard times, Shaha offers money. He acts so friendly, 'You have no rice? You have no clothes? Here, take this! You can pay me back at harvest time.'

"Men are weak. They know they shouldn't take his money, but they think: 'Let me eat today. Let the future bring what it may.' At harvest time Shaha is back, demanding payment in rice at half the market rate. When a man cannot repay, Shaha takes his land-he never lends money to a landless man.

"Our Koran tells us that moneylending is a great sin. In Allah's eyes, taking interest is as evil as murder. Let me tell you a story to prove it. Last year, when caterpillars attacked my rice crop, I tried all kinds of chemical sprays with no effect. Finally someone suggested the old method of writing a moneylender's name on pieces of paper and tying them to stakes at three corners of the field. You leave one corner open so the insects can escape. I wrote Shaha Paikur's name, tied it to the stakes, and in two days those caterpillars were gone! That is how much Allah despises the moneylender-even pests flee his name!"

Today the villagers are wary of Shaha Paikur's advances, and turn to him for money only in desperation. But Shaha has found other avenues to expand his fortune. He is now the biggest landlord in Dosutari, with holdings scattered in neighboring villages. At harvest time his agents ply the local markets and his warehouse fills. When the price is right an oxcart caravan takes his goods to town. He sells jute to the government and to bigger merchants, rice to the grain dealers in the nearest town, and mustard seed to a company which presses it for oil. With his profits he buys more land.

Although trade is not as morally repugnant as moneylending, many villagers resent Shaha Paikur as much for his merchant activities as for his usury. "I grow the jute in Shaha's warehouse," said one middle peasant. "Without me, where would he be? What do I get for my labor? Worn hands, aching muscles, and just enough to eat so that I can live to work another day. Meanwhile Shaha sits and eats, and counts his taka."