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close this bookNeedless Hunger - Voices from a Bangladesh Village (FF, 1982, 74 p.)
close this folderThe making of hunger
Open this folder and view contents3. Who owns the land
Open this folder and view contents4. Siphoning the surplus
Open this folder and view contents5. The inefficiency of inequalily
View the document6. What is the alternative?

6. What is the alternative?

With fertile land, abundant water and and vast reserves of natural gas, Bangladesh clearly has the potential to afford all its citizens a decent livelihood. The basic obstacles to realizing this potential are social, not technical. True, agricultural output can be increased somewhat by providing more inputs, more credit and better extension services, and by raising prices to give large landowners more incentive to produce. But this will not help those who have no land on which to grow food and are too poor to buy it; in fact, such production increases may actually result in greater hunger by accelerating the concentration of land in fewer hands. Moreover, the inefficiencies inherent in an inequitable social structure will continue to seriously limit the scope for increasing production.

Social Reconstruction

What is the alternative to the needless hunger of Bangladesh's poor majority? Only a far-reaching social reconstruction can break the fundamental barriers to increased production and at the same time ensure that the poor majority shares in the fruits of development. The key to such a reconstruction is land reform. If a ceiling of 10 acres per family were perfectly implemented and the excess land redistributed among the landless, each family would receive less than 0.4 acre. A more drastic four-acre ceiling would yield enough surplus to provide each landless and near landless family with a total of 0.86 acre.1 But even if such a radical reform were implemented, over time lands would be subdivided among children, and for one reason or another some peasants would end up selling out to others, so that eventually a landless group would reemerge. This suggests that land reform, though necessary, would not alone be sufficient to overcome the roots of poverty in Bangladesh. Access to the land is only half of the answer to the needs of the rural poor the other half lies in the cooperative use of the land.

Cooperation in agricultural production would enable the peasants of Bangladesh to undertake self-help development projects which remain impossible as long as agriculture is organized on a fragmented, individual basis. Through labor-intensive construction of irrigation facilities, drainage canals and embankments, the peasants could collectively begin to master the forces of nature in the face of which single individuals are powerless. As the people of our village remarked: "One bamboo alone is weak; many bamboos lashed together are unbreakable." The certainty that the peasants themselves would reap the fruits of their labor, rather than the village landlords, would release tremendous popular energy and initiative.

Western experts tend to disparage such an alternative approach to development. The authors of the AID land study, for example, dismiss this possibility:

It is difficult to imagine the people in the countryside (even the landless), committed as they are by tradition to venerate individual rights in land, being amenable to joint farming activities of any kind. Only under circumstances in which the state was able and willing to employ extraordinary coercive power can such joint farming cooperatives be envisaged in Bangladesh. Therefore, for reasons that are practical rather than ideological, joint farming cooperatives do not appear to be a viable option within a general program for rural development.2

But are joint farming cooperatives in Bangladesh really such a farfetched idea? Certainly no one should underestimate the difficulties involved in such a major social transformation, but one must distinguish between difficulties and insurmountable obstacles.

The assertion that the peasants of Bangladesh are committed by tradition to "venerate individual rights in land" is an overstatement. Land ownership in Bangladesh has been far from stable. After 1947, the breakup of the zamindari system resulted in the transfer of ownership of three-fourths of the country's land to new hands.3 It was through such transfers that many of the landlords in Katni's vicinity acquired their extensive landholdings. The peasants recall this with bitterness; they hardly venerate the landlords' rights to the land.

While we were in the village, we witnessed the constant turnover of land, the buying and selling through which small farmers are being gradually dispossessed. Certainly, land is more than just another commodity to the peasants of Bangladesh, for land ownership can spell the difference between survival and starvation. But this is a question of economic security, not of quasi-religious attitudes.

Furthermore, the notion of cooperation was far from alien to the peasants of our village. Many small landowners worked together in informal mutual aid groups. Five or six peasants would join together during the plowing, transplanting or weeding of the fields or at harvest time, working one day on one man's land, the next day on another's and so on. Mostly this was done by middle and poor peasants, but sometimes landless friends would join the group, being paid by whomever owned the land that was worked on a particular day. The villagers explained, "When you work alone, time passes slowly. Working in a group, we talk and sing and the work gets done much faster."

A transition to joint farming in Bangladesh would necessarily pass through stages, perhaps building at first upon the existing tradition of mutual aid groups. It would have to rely on the peasants' own initiative-it could never be imposed upon them. Once convinced that change was possible, the landless and small farmers could be expected to actively support land redistribution and the growth of agricultural cooperation, for these would bring them improved living standards and greater control over their lives and labor.

Rich landowners would probably be less than enthusiastic about such changes, and force might be necessary to break their resistance. Coercion and the violence of state repression, as well as the more subtle violence of starvation, are today routine in Bangladesh. What would be "extraordinary" about any coercion involved in a social reconstruction would not be its scale but rather that it would be employed against the wealthy minority, instead of against the poor majority.

Who could exercise the necessary force to bring about a basic land reform ? Only the poor themselves, whose numbers give them strength. The act of joining together to bring about social change would help to set the stage for cooperation in agricultural production itself. Industry as well as agriculture would benefit from such a social reconstruction, since those who today are too poor to buy consumer goods would be transformed into a vast internal market.

To suggest that the road to development in Bangladesh lies in this direction is not to say that the "Chinese model" can or should be exactly duplicated. The people of each country must chart their own path of development. What the Chinese have shown is that change is not impossible and that starvation is not inevitable. Development is a great challenge, and one which can only be met through the mobilization of the talents and energies of the poor themselves. It will take patience, organization and dedication. There are no magic words and no instant solutions.

“Only far reaching social reconstruction can break the fundamental barriers to increased production and at the same time insure that the poor majority shares in the fruits of development. The key to such a reconstruction is land reform.”

Too Optimistic?

Some might argue that this scenario is too optimistic. A World Bank staff member told us, "The poor people I knew would not be able to mobilize themselves for development or revolution. In Latin America maybe, but the poor in Bangladesh are too submissive and ignorant. "

Privately, however, many aid officials view a far-reaching social reconstruction in Bangladesh not as a wishful dream but rather as a sad inevitability. AID's Dacca mission states in a 1978 memorandum: "More pessimistically, we foresee that the time will come when the organization of productive forces will have to be radically transformed in such a fashion that rural people will only be able to find security, employment and income in some form of communal agriculture."4

Are Bangladesh's peasants too "submissive and ignorant" to see the need for change? Bangladesh has a long history of peasant rebellions.5 In 1947 and 1971 the peasants saw that political power can and does change hands. But to struggle against the rural elite is to invite retaliation. The large landowners are backed when necessary by the force of arms. Peasants are not by nature passive; on the contrary, they are among the most energetic, hardworking people in the world. The problem lies not in their ability to act, but in the powerful forces that prevent them from acting.

The rural elite which rules the countryside is not the only obstacle to change. The urban elite which controls the government also benefits from the present social order and wishes to preserve it. Moreover, in Bangladesh most members of the urban upper and middle classes are first or second generation city dwellers with roots still in the villages. The urban and rural elites are not only natural allies, they are also blood relations. Government patronage to the large landowners, in the form of subsidized inputs, credit and funds for local public works projects, serves to strengthen this alliance. The cross fertilization of the two elites has recently taken a new twist, as reported by The Washington Post: "Many of the land transfers recently recorded are to army officers, senior bureaucrats and police."6

There is no natural barrier to the satisfaction of the basic human needs of Bangladesh's people. But there is the man-made barrier of a social order which benefits a few at the expense of many. In the cautious language of an AID report, "A local government may lack the political will to implement needed agrarian reforms, however obvious the need for such reforms."7 No such shortage of political will however is likely to handicap the government when it comes to crushing any challenge to the vested interests it protects.

Just as Bangladesh's large landowners rely on the backing of the elite-based government, so the government relies on financial and logistical support from wealthier countries. Each year the United States government and U.S.-supported multilateral institutions provide hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid to the Bangladesh government. If we as Americans are concerned about the needless hunger of Bangladesh's poor majority, our first duty is to understand the effects of the aid given in our name.