The puzzle of agrarian growth and stagnation in the GMB basin

16 Nov

The story of agrarian growth and stagnation in the Ganga-Meghna-Brahmaputra basin (encompassing Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh) is a puzzle that keeps intriguing me. Pieces just don’t fall in place to yield one neat explanation. Perhaps, there are no neat explanations. Or perhaps, I am not looking at the right place. Who knows?

In the 1980s, for the first time, a century long agrarian stagnation in Bengal and Bihar drew attention of a host of scholars. Majority view opined that it was a regressive agrarian structure — a result of exploitative Zamindari system that held this region back, leading to a paradox of “hunger in a fertile land” as Boyce (1987) put it in a nutshell, in this seminal book Agrarian Impasse in Bengal: Agricultural Growth in Bangladesh and West Bengal. Around that time, West Bengal undertook relatively successful land reforms and agriculture did indeed turn around convincing many that land reforms was that much needed trigger. Agricultural growth in West Bengal, shot up in 1980s and remained high until mid-1990s. Since then, it has plummeted and is currently, one of the lowest in India. My own work points to energy squeeze as a reason for this stagnation.

In Bangladesh, however, events took a different turn. Without the political will for land reforms, Bangladesh decided to embark on a path of intensive groundwater use. For this, they did away with spacing norms for tubewells and also liberalised pump imports way back in 1987.  Very soon, Bangladesh, got literally flooded with millions of cheap Chinese pumps. Now the country has 15 lakhs shallow tubewells and low lift pumps (as compared to only 5 lakh pumps in West Bengal) and majority of these pumps run on diesel. Intensive groundwater use led to massive increase in area under summer ‘boro‘ paddy and consistently high agricultural growth — a growth that is unimpeded to this day.

In Bihar, land reforms never took off, but groundwater irrigation did take off, with private investments by small and marginal farmers, only to slow down in recent years. My hunch is that energy squeeze is implicated again.  However, agricultural growth rates in Bihar has always been low, even with private investments in yield enhancing inputs like fertilizers, HYV seeds and irrigation — especially shallow tubewells. Why?

Now, this is the puzzle I am grappling with. If land reforms was indeed that trigger, how come Bangladesh’s agriculture continues to grow even without it and how come West Bengal’s agriculture stagnated even after land reforms? Now, if groundwater irrigation was the trigger, how come, agriculture never grew in Bihar and has stagnated in West Bengal since late 1990s, in spite of a spurt in private investments in groundwater? Here, my thesis of energy-squeeze looks particularly attractive– physical access to groundwater not withstanding, it is the high energy costs of pumping that  makes it economically nonviable to irrigate remunerative, but high water consuming crops.

But wait, what about Bangladesh again? With over 95% of all pumps running on diesel, how come farmers there never faced or reacted to the kind of energy squeeze that farmers in West Bengal and Bihar faced and reacted to? I don’t have neat explanations, except that four things are different in Bangladesh: paddy productivity is 30-50% higher in Bangladesh than in West Bengal or Bihar; relative diesel to paddy price ratio is more favorable in Bangladesh than in either West Bengal or Bihar; irrigation requirement for boro crop is lower in Bangladesh than in West Bengal due to higher rainfall and late recession of floods and finally, with access to land and water (pumps) in the hands of a few richer peasants, those who actually take irrigation decisions, do not face the kind of credit constraints that very small and marginal farmers face in West Bengal and Bihar. All these four factors partially explain why energy-squeeze is less of an issue in Bangladesh than in eastern India.

Not neat or complete explanations, no where near it. And so, my quest continues…


2 Responses to “The puzzle of agrarian growth and stagnation in the GMB basin”

  1. jasmin moli November 23, 2012 at 3:29 pm #

    Hello there. Its jasmin moli, journalist from Bangladesh. May I have your mail id please.

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