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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…

Experimental games with farmers in coastal Bangladesh

10 Nov

My colleague Arijit Das, who is an economist, has designed a wonderfully simple game. He calls it the ‘public goods game’ and it  involves 5 players deciding whether or not to contribute to a common fund for polder maintenance. Another economist colleague of mine, Marie-Charlotte Buisson and I have been helping Arijit implement this game in villages of Bangladesh. This has been a fascinating experience so far and I can’t wait to play it with friends and family (provided that they want to play it, of course!). To me, what is interesting is the impact of a single free rider in the group and how quickly it erodes trust among others. But, what is even more interesting, is the fact that free riding is much less frequent than we  anticipated. Is it because, farmers feel strongly about polder maintenance and are willing to contribute? Or is it because they are putting forward their best behavior and cooperating most of the time, in the hope that we can somehow influence the government to sanction additional funds for repair and maintenance? We don’t know, not yet, that is. But we will have a good understanding after we have played a few more rounds in polders with different characteristics. And in the meanwhile, I have decided that, if I ever to go back to school, I will study behavioral economics — it simply fascinates me!

Of prawns and shrimps

19 Jul

I am not a fish expert. But like any other Bengali worth her salt, I love eating fish. And chingri (a generic term for prawn and shrimp in Bangla) is my favorite ‘fish’. As an avid chingri fan, I know that there are several varieties of chingri such as golda and bagda. However, I was blissfully ignorant of the water management implications of growing golda vs. bagda until I started working in coastal Bangladesh. Golda is a freshwater prawn, while bagda is a brackish water shrimp. Yes, prawns and shrimps, my friends at World Fish Center told me, are two different things!

Before large scale shrimp (bagda) cultivation started in the 1980s, it was usual for polder sluice gates to be opened during monsoon season when fresh water could enter and flush out excess salinity from the soil. During the rest of the year, when salinity in coastal rivers went up, gates would remain closed. This allowed farmers to cultivate paddy crop during the rainy season and at best another less water consuming crop like sesame in the rabi season. Lack of water and high natural salinity build-up in the soil precluded any summer crop. However, commercial bagda cultivation changed the rules of the game. Now, bagda farmers want to bring brackish water inside the polder throughout the year. Shrimps thrive in brackish water, but nothing else does. This particularly affects paddy farmers – who almost always tend to be poor. Bagda farmers, on the other hand, tend to be wealthy – and indeed many of them are absentee-landlords and industrialists who have leased in land from local farmers for shrimp cultivation. Once shrimp cultivation comes in, natural vegetation dies, leaving behind miles and miles of shrimp farms uninterrupted by trees, crops and even livestock. Drilling of pipes in polders to bring in saline water also weakens the infrastructure, making it even  more damage-prone during cyclones.

In view of negative environmental impacts, several local NGOs like Nijera Kori and BELA have tried to discourage farmers from cultivating shrimp and shift to fresh water prawns instead. But, they have had limited success so far. We wanted to investigate why and realized that answer lies in economics. We compared costs and benefits of growing shrimps vs. prawns and  found that benefits from growing shrimp is so much higher than any other crop combination that it is almost impossible to convince farmers to do otherwise.

What can we do once we understand and accept this economic as well as environmental reality? I found two interesting things that are happening on the ground.  International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) have developed a number of salt tolerant rice varieties which farmers can grow on shrimp farms during rainy season. Even though productivity of such varieties is low, it still takes care of family’s food security needs. World Fish and Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute on the other hand, are experimenting with bagda varieties that can grow in either very low saline environment or in fresh water to ensure that bagda farming can be done with minimal environmental damage.

The solution, I reckon, will lie in innovative ideas as above that understand farmers’ livelihood compulsions and gives them alternative and more sustainable choices. And I for one, will think twice before eating shrimps.


Water management in coastal Bangladesh: Putting together the pieces

13 Jul

I was in coastal Bangladesh for the last few days with a group of researchers and practitioners who care deeply about water management issues in the region. I happen to be one of them. My research looks into issues of community participation in water management.

But why is water management even an issue? With a rainfall of 1500 to 3000 mm, Bangladesh is one of most the water abundant countries in the world. My first thoughts were, surely with such high rainfall, there can’t be many water related problems in Bangladesh? And even if there are, it should be fairly easy to solve them. Unfortunately, wrong on both counts! High rainfall notwithstanding, our study area in coastal Bangladesh faces several water challenges. For one, much of coastal Bangladesh is a part of an active delta and highly influenced by tidal surges and salinity intrusion. So, in non-rainy months, availability of fresh water is scarce and management of brackish waters is a critical issue. Second, relatively flat terrain, clayey soils and high rainfall leads to severe water logging, inundation and siltation of internal drainage channels. These are also most densely populated and poverty stricken parts of the world and that’s what makes water management challenges here even more critical.

Now, what exactly is my research about? In coastal areas, the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) has constructed a series of Dutch-style polders or embankments since the 1960s. The initial function of polders was to protect coastal communities from natural calamities and tidal surges, but now these polders also support a burgeoning population engaged in farming and aquaculture activities. Water is a critical input for both. This area, by virtue of its fertile land, suitable climate and abundant water resources has a huge potential for agricultural production. However, weak infrastructure, lack of maintenance of this infrastructure by government agencies and frequent conflicts among competing users means that this potential is far from met.

Many believe that the solution lies in engaging local communities in operation and maintenance (O&M) of polder infrastructure. After all, who can better understand the needs of the communities, if not the community members themselves? Fair enough. And this is what I am trying to investigate: does involving communities in polder management improve water management within the polders and reduce conflicts leading to better outcomes in terms of crop production and productivity? By polder management, I mean, timely opening and closing of sluice gates (to let in water from outside and drain out water from inside) and maintenance of polder infrastructure such as internal canals and gates.

What are our findings so far? First, we find that even in polders where there is formal water management organizations (WMOs) set up by Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) or Local Government Engineering Department (LGED), it is the informal rules and regulations that determine day to day operations. The task of opening and closing the gates is often entrusted to those living nearest the gate and the timing is determined by interests of the wealthier interest groups. In most case, they happen to be shrimp farmers. Shrimp farming needs brackish water and brackish water kills paddy. Small and marginal farmers cultivate paddy. Equity implications are clear – in polders where shrimp cultivation is profitable, interests of paddy farmers are entirely overlooked and this does not change even when formal WMOs are set up for the express purpose of equitable and efficient water distribution for all water users in a polder.

Second, the WMOs are also entrusted with the task of regular maintenance of infrastructure – such as minor repairs of gates, removal of silt in the canals and cutting of grass on the embankment. Periodic and major repair is the responsibility of the government. We found that WMOs are seldom able to bring together the communities to do this ‘routine’ maintenance. Reasons are not hard to find: for one, silting, even minimal amount of silting is expensive and far beyond the capacity of the farmers. Second, and even more importantly, they do not see any value in ‘regular’ maintenance because even without it, they can meet their day to day agricultural water needs through ‘informal’ channels such as irregular opening or closing of gates or through lifting water directly from the canals using a low lift pump. When farmers do not maintain infrastructure, they obviously deteriorate and what was a ‘minor’ repair becomes a ‘major’ rehabilitation. The mandate for periodic and major repairs lies with the government. Farmers’ decision not to invest in maintenance is therefore guided by two quite rational arguments: one, not maintaining a canal or a gate does not directly impinge on their agricultural activities in the short run; and second, in the long run when it starts affecting them, the government or a donor most likely steps in and rehabilitates the entire system. The cycle of “build-neglect-rebuild” continues ad nauseum. WMOs were created to tackle this problem of ‘deferred-maintenance’; but our field data shows that this has not been happening. At the heart of this is misalignment of incentives among farmers, government agencies and the donors. Farmers avoid doing short term maintenance, government agencies too don’t invest – both wait for donor funds for major rehabilitation. Donors, as lenders, like disbursing more money than less – regular repair and maintenance is cheap, major rehabilitation is not.

What then are the implications? I can think of at least two: first, we need to seriously re-visit some of the assumptions behind participatory water management and understand the issue of perverse incentives better. This will help stem the relentless and perhaps misguided efforts at ‘capacity-building’ of farmers before and during every donor funded project. Second, we need to take cognizance of informal institutions that are already in place and reflect whether or not super-imposing another layer of formal governance structure – often with the sole aim of ticking a box of things to do is an idea worth spending time and money on?