Urbanisation taking toll on arable land

Shahiduzzaman Khan
RAPID urbanisation is taking a huge toll on the country’s arable land. More and more farmland is being transformed into homesteads threatens the country’s goals of attaining food security, better health, more education and economic progress. Population in the divisional headquarters have doubled in the last 20 years and the cities and towns there have registered robust growth at the cost of agricultural land and greenery.

The country has lost nearly 1.0 million hectares of arable land in 23 years. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics’ data showed that the net arable land of 9.38 million hectares in 1980-1981 was reduced to 8.42 million hectares in 2002-03. A recent survey showed that every year the country is losing more than 80,000 hectares of fertile land. Experts fear that after 50 years not even one bigha of land would be left for planting rice. The food minister, at a recent seminar, admitted that the drastic reduction of farmland because of urbanisation and industrialisation, along with the adverse effects of climate change, were major barriers to achieving food security amidst.

It has been observed that less employment opportunities in the rural areas are forcing more and more people to seek resettlement in the big cities. The influx of rural people to the cities leads to further urban sprawl and loss of more arable land, and is thus posing serious threats to the country’s food security. More employment opportunities for the rural people should be created so that migration to the cities can be reduced.

In fact, there is no scope for neglecting the agricultural sector which contributes 21 per cent to the Gross Domestic Product and provides employment to around 50 per cent of total labour force. The arable land in the greater Dhaka district comprising Dhaka, Keraniganj, Narayanganj, Gazipur, Narsingdi, Manikganj and Munshiganj is decreasing rapidly.

Greenery in the capital and adjoining towns is fading fast, due to growing activities of the real estate companies. Conversion of arable land into plots for residences is still going on unabated on the outskirts of the capital as its population, which was only 21,72,000 in 1975, now stands at more than 13 million. Successive governments had focused only on the development of Dhaka and the major cities. Migration, without balanced development, could not be curbed. As a result the drastic shrinking of cultivable land could not be stopped. People across the country were migrating to Dhaka in search of jobs and livelihood, which is putting huge pressure on its dwindling agricultural land. Employment opportunities need to be created in the rural areas to check the migration and further encroachment on arable land.

Theoretically speaking, there would be no cultivable land left in Bangladesh in 50 years if lands are taken away for non-farm purposes at the current annual rate. Experts said if the trend is not reversed now, the country would permanently lose its food security, making its poor population more vulnerable to volatile international commodity prices.

In order to reverse this trend, the parliamentary standing committee on agriculture suggested last year that the government should enact strict laws to restrict use of arable land for non-farming purposes. It said such mindless encroachment must be halted. Arable land should not be used for purposes other than agriculture. The factories and educational institutions that have already been built should now go vertical, instead of grabbing more arable land. Laws will be enacted to stop this aggression on the country’s dwindling farmland, he said.

The committee also suggested that the government hire adequate experts and field officials for the government’s dozen plus agricultural agencies, which have a shortage of 5,528 people. Indeed, the dwindling size of farms, rise in landlessness and constant depletion of farmland are posing formidable threats to Bangladesh’s agriculture, increasing poverty and trapping many ultra-poor people in a vicious circle. The average farm size has been reduced to less than 0.6 hectares and the percentage of landless people stands at 58 in a country where nearly 80 per cent of the ultra-poor live in rural areas.

A Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, in a recent study, noted that the incidence of landlessness in Bangladesh 58 per cent. Also, the number of farms in Bangladesh has doubled over the past 20 years, increasing the number of farms smaller than 0.2 hectares in size proportionately. The only crop whose area of cultivation is increasing over the past decades is rice.

Worries about farmland depletion have so far fallen on deaf ears, while calls for ensuring optimum utilisation of arable land and bringing fallow land under cultivation remain in rhetoric alone. A long-drawn suggestion to bring slight changes in crop pattern for diversifying agriculture remains unheeded.

A report titled ‘Climate Change as a Security Risk’ said that the probable loss of arable and residential lands through flooding in this part of the world (Bangladesh and its neighbourhood) would result in increase of internal and external environmental migration and strained relations between countries. A solution to the issue of farmland depletion could be formulation of a sensible and realistic land-use policy.

There is no denying that investing more on agricultural research is vital for Bangladesh since the country is losing cropland quite fast. At present, the production capacity of cropland is less than 50 per cent due to unavailability of resources at the proper time as well as lack of updated information regarding various inputs, which is a serious setback in boosting production.

If the use of arable land for non-farming purposes is not restricted immediately, Bangladesh is poised to face multiple problems arising out of land scarcity and rising population. These challenges must be addressed with topmost priority.

szkhan@dhaka.ne

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