New Internationalist

Lords of the fields

Issue 093

Land in north-western Bangladesh is steadily being concentrated in the hands of the few. Betsy Hartmann explains why.

Photo: Tom Learmonth
Life wasn't meant to be easy: 12 months, two earners, no land. Photo: Tom Learmonth

In the crowded road to the Lalganj railway station there is a small pharmacy sandwiched between a stationery shop and a cloth store. Inside, Nafis, the proprietor, a plump young man in pink shirt and polyester trousers, watches the bustling traffic outside. Occasionally he sells orange and yellow alcoholic `tonics’.

In the atmosphere of Lalganj town, with its government officers, big merchants and politicians, Nafis is just another small businessman. There are hundreds of shop-keepers like him. But in the afternoon, on his new Japanese motorcycle, he speeds over the dirt tracks to his home in the village of Borobari. There he is an important person.

Nafis is a landlord in northwestern Bangladesh. With his two teenage brothers, he owns about 70 acres of land in an area where most families own less than two acres and at least a quarter of the households are landless.

In contrast to the small bamboo houses of his neighbours, Nafis’s home comprises five cement buildings, with corrugated metal roofs, around a rectangular courtyard.

Nafis’s landholdings guarantee him a position of power in the village and surrounding area. He is an important employer and lets out three-quarters of his land to sharecroppers on a standard 50-50 basis. The sharecroppers sow, tend and harvest the cop. Nafis’s only concern is to collect his full share at harvest time. Unlike the neighbouring landlord, Mahmud, who is known for his miserliness, Nafis occasionally provides free seed to his share-croppers or helps them in times of need.

Nafis cultivates the balance of his land with wage labour. Six landless peasants work for him full-time. They live in houses on their master’s land. Other labourers are hired on a daily basis. In the rice harvest he employs as many as 30 casual labourers. All workers receive the standard day’s wage of a morning meal, a kilo of rice and one taka. This is barely enough to support one man, let alone an entire family.

Like other big landowners, Nafis is tempted for economic reasons to shift more of his land to cultivation with wage labour because when he uses labourers their wages add up to less than half thevalue of the crop. In some areas of Bangladesh, and in other Third World countries, the move to hired labour has been associated with the introduction of new crop varieties which are highly responsive to fertiliser and irrigation. By raising yields they make labour more attractive to the landowner than sharecropping. But in Nafis’s area the green revolution has had little impact. The main reason for the growing shift to hired labour is not that yields are going up but that wages are going down. This is due to the dramatic rise in landlessness as small farmers are dispossessed.

Nafis retains many sharecroppers, however, because his other pursuits, such as the pharmacy in Lalganj, leave him the time and inclination to manage wage labourers on only about 15 acres. It is more convenient to leave the rest to share­croppers. Even though Nafis considers himself a `modern farmer’, the villagers joke about his farming abilities.

But Nafis may have another motive for keeping his sharecroppers. As their patron he can call on them for political support. Once when he competed with another landlord for a choice piece of government land, he was able to secure the help of the poorer villagers. Armed with bamboo staffs they scared away his opponent’s henchmen.

Nafis has broadened his base by his involvement in local politics. He was a member of the late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League. After the 1971 independence war he was rewarded with the post of union vice-chairman, in which position he misappropriated many of the relief goods - blankets, corrugated metal sheets, food and clothing - which came to the village.

But by far his biggest patronage plum was a deep tubewell for irrigation. One of 3,000 installed in northwestern Bangladesh by a World Bank project at the cost of about $12,000 each, Nafis acquired his tubewell by virtue of his political connections. He paid less than $300 for it. In theory the tubewell was to be used by a co-operative irrigation group of which Nafis is the manager.

Such instances of corruption are common in rural Bangladesh. In fact `corruption’ is something of a misnomer, since the rural elite are on the receiving end of a vast and effective patronage machine which stretches out from Dacca and is fuelled by foreign aid. By virtue of their economic and political power, men like Nafis are able to monopolise outside resources provided by the government, whether they be relief goods, credit facilities or subsidised agricultural inputs. Through this patronage machine, the urban elite is able to ensure the rural elite’s allegiance.

Nafis has no friends in the village. Only followers. He fears that one day his neighbours will turn against him. In a village several miles away, a sharecropper murdered a landlord who was notorious for squeezing as much as he could from his tenants.

Shelter, but they don't own the mud they stand on.

Nafis uses religion as a shield. He is a major financial supporter of the local mosque, says his prayers five times a day and strictly obeys the Islamic injunction against moneylending. Others in his position are not so careful.

The moneylender is feared and hated in rural Bangladesh. `Our Koran tells us that moneylending is a great sin,’ a villager explained. ‘in Allah’s eyes, taking interest is as evil as murder. 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 the caterpillars were gone.’

Shaha Paikur deserves his unsavoury reputation. Almost all villagers have stories of how they were exploited by him. For some it is a matter of the loss of a few hundred tata; for others the loss of precious land. `When a man falls on hard times, Shaha offers money,’ a villager explained. `He acts so friendly. "You nave no rice? You have no clothes? Here take this. You can pay me back at harvest time".’ The interest rate Shaha Paikur charges is so exorbitant, however, that few villagers can afford to repay. He then seizes their land. He never lends money to a landless man.

Men like Nafis and Shaha Paikur are at the pinnacle of power in rural Bangladesh. Directly below them are the rich peasants who, though they work in the fields, have more land than they can cultivate alone. They derive most of their income from lands they cultivate with hired labourers or sharecroppers. Like landlords, they too frequently diversify into trade and money-lending. Kamal, a rich peasant in the village of Katni, offered to buy poor peasants’ crops in advance of the harvest - at half their market value. This disguised form of moneylending, he thought, was more to Allah’s liking. The peasants, however, saw it clearly for what it was.

The wealth the rural elite extracts from the peasantry through the mechanisms of sharecropping, wage labour, trade and moneylending is seldom invested productively. Indeed luxury consumption absorbs much of it.

The rural elite does channel some of the surplus into the purchase of more land - often from small farmers - but this is simply a transfer of resources which adds nothing to the nation’s productive base. Apart from buying land, the rural elite is seldom enthusiastic about investing in agriculture. Large landowners do not mind reaping the benefits of government subsidies on fertiliser and irrigation but they are reluctant to invest their own money in land improvements.

The rural elite’s stranglehold on Bangladesh’s agriculture spells hunger for the country’s poor majority. It is a vicious spiral: as the rural elite accrues more land and resources it becomes better able to buy out hard-pressed small farmers and to impose ever tighter control on the flow of resources into and out of the village. The result can be summed up simply: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Betsy Hartmann is joint author with James K. Boyce of Needless Hunger: Voices from a Bangladesh Village, published by the Institute for Food and Development Policy. They are currently completing A Quiet Violence, a detailed account of life in a Bangladesh village.

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